Welcome to this week’s first gaming edition of iPhone Gems. Today, we’re reviewing four very different but compelling recent App Store releases: two are platform games, one is a sequel to a popular action-strategy game, and the last is a sequel to one of our favorite early iPhone puzzle games.
Though all of this week’s titles received at least our general-level recommendation—a true rarity for the iPhone Gems column—our top picks of the week are the Super Mario Galaxy-like platformer Soosiz and the galactic conquest sequel Galcon Labs. Read on for all the details.
Best illustrated in Electronic Arts’ thrilling console game Mirror’s Edge, parkour is in essence a sport of surviving urban obstacle courses, where athletic people turn skyscrapers, their rooftops, and the streets below them into platforms for exceptionally dangerous running and jumping. Mirror’s Edge used parkour as the inspiration for a first-person adventure; now Canabalt ($3) by Semi Secret Software uses it as an explanation for a simplified side-scrolling action game that is more style than substance, but unquestionably cool enough to grab your attention.
Canabalt renders its world in black, white, and gray. Starting with a brisk run that vaults you out the window of a building onto an adjacent rooftop, you continuously run from the left side of the screen as the world blurs by you from the right; you tap anywhere on the screen to jump. There are quick hops to vault tiny obstacles such as office chairs, block-like units, or items that crash down from nowhere onto the rooftops, big jumps to make it from one building, crane, or other surface to the next, and the occasional precision jump as you try to make it from a roof into a window-covered building floor. Your goal is simple: survive for as many meters as possible. Die once and you start from the beginning, the course somewhat randomized for the next run. The entire game is just watch and jump.
What makes Canabalt work, more than anything, is the environment it creates with its grayscale pixel art and cool music: a modern synthesizer track that evokes the energy and danger of parkour while alluding to what’s taking place in the far background as you’re running—the destruction of the city by giant robots. Keeping with that theme, some buildings collapse as you run, those objects that fall out of the sky make a little more sense, and the glass you shatter once in a while seems to make a lot less difference. You’re trying to survive, plain and simple, and the John Woo-like flocks of birds on the buildings are, like the other scenery, there to distract and impress you while you run. This isn’t a deep game, and it isn’t amazing, but it’s very cool, if a little on the pricey side given what $3 buys in the App Store these days, and that the game can be played for free on the company’s web site. Fans of titles such as Mirror’s Edge will, like us, want only for a more complex and diverse sequel; hopefully Semi Secret Software is up to the task of creating it. iLounge Rating: B+.
We liked the touch-based planet-conquering strategy game Galcon when it appeared last year for $10, and thought it was worth revising when developer Phil Hassey lowered the price to $3, and updated it yet again a year later. The original Galcon gives you a single-screen, static map of planets, one or two opponents, and one common objective: each player rapidly tries to eliminate his adversaries completely from the map, by touching planets to send fleets of space ships from one starting planet to conquer whatever planets are necessary to overwhelm the opposing ones. As you conquer planets, your fleet of ships grows, giving you more ammunition to use against your enemy or enemies. Now Hassey has released a sequel of sorts called Galcon Labs ($1), which reuses much of the conceptual and visual content from the updated version of Galcon, but offers new play modes that change up the game and make the new app stand on its own. Each is a small, almost experimental idea, most likely explaining the “Labs” title, but newbies and fans of the prior Galcon will both find them to be compelling.
Five modes are now available: the classic game described above, plus a Billiards version where the planets move, Assassin where a specific target planet needs to be conquered by one player first, Crash, where ships can fight in mid-stream rather than just dodging each other as they conquer planets, and original Galcon carry-over Stealth, where your enemy’s attacking ships become invisible rather than obvious. It suffices to say that Billiards is an especially compelling and arguably sequel-worthy update to the Galcon formula due to its addition of gently shifting planets, which make rapid-fire touching gestures a little more challenging, while Crash, Assassin, and Stealth all add little twists that make the core game more interesting. Ideally, a “Galcon 2” mode would enable Crash and Billiards features to work together as the base game, with Assassin and Stealth as optional modes to add twists thereafter; the challenge of dealing with moving planets, ship-fighting ships, and target planets at the same time might be too much for some players, but those bigger simultaneous changes would make Galcon Labs feel more like a sequel and less like a collection of one-off variations on the original theme.
To the extent that Labs leverages the visual enhancements found in the updated version of Galcon, the art isn’t amazingly new, but it’s definitely very good: the richly colored planets, easy-to-read numbers indicating their ship defense levels, and attractively illustrated galactic background are all solid, with the updated cartoony logo and iconography working well to tie everything together. New music continues in the competent futuristic synthesizer vein of the prior Galcon, while sound effects remain a little amateurish, seemingly taken from beat box-style voice samples. Ultimately, however, the appeal of Galcon Labs is less in its aesthetics than its gameplay, which remains fun enough to hook individual players, while offering realtime multi-player online as an option as well. At its current $1 asking price, Galcon Labs is a steal; even at Galcon’s now standard price of $3, it would be highly recommendable. iLounge Rating: A-.
There are certain obvious comparisons to historically great games that smart developers have learned to evoke at their peril; saying that your game is “the next Super Mario Bros.,” for instance, has the tendency to come across as delusional or ridiculous. So while it was a safe idea for Touch Foo not to evoked the words “Super Mario” or “Super Mario Galaxy” in marketing its new title Soosiz ($2), it actually could: despite drawing heavy inspiration from Nintendo’s Mario series and Ngmoco’s Rolando, this developer has polished its game so well that it deserves to be recognized as the most Shigeru Miyamoto-esque platformer yet released for the iPhone and iPod touch.
In short, Soosiz is a highly simplified 2-D rendition of the breakthrough 3-D action game Super Mario Galaxy, complete with the key elements that made Galaxy novel and fun: shifting gravity and rotating, “planet”-like platforms. The controls are simple, with left and right arrow buttons to move your character, and a jump button to boost him into the air, grabbing coins and bouncing on enemies’ heads to eliminate them as dangers as you walk. Rather than question mark power up boxes, you rescue little followers who either just tag along or add to your abilities, expanding your life bar, increasing your jumping power, and so on. Collect 100 coins and you can activate star power for temporary invincibility, flip switches and certain obstacles disappear, and find secrets by exploring platforms that aren’t on your main path towards each stage’s exit. Map screens offer non-linear progressions through the seven worlds, as well, if you want to try different stages or revisit past ones; you get medals for rescuing everyone hidden on a given level. It’s all very Super Mario-like, but not a direct rip-off, with individual elements clearly remixed and given new spins.
From an aesthetic standpoint, Touch Foo has done something pretty close to an awesome job with Soosiz: the flat-shaded backdrops look like a fusion of Super Mario themes with Rolando’s (and thus LocoRoco’s) visual style, such that some trees bubble with leaves, others offer snaky, thin branches without foliage, and the platforms make clear which of their surfaces are walkable and which will leave you tumbling into space. Music alternates between inoffensively cheery and occasionally downright smart, such as when you approach an end-of-world boss and hear a rousing, original Mario-esque foreboding theme song. Visually and sonically, the game by the end of its first world has simultaneously evoked the bright overworlds, dark underworlds, and fiery rotating bars of Super Mario Bros. games past and present, along with the “can I do this?” thoughts that they initially inspire. On the flip side, the sound effects are only okay, the game makes copious use of the crummy, amateurish-looking Marker Felt font, and has some less than great narrative text at the very start of the adventure. As much polish as the controls and core game have clearly received, these elements could stand to get some post-release attention.
Though the visuals and sonics are part of Soosiz’s appeal, what really makes it work is the gameplay, which should scare or embarrass Nintendo in so much as Touch Foo has managed to distill much of the greatness from the complex, wonderful Super Mario Galaxy into a fun, completely 2-D game—something Nintendo itself apparently hasn’t figured out how to do yet. You still get the water levels, ice levels, mushroom levels and green planet levels of a classic Mario game, plus darker “Autumn” and sort of underground-like stages, all familiar but with neat visual touches; similarly, whether you’re running away from spicy balls, jumping on enemies’ heads, climbing beanstalks, avoiding flaming bars or spinning on planets, you’ll feel like you’re playing a Nintendo game. For iPhone fans who have been waiting for a Mario-caliber platformer, that’s great news; for Nintendo, which once used Mario’s perfectly-tuned controls and original themes to lock customers into buying its hardware, it’s a sign that the future’s about to become a lot more complicated. Soosiz is as close as the iPhone has come to Mario levels of 2-D platforming greatness, and there’s little doubt that a spacier sequel has the potential to go even further. iLounge Rating: A-.
Last but not least this week is Touch Physics 2 ($2) by Games 4 Touch, a quietly-released sequel to one of our favorite iPhone OS games of the past year. As with the original game, you’re presented with a ball and a star on what often look like hand-chalked backgrounds, and you need to use your finger to draw ramps, boxes, balls, and other objects to move the ball from its starting location to wherever the star may be on the screen. Behind the scenes, the game uses a gravity- and momentum-based physics engine to make the ball’s rolling motions accurate given what it’s interacting with or being pushed by; draw incorrectly and you’ll push the ball off the screen or into a position where it can’t possibly make contact with the star.
As much as we loved the first game, Touch Physics 2 doesn’t feel quite as well thought-out. The 50 new stages are a lot like ones that came before, but brute force alone often seems to be enough to plow through the levels: you can just keep on creating more and more objects until you get your ball to the star, and in some levels, there are multiple balls—all of which must remain on screen, but only one of which needs to make contact with the star. This makes completing levels much easier, since balls start on your choice of several platforms rather than just one, creating multiple simple solutions to a given puzzle. These are just a couple of elements that make the title feel as if Games 4 Touch decided to release a half-baked expansion pack rather than a completely original sequel; the same music from the first game plays during this one, endlessly from stage to stage, and though the levels look a little different from the original ones in Touch Physics, the style of art and general themes are basically the same.
Back when Touch Physics came out, $1 games were comparatively rare, and the value of that 50-level title for the price was very high by comparison with its peers. These days, with so many other titles in the App Store at low prices, a game needs to stand out a bit more and step up its game to be worthy of attention, and Touch Physics 2 isn’t so much an improvement as a less inspired continuation of the prior title’s theme. Both titles now sell for $2; our feeling is that first-timers should start with the original game and only try the sequel if they’re willing to accept a less than similarly polished follow-up. iLounge Rating: B.