iPhone Gems might not be the best name for this particular edition of our look at noteworthy software releases for the iPhone and iPod touch, as many of the titles featured this time are clunkers—titles with disappointing execution, graphics, or pricing that really turned us off.
Regardless, we looked at a number of different genres this time, including card and gambling games, console and arcade games, hoping to find one or two winners to show you; skip straight to Blackjack 21 and Bomberman Touch if you want to see the better picks in this pile.
5 Card Touch
Though we’d initially be inclined to describe Griffin Technology’s first two iPhone games as IQ tests—software that, if purchased, reveals the buyer to be not so bright—we can’t really blame customers for assuming that this venerable Apple accessory maker would do more than churn out third-rate demos at $2 a pop. But that’s what Griffin has done, apparently as an experiment to see whether iPhone gaming is a viable business. Consequently, 5 Card Touch feels like half of a poker game: you’re given an opportunity to bet up to $5, dealt a 5-card hand, then dealt replacements for whatever cards you decided to drop from the first deal. It’s like playing poker with real cards, against yourself, endlessly.
The result is a card game experience that utterly lacks in excitement and value. Most of the time, you’ll wind up with a pair or two pairs; if your pair’s lower than jacks, you lose your money; if it’s jacks or higher, you keep your money, and if it’s better than a pair, you earn some money. That’s it. Griffin’s background art is boring, and the only thing that’s mildly interesting here is the animation of the cards, which look to have been digitized from a real deck or drawn to look as close as possible. There’s no music, roughly three sound effects, and basically no reason to keep on playing after the first few hands—unless the idea of waiting around for that big royal flush to score $4,000 really entices you. Trust us, it won’t. As a card game, and as a gambling game, this is one of the least interesting poker titles we’ve seen in years. iLounge rating: D.
Along with Solitaire and Poker, Blackjack is amongst the most popular card games around, though the simplicity of its gameplay demands that something—typically a gambling system—be added to keep the repeated “get your cards to add up to 21” exercise compelling. Unlike Griffin, which blew the chance to either make its poker game or the gambling interesting, MobileAge’s Blackjack 21 ($5) has found ways to spice up both parts of that equation. If you want to play the game without fussing around with settings, you can just do that—you’re given some gambling chips to bet in whatever quantity you prefer, you’re dealt two cards, and you use intuitive swipe gestures to stand, hit, double down, or surrender.
When you get bored with the table or the cards, you can replace them with new themes downloadable from MobileAge’s web site, a feature we really liked in the company’s earlier Mahjong game, as well, though there are far fewer replacements available here. And there are achievements, some dubious, that the game records for you, plus an online leaderboard to show you how you compare with the game’s true power players. All of this keeps what could otherwise be a simple game relatively interesting; the only thing missing here is in the audio department, which is music-free and otherwise as sonically boring as Griffin’s 5 Card Touch.
What’s really amazing are the game’s settings screens. You’re given an insane amount of control over the way the game behaves in terms of automating your play, as well as how the dealer plays, the rate at which a blackjack pays out, and whether features such as insurance and doubling down are turned on. Unlike Griffin, which took the least aggressive implementation of poker around and precluded you from making it more interesting, MobileAge includes one of the most aggressive blackjack gaming engines around and lets you tweak the settings to your heart’s content. Having commended the company for that, however, the underlying game here still could use some pizzazz and a structure beyond just racking up dollars—companies like Gameloft typically find a way to do this with titles, albeit with mixed results. Will MobileAge step Blackjack 21 up to the next level or leave it for a sequel? We’ll see; for now, this one rates a solid B. iLounge Rating: B.
Previously mentioned in our iPhone Gems column that focused on updates to games that had been released for the Click Wheel iPod, Hudson’s Bomberman Touch – The Legend of Mystic Bomb ($8) isn’t just a remake of the iPod Bomberman game; it’s actually an entirely different title. You play as a cartoony demolitionist called Bomber Jack who walks through single-screen, overhead-viewed mazes, strategically placing bombs to destroy obstacles and roaming monsters. Power-up icons help you make the character stronger, faster, more precise with his bombs, and more capable of moving them around; power-down icons strip you of abilities, and you lose powers by dying, and in some cases just by completing levels.
What we liked about Bomberman touch is the variety of mazes and power ups that Hudson has included this time out. After the first couple of stages, you’re presented with a map that offers three different routes, each with its own additional stages and challenges to conquer; one maze has especially dangerous enemies that can pass through obstacles, while another will have more but less deadly foes to blow up. Unlike the iPod Bomberman, you can kick bombs, as well as find a trigger power-up that lets you precisely time the explosions of bombs; inherently, this is a more advanced and better game than its predecessor. Some of the early levels don’t make you hunt for exits, while later ones do, and time pressures add to the experience.
Unfortunately, the control has some real issues. Like Namco’s Pac-Man titles, navigating the mazes is tougher than it should be because you’re using swipe gestures on top of the screen to try and move Bomber Jack around; even when the swipe gestures are working, which they sometimes don’t, you may find yourself unknowingly swiping into a button space on the screen that’s dedicated to dropping or triggering a bomb. Do this, and you’ll kill your character or mess up the game accidentally; amazingly, this is one of the few games that we enjoyed playing more with the iPod’s Click Wheel than on the screen of the iPhone or iPod touch. Some players will find ways—namely, razor-sharp fingertips placed in perfect spots on the screen—to avoid the control issues, and they’ll be rewarded for doing so, but ultimately, this game was meant to be played with a joypad, not a touchscreen. It also appears as if Hudson forgot about a key difference between the iPhone and iPod touch, as there’s no volume control here for the decent synthesizer music and sound effects; you’ll find the audio a touch louder than safe if you’re listening to an iPod touch with Apple’s earbuds. Hopefully, this will be fixed in an update.
There are also other omissions: the mini-games included in the iPod version of Bomberman have disappeared here, and despite the popularity of multiplayer Bomberman titles, there’s no way to enjoy this one with other iPhone or iPod touch users. That’s a shame, because the underlying game engine here is a pretty good one, and though the graphics could benefit from some of the 3-D upgrades given to the recent Xbox Live version of Bomberman, this is otherwise a pretty good game. We’d rate it as being on par with its iPod predecessor overall, though the benefits of this version are all in the diversity of the power-ups and levels rather than the bonus games. iLounge rating: B.
Lucky 7 Slots
As the other Griffin Technology gambling game for the iPhone, Lucky 7 Slots is just about as compelling as the first. 5 Card Touch was video poker, stripped of its casino cabinet trappings; Lucky 7 Slots is a one-line slot machine in all of its questionable glory. If you’ve ever actually ventured into a casino—probably with a lot less than $1,000 to drop on a single slot machine—you probably know that the least exciting slot you’ll find in the whole place is the one with a single pay line running through three rotating wheels. Insert your cash, pull the handle, and the only match you can make is the one running through the center line; you get no pay-out for diagonals or straight line matches above that marker. Lose your cash, insert more, pull the handle again. That’s slot machine action, circa the late 1800’s.
Lucky 7 Slots is that machine, adjusted to fit the screen of your iPhone. Most of the screen is devoted to a chart listing your potential winnings, while a small part shows off the rotating wheels, the amount you’ve been paid, your remaining credits, and the number of credits you’ve chosen to play. Buttons on the bottom let you pick how many credits—up to 3—you’ll bet per spin, and once you’ve bet the max, the wheels roll to produce a mix of bar, 7, and blank space graphics. The more of any one kind you match, the more credits you can win. You just keep hitting the max button over and over and wait until you get some huge payout or blow all of the credits the game starts you with. As with 5 Card Touch, there are roughly 3 sound effects here, no music, and virtually no variation in what you’re seeing.
Ultimately, without multiple machines to choose from, variation in the ways to win on a given machine, and any real payoff besides the excitement of seeing an on-screen credit number grow smaller and bigger, there’s nothing compelling about Lucky 7 Slots for the iPhone. It’s demo-quality software, and requires considerable added depth in order to be worth paying for. iLounge Rating: D.
Ms. Pac-Man and Pac-Man
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Namco’s one of our all-time favorite game developers, but the games it’s releasing for iPods and iPhones are seriously unimpressive. In 2006, Namco released the early dot-gobbling maze game Pac-Man for Click Wheel iPods, following it up with the early 2007 release of Ms. Pac-Man, and the 2008 release of Pole Position—all roughly 25-year-old arcade games that hardly seemed worth their $5 asking prices. This month, Namco re-released Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man for the iPhone and iPod touch, doubling their prices to $10, and doing little to justify the price increases.
Pac-Man for the iPhone and iPod touch is the same game as previously released for other iPods, except for one difference in visuals, one in audio, and three in controls. Though the original version was virtually identical aesthetically to the dated arcade game, the iPhone’s larger, higher-resolution display let Namco add a few more pixels of detail to the mazes, dots, and characters, none of which you’re likely to actually notice or care about given the simplicity of the graphics. On the audio side, Namco has preserved the same audio from the arcade and iPod versions, but has left out a volume control option, apparently presuming that most users would have iPhones with integrated volume controls. As such, iPod touch users will either have to live with the fixed volume level, or turn off audio entirely.
The bigger differences are in control. While the Click Wheel iPods suffered from a single poor control scheme, Namco now includes three for the iPod touch and iPhone. Swipe Mode lets you “swipe your finger across the screen to move Pac-Man in that direction;” D-Pad Mode places a four-way directional pad on the bottom of the screen, and Accelerometer Mode lets you “play by leaning or rotating the device in the direction that you want Pac-Man to travel.” Simply put, all three of these control schemes work, but they all stink by comparison with the original arcade game’s joystick. None offers the sort of predictability or accuracy you’ll need to fake out the ghosts or otherwise make pinpoint turns; swiping often has you covering Pac-Man accidentally as you’re trying to control him, and the accelerometer tries to register both tilts and turns of the device as motions, making control even more of a question mark. D-Pad Mode is the closest to acceptable, but still not great. We preserve our original rating on this title. iLounge Rating: D+.
Ms. Pac-Man for the iPhone and iPod touch doesn’t fare much better. Her version receives virtually identical boosts to Pac-Man’s, with the same slight graphics tweaks, volume adjustment removal, and three control options. As with the iPod version that preceded it, the only reason it rates higher than the original Pac-Man is the sequel’s slightly zippier, more diverse gameplay and its addition of intermission sequences. Just like Pac-Man, there’s no way that this aged game is worth $10 considering the quality, features, longevity and controls of brand new titles emerging for this platform; it’s a shame that Namco keeps trying to find ways to charge so much for individual titles like this rather than releasing discounted “Museum” compilations as it has done for Sony and Nintendo consoles and handhelds. Perhaps then we’d get some of the more recent, better Pac titles, such as Pac-Mania, Pac-Man Arrangement, and Pac-Man Championship Edition. Our original rating remains for Ms. Pac-Man. iLounge Rating: C-.
The early days of arcade and computer gaming introduced players to a number of space-themed game concepts, including Lunar Lander, where you controlled a ship’s thrust and direction as it tries to safely land on the Moon, and Defender, where you piloted a ship that zipped through horizontally presented scrolling alien planets, trying to shoot rather than crashing into other spacecrafts. SolarQuest from NeonSurge ($3) is a melding of these two games with modern graphics and certain reductions: like Lunar Lander, you need to constantly maintain control over your ship’s vertical position to keep it from scraping the ceiling, ground, or other obstacles, and like Defender, you’re zipping across alien landscapes at as high a speed as you can tolerate using an on-screen right arrow button. Unlike Defender, though, you’re not shooting anything, just collecting coins, and you can’t turn around; SolarQuest is all about progressing from left to right to clear levels.
On a positive note, SolarQuest’s graphics are actually pretty impressive. The coins, ships, and certain obstacles are 3-D models, while the backgrounds are attractive flat bitmaps with parallax layers of scrolling. On the flip side, there’s no music, very little audio accompaniment for the action, and the gameplay is at best simplistic, at worst not a lot of fun. The premise is essentially to beat the effects of gravity and speed while collecting points and advancing through eight levels, a concept that could as easily apply to a classic dune buggy game such as Moon Patrol, but it gets old pretty quickly here. When you lose all your ships and start from the beginning, you probably won’t care to keep playing the same old boring stages again. We’d rate SolarQuest in the C range, because it needs something more to really prove compelling, but between the quality bitmapped artwork and the 3-D ship animation, we wouldn’t be surprised if either this title or a sequel eventually proved to be worthy of a higher rating. iLounge Rating: C.