Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems! Today, we’re looking at two brand new releases and two iPhone 4-enhanced re-releases of prior titles, spread across several different but overlapping genres. All four of these games can broadly be understood as action puzzlers, but they differ considerably from title to title: one’s a golf game, another’s a driving game, another is an object-wrapping game, and the last is a match-three title with RPG elements.
Our top pick in this collection is the brand new Let’s Golf! 2 from Gameloft, but two of the other titles are also worthy of at least general recommendations. Read on for all the details.
Like many developers of console games, Konami has struggled with how to embrace the growing popularity of the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad: it clearly wants to bring its big-named franchises to the App Store, but isn’t willing to allocate its best programmers or designers to make great ports of prior titles or truly impressive new ones. Thus, Apple gamers wind up with titles such as Castlevania Puzzle: Encore of the Night ($5, version 1.0.0), which brings art and music from the company’s storied action-adventure franchise to a relatively droll match-three puzzle game. Androgynous vampire-slash-vampire hunter Alucard wanders from room to room of a castle, fighting repetitive puzzle battles against sad little enemies while accumulating items and points to power up RPG-style abilities. After an hour of boring matches, the first real challenge pops up in the form of a powerful but visually unimpressive boss, and then you’re back to wandering the castle again looking for things to do. Konami promises “over 20 hours of game play,” so you can guess how you’re going to be spending them.
To the company’s credit, Castlevania Puzzle is more than it could have been given the highly familiar match-three concept, and arguably almost as appropriate to the Castlevania theme as Capcom’s beloved Puzzle Fighter was to the Street Fighter franchise many years ago. Here, the bland gem color-matching action is balanced with gems that need to be unlocked, and foes who are defeated not merely by filling their wells but rather by depleting hit points—successive gem matches, the use of discovered weapons, and eventually the accumulation of skill points and magic spells all play roles in determining the damage you can do. Despite the weak, dumb initial opponents, who would be one-whip or single-sword-slice fodder in Castlevania action games, bosses pack their own magic and huge hit point tallies, which at least make for a challenge, and the ability to navigate through the castle between battles in a search for items is at least interesting, if not thrilling.
Unfortunately, Castlevania Puzzle has too much repetitive art, music, and gameplay to merit even our general-level recommendation—sad given how much content Konami could easily have drawn upon from the myriad games in this series. Chunky character graphics make mediocre use of even the old iPhone and iPod touch 480×320 displays, with no iPad or iPhone 4 high-resolution support, and songs loop over and over, matching the gameplay, which feels virtually identical from battle to battle until bosses show up. Fans of the series will no doubt be drawn to check this one out because of its name, but others will shrug it off as a so-so cash-in on a franchise that could easily have been better represented on Apple’s devices. We’ve played much better puzzle games from much smaller developers at more aggressive prices. iLounge Rating: C+.
When we reviewed the original version of last year’s much-hyped Jet Car Stunts ($2, version 1.4.1), we were pleased but not blown away: True Axis had developed a visually interesting driving puzzle game with 36 gouraud-shaded abstract polygon tracks, but left out music and the sort of visual special effects that would have completed the experience. As we noted in our prior review,
“The challenge is just to survive either one or several laps on each of the tracks, which have been built to be as dangerous and challenging by themselves as a Nascar loop could be with 20 or 40 cars jousting for position. You’re given an advantage of sorts, a car that has a single, fuel-limited jet engine and air brakes, which together enable it to fly, glide, and roll through the air when it’s not speeding over flat-shaded track surfaces; once you’re airborne, you have the ability to tilt and accelerate the car using the limited jet-style controls to vault to heights a real car could never reach. This is accomplished with tight accelerometer-based steering and a minimum of on-screen buttons.”
Eight months later, Jet Car Stunts is at version 1.4.1, and True Axis has made a collection of enhancements, most notably support for the iPhone 4’s high-resolution display. The prior artwork remains unchanged except for added crispness that always benefits flat- and soft-shaded polygonal titles disproportionately, removing the edge-of-box jaggies that previously distracted a little from the graphics. A 26-level In-App Purchase pack is now available for an additional $2, with eight free added levels brought over from the game’s demo version Jet Car Stunts Lite. A Casual Mode offers unlimited jet engine use and more forgiving collision detection, as well. While none of these changes radically improves the title, and the core aesthetic issues we raised last year still haven’t been addressed, what’s here remains good enough to preserve our prior general recommendation. Give it a try in Lite form if the concept of solving physics-based driving puzzles appeals to you. iLounge Rating: B+.
Though it was a clearly derivative take on Camelot’s popular console and handheld Hot Shots and Mario Golf titles, Gameloft’s original version of Let’s Golf! was a spectacular iPhone and iPod touch game: its four cartoony courses looked excellent on Apple’s devices, benefitted from upbeat music, and employed nearly perfect controls that let players enjoy both the strategy and timing of golf. Gameloft’s sequel Let’s Golf! 2 ($5, version 1.0.0) is easily summed up as “more of the same,” now with eight characters, six different courses, and 108 total holes, augmented by additional quickie challenges and items; most of the content is unlocked through successful play. Points earned through play can now also be used for one-per-character, limited-ue abilities—one character can stop the wind from blowing, for instance.
Apart from that, there are no huge gameplay or audio changes from Let’s Golf! to Let’s Golf! 2, which is fine by us as the first game got both things right: you adjust your position intuitively with swipe gestures for changing wind speeds, tap on a golf ball icon to call up a combined power and angle meter, then tap twice at the right times to send the ball flying through the air. Properly timed taps result in your ball catching fire as the camera tracks its movement in 3-D, with an enhanced burning effect that cycles through blue and orange flames before sputtering out. Peppy music plays in the background, and you can choose to either progress in a linear fashion through courses, unlocking additional countries as you play, or simply go for quick, random three-hole challenges drawn from the numerous courses.
As with the first title, the star feature of Let’s Golf! 2 is beautiful 3-D artwork—a proper balance of detailed textures, rich colors, and smart polygonal objects with international backdrops. New courses such as Mexico, Kenya, and Greenland include everything from Aztec temples to safari animals and snowy courses, each with better course modeling and ambient animation—flocks of birds, roaming rabbits, and the like—than most rival golf titles; German, British, and Greek courses all have their own nice elements but look similar to the first game’s levels, which isn’t a bad thing. Their only flaw is in resolution: Gameloft supports neither the iPhone 4’s nor the iPad’s higher-resolution displays, a disappointment that’s hopefully not a sign that the company will release an iPad-only Let’s Golf! 2 HD and try to charge more for it. Apart from this non-trivial issue, which affects only iPhone 4 and iPad users, and hopefully will be remedied with a post-release update, Let’s Golf! 2 is a must-see for fans of the first game and golf lovers in general; it remains a standout on value for the price and a very engaging portable take on a popular sport. iLounge Rating: A-.
Updated! Within a day of its version 1.0.0 release, Let’s Golf! 2 was unexpectedly updated to version 1.0.1, adding partial support for the iPhone 4’s high-resolution display. On the iPhone 4, the game now displays the higher-resolution polygons shown above, alongside the original low-resolution text and bitmapped graphics. iPad users still get the lower-resolution polygons seen on pre-iPhone 4 pocket devices.
Originally released back in April for $8, Zen Bound 2 was the iPad-only semi-sequel to Secret Exit’s Zen Bound, a stylish and musically beautiful game that challenged players to wrap rope around 3-D wooden objects—swipe gestures rotated the objects, which changed color with paint to indicate what percentage of their surface area had been properly rope-covered. Zen Bound 2 was a semi-sequel in that it shared most of its content with the original game, albeit with improved aesthetics and a gameplay tweak. This week, Secret Exit released Zen Bound 2 Universal ($3, version 2.0.0), an update that extends Zen Bound 2’s compatibility to iPhones and iPod touches, while offering high-resolution graphics on both the iPhone 4 and iPad.
While we don’t want to completely revisit the game’s features, it’s worth noting that the combination of improved graphics, over 100 levels, and relaxing 45-minute sound track previously struck us as a fair but not great value at the prior $8 price—Secret Exit had essentially added a handful of features to the first Zen Bound and then charged a higher price to play it on the iPad. The single biggest gameplay addition was the inclusion of “paint bombs,” which were found in the middle of your rope on some levels, enabling you to cover some objects’ surfaces with paint even where you hadn’t touched them with rope. Some developers would have tossed such a feature in as an update to the original game; Secret Exit held it for the semi-sequel.
But now that Zen Bound 2 is being sold for $3, we can recommend the game more enthusiastically, and even to people who had already played and completed the original title: there is still substantial overlap in the content, but Zen Bound 2 Universal is now being offered at add-on pack pricing, and the improved graphics alone are a sight worth seeing. On the iPhone 4, it’s nearly impossible to see the pixels on the edges of the spinning polygonal shapes, and between the detailed textures and the reflective lighting, it’s easy to forgive the game’s less than totally smooth frame rate and still vaguely polygonal rope edges. While this is one of the most relaxed puzzlers available in the App Store, and still won’t appeal to players looking for raw excitement, the overall experience is worth recommending to anyone else; the ambient soundtrack alone is nearly worth the price of admission. iLounge Rating: B+.