This may well be one of the best editions of our iPhone Gems gaming column yet. With three bona-fide cool games to highlight, as well as four that are less exciting but still noteworthy, we have a lot to show you: Clue, iBomber, iDroidsMania, Monster Pinball, StoneLoops, SWIRL, and Toki Tori.
Our picks of the week are Clue, iBomber, and Monster Pinball, all of which merit detailed reviews, while the other four games receive shorter looks below.
EA’s crop of board game-to-iPod/iPhone translations has been a mixed bag, but the murder mystery game Clue ($5) is one of the impressive ones—at least, assuming that you’re willing to accept a version of the game that has been thoroughly remixed for modern tastes. This isn’t a multi-player game with cards, but rather a single-player adventure with missions that take you through various degrees of investigatory difficulty.
The core of the original title—you’re trying to figure out which specific person killed a wealthy victim in a specific room of his home, using a specific weapon—is intact, but rather than depositing you in the original game’s “it could be any of six people, with six weapons, and nine rooms” challenging environment, EA starts you in a four-room, two-person, two-weapon environment, then adds more people, rooms, and weapons with each of ten stages. Additional weapons have been added to the initial roster, increasing the number of possible outcomes, and the game changes the clues and outcomes each time you play. Consequently, replaying the same mission three or four times can be a somewhat different experience, adding to the game’s longevity.
If there’s any major issue with Clue, it’s the fact that EA is using hip artwork, music, and interface touches to dress up what is essentially a simple logic game. You’re deposited in interesting-looking but flat rooms with a handful of tools—the ability to interview people, look at items in the rooms, take notes, and rule out suspects—yet the “game” is almost purely following linear tips given by people to check out other people or items in rooms, and getting as close to an accurate picture of the who, how, and where as possible before a timer runs out. Book-reading Mr. Green tells you to talk with Ms. Scarlet, who accuses Ms. White of arguing with the victim, Boddy, and Ms. White mentions that you should talk to Scarlet about her business dealings with Boddy and a corresponding threat. Based on the “book” reference, you look at books and find things written in them like, “An axe was next to a fireplace.” It all feels contrived, but it does at least formulaically preserve the slightly jokey, amusing mystery of the original game.
Thanks to both cute animated graphic touches and a storyline that sees you working as a reporter for a magazine that gets sued all the time for improperly researched stories—a convenient way to explain your initially frequent false accusations—EA has done a very nice job of giving Clue its own style and fun. Fans of the classic game will find enough new paint and varnish to enjoy here in single-player mode to justify the $5 asking price, unless they’re looking for a multi-player mode; in that case, they may want to continue hunting around. iLounge Rating: B+.
There are certain types of games that just make sense on the iPhone and iPod touch given their current control limitations, and iBomber ($3) from Cobra Mobile is one of them—an attractively designed title that places you in a 1943-vintage bomber plane that flies and circles high above 12 Pacific Ocean battlegrounds, hunting down targets. You tilt the device to fly forwards at a preferred rate of speed, and turn it to turn the plane in circular motions, lining up targets below. Hit a Bombs Away button and you drop a bomb, hopefully right onto one target so you can move on to the next.
The challenge in iBomber is that it never quite works that way: your speed, direction, the type of bomb, and the type of target all impact your success at leveling everything or even anything on your target list. Trying to land a bomb on a moving ship on the water using only thin targeting reticules is a challenge in and of itself, not aided in any way by the narrow explosive capabilities of your standard bombs; doing so when you’re taking on gunfire from the ships and other targets is another challenge. If your plane’s hit too many times, you go into a fiery death spiral and the mission ends. Simply put, Cobra Mobile has come up with the right balance of challenge and controls to make this work from mission to mission—you can absorb a lot of gunfire and have plenty of chances to choose your targets and do things right. It breaks what could be monotony up with bomb upgrade and life power-ups that give you quicker, precise bombs, wider targeting, or just more health to keep on flying.
Everything just works. Like the earlier title Flight Control, Cobra Mobile uses a throwback audiovisual theme to provide graphics and music that fit the World War II theme, and between the frame rate and the ground detail, the title has a nice balance of realism and smoothness. But there are a couple of exceptions to iBomber’s otherwise good design. The reticule is thin and dark, becoming next to invisible when you’re over the ocean, and the game’s targeting objectives are a little too obscure—you’re supposed to either remember them or refer back to a menu screen to see what they are. A little guidance through the missions might help them to be even more fun, helping to make progression through the subsequent unlockable stages more enjoyable.
Overall, iBomber is one of the most entertaining military flying games we’ve yet seen for the iPhone—a very good value at its $3 price. While it’s not as flashy as it could be with the iPhone’s 3-D video hardware, what it does with rotating 2-D artwork, it does well, and makes especially good use of the device’s limited controls. Fans of World War II-themed plane titles should definitely give this one a serious look. iLounge Rating: A-.
There are three ways, in our experience, to make an excellent video game version of pinball. One is visual, namely, to make extremely compelling—most likely 3-D—artwork that just sucks the player in; another is intensity, or adding a huge number of targets, preferably moving ones, to keep the action exciting; the third is diversity, or adding a number of tables for the player to choose between. Monster Pinball ($4) employs only the third of these tricks, but does so with such verve that it’s impossible to be anything but excited about the value developer Matmi brings to its offering.
At first, Monster Pinball seems like an extremely simple 2-D pinball game, albeit one that’s unusually smooth. Matmi has created a graphics engine that runs at 60 frames per second, updating the iPhone and iPod touch screens so frequently that the motion of the flippers and balls seems completely fluid at all times. Employing a cartoony alien theme akin to Uglydolls, the table artwork generally looks flat and deliberately a bit muted, but highly detailed, and there are animated items that spice up the visuals a little. In-game music is eschewed in favor of especially energetic and amusing retro-alien sound effects, and control is handled primarily with on-screen buttons. All of the parts come together very impressively, despite the fact that they all diverge somewhat from the ways pinball normally is gussied up for handheld or console players.
The key attraction of Monster Pinball turns out to be its diversity. An errant shot or a deliberate one may launch your ball off of the main table, Invade, onto one of five additional tables—Bindy Spin, Head Banger, Mutator, Hogie Feed, and The Bowl. Each has its own color theme and challenges to be learned; accidents or poor shots can force your ball out of one of the other play areas back into Invade. This doesn’t seem like a punishment since Invade’s a cool table in and of itself, but modes to practice or just start on any of the individual tables would be much appreciated additions.
Though the seemingly plain screenshots of Monster Pinball might discourage some potentially interested players, and the classic console pinball title Alien Crush is but one of a number that have demonstrated how this genre can be exploited even further, Matmi has done a legitimately great job of packing an intense, diverse little pinball game into a $4 package. Monster Pinball impressively straddles the line between offering a traditional pinball experience and adding fan-pleasing sounds, visual effects, and diversity; it’s the rare title that has us both satisfied and anxious awaiting an even more powerful sequel. iLounge Rating: A-.
Four additional games were worth sharing with you this week, though we weren’t as excited about any of them as the titles reviewed above. As such, we’ve decided to give them only brief reviews.
First up is iDroidsMania ($2), previously titled iDroids, by Artificial Life. While we wanted to like this robot-themed platform game, which places you in control of a droid named Haxx who has to fight his way through 11 side-scrolling levels and three boss encounters to try and rescue his girlfriend, we tried multiple times to get into the game and just couldn’t do it. Given that the developer has experience with 3-D iPhone titles, it’s a surprise that this simpler 2-D title suffers from a sluggish frame rate, choppy animations, and repetitive music. Moving Haxx through levels with the on-screen buttons feels more like labor than fun, and both the enemies and platforming challenges feel like placeholders that never quite evolved—less fun than the original Super Mario Brothers, let alone the subsequent Bionic Commando games that the grappling arm-equipped protagonist seems to be evoking. There might be a lot to do in this game, but we had no desire to see most of it. iLounge Rating: C.
Next is StoneLoops! of Jurassica ($4/$1), a professionally developed but unabashed clone of Zuma and Puzzloop. Just like these prior games, a line bunch of colored balls are being pushed slowly towards a target at the end of a path, and you control a single colored ball at a time, trying to make matches of three or more balls of the same color to stop the line from reaching the path’s end. The major difference here is that your targeting device is stuck to the bottom of the screen and moves on a straight left-right axis to pick targets, rather than sitting someplace in the middle of the moving balls and matching matches from the center. In practice, we found that our finger blocked too much of the screen when we were trying to control the cannon to make matches, and precision shots were frustratingly missed far too often; a tilt control mechanism was no better. Occasional power-ups sometimes made up for these issues, but not with enough frequency to make us forget them. While StoneLoops has been given a very professional audiovisual polishing and comes across as a good, cheap alternative to its better-known predecessors, the inherent gameplay didn’t do it for us; we’d recommend it only to fans of those prior games who are looking for something else to play in the meanwhile. iLounge Rating: B-.
Epicore’s new title SWIRL – 3D Arcade Racing ($3) caught our eye in the App Store because of what seemed like a really smart but simple idea: you’re dropped into a series of tunnels and need to steer your way through them, spinning, as you gather objects and avoid obstacles. This is all handled with the accelerometer—tilting forward makes you move faster, and turning the device left or right makes you spin around the edges of the tunnel, where the objects and obstacles are located. There are five types of backgrounds, each with at least five levels; after playing the first “concrete caves” stages, you need to gather a certain number of points, avoid getting hit, survive a certain number of levels, or find a hidden item in order to open up the other stages. On a positive note, the game’s graphics are fluid and somewhat interesting, giving you the sense that you’re smoothly moving through tunnels and either touching or passing by items, but the artwork’s fairly boring, and we never really felt like we had precise control over our movement. In playing the game for this review, we initially thought that the title had no music, but after an e-mail from the developer, we tried restarting the iPhone and found that a nice soundtrack appeared—a factor which bumped our original rating a little bit. Ultimately, while the tube-riding idea is cool, Epicore’s graphical work and controls don’t make the most of it. Our hope is to see this game or something like it done greater justice with more interesting aesthetics and tighter controls; the developer indicates that a new version will expand upon what’s already here. We’re looking forward to seeing it. iLounge Rating: B-. [Note: This review was updated following publication to note the music.]
Last but not least this week is Toki Tori ($5) from Chillingo, a puzzle game with the sort of graphics you’d expect to see in a well-developed platformer. You control a cute little yellow bird who wanders through mazes trying to rescue eggs that have been scattered around platforms, some easily accessible, others in places that may initially seem completely impossible to reach. Using icons—notably including a teleporter called TeleWarp—you can transport yourself from place to place within the mazes, stop enemies who might be wandering around, and build additional platforms to help you get from one place to another. Pleasant but repetitive music plays in the background as you try to figure out what combination of your typically use-limited powers will result in your successful retrieval of all the eggs without getting stuck.
While Chillingo and developer Two Tribes have done a really nice job with the game’s art, and the puzzle elements are made cute with the animations of your character’s powers and the enemies, this was another game that we couldn’t quite get excited about from level to level. To quickly summarize what could be an extended discussion, Toki Tori has the individual pieces that would make a puzzler great, but they don’t quite come together properly. For instance, rather than taking direct control of your character, you need to point to places on the screen for him to move to, and then watch it happen, hoping in some cases that he doesn’t overstep the edge of a platform due to an imprecise initial press on the screen. This took us mentally out of the gameplay, as did the level designs, which all seem open-ended enough, but often turn out to require that things be done in a specific sequence or else you fail. After a few levels of this, we didn’t want to keep playing, and after 10 or so levels, the game was becoming more challenging, but not more fun. If you’re interested in braving 80 levels of this sort of gameplay, Toki Tori is a fine title, but mostly due to its interface, it wouldn’t be one of the first puzzlers we’d pick on this platform. iLounge Rating: B-.