Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems. Today, we’re looking at four different but very interesting new games: a number puzzler, a bowling game, an update to a Skee-Ball title, and a cartoony boxer.
Our top pick of the week is Super K.O. Boxing 2 by GLU Games, and if you already have Ramp Champ, there’s a very compelling new In-App Download level pack for that title called the Halloween Pack. Read on for all the details.
It has been touted by some as the spiritual sequel to Drop7, a stylish, number-focused puzzler that has remained a low-key iLounge favorite for months. CountDown: DownToZero ($2) by Hondune Games isn’t quite as impressive, but it’s a good enough title to merit some attention. The idea: there’s an eight-block-wide well that numbers fall into from the sky. You touch numbers in sequence to remove them from the well before it fills completely with blocks.
What’s novel is the matching process: you need to touch one number and then continue to swipe in the direction of additional numbers that subtract from the first one to equal zero. Any two matching numbers will thus work—4 minus 4, 2 minus 2—but you’ll only score in the thousand-point range making such simple matches. It’s in longer matches, such as 4 minus 3 minus 1, or 6 minus 2 minus 1 minus 1 minus 2, and combinations of quick 2- and 3-matches that you can rack up points and survive. In Endless Mode, the game starts you with only 1, 2, 3, and 4 number blocks, but additional numbers are added as time goes on, and a Clear the Board mode begins with a full well and higher numbers right away.
We liked CountDown’s relatively clean presentation. Three skins are offered, the best of which has nice, modern-looking glowing blocks with small particle effects as they fall and match, but sound effects are minimal and music is non-existent. The chief problem is that the pacing’s not quite right for all players yet, as the game starts at a fast clip and doesn’t give novice players a chance to master the strokes before they’re swimming in the pool. Adding higher numbers as the game continues is a great idea, but the initially brisk speed of falling blocks prevents the challenge from becoming as intellectual as it could be; fast swiping quickly takes the place of deliberate thought. With additional development work—more and more stylish skins, better audio, and a more gradual progression of the game’s speed—this could be a truly great number and block puzzler. As-is, it’s fun for those who want something that’s mentally stimulating, and are willing to learn by making mistakes. iLounge Rating: B.
Of the thousands of iPhone and iPod touch games now in the App Store, the vast majority aren’t direct hits or near-misses, but rather big misses—the equivalent of throwing a dart at a dartboard and watching it disappear into thin air rather than even hitting the wall or floor. Galactic Bowling ($5) by Perpetual FX Creative is a near-miss, the product of an apparently creative and talented art and design team that lacked for only one thing: a really good bowling user interface.
What Perpetual FX has come up with is an interesting premise: 11 completely 3-D polygonal characters and 11 different bowling lanes set on Earth and on various imaginary planets in outer space. The characters aren’t fantastic, but they’re diverse in appearance, with two male and two female humans, then seven weird-looking aliens, some with oddball items that they carry around for whatever reason while they’re bowling. Shaniqua from New York carries a boom box. Max from Australia has a surfboard. The Jar-Jar Binks-like Cest has a rocket launcher or something. They add nothing to the game, but they’re there. By comparison, the lanes—particularly the off-Earth ones—are designed with cool obstacles, such as flames and vortexes that appear at times from holes in the lanes, destroying or changing the location of your ball mid-roll. Corkscrews and even multi-path courses such as three-line lanes are, if not brilliant, really smart little additions to the bowling concept, making good use of the iPhone’s wide display. Notably, the game’s one-on-one Campaign mode takes you from level to level in a split-screen simultaneous mode so that you don’t have to watch passively as your opponent takes turns, another nice touch.
Though the graphics engine runs at a fluid frame rate and looks pretty good by iPhone 3-D standards, alongside decent to good stage-specific music, there’s a problem: the gameplay feels really off from moment one and never gets better. You’re supposed to tap repeatedly on a right-bottom power meter, then tap on your character to roll the ball, with tilting and other adjustments that can impact the ball’s direction while it’s in motion. For a variety of reasons, this interface never feels good or right; Perpetual could have just cloned the power meters from earlier iPhone bowling titles we’ve reviewed and been just fine. The weak controls contribute to a sense that you’re never totally in command of what happens on the lanes, so even though there are those corkscrews, vortexes, and flames, they too often feel like eye candy or nearly random elements inserted just to mess up your game. That’s a shame, as having lanes with obstacles is a great idea—there has to be a way to preserve these smart new additions to the bowling lanes while making them feel fun. The developer tries to throw in other elements, such as a laser gun to zap extra pins off the lane, but they don’t really work.
Ultimately, Galactic Bowling is at least a B+ caliber game visually, and an A in ambition for the price, let down by C-quality gameplay. We feel strongly that the developer should spend the necessary time to completely fix the control interface for this title, as it has all of the other elements necessary to be a truly novel bowling game. Only after those fixes are complete should it consider releasing a sequel; with even better characters and backgrounds, plus an improved control interface, it could have a huge hit on its hands. iLounge Rating: B-.
Non-trivial issues aside—the reasons it missed our high recommendation when we reviewed it in August—the Iconfactory’s Ramp Champ is amongst the very best games released for the iPhone and iPod touch this year. Rather than using the 3-D graphics found in earlier, competing titles, this rendition of Skee-Ball-style “arcade bowling” uses impressively drawn 2-D artwork and offers a diverse collection of themed “ramps” with amusingly rendered still and moving targets. Ramp Champ ships with four themed ramps, and now offers eight additional ramps in packs of two via In-App Purchase, Apple’s tool to let developers charge extra fees for new levels. We covered the first two-packs called “Adventure Pack” and “Challenge Pack” in our initial review; now Iconfactory has added “Halloween Pack” and “Voyage Pack” for $1 a piece.
Halloween Pack is the more impressive of the two new offerings, bringing ramps called Trick-or-Treat and Grave Danger to the mix. Trick-or-Treat presents you with a house that initially looks abandoned but can be hit with balls to open its windows, triggering costumed kids to walk around in front. Besides hitting a high score, your goals are to hit challenging skeleton targets and/or enough other objects to produce an elite type of candy treat. Grave Danger presents a static graveyard with what initially appears to be a plain collection of gravestones; as you play, you learn which stones release white ghosts, who can be hit to make blue ghost targets appear, or skeletal hands, which make an organist target appear. Both of these ramp designs use fixed background graphics, but funny evolving targets that reminded us of the better moments in Iconfactory’s prior Happy Place and Ninja Attack add-ons; their spooky music is also spot-on. Collectively, they’re a great additional purchase.
By comparison, Voyage Pack is somewhat less impressive. Plunderin’ Pirates is a pirate ship-themed level that has the requisite seafaring music and a multi-level wooden boat with both stationary and moving targets. Its objectives are clear—reveal a mermaid and a skeleton—but achieving them through a combination of shots on the boat and into the water below is more an exercise in precision than fun. The unrelated other ramp, Star Struck, consists of a series of three changing backgrounds that depict a retro-styled rocketship journey to Mars. Here, the targets—people running around and flying—are relatively boring, and both the dreamy music and backdrops are fairly bland, but the fact that the art changes is enough to keep the ramp from being forgettable.
All four of these new ramps offer new challenges that fans of this game will appreciate, and to the extent that you’re looking for a way to extend the life of this already good title, purchasing either or both packs is a simple, cheap way to do so. That said, Halloween Pack strikes us as the best of the packs yet released—worthy of our high recommendation—with Voyage as the least appealing, and our underlying concerns about Ramp Champ’s controls still remain unresolved. With greater precision in the swiping mechanism, this could be a mandatory purchase for all iPhone and iPod touch gamers; as-is, it’s very, very close. iLounge Rating (Halloween Pack): A-. iLounge Rating (Voyage Pack): B.
Nintendo’s Punch-Out!! is the de facto standard for cartoony boxing games, and we’ve already reviewed quite a few iPhone titles that have attempted to emulate it both figuratively and literally. Super K.O. Boxing 2 ($5) from Glu Games is the latest and best Punch-Out!! wannabe to date, a hand-drawn 2-D title that does so much visually and sonically to create its own novel spin on Nintendo’s series that it can almost—almost—be forgiven for delivering less in the gameplay department.
You control KO Kid, who unlike Nintendo’s Little Mac actually has the physical build to look like a real boxer, and generally occupies the same place at the bottom center of the screen. Glu has simplified the controls to give you one combined left dodge/up button, one right dodge button, and one block button as a joystick alternative, plus left and right punch buttons and a super, powered-up punch. We never warmed to the loss of the joystick, but really liked a couple of other control tweaks: best is a ten-count mechanism where you only get up if you succeed in touching an on-screen number as many times as you have stars floating around your head; also notable are punches that are thrown coming out of defensive dodges. Super K.O. Boxing 2 mightn’t feel as smooth and responsive as Punch-Out!!—the only reason the game falls short of our high recommendation—but it has its own appeal. A three-circuit set of challenges contains 17 up-to-three-round fights, spread across 12 sometimes repeating boxers.
Where this game succeeds in an almost staggering way is in aesthetics. GLU’s boxers are nearly as cool as the ones from Punch-Out!! titles, with a notable 50 Cent parody character called 15 Cent, a fat cowboy named Big Gip, and the Indian Chief as just some of the game’s early opponents. El Bulli, a Spanish matador-type, and the Japanese Shogun look almost good enough to be Nintendo character designs, while others—including the primitive, hairy giant Ka-Rak Ubones—are different and original. They’re animated simply, without the cel-shaded polygonal art that we’ve seen in other console and handheld boxers in recent months, but look pretty good; each has his own background, as well. In-game sound effects and music aren’t memorable, with a little crowd noise, simple punching sounds, and a simple beat as you’re fighting, but they’re good enough.
The overall audio and visual experience GLU has assembled is so strong that we were on the edge of A- and B+ ratings for Super K.O. Boxing 2. Accustomed as iPhone owners are to comparatively mediocre boxing experiences, most will be very impressed by this title, and have at least some fun playing through the challenges of the fights; starting with the second circuit, the boxers actually become difficult to beat, and their Punch-Out!!-like strengths and weaknesses become more pronounced. But there’s no question that the magic balance of gameplay Nintendo has delivered in its titles is not quite here, as GLU needs to actually interrupt fights on occasion with dialog boxes to teach you skills, and other fights feel like they should be interrupted because your opponents’ weaknesses aren’t telegraphed enough by their animations. For the $5 asking price, and given the quality of the art and characters in particular, this is a game that boxing fans will really enjoy—the best boxing game in the App Store today. Were it not for the higher water marks set years ago by Nintendo in controls and gameplay, Super K.O. Boxing 2 would be more than just an aesthetic standout. iLounge Rating: B+.