Welcome to this week’s first edition of iPhone Gems. Today, we’re covering three action game releases that were all worthy of our general-level recommendation, bringing new twists to three different genres. It’s worth mentioning up front that the screenshots for all three of these titles don’t really do justice to the games, as they’re stronger in the gameplay department than in visuals, though each has its own interesting little aesthetic touches that make good use of the iPhone and iPod touch hardware.
Our top picks of the bunch are Critter Crunch and Jet Car Stunts. Read on for all the details.
At some point, the number of “match things in a line” games became so huge that people began to tune out the vast majority of releases as “me too,” and the success or failure of such titles became dependent on positive word of mouth. Critter Crunch ($2) from Starwave is one that deserves your attention. More likely than not, you might otherwise see the pictures, dismiss it as another Puyo-Puyo-esque matching title, and move along—if you’re in that camp, our advice would be to check out the lite version right now.
The concept behind Critter Crunch defies its simple, cartoony graphics: it’s actually a sophisticated little puzzle game with a gentle learning curve. Everything is based upon the idea of swiping a monster at the bottom of the screen from column to column, snatching up small critters with its tongue, and then feeding them to bigger critters to cause chain matching reactions. At first, the game’s simple—eat two small ones and spit them at a medium-sized one to create the first “pop” in the chain—but variations quickly appear, such as spitting one small one at one medium one that’s below a large one, which causes all three critters to disappear, then starts the chain of explosions with anything that touches and matches the largest critter. Chain enough same-bodied critters together, or just complete enough matches, and you move on to the next level.
Though Critter Crunch’s graphics and sounds are at best B-worthy—animations are only decent, music sounds good but loops, and so on—the game’s continued variations make the title worthwhile. Levels can be open-ended, timed, puzzle-like with limited moves, and survival-style, each requiring a slightly different level of precision or thoughtfulness when making matches; the rare timed levels for instance give you just enough seconds to succeed after several practice failures, and the puzzles similarly are unlikely to be solved on the very first attempt. Power-ups, toxic critters, and tons of bonus jewels to collect make the action interesting and compelling from level to level, and increased numbers of critter colors also help; colorblind players may, however, wish that the similarly-sized medium and large critters had more obvious visual differences. The developers obviously found a play mechanic and game concept that worked, then made some very smart determinations as to how to change things up gradually to help the player develop skills while having fun; the aforementioned power-ups and jewels provide you with a reason to keep moving quickly from column to column, snatching up items as they fall.
If Critter Crunch has any major issue, it’s the controls, while are less precise than they should be: swapping from column to column isn’t always smooth, and there are times—many times—when we accidentally grabbed critters, moved, or pulled rows downwards with a stomp rather than achieving whatever it was that we wanted to do. Even still, we had a lot of fun with the game, and would recommend it to anyone who likes cute, smart little puzzlers; the price is fair for what you get, and all we could hope for in a sequel would be upgrades to the animation and controls. iLounge Rating: B+.
Thanks to the App Store’s low pricing, bite-sized games have more of a place on iPhones and iPod touches than on any other full-fledged game platform, and geoSpark ($1) from Critical Thought Games is a prime example of why such titles can work for both developers and gamers. The title relies on the same graphics engine as Critical Thought’s earlier, excellent little tower defense game geoDefense Swarm, placing glowing, vector-based objects on top of a fluidly animated moving grid, then allowing the objects to explode with exciting particle effects—similar to the Xbox title Geometry Wars. Those familiar with the earlier vector-based iPhone title Eliss can skip the review and cut straight to checking out the game for themselves.
Everyone else might need a little additional explanation, as the gameplay isn’t going to be obvious from the screenshots here. For whatever reason, Critical Thought’s tutorial and interface for geoSpark is an un-narrated, highly visual “figure it out” affair, showing a virtual finger tapping and dragging on colored objects as they float around on the screen. We really didn’t like or get the tutorial at first—it still needs work—but after a second viewing, it began to make sense: the screen fills with different-colored enemies, which can be tapped for one-hit kills or chained by dragging your finger from same-colored enemy to the next, with bonus points for slamming enemies into circular point multipliers. An occasional vortex-shaped smart bomb can be triggered to kill everything on screen, as well.
Yet despite all these ways to eliminate enemies, the game is often over almost as quickly as it begins: it ends instantly if two differently colored enemies collide with one another. This can happen easily as the screen fills up, and gravitational fields begin to appear between proximate objects, drawing them closer to one another. A tap or guided collision will eliminate the immediate threat, leaving others to appear seconds later. From game to game, the only objective is to keep alive long enough to get a higher score than last time.
With a different graphics engine, geoSpark mightn’t have been as compelling as it is, but like Geometry Wars, the vector and particle effects found in geoDefense Storm were born to appear in action games—the fact that they were mostly finished in the prior game and capable of being repurposed for this one partially explains this title’s simplicity and pricing. But even having seen the same effects before doesn’t take away from how interesting geoSpark is to look at; the gyrations of the board and explosive particles are fun to watch when you die. A light, charming little song loops as you play, and simple sound effects make the collisions and eliminations of objects seem a little more real. geoSpark mightn’t be the most amazing $1 game we’ve seen for the iPhone and iPod touch, and some additional challenges could help it to become even cooler, but it’s a fun little time waster with cool enough visuals to be worth checking out. iLounge Rating: B.
Textured polygons revolutionized 3-D video game graphics when they started to replace flat-shaded polygons in the mid-1990s, transforming Sega’s blocky Virtua Racing F-1 vehicles into sleek stock cars for Daytona U.S.A., as just one of a dozen examples of how abstract computer graphics rendering rapidly became realistic. Yet during and after that transition, certain developers continued to use flat-shaded, Gouraud-shaded, and even more primitive unshaded boxes in 3-D games, in some cases due to the constraints of the hardware they were working on, and in others for purely stylistic reasons. Subsequent titles such as Rez proved that wireframe and flat-shaded graphics could still be cool, and Jet Car Stunts ($2) by True Axis is another, more modern example: it uses seemingly primitive shapes to create some seriously cool race track experiences that look retro but neat on the iPhone and iPod touch.
To be clear up front, Jet Car Stunts may have 36 race tracks to offer, but it isn’t a racing game in the sense that you’re driving a car against other cars in an attempt to get the fastest speed through multiple laps. Instead, 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.
True Axis’s track designs are deliberately unrealistic, often using sequences of floating, disconnected platforms rather than a single flat road, and introducing spiraling loop-de-loops, open-air pathways through floating rings, and other eye-catching guideposts to help you figure out where you’re supposed to go. On the “platform” levels, which constitute the majority of tracks in the game, the only way to win is to get safely from point A to point B either before exhausting a specific number of re-tries—including checkpoints; “time trial” levels instead give you multiple laps on the same track. Jet Car Stunts leaves a number of tracks open at once so that you can try something else if you’re getting frustrated on a given course.
To True Axis’s credit, the levels of Jet Car Stunts are frequently pretty ingenious: between their differential elevations and the way that they’ve been populated with interesting floating shapes for both foreground and background purposes, there’s always something interesting to look at, regardless of whether you’re racing up a ramp or plummeting from a missed jump towards the ground below. Rather than just creating traditional tunnels, the track designers will have walls made from numerous floating cubes, or peak-shaped intersections of elongated boxes, and there’s enough draw distance that you can see plenty of the course ahead of you without pop-in. That said, the game has too few special effects, no excitement from other vehicles, and little of the more common cool factor found in realistic racers such as Real Racing, Need For Speed Underground, and the like, with music basically absent in favor of engine-revving noises and chimes.
A bigger issue, and one that some players will find more problematic than others, is in the nature of the game’s challenges: like a puzzler rather than a typical racer, the way to succeed is to stop failing, which is to say that the tracks have been designed to see you fail over and over again rather than equipping you with any initial likelihood of success on your first attempt. Given ten retries to complete a level successfully, even with multiple checkpoints mid-way through each level, you’ll still struggle to beat a level—learning how to control your jumps is an initial challenge, then how to speed and drift through turns, then how to use the air brakes and accelerometer steering to roll yourself into the right position for a landing rather than skidding out on your car’s roof. Seeing your car shatter into a dozen pieces after hitting a platform head-on becomes par for the course; you just need to get past the feeling of failure and figure out how to combine the right actions and button timing to pass the track.
Given the game’s low price, we can live with its issues, but they leave Jet Car Stunts feeling more like a sophisticated, physics-based puzzle game than a fully-developed racer, when a little extra development time could have enabled it to thrill both types of gamers. If you’re into the abstract 3-D shapes and as hooked by the game’s physics engine as we were, you won’t care that much—like Nintendo’s somewhat obscure flat-shaded Super Nintendo title Stunt Race FX, the visuals work well with the gameplay, and the experience here is more about the challenge of mastering the tracks and controls than being wowed by the aesthetics. Updates to this title or a sequel could make True Axis a huge force to be reckoned with in the iPhone and iPod touch development community. iLounge Rating: B+.