Welcome to this week’s unexpected second gaming edition of iPhone Gems! The release of four more interesting titles led us to put together an additional roundup of games that are worthy of your attention, though three of the four should be pretty familiar to serious arcade and console fans: one is a clone of a classic Sega shooter, another duplicates popular action-puzzlers from Mitchell and PopCap, and a third borrows heavily from a 1980 Atari tank game. The fourth title is a simple but highly stylized tilt-based action game.
Our top picks of this group are Sparkle the Game and Tilt to Live. Read on for all the details.
Unless you’ve never seen Sega’s widely admired Rez—a brilliant, deliberately trippy 3-D shooter with far more depth and excitement than one could ever guess from its screenshots—Denizen ($2) by Sprimp will be instantly familiar—it borrows everything from Rez’s matrixy computer theme to its special effects, mix of wireframe and filled polygon objects, and boss concepts. But even though it doesn’t nail the three key ingredients that Rez evolved past its predecessors, specifically a rich lock-on system for shooting, the integration of music into its gameplay, and the use of evolutionary audio, characters, and even background artwork as themes, it stands on its own as a cool little shooter that may well suffice until a version of Rez becomes available for the iPhone and iPod touch.
You control a Gundam-like robot who flies straight through 15 levels filled with polygonal shapes, using a bottom-left directional pad to steer, taps on flying enemies to shoot, and a swipe along the right side of the screen to fire off one of your limited number of smart bombs. On the easiest levels—the first level in each of five different worlds—tapping on enemies is fairly easy, but on the medium and harder levels, they ramp up significantly in number such that tapping everything on the screen is a major challenge. As with Rez, you needn’t actually do so in order to clear each level—you’re just trying to stay alive long enough to beat each level’s boss character—but there are point bonuses for clearing out more of the enemies. They’re mostly dumb, modestly dangerous guns, with little of the animation or flourish found in Rez enemies, but their numbers make up for their lack of individual challenge, and a simple lock-on system lets you swipe to shoot more than one at a time.
Sprimp seems to have figured out pretty well how to play to its title’s comparative disadvantages. The levels don’t evolve in complexity or beauty, but Denizen lets you access any of them immediately via a central menu system. Consequently, you can start on the easiest of each world’s levels, or go straight to the two more difficult ones, which provides even first-time players with a lot to do. Music and audio effects aren’t as dramatic or uniquely engineered to build up as in Rez, but there’s a fine techno soundtrack that keeps the game interesting, and in the absence of an evolved power-up system, you’re given gates to fly through for bonuses, and virtual diamonds to collect on occasion, as well. Denizen isn’t Rez, and those looking for a true Rez-alike will have to wait, but for $2, this title offers enough of the experience that it’s hard to complain about. iLounge Rating: B.
Unlike Denizen, which merely borrows significantly from Rez, Sparkle the Game ($3) is a straight up clone of Zuma and Puzzloop, two earlier titles that have had conflicting claims as to originating a game concept in which a snaking line of colored balls inches its way towards a pit on the screen, while you shoot balls from a cannon in an effort to make matches of three or more balls, halting the progress of the line. What’s surprising about Sparkle is the developer: 10tons, which with MythPeople has previously released the staggering Azkend and pleasant Dragon Portals, both similar matching games with unusually impressive graphics and sounds.
Since the core concept behind Sparkle was already polished considerably from Mitchell’s Puzzloop by PopCap in Zuma, there was little left for 10tons to do with this title besides add its three strongest assets: sparkle and smoke special effects, a rich score, and a deep post-game user interface. As with the other titles, virtually all of the game consists of just pointing your centralized cannon towards the oncoming line of balls, firing off shots, and making matches before the balls reach the pit. Power-ups appear just as they do in the other games, slowing the line, making multi-colored matches possible, and dissolving multiple balls at once through various other means. One small gameplay twist—the ability to swap between three or more balls in a queue from your cannon—is a little tricky to actually accomplish given the fast pace of the oncoming balls. But the soundtrack here is strong, orchestral music that could nearly have come from the movie The Untouchables, stages start and end with smoke and glimmering effects that make nice use of the iPhone’s and iPod touch’s screens, and there are lots of levels—multiple paths are offered through Crowberry Woods, with rewards offered every few levels as you continue to play.
It’s those rewards that give the game its biggest advantage over its rivals. As with 10tons’ other titles, you unlock additional special powers as the game goes on, then get to select from them, in some cases making levels easier or more difficult by virtue of the amulet you select to alter your abilities. Amusingly, one of the amulets is unlocked if you send an e-mail to a friend to make them aware of the game. Given that Puzzloop still sells for an almost ridiculous $8, Zuma remains unavailable for the iPhone, and MumboJumbo’s similar clone Luxor has nice production values but is a little less impressive in the gameplay department, Sparkle’s a very good buy for the $3 asking price; only its lack of originality may turn off some players. iLounge Rating: B+.
Developers looking for proof that an utterly simple game concept can work amazingly well on the iPhone with a significant dose of polish need only take a peek at One Man Left’s new game Tilt to Live ($2), which makes so much of its single-screen game concept and tilt controls that Apple should use it as a demonstration of the iPhone and iPod touch hardware. You control a white arrow. The screen fills up with red dots. Points are earned only by killing as many of the dots as possible, and if a dot touches you, you die. Only power-ups scattered around the screen and your ability to dodge the dots can keep you alive.
What One Man Left has done with Tilt to Live is to populate the screen with a simple but dynamic green backdrop that changes just a little as you move around, plus little pop-up messages that indicate how you’re doing and what’s taking place in the white-bounded arena. A thumping beat—surprisingly, a retro big band/beach-styled one—plays as you move, with punchy sound effects and cute “Game Over” animation screens breaking up the action. All you do is tilt the iPhone or iPod touch to steer your ship, generally moving from randomly dispensed power-up to power-up, triggering an initial set of simple circular explosions, lock-on missiles, and single-direction pulse blasts. Breaking certain target scores unlocks ice, electricity, and spikey shield weapons, all of which become accessible from the start of a new game.
Somewhat amazingly given the scope of the game—it’s only one screen, after all—you will be playing it again and again. The game might be simple, but the controls are solid, the animations and sound effects are cool, and the weapons just become better as you keep on playing. Could Tilt to Live stand to have more background diversity? Even more weapons up front? More music? Yes, yes, and yes; all three of these reasons keep the title from our highest recommendation. But what’s here is so stylish and addicting that you’ll almost forget how simple the gameplay really is. An iPad version seems like an absolute must, and we can’t wait to see how One Man Left upgrades the concept for a larger screen. iLounge Rating: B+.
Vector Tanks was a clone of Atari’s classic arcade game Battlezone. Now BlipTime Studios’ semi-sequel Vector Tanks Extreme! ($2) is here, surpassing the original game with more intense gameplay, new audio effects, and a gameplay mode called RAGE!, which starts out brutally difficult but becomes more manageable as you learn what you’re doing.
Vector Tanks used wireframe 3-D graphics to place you in control of a tank navigating a simple 3-D battlefield filled with enemy tanks and jeeps, plus immovable obstacles that could shield you and them from gunfire. Land mines, shrapnel, and power-ups—a shield, a rapid-fire gun, and a nuclear missile—built upon Battlezone’s simple gameplay, while twin slider-style controls on the edges of the screen let you move forwards, backwards, and turn as you tapped on the screen to fire your tank’s cannon. All of these features are included in Vector Tanks Extreme!, but there’s now a third type of tank, a helicopters, a railgun power-up, and a homing missile power-up, plus your choice of two voice actors to provide commentary of sorts as you’re playing. The new title also includes some nice vector-related visual tweaks, giving you added control over the brightness and strength of the wireframes and their fillings.
Ultimately, though Vector Tanks Extreme! isn’t a fundamentally different game from its predecessors, it’s better: the homing missiles let you shoot around obstacles, for instance, changing the prior balance of the title, and the addition of the voice actors—particularly Duke Nukem’s Jon St. John—gives the game a little more sonic oomph, which it previously lacked entirely for due to the absence of music. Even in the standard play mode, Vector Tanks feels more intense than before, though the core gameplay is still as simple as turning, moving forward, and shooting, with the number of targets to shoot and dodge increasing as you complete levels and change the difficulty setting. RAGE! mode drops you into an auto-firing tank in the middle of an extremely crowded battlefield, giving you two minutes to shoot as many enemies as possible, invariably starting with you dying from taking reciprocal gunfire and ending with you wiping out more tanks, jeeps, and copters than you’d thought you could handle at first. While this game could still stand to have greater depth and would benefit considerably from a superior dual D-pad control scheme, it’s as good a value for its asking price as its predecessor was in a less crowded App Store this time last year; retro Battlezone fans will be the most impressed by the developer’s evolution of the classic concept. iLounge Rating: B.