This week’s edition of iPhone Gems is one of the most diverse in recent memory. We start with a collection of three seriously interesting action puzzle games, move on to two skateboarding titles, and finish with a set of four titles in different genres: the famous Wolfenstein 3D and Mega Man II, plus TNA Wrestling and the word game Bookworm.
Our top picks for the week are 3D Brick Breaker Revolution, Puzzle Prism Lite, Eliss, and Vans SK8 Pool Service. Unusually, we’re also calling out Capcom’s Mega Man II for special scorn this week, as it’s one of the very worst iPhone ports of an excellent classic console game we’ve ever seen from a major developer—enough that we filed an iTunes claim for a refund for the $5 asking price. Read on for all the details.
One of the iPhone’s strong points as a platform has been its emergence as a destination for intriguing puzzle games, and this week, we’re focusing on several noteworthy releases that definitely show off its potential. Eliss ($4) by Steph Thirion is the most original of the titles, a vector-based, multi-touch game of merging, separating, and relocating color-filled circles that appear on the screen; whether through adding circles together to form larger blobs, or pulling them apart to make smaller ones, the individual circles need to be resized to match target-like empty shapes of the same color. You complete a stage by making a certain number of matches of correct-sized, correct-colored circles with on-screen targets.
Eliss’s tricks are several: if two different-colored filled circles touch for any length of time, you rapidly deplete a life bar and very quickly fail the level. The circles keep appearing until the level is properly completed. And the challenges—managing all the on-screen circles, moving them from places where the targets or other circles are about to appear, and so on—just keep getting harder. Interesting use of vector graphics for the targets, the emerging circles, and other effects keep the levels looking different and interesting, like abstract representations of space as seen through a now archaic Vectrex console. Ultimately, what limits Eliss isn’t the art, but the size of the iPhone/iPod touch screen; with even more space for your fingers—or hands—this could easily become a demonstration of large-surface multi-touch gaming. As-is, it feels a little cramped on the iPhone, but it’s still both fun and challenging. We look forward to seeing it evolve. iLounge Rating: B+.
Puzzle Prism ($4) and Puzzle Prism Lite (Free) by Ponos aren’t quite as imaginative, but they make an even more interesting visual impression. Like Edge, a game we loved, Puzzle Prism is a puzzle game built around a flat-shaded polygon engine, featuring an ever-rotating tower of blocks at the bottom of the screen, and new blocks that appear at the top of the screen. The goal is to keep rotating the blocks you’re given to make the smartest possible use of empty spaces in the tower—every gap you fill to complete a floor of the tower makes that floor disappear, shrinking the tower. You lose only if the tower grows too tall.
While Puzzle Prism doesn’t have a lot of depth, and you’re basically just doing one thing—turning blocks to fill in holes under time pressure—the audiovisual presentation is appealing enough to make the game worthwhile. Three songs are included, with a pulsing beat techno track as the default while you’re playing, a more gentle, meditative song as an alternative, and a more medieval orchestral version as the third. In our view, the Lite version provides most the value of the paid app, lacking only for a second “Extra” gameplay mode, and is definitely worth a download; if the full version was less expensive or had greater depth, it might be more worthy of a recommendation. iLounge Rating (Free): B+. iLounge Rating (Full): B-.
3D Brick Breaker Revolution ($3) and 3D Brick Breaker Revolution FREE (Free) were our favorite action puzzlers this week. We’ve played plenty of Breakout clones for the iPhone and iPod already, say nothing of Atari’s own Super Breakout, but there’s no doubt that Digital Chocolate’s take on the genre is extremely worthwhile for fans of the genre. Developed completely in 3-D, with both visual and gameplay elements that take advantage of the flat, textured, and Gouraud-shaded polygonal art, it’s essentially Breakout with a forced perspective tilt that makes the top of the block well seem smaller than the bottom. You therefore get a larger view of your paddle, which can be controlled with left and right dots on the screen, or by swiping left or right near the paddle. It feels pretty close to just right.
The other cool additions to 3D Brick Breaker are the power-ups, which range from common post-Breakout concepts—guns, lasers, super destructive balls, paddle-enhancers—to power-downs, and a few original ones: nuke, which blows everything up and ends a level, a cabled mine, which hits only blocks determined by the sway of your paddle, and keys, which in some levels unlock stages found above the current screen. Simple if nicely psychedelic backgrounds and repetitive but not annoying music make the game worthwhile, as well. As well-worn as Breakout may be, versions like this continue to keep it compelling, and for $3, even the full 99-level version strikes us as a good buy. The free version lets you sample one play mode and eight levels, which do a good job of letting you know what to expect. Both are deserving of our high recommendation. iLounge Ratings (Both): A-.
Up until now, the iPhone hasn’t had what we’d consider to be a really worthwhile skateboarding game. For literally months now, we’ve had Illusion Labs’ Touchgrind ($5) sitting around, but try as we might, we’ve never been able to get into it. To the developers’ credit, the concept of presenting a skateboarding game from a close-up overhead perspective is original, if arguably somewhat lazy, because it removes the need to create really detailed 3-D models and enables artists to focus on making super high-resolution textures for the ground and the skateboards. What Touchgrind lacks in polygonal facets relative to, say, EA’s Skate series, it sort of makes up for with beautiful flat art.
Sort of. Surely, some players were taken enough with the game’s visuals and unique controls to enjoy the game, but we just couldn’t make ourselves go through the motions. To skate, you put your fingers on the board, then pull them off or move them to move forward, steer, and do tricks. There was something about having next to no realtime view of the course—apart from a magnifying glass that zooms out to let you see what’s around, but doesn’t let you move—that prevented us from wanting to play more. We’re sure that some people will disagree, but we couldn’t in good faith call Touchgrind the type of skateboarding game we were looking for on the iPhone. The waiting game for something better has continued. iLounge Rating: C.
Today, that wait ended. Fuel Industries released Vans SK8: Pool Service ($5), a title that simultaneously makes excellent use of the iPhone’s 3-D hardware and too frequently problematic control options. Pool Service puts you inside a large, drained pool in the middle of a typical Southern California neighborhood, letting you control one of two skaters as they make the most of the pool’s grindable edges and curved basin. Momentum is provided for you, so you needn’t hold your fingers on the screen at all times to move your skater around, but you do need to keep moving to build up the power to do real tricks. Finger flicks, two-finger holds, quick device tilts and the like will get you doing most of the tricks; turning the iPhone will help you pull off 180s, 360s, and more complex turns.
Though there’s always the possibility that a developer will come along and do better, Pool Service is pretty close to as good an exploitation of the iPhone’s 3-D graphics hardware as we can imagine right now for a skateboarding game, and it’s backed by a five-song soundtrack from indie bands who actually have talent. Put another way, Vans SK8 gets an A in the aesthetics department, which when combined with the smart controls makes it a highly compelling title in all but one way: depth.
While you can unlock additional boards, wheels, stages, and videos of the skaters, you’re basically just being given new things to do inside the same pool, with rewards for pulling off additional tricks. Pool Service also is lacking a bit in the structure department, as you’re basically supposed to figure out the objectives on your own by digging through text in the menus. We could see this title fully earning its $5 asking price with more levels; for now, it’s a superb graphics engine with great gameplay and music in need of a little more content. iLounge Rating: B.
We don’t have as much to say about the remaining four titles today, but they were worth bringing to your attention anyway. Bookworm ($5) is PopCap Games’ take on WordsWorth, Fozy, and any number of other word-making games in the App Store, only with somewhat better production values and polish than some of them. You’re presented with a grid of letters that are supposed to represent books in a library, and you need to touch the letters in an order that creates words. As you proceed, flaming blocks appear and need to be removed from the stack before they burn their way to the bottom the screen, and then burn down the library.
Bookworm predates virtually all of the iPhone word-making games we’ve reviewed, but there’s no question at this point that it was beaten to the punch by all of its competitors: by contrast with WordsWorth and Fozy, it offers little more than different aesthetics and truly slight differences in gameplay to keep players interested. It also sells for two or three times the price. We’d hold off until it goes on sale; WordsWorth truly provides most of the same thrills and some even smarter gameplay twists for less. iLounge Rating: B-.
TNA Wrestling ($5) by Longtail Studios is, in short, a mobile phone-quality wrestling RPG. You get to modestly customize a cartoony male wrestler, then progress through a mostly linear series of button presses through everything from backyard wrestling to championship fights in the Total Nonstop Action wrestling league. Along the way, you meet and flirt with some of TNA’s female wrestlers, wrestle against TNA’s male wrestlers, and learn new moves; all of the dialogue and action are presented in a 2-D perspective that would be called side-scrolling except that it doesn’t really scroll, and the audio is mostly limited to crowd cheers and chants.
From a gameplay perspective, TNA is similarly only a step better than really simplistic, offering turn-based gameplay that has you press one of several on-screen buttons to execute a move, then another button for another move, and then a third button for a combo—all generally indicated with a menu of choreographed cues on the bottom of the screen. Occasionally, on-screen arrows require you to do a gesture, mostly to keep the action from becoming too monotonous. A Tag Team mode, a Gauntlet mode, and an Iron Man mode offer similar action, albeit sometimes with more characters on screen. Ultimately, TNA Wrestling isn’t an especially compelling title unless you’re seriously into the TNA league, and even then, it’s only for those who prefer turn-based strategy and role playing to real action. iLounge Rating: C+.
We’re not going to try and tell you that Wolfenstein 3D Classic ($5) is a phenomenal game, or even a great use of the iPhone hardware. By today’s standards, this once-popular 17-year-old first-person shooter looks and sounds more than a bit backwards, and even independent developers have made better use of the iPhone OS than has id Software—arguably one of the most groundbreaking 3-D game developers in the world on other platforms. But this simple game, placing you in the role of a soldier who busts through 60 levels filled with Nazis and eventually a mechanized robo-Hitler, has one major advantage over the other first-person shooters we’ve tried on this platform: it actually controls well, and is therefore fun to play, assuming you can get over the rough art and limited audio.
Other than a little filtering and some small texture tweaks, id Software hasn’t really changed the game much for the iPhone, so in addition to all but blank ceilings and floors, you get a simple soundtrack, limited voice samples, and the sounds of gunfire. The main draw is the pacing, which keeps you focused on moving from room to room, finding an occasional secret passageway, and hunting for the level’s exit, all aided by a smooth frame rate and copious Nazis to blow away. You’ll almost certainly wind up taking enough bullets during a level to find yourself hunting at some point for health packs and better weapons; they, along with plenty of basically worthless gold treasures, can be found scattered throughout rooms that are being guarded by soldiers.
Wolfenstein’s advantage relative to the many 3-D games that have come since then is that your character never needs to tilt his head up or down, jump, or really do much of anything other than run through simple mazes while shooting things, dodging things, and collecting items. Aiming, whether at a Nazi dog or a Nazi, is merely a matter of shooting straight ahead rather than lining up a dot on an enemy’s head or torso; grabbing items and switching weapons is almost entirely automatic, but for small on-screen controls. Similarly, the game provides an automatic mapping feature to help you figure out where you’ve been and where you need to go. If you’re looking for a retro 3-D shooter to play on the iPhone or iPod touch, Wolfenstein 3D Classic will provide you with enough levels and challenging moments to occupy your time; just don’t expect to be impressed by the aesthetics. iLounge Rating: B-.
Last and certainly least this week is Mega Man II ($5) by Capcom Interactive, which sets a new low for classic game ports to the iPhone platform. Originally released 20 years ago for the Nintendo Entertainment System and its Japanese brother Famicom, Mega Man II was widely considered to be the breakthrough title in one of the longest-running action game series in console history: you control a robot who needs to augment his weak arm cannon by defeating a series of robotic boss characters, each holding one powerful alternate weapon that could be used to easily defeat another boss. When all of the main bosses’ powers were acquired, you’d face off against Dr. Wily—creator of the evil robots—and use all of his inventions against him. The side-scrolling 2-D gameplay was considered to be well-balanced, challenging, and impressive in that you could choose any level and boss to confront in whatever order you preferred; it inspired more than a dozen sequels.
Without going into greater detail, it suffices to say that Mega Man II for the iPhone is atrocious—a version with such awful controls that it is next to unplayable on this platform. Capcom decided to take the original game and run it within a roughly square window in the center of a faux on-screen arcade cabinet, complete with a drawn joystick and buttons, none of which appear to have actually been tested properly before release. The precision control of the classic NES and Famicom controllers is gone, and Mega Man slips and slides all over the place, missing simple jumps, shooting poorly, and basically ruining any memories players may have of the original game. For the first time since the App Store opened, we were so upset by this title that we actually demanded—and received—a refund for the $5 asking price. Frankly, Capcom shouldn’t even be giving this title away for free, let alone charging for it—Mega Man II is a shameful port, and not worthy of either the series’ legacy or the great company that produced it. Until Capcom figures out a way to provide a control scheme worthy of the 8-bit gaming experience, it seriously shouldn’t be releasing its classic games for the iPhone; there are far too many excellent Capcom titles that could be butchered in the process. iLounge Rating: F.