Welcome to a quick edutainment and entertainment mix of iPhone Gems. As we close out this week, we wanted to offer quick peeks at a few releases from longtime toymaker Fisher Price, which has released three new applications based on its popular toys, and a 1950’s moviemaking-themed game from Namco.
The title that most impressed us in the bunch was Fisher Price: See ‘n Say, an impressive and inexpensive evolution of the classic plastic toy into iPhone and iPod touch form. Here are the details.
Working together with IDEO, a design company that was responsible for sculpting some of the most impressive Altec Lansing iPod speakers released years ago, Fisher Price this week unveiled three applications that capitalize on its popular toys. Most interesting to us was Fisher Price: See ‘n Say ($2), which effectively evolves the company’s $13 The Farmer Says toy into a fun, easy to use edutainment app for kids 18 months and up. And why shouldn’t the iPhone/iPod touch app be less expensive? Fisher Price delivers the same sort of fun experience without needing to manufacture or distribute the plastic shell, its AA-battery-powered electronics, or packaging.
Loading up See ‘n Say presents you with the classic Fisher Price spinning arrow, plus a collection of six animated animals and light-hearted background music. Shake the iPhone and six more animals take their places. Touch, move, or spin the arrow and the app will come to rest on one of the animals, zooming in on it, saying its name out loud, and then playing a brief educational video about the animal—just right for short attention spans, with simple words and concepts.
What’s impressive about See ‘n Say is that it effectively transcends the toy that it was based on, using animation, audio and video that is all more compelling than what can be packed into a $13 plastic shell these days. The only question a parent needs to ask is whether he or she can trust an 18 month old to safely hold an iPod touch or iPhone long enough to play with the app, which in our experience is pretty close to a “yes,” so long as what’s happening on screen is engaging. And this is, for 5 or 10 minute stretches. Thanks to strong source material and a nice interface, it’s one of the best little edutainment apps we’ve yet seen in the App Store, and highly recommended for kids. iLounge Rating: A-.
We also liked Fisher Price: Chatter Telephone ($1), which is a little less beautifully assembled, but has a fair amount of initially hidden depth. Here, you’re presented with an overhead image of Fisher Price’s $6 toy that kids have been pulling on a string to drag around for years—so many years that the very shape of the phone now hardly resembles what the kids will actually be using to talk on. Press any of the numbered buttons, and they rotate like an old-fashioned rotary dial, tap the phone’s wheels and they bulge and vibrate the iPhone, or touch the red handset to make the phone ring. The phone’s face honks and rolls its eyes when tapped, as well.
The surprises here start when you touch the background, which changes from a dirt road to a city road, or the Fisher Price logo, which morphs the numeric buttons into musical notes or people. In music mode, you can toggle between piano, flute, and violin sound effects and notes, while in people mode, you touch faces to bring up telephone callers such as “Annie the Artist,” who tells you that she paints pictures, and then says goodbye. All of the people represent common professions. Considering that this app is only $1 versus the real Chatter Telephone, which does less and sells for more ($8-$13), it’s hard not to like it for what it is—that said, the animation isn’t as impressive as in See ‘n Say, though there are more buttons to interact with if you’re willing to guide the child through them. iLounge Rating: B+.
The third of the titles is Fisher Price: Little People Farm ($2), which is designed to capture some of the magic from Fisher Price’s series of Little People toys—oversized Lego-like, peg-bottomed people who can be placed in different scenes. Little People Farm is little more than a drawing of a farm that scrolls through two screens of width, zooming in on and changing the graphics for several events if you click properly on items, but otherwise only animating tiny items on the screen. Click on a sheep, for instance, and you watch as its wool flies off into a pile or back onto its body again, but click on barn doors and you switch to a view inside the barn for a little game.
The games are simple: match up sets of two similar-looking turtles, guess which shell game-style bale of hay a certain character is hidden behind, or help clean the screen when a pig splashes it with mud. They’re all appropriate for young kids, the animations are all decent, and the music—sans the voice of Aaron Neville—is repetitive but pleasantly upbeat, adding more energy to the title than any of the activities on their own. Based on our recent experiences with the actual toys, this title does less to replicate the experience of playing with real Little People than the other two applications do with their respective toys, and offers a little less educational content, but it’s still a nice little title for the $2 asking price. iLounge Rating: B.
Last up this week is Tinseltown Dreams: The 50’s ($3), a match-three game that we can only describe as a depressingly poor offering from Namco. So much is wrong with this title that we could devote an entire lengthy review to it, and it’s tempting to do so, but the experience of playing Tinseltown Dreams was so utterly mediocre that it barely seems worth the effort to write about.
Though you wouldn’t guess as much from the title, the core of this game is a fairly stupid implementation of the Bejeweled-style match-three concept, dropping tiny icons into a collection of spaces that need to be flipped from one color to another by making matches. You do this by swiping to switch the positions of two icons, making vertical or horizontal lines of three, four, or five same-looking items, occasionally scoring a six-match through dropping blocks. Apart from the movie-themed icons, the crappy, repetitive music, and the boring backgrounds, the “stupid” part is that the level grids change in shape from stage to stage in ways that preclude simple gravity-based icon drops, forcing constant rearrangements as the icons fall. As compensation of sorts, you’re offered power-ups to scramble icons or instantly flip hard-to-reach or impossible to match spaces. You can also spray popcorn on the board to fill up a bunch of spaces at random, with this “power” indicated by the sound of a popcorn popper in the background. Ugh.
What’s worse is what comes after each matching stage: you’re supposed to use dollars earned through the matching to fund the development of a 1950’s movie based on a number of different themes (“Musical,” “Comedy,” “Romance”), buying props, lighting rigs, actors, and a crew with your weekly budget. Not only is the selection of these people and items completely lacking in any fun—they’re so tiny that you can barely see them, with little to no animation—but you’re then supposed to arrange them on a soundstage to be judged at the end of the level on your assembly of talent and elements. The act of doing this is so unfulfilling, so primitively implemented, and so boring to look at that we actually had more fun playing in the Fisher Price Little People Farm than doing these stages. Developers with literally no prior track record of making iPhone Games have come up with more compelling content.
Though there have been a couple of relative high points—Pool Pro Online 3 and Pac Man Championship Edition—Namco’s track record on the iPod touch and iPhone has been downright sad, with titles like this and Isaac Newton’s Gravity continuing to undermine a brand that we once held in the highest possible esteem. Releases have gotten so bad that it’s now a surprise rather than a matter of routine when the company publishes something that actually looks and plays well in the App Store, a shock given the depth of Namco’s awesome backcatalog and the incredible programming talent that it once possessed. We continue to hold out hope that the company will start bringing some of its better past titles—competently—to this platform rather than churning out junk like this. iLounge Rating: D+.