This week’s iPhone Gems gaming column is all about quality over quantity: we’ve picked five especially noteworthy titles to look at in four different categories, each one reasonably priced. Most noteworthy are three titles that set respectively higher bars for their genres: one the best pinball game we’ve yet seen on the iPhone, another the best bowling title, and the third the best 3-D action platformer.
Our top picks of the week are Pangea’s Otto Matic: Alien Invasion, Gameloft’s Midnight Bowling, and Gameprom’s Wild West Pinball. Read on for all the details.
The more you love pinball, the harder it is to understand why the iPhone and iPod touch—quite possibly the most pinball-ready portable devices ever made—have to date been such disappointments for this genre of games. Titles we’ve previously reviewed have ranged from bland computer ports to variously sophisticated tech demos, and none seemed to get the formula quite right. Until now.
Though it has a couple of non-trivial issues, Wild West Pinball ($3) by Gameprom is the first title to get the overall graphics and gameplay engine concept entirely right for the iPhone OS platform. Gameprom has modeled an entire old West-themed pinball surface in 3-D, using subtle and smart camera motions to let you see only the relevant portion of the table. At first, the game focuses on the spring-loaded mechanism as you fire the ball into the arena, then draws out to show part of the table as the ball jostles around, and moves out yet again as it approaches the flippers. While this is all a seemingly predictable presentation by 3-D pinball game standards, it’s exactly correct, and a marked difference from the way other iPhone games have handled camera motion to date. The physics engine for ball, flipper, and bumper motion is also spot-on.
It actually gets better, too. Succeed in getting the ball into one of the table’s hot zones, which are unlocked through hitting certain on-screen targets, and the camera will zoom in even closer or rotate: a shootout with Dirty Harry presents a moving gunslinger target and a similarly moving light beam that lets you take one shot at felling him. Similarly, a bank at the top of the screen can be “robbed” when it opens, with targets inside to rack up dollars. In addition to smart Western-themed challenges like these, Gameprom has really done a nice job of creating an old-fashioned table design, complete with a railroad track-like ramp, wooden surface, and muted colors that really work well together. It’s not flashy or high in intensity, but it all works.
The issues mentioned above start with the audio, which lacks entirely for music and includes a collection of sound effects that range from okay to pretty bad. They continue with the level of interactivity, as the board includes only two flippers and thus leaves you more in a “watch and hope” situation with some of the higher targets, and conclude with a problem of sorts that we’ve mentioned before: like virtually all of the iPhone pinball games we’ve played, Wild West Pinball is a single-board, scrolling affair, without secondary bonus stages that defy the rules of old school pinball and take you to different locations. Naxat Soft figured out ways around these traditional pinball game limitations nearly 20 years ago, but too few companies have taken up its Alien Crush, Devil’s Crush, and Jaki Crush titles as examples. If these issues don’t concern you, jump right on board Wild West Pinball without reservation; it’s not perfect, but it’s the best pinball game yet released for the iPhone and iPod touch. iLounge Rating: B+.
Also released in the last week or so was IUGO’s Freeballin’ ($2), which takes a different approach to iPhone pinball—one that some users may like, and others will be nonplussed by. Rather than trying to create a single 3-D pinball machine, IUGO has created four 2-D tables that are unconventionally modeled on various fantasy environments: Tiki Trouble looks like cartoony ancient jungle ruins, Monsteropolis is a city under attack by giant monsters, Dreams & Nightmares is a combination of animals and creepy dream elements, and Neometric is an abstract, spacy level with geometric shapes. All of the levels have their own music, which is actually quite good, though the sound effects and animation aren’t all that impressive: it’s not hard to picture any of the levels being more lively than just flat, occasionally twitching artwork.
The single biggest issue with Freeballin’ is that the levels feel as if they were designed with visual rather than gameplay appeal, and don’t offer much of a payoff when you’re playing them. They’re either low on targets or limited in things to do with those targets, sometimes both, depending on the board. To compensate, IUGO includes “missions”—randomly triggered simple objectives, such as hitting a specified number of targets in the Monsteropolis level, sinking the ball into a specific one-eyed dog target in the Dreams & Nightmares level, and so on. Due to the relatively weak objectives, none of the tables really hooks the player in, a fact that’s only offset by the number of tables and low price of entry.
There are exceptions. For instance, Tiki Trouble actually incorporates the idea of a second table that can be accessed with a well-placed shot—the exact sort of added depth that we like to see, even if the second table isn’t hugely different from the first one. By adding second stage elements, including quality music, and keeping the price low, IUGO may not have made an otherwise good pinball game great, but it has taken an otherwise decent game up to good. For $2, the four tables make up somewhat for the lack of strength in any of the individual designs. iLounge Rating: B.
As hard as we try to keep up with new releases in the App Store, the sheer volume of weekly releases means that sometimes a legitimately good title will slip through the cracks. Gameloft’s Midnight Bowling ($2) is one of those titles, a surprisingly full-featured bowling game with a 3-D engine that looks a lot like the company’s billiards title Midnight Pool mixed with Freeverse’s previously-reviewed and earlier release Flick Bowling. Freeverse used good sound effects, six characters, a couple of alleys, and a dead simple control scheme to make its bowling action interesting; Gameloft trumps Flick on almost all counts.
Midnight Bowling also lets you select from six characters, but gives you the choice of multiple differently weighted balls and outfits for each, plus five different lanes, some of which are locked at the start of the game. Each of the lanes is even more elaborately 3-D modeled than Freeverse’s versions, and begins with a camera flythrough to demonstrate that point; one takes place in the middle of an aquarium with sharks in tanks as you’re bowling. You still get the chance to follow your ball in 3-D as it rolls down the lane towards the pins, and here, can tilt or touch the iPhone after your throw to tweak the ball’s spin as it careens down the lane. A Story Mode and in-game cash for playing help to keep the action interesting from game to game.
By contrast with Flick Bowling, which sells for the same price, all Midnight Bowling lacks is the same silky smooth frame rate. Gameloft’s 3-D engine is well above average in terms of handling polygonal and texture details, and the frame rate is acceptable, but Flick Bowling’s visuals are a little smoother. That said, they’re also a lot less diverse due to Freeverse’s smaller number of lanes and the lower complexity of some of the background elements within them. Control is a tossup, as Flick Bowling’s is instantly intuitive, but Midnight Bowling’s offers a little more depth and greater per-character, per-ball differences to master. Since Gameloft has gifted its title with superior depth, we’d give it a small edge here overall; if its graphics were just a little smoother, Midnight Bowling would be worthy of a flat A for the low price. iLounge Rating: A-.
Pangea Software describes Otto Matic: Alien Invasion ($5) as the “best game” that it has ever produced, and given the other iPhone titles we’ve played by the company, we’re inclined to agree: this quirky, funny platformer and shooter places you in the role of a robot who is dropped into various planets to save humans from being transformed into monsters, while blasting increasingly bizarre enemies that are surrounding them. On the first level alone, your character encounters humans who have been transformed into huge-brained aliens, and a variety of vegetables that have been morphed into humanoid villains: good luck finding another iPhone title where you’ll find yourself attacked by kernels of popcorn only to turn around and see a giant yellow cob waiting to attack you from behind. Tomatoes and onions get cut into slices by your ray gun, the first of seven different weapons you’ll find as you walk around. Spooky music suitable to an alien invasion plays as you move through levels with familiar themes: rural, tropical, fire, industrial, and more.
Otto Matic essentially follows the same general formula as the earlier Pangea iPhone release Bugdom 2: you move from section to section of each spacious level, opening up the next section through an action, and therein encountering more enemies and items to deal with. What’s different and better in Otto Matic is your control over your character: though a four-position joypad in the corner of the screen doesn’t provide truly smooth analog stick-like 3-D movement, most of the goals you initially need to accomplish—pointing in the general direction of enemies and shooting, jumping over water to avoid electrocuting your robot, picking up weapons, and double-jumping to open gates to new areas—are easy enough to achieve with the pad and on-screen buttons. Later stages put you in control of a flying saucer and bumper car, amongst other cute tricks to break up the platforming and shooting action. They mightn’t be perfect, and could surely stand to be tweaked more for simplicity’s sake, but the 3-D controls Pangea are using here come a lot closer to feeling “right” than any other title Pangea has released.
There are exceptions. We experienced some control- and checkpoint-related bugs that kept us from being able to open new sections of the level under certain circumstances, and though the game uses little satellite dishes as checkpoint markers to save your current place, restarting the game made us lose our mid-level position entirely. Similarly, while the camera uses some nice tricks to help you see the environment around you, it’s not as refined as the best ones we’ve seen, sometimes pulling out or zooming in to an extent that hides your character or surroundings too much. Still, by iPhone standards, Otto Matic is an impressive little game, particularly for the asking price; we’ll go so far as to call it the most ambitious 3-D action title we’ve yet played on the iPhone OS. With bug fixes and hopefully some control and camera tweaks, it could well become a genre-defining title for the platform. iLounge Rating: B+.
The last of the titles we look at today is Monster Trucks Nitro ($2) by RedLynx, a simple side-scrolling truck driving game that uses a 3-D engine and accelerometer-based controls to make its mundane action somewhat interesting. All you really do in the title is press on-screen buttons to throttle or brake—far more of the former than the latter—and tilt the iPhone left or right to impact the air that your truck catches as it’s rolling over courses with different types of scenery and elevation. There are eight courses and two primary vehicles to choose from, with two extra vehicles and most of the courses becoming available only as you continue to play.
Nitro’s biggest thrills are visual, as RedLynx has used a combination of detailed flat background art and nicely textured polygon foreground objects to create semi-believable environments. Terrain varies from hills and valleys to bridges, ramps, and abandoned vehicles that alternate between impeding your progress or helping you move along, filling in gaps in the scenery; you’ll sometimes find barrels and other objects littering the courses, as well. Multiple camera views, all essentially side-scrolling but with different distances or angles, can be picked to heighten the visuals. Unfortunately, the impressive graphics aren’t paralleled by anything in the sound department—after the title screen, which has some upbeat music playing, the audio shifts to unimpressive engine and clunky crash noises. Some in-game music would have helped to set the mood and improve the experience.
Ultimately, though Monster Trucks Nitro has some seriously sharp-looking graphics and an interesting control mechanic, it’s really undone by the simplicity of the action. All you’re trying to do is complete the short tracks quickly enough to meet a specified time, and doing so doesn’t necessarily require as much skill as you might hope or imagine: it’s a single lap, and there are times when you actually do better by driving poorly, nose down to the ground, than by catching air and gliding over obstacles. Nitro cannisters start to appear in the third level, giving you an instant, not especially useful boost of power, rather than letting you save them for times when you think they’ll be helpful. Ultimately, there’s too little strategy and depth here, but Monster Trucks Nitro feels like it has all the building blocks of a good game just waiting for more content to take proper advantage of its engine. iLounge Rating: C+.