Every week, our gaming edition of iPhone Gems spotlights a number of titles that are especially noteworthy for iPod touch and iPhone gamers, and this week’s no exception: we’re actually very excited about one of the titles featured below, which features the best overall 3-D graphics and control engine we’ve yet seen from an iPhone OS title.
This week’s games are the 2-D and 3-D space shooters Galaga Remix and Pharos IV: Assault, the motocross racing game 2XL Supercross, and the 2-D zombie-blasting game Zombieville USA. Three of the games are available in Lite versions for those who are interested in trying the titles before buying them. Read on for all the details.
Taito’s Space Invaders may have been first, but Namco’s Galaxian and sequel Galaga borrowed and ran with the “lone spaceship against alien invaders” theme, in the process racking up fans across the world. In each title, you control a spaceship at the bottom of the screen, firing upwards at waves of alien spaceships. In Space Invaders, the aliens were black and white, moving together in a mass as they came closer and closer to your ship; Galaxian brought color and the occasional dive bombing of an alien towards you, and then Galaga saw the aliens appear first in aggressive, several-ship formations before forming their mass, breaking up to come down for attacks even more often. Now, in Galaga Remix ($6) and Galaga Remix Lite (Free) from Namco Networks America, iPhone players can relive the original Galaga arcade game as a vertical shooter, or play an updated version with improved graphics and audio.
To be clear, the updated half of Galaga Remix isn’t an ambitious title by any stretch of the imagination—the decades-old sequel Galaga ‘88 was a more interesting title, and the newer Xbox 360 title Galaga Legions features far more modern, appealing aesthetics—but by the fairly low standards of Namco’s past iPhone ports of classic arcade games, it’s a step up. You still get the classic Galaga action, as enemies menacingly swoop in from different places on the screen to form an armada at the top, and you have the opportunity to take them out one by one before they become too numerous to fight. A widescreen format is now used for the cosmic-themed backgrounds, though a quarter of the screen is unnecessarily occupied by a high score and map bar that does little more than tell you that you’re in a certain fifth of a given sector. An oversized boss is always in the final fifth, with four small alien shooting stages before it, and a bonus point-gathering stage thereafter. Power ups have been added later in the game to let you shoot more than one bullet at a time, transforming your ship in the process, and a decent audio track plays as you shoot, changing on occasion as you progress from standard levels to boss stages. The Lite version lets you try a few stages from both the original and remixed modes.
The game’s failings are relatively simple: control and ambition. Once again, Namco has been forced to try and replicate the precision of a joystick and button interface with the iPhone’s touchscreen controls, and though the results are better than in the company’s prior titles, they’re still not ideal. One version of the controls requires use of on-screen arrow buttons to move your ship, another—and better, but still not fantastic—version lets you slide the ship instead. Shooting uses an on-screen button that works but isn’t as responsive to quick multi-taps as the arcade and console controllers. Combine this with the overall game concept, which by contrast with Galaga Legions feels like steps backwards rather than forwards in design, and what you have is a modest 2-D shooter that will satisfy some fans of the series but doesn’t do much to advance it. We’ve said it before and will say it again: Namco can do better, particularly for the asking price. But at least Galaga Remix feels as if it’s actually trying. iLounge Rating (Lite): B. iLounge Rating (Full): B-.
Decades ago, Atari’s Star Raiders helped to establish a 3-D space shooting paradigm that placed players in a lone spacecraft in the center of a lightly populated quadrant of space, and forced them to shoot down a variety of different enemy spacecraft. Pharos IV: Assault ($1) and its free Lite version from Plasq essentially wraps the Star Raiders concept in snazzier packaging, replacing the bland two-color 1979 backdrops with deliberately more colorful nebulae, and the flat sprite-based 2-D spaceships with more complex 3-D models. Everything runs at a smooth frame rate, and looks nice, if unspectacular. An upbeat techno audio track plays in the background, rather than forcing you to listen to nothing but the dull silence of space or the plain gun and explosion sound effects.
While Pharos IV is a simple game, it’s a fine one, especially for the price. Acceleration for your ship is provided automatically, though adjustable with an on-screen bar and a limited-duration quick thrust button, leaving you to focus mostly on accelerometer-based steering—which actually works—and using a combination of offensive and defensive weapons. Initially, you fly around shooting down not-so-bright Raiders with the equivalent of missiles, but as the levels continue, you begin to find yourself surrounded by more and different types of enemies, requiring you to send out a defensive pulse that short-circuits everything nearby, giving you a chance to take targets out. You and your nearby starbase have limited energy to sustain attacks, and enemy starbases soon appear with their own weapons, as well. The objective is always the same: take down enemies and remain alive.
If there are any issues with Pharos IV, they’d be the repetitiveness and shallowness of the gameplay, which doesn’t draw much inspiration from the many Star Raiders clones that have appeared over the past 30 years, and moreover gives you only a single ship to proceed through the levels. Once you die, that’s it—you start all over again and need to replay the comparatively dull early stages, the first three of which are included in the Lite version of the game. Add to that the lack of really flashy special effects, which the iPhone could easily enable to make more of the environments and gun battles. What’s here is certainly solid for the $1 price tag—the reason for its recommended rating—but it doesn’t take much to picture this game simultaneously offering more and being worthy of a higher price. iLounge Ratings (Both): B.
It took nine months, but the iPhone and iPod touch finally have a game that looks and feels as if it could have been released for Sony’s PlayStation Portable. Though it’s not the most mainstream racing game for Apple’s pocket devices, 2XL Supercross ($8) from 2XL Games has such an impressively smooth graphics engine and control scheme that other 3-D game developers should sit up and take notes: this is the direction the iPhone and iPod touch racing games should be heading in going forward.
2XL Supercross is a straightforward motocross bike racing game. Players are given a choice of colorful riders and bikes to choose from, and then placed in their choice of arenas for either practice runs or real races. Four of the arenas are unlocked at the start, with nine more awaiting unlocking via successful racing. While the arenas all look essentially the same and host five simultaneous riders—including you—they differ in track and obstacle layouts, with tougher turns to master, and increasingly formidable competitors. Three difficulty settings are available, with time trial and practice options offered in addition to standard races, and you can choose the number of laps for a race. Within the game, you can switch camera views to see your rider from the back, look over the handlebars, or have an unobstructed first-person view of the course.
Having played many racing games on the iPhone and iPod touch—some with fantastic course designs and more interesting vehicles—we can say without intending this as backhanded praise that 2XL Supercross bests more ambitious titles by getting its graphics and control engine right. Bikers zoom through believably soft-edged, hill-laden tracks with a smoothness that is frankly absent from car and boat racing games we’ve tested, bouncing from surface to surface, casting shadows, and interacting with each other and the scenery. You can collide with another racer and knock him off his bike, smash into signs and either knock them or yourself out in the process, and do simple tricks just by tilting the iPhone or iPod quickly to and fro at the right time. The title is appropriately aware of and forgiving with its forced accelerometer-based control scheme by not penalizing you horribly for going off track, and strikes the right balance of letting you ride and allowing you to reappear at the correct track location when you’ve strayed. Clearly, 2XL Games understands both the promise and the failings of the iPhone OS devices, and has done its best to make the most of both.
That said, motocross as a sport isn’t for everyone, and 2XL Supercross does have some rough edges. Menu navigation, particularly the changing of tracks, riders, and bikes, is for some odd reason a complete pain due to laggy controls. The gameplay puts more emphasis on racing than showy, fun tricks, yet doesn’t provide an in-game soundtrack to keep the racing intensity level high. And though the menus and art are all beautifully crafted, there’s a lack of level-to-level structure that could really stand to be remedied, and multiplayer functionality is presently absent. For the premium $8 asking price, 2XL Supercross could be better, but it is currently an extremely impressive example of what the iPhone can do in the right developers’ hands—certainly as strong of a biking game as the platform has yet seen. With cars instead of bikes to race, this could have been a monster truck title par excellence. iLounge Rating: A-.
The last of this week’s titles is a cute one that we’ve been playing off and on for a few weeks, while hoping to see improved further through updates. Mika Mobile’s Zombieville USA ($1) and Lite (Free) are simple, cartoony, and semi-amusing shooting games that place you in the middle of zombie-filled neighborhoods with limited ammo and a single life bar. Your character is a caricatured redneck, complete with oversized trucker hat, hunting jacket, jeans and gun, proceeding through street after street with a combination of emotionless resignation and firepower.
Stage after stage, you keep doing the same thing: pressing left and right arrows at the bottom of the screen to walk, pressing an invisible button in the center of the screen to shoot, and flicking open the doors of homes you pass to go inside and search them for more ammo and cash. After each stage, you can use the cash accumulated from homes and zombie killing to buy new weapons—there are 15—and also purchase additional life to keep yourself going. Every time you touch a zombie, it eats down your lifebar at a rapid clip, so you need to keep shooting and moving, buying new weapons, and pacing your movement and shots properly to avoid losing too much life. When your lifebar’s empty, the game ends, so occasionally investing in extra health is at least as important as buying new guns.
At first, Zombieville USA’s art style combines cartoons and gore so effectively and amusingly that you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how simple the gameplay really is. Zombies explode in a mess of blood and body parts, falling to the ground with animation that seems just right given the theme. But at some point, the aesthetic appeal wears off, the semi-spooky and good audio track becomes repetitive, and it’s obvious that the levels and zombies all basically look the same, changing only a little from stage to stage: a fast-moving but weak white zombie and a slower but tougher red-eyed zombie appear later, after you’ve mowed down endless numbers of mindless green zombies. Additionally, the weapons don’t so much get better as they get more powerful, and though the controls are super-simple, there’s a frequent sense that they aren’t quite responsive enough—gunfire and door-opening never seems as precise as it really should be. For the time being, we view this title as a triumph of style over substance, cute enough and cheap enough to pick up if you like the zombie theme, but due to its simplicity, not the sort of game that will be worth playing weeks or months from now. A sequel with improved controls and more diverse level designs would be welcome. iLounge Rating: B.