This week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems looks at six very different but surprisingly compelling new games, each making better use of the iPhone and iPod touch hardware than any comparable earlier title, albeit at prices that may or may not appeal to some users. They come from a few different genres, so we’re breaking them up into four categories: game show games, rhythm music games, fishing, and pool.
No title is especially noteworthy this week—they’re actually all worth reading about, assuming that you’re interested in the genres they represent. But the best value of the bunch is Freeverse’s Flick Sports Fishing, a highly impressive fishing game given its $1 asking price.
Our biggest surprises this week were two game show titles from two different developers. Deal or No Deal: Million Dollar Mission ($5) by I-Play is the attention-grabber, while we went into TV Show King Online ($8) by Gameloft with no expectations. They turned out to be very different games, both in ambition and execution, and we were actually more impressed by the unknown title than the one we were looking forward to playing.
Deal or No Deal is obviously based on the hit TV show, which stars Howie Mandel as the impartial liason between a contestant and a silhouetted banker who negotiate over the value of a briefcase filled with up to $1,000,000 in cash. The contestant selects one value-uncertain briefcase from a collection of 26, then must continually eliminate additional briefcases while their values are revealed and eliminated from a huge scoreboard. Under the best circumstances, the player unknowingly chooses the $1,000,000 briefcase at the beginning of the game, then proceeds to eliminate all of the lesser briefcases, ultimately opening the last one to reveal the big prize. Every briefcase is held and opened by an attractive model, and with every opened case, the tension keeps rising, fed by a studio audience and members of the contestant’s family who generally beg and plead for the gambling to end.
Almost inevitably, the player doesn’t keep playing until all of the cases are revealed. After six briefcases are opened, and later, after fewer additional cases, the game is interrupted by a telephone call from the silhouetted banker, who tells Howie how much he’s willing to offer the contestant under the circumstances. It’s all a statistics game—if the contestant eliminates low-value briefcases, the banker offers more money; if high-value briefcases are eliminated, the banker offers less. The contestant has the option at any time to accept the banker’s “deal,” or keep opening suitcases until the ultimate prize in the suitcase is revealed. Accept the deal and the game ends with an immediate cash payout that’s something between the best and worst case scenarios remaining on the board. Keep playing and you might wind up with more, or less.
Sound cool? On TV, it is. But on the iPhone, it’s not. Just imagine everything described above being part of the iPhone version of Deal or No Deal, except for Howie Mandel, the models, the tension, the audience participation, and the cash. They’re all gone. What that leaves you with is the core gameplay described above, but with so-so artwork—decently drawn, poorly animated—for the visuals, and little audio save for repeated plays of the show’s theme song and the ring of the banker’s telephone line. Perhaps not surprisingly, when you strip the chance to win real money away from the viewer, Deal or No Deal is a personality-driven program, depending on the host and the models for ear and eye candy, and here, there’s none. All there is to do is play the game over and over again, then look at statistics on how well you did relative to some meaningless objectives.
To its credit, I-Play makes a modest attempt to do more with the concept than just replicate the basic game; it includes a series of stages in which you confront the same basic game, but the values have been replaced on the board to change the odds. As such, this title could be a decent training exercise for those interested in gaming the real show’s statistical underpinnings, or just repeatedly testing their luck. But for $5, most players will find it to be little more than a one-trick pony with underwhelming aesthetics and gameplay that—absent a financial stake—is little more than tapping over and over again on the screen to see what’s left when you’re done. Even in the absence of actual cash prizes, more interesting graphics, sounds, and challenges could have made Deal or No Deal much better. iLounge Rating: C+.
TV Show King Online is a very different animal—it is, in essence, what Apple’s Click Wheel iPod title iQuiz would have been if it was backed by a good 3-D engine and a wider base of trivia questions. iQuiz was limited to music, movie, and TV show questions, some drawn from primitive file data stored in your iTunes Library. By comparison, TV Show King Online shows you what iQuiz would be like if it was fused with Nintendo’s Wii Sports interface: four Mii-like contestants are placed on screen and given a collection of trivia questions that range in categories from entertainment to educational, sports, science, and geographical. There are four choices per question, and in an unusual twist, you get to see the answers the other contestants are picking before you make your choice, which takes away a bit from the challenge given that you’re generally safe picking whatever choice another two contestants have selected. The game is interrupted once per round by a wheel-spinning game that can add to, multiply, or subtract from your score, as well as your opponents’, and ends with a one-on-one round between the two highest scoring players.
Aesthetics are TV Show King Online’s most impressive component. As always, Gameloft has delivered a title that actually looks, sounds, and feels like a complete game rather than a demo, and from the frequent 3-D camera movement to use of almost completely 3-D character and environment models, TV Show King Online gives you a real sense that you’re actually playing inside a cartoony game show rather than just looking at flat Deal or No Deal-style screens. You can customize your player a la Nintendo’s Mii system, or just go with the pre-created character the game starts with. There’s a fine audio portion, as well, complete with crowd applause, ticking clocks, and boos—the sorts of sounds that were oddly absent from Deal or No Deal, further reducing the appeal of its simulation.
Gameloft has also included multiple difficulty levels, both online and near-field Wi-Fi multiplayer modes, and the ability to play either quick games or more drawn-out 9-round single-player challenges. Though TV Show King Online doesn’t have the unlockables or depth of the company’s other titles, there are over 3,000 trivia questions that tend to skew a little European in subject matter, but aren’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. The subject matter is pretty good by trivia game standards, and the overall experience is better than iQuiz in almost every way.
Except for one: pricing. When Apple released iQuiz, it wisely opted for a $1 asking price—the only Click Wheel iPod game to sell for less than $5, a reflection of the lower value players put on trivia titles, and the fact that iPods had historically shipped with a similar, though less impressive Music Quiz game for free. As nice of a trivia title as this may be, TV Show King Online’s $8 price tag just feels way out of whack given the sorts of games that can be had on this platform or the same cost or less. Should the price drop to $5 or lower, consider it worth grabbing if you like trivia games, but otherwise, it’s only worthy of our limited recommendation. iLounge Rating: B-.
Having previously reviewed rhythm music titles for the iPod and iPhone such as Phase, Tap Tap Revenge and ThumStruck, and played many others on different game consoles, we look at new releases in this genre with a mix of interest and skepticism: it is easy to release a game where you tap to the beat of a song, but hard to make one that’s really novel enough to buy. Two new titles, Guitar Rock Tour ($10) by Gameloft and Nine Inch Nails Revenge ($5, aka Tap Tap NIN Revenge) by Tapulous, stand out from the pack as unusually ambitious.
We’ve opted not to rate Guitar Rock Tour at this point for two major reasons: it’s not stable—we’ve had it crash as often as it has properly loaded on our iPhones—and for whatever reason, Gameloft hasn’t made it compatible with the iPod touch. But it’s obvious, as with most of Gameloft’s releases, that this title takes its genre a lot more seriously than the average piece of competitive software we’ve seen on the iPhone OS, albeit at a much higher price tag.
Guitar Rock Tour is basically two games in one: there’s a guitar-esque tapping game where you tap or hold on four guitar strings as little markers float towards a checkpoint at the bottom of the screen, and a drum tapping game where you hit left and right drums as markers float on two bars. There are three levels of difficulty for each track, with medium representing a fair challenge and hard making for finger blisters. In each case, you tap in rough sync with one of 17 songs that play in the background, most unlockable rather than open from the beginning, and watch as the game moves a camera through an animated, realtime 3-D scene as the music’s being played.
The good news: Guitar Rock Tour’s artwork is pretty impressive. This game is instantly elevated by the fact that there’s game console-like 3-D character and environment art consuming the upper half of the screen—or the upper third, in drum mode—and similarly, Gameloft’s selection of songs isn’t just indie rock garbage, but rather licensed tracks from Nirvana, The Scorpions, Michael Jackson, and other artists. None of the songs is performed by the original artists, but the company’s selected cover band does a pretty good job with most of the tracks, Beat It being perhaps the only exception. There’s no doubt that Guitar Rock Tour makes more of the iPhone than any other rhythm game out there.
But the game’s stability is extremely disappointing. We’ve had Guitar Rock Tour crap out at the start and in the middle of games, and it’s very obvious that the issues are memory-related—an increasingly common problem with iPhone games in recent days. The fact that Gameloft hasn’t yet made this available for the iPod touch is another sign that the title still needed some work before it was released. We’re going to wait until a more stable version of the game is released before we discuss the game’s multi-city “tour” mode and ultimate value for the dollar, but we can say for now that we’d hold off on considering a purchase until these issues get fixed in an inevitable update. As much as we enjoy Gameloft’s titles, we will expect that the company will treat its future 1.0 releases as truly final games, ready for widespread consumption, rather than nearly complete but not-quite-there attempts to just get something into the App Store. Otherwise, good-but-not-quite-stable games are not going to be worthy of premium prices, or our recommendations. iLounge Rating: NR.
By comparison, there’s much less to say about Tapulous’s Nine Inch Nails Revenge, which is little more than an audiovisual revision of the company’s earlier free game Tap Tap Revenge. As you’d probably guess from the name, Nine Inch Nails Revenge is based upon the music of the alternative/industrial group Nine Inch Nails, featuring 13 tracks taken from NIN’s albums The Slip and Ghosts I-IV. You can select from any of the 13 tracks from the very beginning of the game, and Tapulous has designed the tapping action to synchronize properly with the music’s beats.
The gameplay remains basically unchanged from the original version of Tap Tap Revenge: you tap on balls that stream down three lines from the top to the bottom of the screen, hitting them as they pass through a checkpoint. Arrows appear now and then to let you know to shake your iPhone left, right, or up/down. The more balls and arrows you properly hit in sync with the music, the higher your accuracy score, and though you can play all of the tracks on Easy, you need to get at least 85% accuracy on five tracks to open Medium, 90% on Medium to open Hard, and 95% on Hard to open Extreme.
Though it’s hard to object to getting 13 NIN songs and a simple game for $5, it’s also hard to see NIN Revenge as being as impressive of a game as Guitar Rock Tour. Tapulous has done very little in the visual department here, merely replacing the generic laser beam graphical theme from Tap Tap Revenge with a screen that looks like a block of metal with three road-like silver stripes and blood red scribbled paths for black balls and white arrows to run down. Instead of the free tracks found in the original Tap Tap title, you now pay for new ones. The asking price here isn’t awful, and the gameplay isn’t bad, but it’s also not so compelling of a licensed game that we’d recommend it to anyone other than Nine Inch Nails fans—even then, it’s hard to get excited about paying again for music you may already have, and a game that’s fine by free standards, but not great by paid ones. In our view, the point at which a game like this will make sense will be when it’s included at a trivial price along with an album on iTunes, or when it offers enough new audiovisual content to expand the experience beyond what players could have gotten in a dynamically-generated rhythm game such as Phase. iLounge Rating: C+.
Last month, we noted with some disgust the release of an iPhone fishing game called iFish, which did little more than place a flat piece of artwork on the screen, overlap it with a fishing pole, and occasionally tell you to try reeling in an imaginary fish—all with the most minimal animation and excitement possible. Today, we’re happy to tell you that Freeverse has released Flick Sports Fishing ($1, aka Flick Fishing), which so thoroughly embarrasses iFish that it’s hard not to love for the price.
Like Freeverse’s earlier Flick Sports Bowling, Flick Sports Fishing benefits from a graphics and gameplay engine that isn’t just the product of hobbyist coding: from the nicely drawn foreground and interface artwork to 3-D modeled water, fishing poles, birds, and fish—all elements that you can see, but not fully appreciate, in these screenshots—it’s very obvious that real time was spent coming up with interesting places to fish and things to catch in the water, as well as ways to make the experience varied from play to play. As similar as these two games may look from screenshots, they’re completely different in terms of interactivity; iFish is what somewhat whips up when they want to create a game like Flick Sports Fishing, but can’t. The realistic, undulating movement of the water, combined with the occasional splash of a wave or droplets on the camera when your line snaps from overtension, is almost worth the price of admission on its own.
That isn’t to say that Flick Fishing is an ideal fishing simulation. Despite the game’s attractive graphics, straightforward gameplay—select from different types of bait, shake the device to cast your line, and circle your finger on screen to reel a catch in—this game lacks a bit in the structure department. The only real goals are to eventually catch all the fish in an in-game photo album, which can be accomplished in solo or player-versus-player/computer fishing sessions, the latter of which are called “tournaments” because they track the sizes of the players’ fish. Interesting in-game items, including the fish, treasure chests, pieces of coral and the like, are there just to be caught and thrown back in the water, rather than explored in any deeper way. Simply making these items more interactive or purposeful would have added a lot to this title; so too would have been the addition of more boating and navigation elements, rather than just depositing your character automatically at the end of a pier or boat where fish are plentiful.
These criticisms are largely muted by the game’s price. For $1, Flick Fishing is a very impressive fishing title for the iPhone and iPod touch, simultaneously demonstrating what the hardware’s capable of, and just how much value can be had for a buck when a developer wants to flex its muscles. If this game were more expensive, we’d expect a deeper simulation and more to do, but as a way to quickly enjoy simple fishing action in varied and impressively rendered locales, Flick Sports Fishing is definitely the best iPhone title of its kind to date. We’re very anxious to see how Freeverse or others will improve upon it in the future. iLounge Rating: A-.
Last week, we previewed Gameloft’s Midnight Pool ($5), another pool title for the iPhone and iPod touch, and this week, we’re sharing another collection of screenshots and our final opinions on the game. We’ve previously reviewed four other billiards titles, most of them in this roundup, and Midnight Pool fits somewhere inbetween those titles. Based upon the cell phone game Midnight Pool 3D, which has since been followed up by a sequel called Midnight Pool 2, the iPhone game is another solid piece of Gameloft software in the audiovisual and depth departments, but could use some additional work on controls and fun.
As we mentioned in our preview, Midnight Pool lacks for very little in graphics and audio: you can play three different billiards games—U.S. and U.K. versions of 8-Ball, plus standard 9-Ball—inside of seven unlockable 3-D venues, choose from a collection of seven different, unlockable characters, and listen to a soundtrack that even includes a version of Lynard Skynard’s Sweet Home Alabama. The characters are 3-D modeled, nicely animated, and interactive with believable table and ball physics. All Midnight Pool is missing aesthetically is smoothness and the ability to really watch a highly detailed version of the table; the frame rate is fine, but not silky, and the view is typically zoomed out a bit from what’s happening with the balls, so you don’t get to enjoy every little bit table nuance as you might in a game such as Virtual Pool Mobile. Still, there are some nice camera close-ups when balls are sunk into corner pockets, and Midnight Pool’s better-than-competitors environmental artwork makes up for its lack of focus on the table.
The game also has quite a bit of depth—a little bit less than Celeris’ Virtual Pool Mobile, but more than most of its iPhone competitors. In addition to a story mode that sees you traversing the country from venue to venue, with simple text explanations of your character’s and challengers’ backgrounds, there’s a two-player, non-wireless mode, plus separate single-player puzzle challenges where only a few balls need to be sunk in a certain order. Gameloft gives you control over the cue stick’s left or right direction relative to the cue ball, as well as its position and angle for trick shots—if you want to adjust them—and the ability to move the camera or change the zoom level for a different view of the table. You can also view the game on either horizontal or vertical angles, depending on how you want to hold the iPod touch or iPhone.
Unfortunately, though Midnight Pool hits most of the check boxes for the sorts of features we’d hope for and expect in a pool title, the interface doesn’t feel quite right on the iPhone. The simple act of positioning the cue stick isn’t intuitive, and the taking of a shot isn’t as fun as in Adrenaline Pool Online; the latter game’s transparency effects and use of off-table controls made for a more intuitive, precise gameplay experience. For these reasons, we felt that though Midnight Pool attempts to do more, it isn’t as fun to actually play. The lack of online and wireless multiplayer modes also put it at a small disadvantage relative to Adrenaline Pool Online; however, we’re under the impression that these sorts of features will appear either in a subsequent update, or in a sequel. As it is right now, Midnight Pool is a pretty good title at a reasonable price, but we’ll be looking forward to seeing something do even better. iLounge Rating: B.