iPhone Gems: Games to Show Off Apple’s Devices

We’ve focused the majority of our iPhone Gems features on roundups of games in specific categories—racing games, mahjong games, sudoku games and the like—but this week, we wanted to take a look at a number of titles that have impressed us in one way or another despite the fact that they’re from a hodgepodge of genres.

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Although we’ve opted not to rate this batch yet, something about each of these titles is interesting enough to deserve spotlighting, either because it will appeal immediately to players today, or because it should give other iPhone game developers great ideas for the next generation of releases. Here’s what we’ve been playing.

Aqua Forest ($8) by Prometech Software and Hudson Soft


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Of all of the games in this edition of iPhone Gems, Aqua Forest is the most ambitious, and surprisingly, the most fully realized. Based on an extremely cool but slightly less than fully optimized physics and graphics engine, Aqua Forest gives you one-screen puzzles that generally consist of fluids that need to be moved from one place to another—similar to a game we’ve previously reviewed called Enigmo.


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The difference here is that Aqua Forest’s engine combines the softness of a watercolored Japanese anime background with fluid effects that are believable, if not as smooth as they could possibly be in frame rate, and controlled largely by the iPhone’s accelerometer. When you’re watching the game in motion, it looks like a cartoon rather than reality, a cool effect that we could as easily see being done impressively in the opposite direction. On a basic stage, you’ll have nothing more than a little ball to move through a maze, but as the game progresses, you’ll be given a huge volume of water to channel into an on-screen cup, requiring twisting of the iPhone on its sides and gentle tilts to properly place the fluid in the receptacle.


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Later levels introduce additional user powers, based on touchscreen input. One will have you pull a plug from one container and place a second plug in another to transfer fluid from one place to the next. Another will make you choose how to snip pieces of string that are holding water above a second container that needs to be filled. And further levels introduce the ability to heat and freeze liquids, transferring them in gaseous form, as well as using on-screen drawing tools to contain them.


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There are fifty levels in Aqua Forest, and though they tend to go by pretty quickly—some, too quickly to make the game feel like it’s worth $8—the experience of seeing your iPhone pulling off cartoon-styled visual effects in a fun gameplay environment is definitely worth something. We’ve been having a lot of fun with Aqua Forest so far, and look forward to rating it soon.

Aurora Feint (free) by Danielle Cassley and Jason Citron


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We’re not going to heap tons of praise on Aurora Feint for the moment, because it has been through some rough App Store patches—approved, then rightly removed from the store for the seriously awful practice of duplicating your contacts list and sending it to the developers for a community feature, only later reinstated after a fix—but there’s no doubt that the underlying premise here is interesting. These two developers have come up with a game experience that starts by cloning Nintendo’s Panel de Pon, a.k.a. Tetris Attack, a “match three or more blocks” puzzle game like Bejeweled that differs in its use of a well that’s not always full.


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The first surprise here is a modestly animated but artistically impressive Japanese anime-style opening, which gives way to a role-playing game structure for the tile-matching gameplay. Matching blocks helps you make purchases, build up the level of your character, and progress through a series of challenges, rather than just playing the puzzle game over and over again with no end goal in sight. While the level, item, and challenge interface is clunky and in need of some improvement, the fact that it’s there at all is a positive step forward over similar iPhone games such as Bejeweled 2.


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Another change is the control. You turn the iPhone on its sides to dispense more blocks, as well as to change the orientation in which matches can be made. Swipe gestures for matches are limited to horizontal motions, but if you turn the iPhone, blocks that were previously horizontal can be manipulated vertically, and the entire collection can change positions. It’s an interesting example of how Apple’s accelerometer controls can literally add a new twist to familiar games. Plus, Aurora Feint is free, which we think is a great thing—except for the contacts list stuff, which has led us not to install the game on a device with synchronized contacts. Who would ever have guessed that the security of your personal contacts might be invaded by a game?

Chimps Ahoy ($10) by Griptonite Games


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We’re not going to tell you that Chimps Ahoy is revolutionary, or that it’s even necessarily worth the $10 asking price, which strikes us as steep for what is in essence a visually updated reworking of the old arcade game Breakout. But there is one very, very interesting thing about this title from Griptonite Games: the art style.


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When Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker a number of years ago for the GameCube, it simultaneously put off half of the famous series’ fans while energizing a number of others. The cartoony art style was highly stylized, completely rejecting the increasing realism found in popular games of the time; it used obviously repeating textures, eye-catching hand-drawn puffs of smoke rather than transparent clouds, and characters who were diminutive versions of their former selves. Sales of the game were nowhere near as strong as Nintendo had hoped, but the game sent a message that there were alternatives—possibly not popular ones—to competing in the virtual reality domain.


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Chimps Ahoy brings a lot of that art style to the iPhone. It’s what Breakout would be if Paul Frank got his hands on it, with monkey-iconed paddles on both sides of the screen and target blocks to break in the center. The only gameplay twist here is that you’re supposed to control both paddles at once to prevent the coconut ball from leaving the screen. Whether or not this interests you, the visuals demonstrate how a very simple game can be updated with stylized graphics in a consistent, colorful theme to become appealing to a new demographic of players.

Galcon ($10) by Hassey Enterprises


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Galcon feels like a demo. But it’s a really cool demo. In its most basic mode, the screen consists of a collection of planets, one green and controlled by you, one orange and controlled by a computerized opponent. Simply explained, you’re trying to conquer the on-screen galaxy by preventing your opponent from occupying any home planet—the minute you succeed in wiping out all the orange planets on the screen, you win. Other modes permit you to play against two computer opponents at once, against an invisible computer opponent, or against the clock as you race to conquer all the on-screen planets yourself.


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Doing this successfully is a matter of moving quickly. You touch your first green planet and point to another planet, gray or orange. The number on each planet says either how many spaceships are on it, or how many it will take to conquer. Point 50 of your ships at a 25-unit gray planet and you conquer it, achieving a new base from which to launch ships at the orange planet. Act fast and your opponent will only need to be removed from two planets; wait too long and you’ll need to fight it out across the entire array of formerly gray moons.


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The action is so straightforward, moving from similar stage to similar stage, that Galcon hardly feels worth a $10 asking price. But as a demonstration of how the touchscreen can enable strategic gameplay, this is a powerful little game. Something about its simplicity leaves room for the imagination to run wild, picturing this as being the way that a more sophisticated galactic war game could play out with future oversized touchscreens—like Domination, the video game played in the James Bond film Never Say Never Again. Though repetitive, and in need of deeper backgrounds, more objectives, and real audio, Galcon is one of the more memorable touchscreen-based iPhone games we’ve yet played.

Radius ($4) by Pattern Making Co.


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When we previously reviewed the puzzle game Trism, we noted that it was very good, but missing a little something that could conceivably transform it into the next Tetris. Radius may be a hint or two short of Trism’s addictiveness, but it’s presented with a slick interface and style that makes you really want to see it do more and better. Here, you’re controlling a rotating ball that is repeatedly being filled with dots that start small, but quickly expand to become threats to the entire globe. You need to rotate the ball, tap the dots to neutralize them, and then deal with the consequences.


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The consequences are in some cases more dots—click on a yellow dot and it will spawn three more that dance across the ball’s surface. At other points, power-ups will appear to double your points, slow the action down, or clear the board with a shower of nuclear explosions. Spinning the ball sometimes yields obvious enemies; at other times, you’ll keep looking and find nothing. Fail to disarm a number of the dots and the ball blows up, ending your game.


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When playing Radius, the one thing that seems to be off is that the ball doesn’t appear to be fully representative of the playing field as you’re spinning it—it’s as if you’re seeing what appears on screen to be half or a third of the globe, yet moving it around suggests that the ball is actually several times larger than you’d imagined. Threats to be disarmed aren’t easy to find, and the game could really use some scale differentiation, perhaps zoom-in/zoom-out tools, to make the action more fun. But as the basis for a bigger-deal game, Radius is a very good start.

Star Smasher ($3) by espressoSoft/John Bowers


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Our final iPhone Gems selection for today is Star Smasher, a title that we’ve been following for a little while with perhaps a little too much anticipation. We’re huge fans of Nintendo’s classic Star Fox, one of two arcade-style games that helped to introduce audiences to the idea of polygonal 3-D space shooters. Apple clearly liked the idea too, as it used a similar demo game called Touch Fighter as an early demonstration of the iPhone’s 3-D capabilities; we hoped that it would be transformed into a real game in time for the App Store’s release.


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Star Smasher is, by its creator’s admission, an ode to Star Fox. You’re placed in command of a spaceship that is viewed from the back as it flies into the screen, avoiding obstacles and shooting at enemy space ships while power-ups appear. Hit too many obstacles and your ship’s shields run down, leaving you open to instant death. Shoot enough obstacles and enemy ships and you’ll rack up points.


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Perhaps our expectations were too high for Star Smasher, but the reality of the game is that it’s little more—for now, at least—than the Touch Fighter demo Apple showed months ago. The screen is packed with rocks, which in addition to occasional enemy space ships and the depth charge-styled explosives they lay on the screen, constitute the entirety of what you’re trying to shoot or avoid. Tapping the screen fires your lasers. If you’re lucky enough to grab a power up, which is always a challenge, your lasers change from green to blue. You just keep shooting, flying through rocks, and racking up points. That’s it—it doesn’t seem like there’s a destination, more to the mission, or even a map of places to go. This is a good engine, but not yet a good game.


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Now on its second point update (1.0.2), Star Smasher still doesn’t feel anything more like a complete space adventure, but it has seen its controls improved through an accelerometer-centering menu, and there are now three difficulty levels. Hopefully, the developer will work to put enough stages into this that we’d feel comfortable recommending it to our readers as more than just a demo of what the iPhone can do with a space-themed shooting game.

In our view, your choice of whether to download any of these games is actually a pretty important one, because your dollars constitute a vote on the future of iPhone gaming. Right now, the App Store gives developers a chance to sell basically unfinished demos on the promise that future versions will have more and better features, fewer bugs, and so on. Under this model, your dollars might incentivize a developer to add more levels, fix those control issues, and maybe even get some music to play in the background.

But then, there are no guarantees, and this “pay now, maybe get a finished game later” model strikes us as hugely backwards from the way users should expect to be making purchases. You might spend cash and get a half of a game, clearly nowhere near as fully developed as a competing title, even if they’re both sold for around the game price. Our strong advice is to hold off on making App Store purchases until the games are clearly in finished form. You’re not an investor, and it’s not your job to subsidize a game’s development. Support developers who finish their work, and impressively, before trying to charge you for something. This week, Aqua Forest clearly comes the closest to that mark, and Galcon has its strengths, too; if you’re willing to take a risk on the free Aurora Feint, it’s worth seeing as well.

See our other iPhone Gems features here.