iPhone Gems: Games With Balls, and One with Blasting

With one exception, this week’s iPhone Gems theme is “games with balls”—go ahead, giggle—sports, maze, and action games where moving a ball from one point to another is the goal.

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The first 10 of our games include three bowling games, most notably Flick Sports Bowling, two golf games, three maze games including Shardsette, a pool game, and one major brick-buster, Block Breaker Deluxe 2. Then we look at Vector Blaster, a remake of a classic arcade shooting game. Read on for the details.

Bowling Games


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Bowling might not be the world’s most popular sport, but as Nintendo’s Wii version proved, getting the controls right is even more important than graphics in keeping players interested. Flick Sports Bowling ($5) by Freeverse gets both parts of the equation correct, offering impressive 3-D renditions of a bowling alley, characters, balls, and pins, then letting you gesture your way towards strikes and spares.


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You can play against yourself in a Free Play mode, or go up against a human or computer opponent in a one-on-one Versus mode, both of which are very simple: position your choice of six characters, then flick to send the ball careening down the lane. Aim straight and shoot fast and you’ll likely knock down all of the pins; curve or throw weak and the ball will veer off to the side, go into the gutter, or have a more modest impact. There isn’t a ton of nuance, but between the ball’s 3-D movement down the lane and the apparent physics of the pins—sometimes shown in an instant replay—you at least get the sense that you’re really, if simply, bowling. Reflecting lights on the lacquered lanes and good sound effects set the right ambience; only a single honky-tonk song plays during menu screens.


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Freeverse appears to realize that the game is a little shallow and has submitted an update with more ball control, a new alley, and more challenging computer opponents. But even in its current form, Flick Sports Bowling is an impressive enough use of the iPhone and iPod touch that it’s worth trying anyway. It’s definitely our favorite bowling game on the platform, and one of the best sports releases yet; updates will only make it better. iLounge Rating: B+.


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Developed with less audiovisual panache, iBowl (Free) from SGN has two things going for it: no price tag, and an interesting control scheme. You still get a 3-D lane, here without most of the gloss and fancy art in Flick Bowling, and you still get the ability to use novel iPhone/iPod touch controls to bowl; the difference here is that you’re using the accelerometer to throw the ball.


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SGN accomplishes this in a generally smart way. You put your finger on a BOWL button on the screen and swing your arm. Release the button and the game takes whatever trajectory your arm moved in, and translates it into the direction the ball takes down the lane. At the end, you hear the same, repetitive sound of crashing pins, and the game tallies your score; you can not play against the computer or a human opponent. These limitations, the lack of better audio, and the oversimplicity of the game take iBowl out of our general recommendation category, but by free demo standards, this title offers a lot more than most of the garbage in the App Store. Will we see reports of people accidentally throwing their iPhones around like Wii controllers after playing accelerometer-based games? Perhaps, and this sort of control scheme is probably less than ideal for this platform, but it’s fun to try, if only to show off what the device is capable of doing.

iLounge Rating: B-.


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The least impressive of the bowling titles we tested was 300 Bowl ($1) by TheWay. While it’s not bad, and at least provides the option to play against human or computer opponents, the game feels incredibly easy even on its most difficult levels, and provides the least impressive audiovisual experience of the bunch. Rather than providing 3-D camera motion down the lane, you just see a small collection of pins, poorly animated, jump in the air in clusters as you flick your ball towards them. Like iBowl, the audio always sounds dull and pretty much the same, and the alley looks almost devoid of detail. As with Flick Bowling, control is limited to swiping the screen to toss a ball down the lane, though there’s no positioning of a character, or even any character to choose from.


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On a typical cell phone, 300 Bowl might seem like an fine bowling game, but by the iPhone’s standards and those of most of the 3-D gaming platforms of the last 10 or more years, this is flat and dull. Given that iBowl looks better and offers more interesting control for free, even the low $1 asking price seems a little steep here; there’s really nothing compelling about this title except for the fact that it keeps score. iLounge Rating: C-.

Golf Games


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We have yet to be really impressed by any of the iPhone’s golf games, and the two we look at this week continue that trend. Yet iGolf (Free) from SGN just manages to squeak out a decent rating by offering an interesting experience at a price tag of zero dollars.


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Unlike the other titles we’ve tried, iGolf doesn’t provide a complete golf course, 2-D or 3-D models of trees, or even a full bag of clubs. Just like iBowl, it’s streamlined for one major purpose: to show off the iPhone’s accelerometer-based controls. At any given point on the three holes or driving range that are included in the title, you swipe the screen to choose the general direction you’re aiming in, press a “SET” button, then swing the device itself to send the ball flying. It obliges with a very simple, not-so-realistic 3-D zoom through the course, showing you where the ball has landed, and letting you choose from between three types of clubs for your next shot.


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Ultimately, iGolf could become a real game with only a couple of tweaks: offering the player information on how powerful each of the clubs is, and then offering a little more control within a more realistic—wind, elevation, obstacle-laden—environment. For now, it’s just a demo of how golf could work on the platform, with brighter graphics and a more streamlined interface than other titles we’ve seen, but we’d actually be interested in seeing a full-fledged version of this one. iLounge Rating: C+.


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It is tempting to dismiss Finblade’s new Ernie Els Golf 2008 ($7) for a number of reasons: the game is expensive, looks mostly like a 2-D cartoon, and has some of the worst controls we’ve yet seen on a touchscreen iPhone title. It also unnecessarily crowds nearly half of iPhone’s screen with an on-screen control interface that is inefficient at producing either fun or precision, the two ways a golf game can typically succeed; you have to flick your club within a tiny box on the bottom right, while handling positioning and ball behavior through a larger interface on the bottom left. Succeed in hitting the ball, and the top screen flips to another 2-D view of the course, then another. It’s boring, and a mediocre use of the iPhone’s excellent screen.


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The only saving graces of this title are the presence of champion golfer Ernie Els, who shows up to offer occasionally useful tips—and barbs—while you play, and the fact that Finblade bothered to try and create a structured gaming experience, complete with events, weather conditions, and a pro shop where you can find different Callaway clubs and balls. They don’t save the game, which also has very unfortunate tendencies to crash and take fairly long “loading” times between holes, but they illustrate how golf on this platform could become better in the future. iLounge Rating: C-.

Maze Games


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In three new iPhone OS maze games, the ball is typically making its way through an overhead map, and your goal is to get from one place to another without dying. Two of the titles, Shards ($3) and Shardsette (Free) by Couch World Games, are darker, but more compellingly designed. Shardsette is a limited trial version of Shards, which has a ton of levels at varying but substantial levels of challenge. We think that both versions are equally good values, with the free version worthy of a download to see if you like what the developer has cooked up.


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Using a cool 3-D zooming effect, each level presents you with a large maze made up from four types of triangles: floor, empty platform, wall, and black hole. As a timer runs in the top left corner of the screen, a bubble appears with one or more triangles inside. Using the accelerometer, you must move the bubble to empty platform triangles and build on them using whatever’s inside your bubble. Once you’ve filled all the empty platform triangles, you move on, but that’s not easy: sometimes, the triangles in your bubble don’t match the empty platform shapes, so you wait until another piece comes up… just not too long, or else the timer will run out. And if you move your bubble into a black hole area, you lose the piece and suffer a time penalty. In other words, you need to move quickly and accurately within the maze you’re given.


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But that’s not all. Once all of the triangles have been placed, a ball appears inside the bubble. You drop it wherever you prefer, and then tilt the iPhone or iPod touch to move it through the maze. Now, your goal is to destroy all of the triangles you’ve built before the clock runs out. Some of the triangles have bonuses inside; others just shatter with a nice 3-D effect. If you build the maze and destroy it before the timer runs out, you move on to the next level; if not, you can select a different level or replay the one you were just on.


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Simply put, Shards isn’t easy. There are times when it doesn’t seem like fun because it’s so challenging to place the triangles without running out of time. But practice improves your performance, and the switches in pacing and style between building and destroying are interesting. The audio is sparse, and the graphics—while nice in special effects—aren’t going to win over younger players. But for serious puzzle fans, this is a worthwhile title, and one that merits the $3 asking price; it stays in your head even when you’ve finished playing. Try Shardsette first before downloading the full version. iLounge Rating (Shardsette): B. iLounge Rating (Shards): B.


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The more colorful of the new maze titles is Rock’n’Roll ($4) by Tag Games. In this title, you progress through 30 different mazes spread out across three different backdrops, moving a ball through channel-like nooks formed by colorful patterns of blocks. Using either the accelerometer or touchscreen, you rotate the maze and let gravity move the ball-shaped main character from place to place, collecting all of the musical notes found in each maze before being allowed to stop.


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We use the phrase “allowed to stop” because the mazes, played consecutively, can become tedious. Hearing the same song play over and over again until you get to the next piece of background art may make you want to turn the game off entirely. And some of the mazes are designed with such scale and such subtly placed notes that you’ll find yourself wandering for ages just to locate the last ones. There’s a way to see the entire map at once, but it’s not always helpful in finding remaining notes, and a combination of the controls and obstacles in the mazes can frustratingly prevent you from getting even ones in plain sight. One wonders whether the developers tried playing through the whole game themselves before releasing it.


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These genuine issues having been mentioned, this isn’t a bad or even merely OK game. The scope of the mazes here makes Rock’n’Roll last longer than other titles, so if you play a few mazes at a time, you won’t get burned out. A simple power-up system has your character shrink if he gets hit by an enemy in the maze, and grow if he finds bones to eat. At his maximum three-bone size, he can take three hits before you need to start the maze over, which seems fair, especially as you can replenish life as you pass through each maze. Kids may enjoy it, but then, they may find the larger mazes frustrating enough to ask for help. We could easily see a better-tuned sequel with new mazes becoming a big hit. iLounge Rating: B-.

The Rest: Block Breaker Deluxe 2, Vector Blaster, and Pool


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The last three games in this week’s Gems are entirely different from one another. First is Gameloft’s Block Breaker Deluxe 2 ($2), sequel to an iPod Game we previously reviewed and liked. Simply put, this game is Super Breakout on steroids, a completely action-intense breaking and shooting game that places the emphasis on having fun rather than precision. You can tell from stage to stage that Gameloft wants you to win, and that it wants you to have fun playing: it just shows in the sheer number of powerups and the level designs.


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In keeping with the genre, you still roll your paddle from left to right on the bottom of the screen, reflecting a ball back at targets, but at some point after Block Breaker Deluxe 1, Gameloft found a way to transcend the game it was cloning—Taito’s Arkanoid—and become just a little crazy. There’s a yo-yo ball that springs back, a force field that traps the ball between two lines for easier control, and a missile launcher that appears if you just don’t seem to be able to finish the level quickly enough. Boss encounters, with legitimately interesting bosses, take place at the end of every collection of stages, and all sorts of variations in the bricks—small ones, big ones, moving ones, dangerous ones—keep the normal levels interesting.


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If anything is missing here, it’s more variation and detail in the background art, which unlike Super Breakout stays identical for multiple stages in a row; you won’t likely mind because of the very good included music, ever-changing brick patterns and pace of the action. Another reason not to mind is the $2 price, which is a fantastic value for a title with this caliber of content and longevity; a random level generator, unlocked mini-games, and two-player simultaneous mode keep the game interesting even after you’ve worked through the main quest mode. Block Breaker Deluxe 2 shows yet again why Gameloft is the iPhone OS’s most thoughtful and value-conscious game developer; we’d recommend it to almost anyone. iLounge Rating: A-.


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The classic arcade game Tempest didn’t blow us away 20 years ago, but its later Jeff Minter-designed sequels Tempest 2000 and Tempest X3 were utterly superb. Rude Scotsman has borrowed the basic Tempest formula for a remake of sorts, Vector Blaster ($3), which doesn’t trump Minter’s kings of the hill, but still offers a fun and unique iPhone gaming experience. You swipe either left to right or up and down to move a spaceship on the edge of a 3-D wireframe “web” shape, shooting and collecting objects that fly upwards from the bottom of the shape towards your closer edge. An energy bar lets you know how many times you’ve missed shooting objects before they reach the edge, and the shape begins to break—slowly reforming itself—when certain objects aren’t shot in time. Thus, you’re limited in movement and more likely to miss additional shots. But you can also get blaster power-ups, including double- and triple-wide shots, to expand the width of your shooting ability.


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Some of these elements, along with the lack of enemies that crawl on the edge of the web, stand out as obvious differences with Tempest, but the only one that is truly better is the occasional boss confrontation—a stage where you need to survive waves of items that are sent out from the center of the web to destroy you hit by hit. One gets the sense that there are still a bunch of tweaks left to be made to Vector Blaster, increasing the size of the web to make it more visible, the size and color of the power-ups to make them more discernible, and the interface, which has an odd system for pausing and none to continue where you left off. As-is, this is a good game for the $3 asking price, but as Jeff Minter demonstrated years ago, the Tempest formula can easily become great with a little extra AV work; we really hope to see the developer follow Tempest 2000’s example and become more than just a good alternative to a really old polygonal shooter. iLounge Rating: B.


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Last this week is Vegas Pool Sharks Lite (Free) by Chillingo/RESETgame. We’ve reviewed a number of titles by this developer since the App Store opened, and we have yet to be impressed by by any of them. Vegas Pool Sharks Lite continues this trend as a free trial of a $2 pool title called Vegas Pool Sharks; after trying the demo, we decided not to buy or review the full game.

They both place you in a blurry room with a pool table, 16 balls, and a cue stick. A simple but 3-D view of the table is presented, and as always, you’re supposed to use the stick to hit the white cue ball to knock the other 15 balls into the table’s six corner and side pocket; an 8-ball game is also apparently available in the paid version. The free game ends after you sink a few balls, with your single opponent grimacing—not a pretty sight. There are cheesy little tunes that play to break up the monotony.


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Even as a free demo, Vegas Pool Sharks Lite isn’t much fun. Unless you want to kludge around with the camera, which lets you make rough zooms, change the angle of your stick, and take shots by pressing a button, you pull back on the stick to shoot and watch the balls move around the table. Thanks to the awkward way the camera works—RESETgame hasn’t done a very good job of separating camera movement gestures from cue stick-activating ones—neither angles nor the strategy of planning shots feel as developed as in most of the 2-D renditions of the game we’ve played, such as Electronic Arts’ iPod title The Sims Pool. This feels like yet another title that could be good with some art and control upgrades, but in its current form, it’s probably not even worth your time as a free download. iLounge Rating: C-.

Earlier iPhone Gems columns are available here.

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