iPhone Gems: Good Games with Familiar Names

After many weeks of having to sift through depressingly mediocre game releases, the great news is that virtually all of the titles in this week’s iPhone Gems games column are actually worth checking out—assuming you’re a fan of the genres they represent.

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Two updated classic arcade games from Atari are the week’s highlights, but thanks to their increasingly reasonable prices and interesting uses of the iPhone and iPod touch hardware, we’d encourage you to look through all of the titles shown here. It’s finally becoming possible to get some good professional-caliber games at the $5 price point, and less developed titles for an appropriate $1-3. Read on for the details.


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Some time ago, we reviewed an early iPhone OS title called Cube Runner—a game that had somehow managed to achieve popularity as a free download despite its extremely primitive presentation and gameplay. Building upon the same 3-D engine used in its Breakout-styled games BreakTouch and Break Classic, Bootant has released BiiBall 3D ($1-$2), a much smarter implementation of the same general concept.


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In BiiBall 3D, you’re still mostly moving forward in space, but here, you navigate a ball-shaped character through a series of mazes that have been created using blocks. You collect stars to keep racking up points, and you have some control over the speed and direction of your movement by tilting the iPod touch or iPhone. Spinning colored blocks appear in the middle of otherwise open paths through the mazes; tapping them on your touchscreen fires a bullet that knocks them out and replaces them with stars.


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This is a highly simple formula, but it actually works as a game, and we really like Bootant’s smooth, colorful graphics engine. While we’d like to see the developer make better use of the on-screen camera angle shifting controls, all that’s really missing in BiiBall 3D are audio and save points: the game relies upon you to supply your own music, and the game is a little too punishingly difficult—fail too many times and you go back to the first maze. Omissions such as these are offset by the price: after introducing the title for $5, which was a bit too much given its state of development, the company has continued to tweak the cost from $1 to $2 on various sales. For a buck, it’s definitely worth checking out; the free version BiiBall 3D Lite will give you a great taste of the action while you wait for a sale or for the developer to implement a save system. iLounge Rating (BiiBall 3D): B. iLounge Rating (BiiBall 3D Lite): B+.


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Right before Atari Interactive released its own iPhone OS version of the classic block-breaking game Breakout, titled Super Breakout ($5), it sent its legal department after competing developers, recommending that they pull their semi-similar versions off the App Store. This was a bad move for Atari, which surely knows how Capcom famously lost a suit against Data East on a similar theory, and ultimately, bullying like that isn’t even necessary.


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That’s because Atari’s Super Breakout is a legitimately better game. It includes real artwork, real music, and some cool iPhone OS-specific gameplay twists, all formulated with more thoughtfulness than the earlier Breakout-esque titles we’ve looked at. Every stage’s block pattern and background art are different and interesting, with randomizing touches such as unpredictable dropping power-up items and blocks that range from impervious to destructive of adjacent blocks. Visually, the levels progress in clusters through specific themes, starting with water, continuing with the earth, and working up to fire. There are boss encounters at the end of every cluster of levels, and in addition to just hitting a ball back with a paddle, you’ll occasionally need to flip the iPhone around to use the ball as a gravity-sensitive wrecking ball. EA’s Tetris has obviously inspired some novel classic game adaptations for the iPhone’s accelerometer.


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There’s also a set of classic modes that let you play old-school versions of Breakout with a single paddle, or two paddles and two balls, each with intentionally primitive graphics; a two-player swap-off mode is also included. We’ve tried most of the other iPhone Breakout-alikes out there, and there’s no doubt that if you’re a fan of this genre of games, Atari’s version gives you the most to do. But it’s also not quite perfect. The transparent power-up icons are a little hard to see and distinguish, and though the action is a big step up from classic Breakout, the pacing isn’t as frenzied or exciting as Taito’s later, superior game Arkanoid. For $5, this is a very good title, but by reference to the best similar titles that succeeded Breakout, Super Breakout falls a little short of greatness. iLounge Rating: B+.


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As the world’s most respected game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto has been known to spend the initial development process of a new title doing little more than making the character controls feel “right.” His famous characters, Super Mario and Link from The Legend of Zelda, were extremely straightforward to control: you quickly and intuitively knew how and when they could walk, turn, jump or strike with a sword. Getting the control right was key to making his action games successful; the graphics were always secondary.


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By comparison, Pangea Software’s new Bugdom 2 is a stunning example of what the iPhone OS hardware can offer aesthetically to 3-D action-platforming developers, and an equally disappointing example of how the device’s controls can utterly wreck an otherwise pleasant 3-D gaming experience. Your character, a grasshopper, wanders throughout massive natural landscapes filled with plants, castle walls, and moving enemies. He can jump, hover in the air with his wings, and pick up items, which he’s often called upon to do by creatures he meets in the levels—quests to keep the game progressing. Explore an area enough, for instance, and you’ll realize that you need a key to open a gate to move along; to get the key, you’ll need to fetch a shell for a snail or something of the sort. This could have been an ideal game for kids.


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The sheer scope of Bugdom 2 is impressive by iPhone game standards. You’ll feel like the levels are massive—perhaps a bit too massive and not landmarked enough, as it’s often hard to know where to go next—but the real surprise is in seeing differences in ground elevation, such as hills, valleys, walls and buildings, as well as variable character sizes. Small butterflies are accompanied by huge, roughly screen-height gnomes and woodland creatures, placing your character in perspective as an insect, and definitely differentiating Bugdom 2 from typical 3-D platform titles. Even if some of the characters, including yours, are on the ugly side—a fairly consistent issue with Pangea’s games, despite their strong 3-D engines—the sense of scale and the smoothness of the graphics here are great; there’s also a real soundtrack, which is a little grating but gets points for ambitiousness. Clearly, the iPhone OS is capable of handling games comparable to the awesome Super Mario 64 in scope.


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Once again, however, poor controls drag down what otherwise might be a fun experience. The game requires you to use the accelerometer for movement, and apparently understanding that this isn’t a brilliant idea, places a “re-orient the device” button in the bottom left corner so that you can constantly try and adjust the controls to the angle you’re playing from. Even with this button, we found the character a pain to control, and objectives way more difficult to accomplish than they would have been with a joypad and a better-automated camera. The “user, fix it yourself” approach actually begins with the game’s introduction, which lets you know in a dialog box that big iPhone OS apps such as this one really benefit from a complete iPhone reboot. Blame this on Apple or Pangea, but it goes without saying that users shouldn’t have to deal with these sorts of warnings and issues; similarly, saving the game at any time rather than at the end of a long level should be a no-brainer on this platform.


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Bugdom 2’s $3 asking price is interesting. On one hand, the title’s controls are really off—enough to make the game less playable than it easily could be with a joypad—and the save system needs work. On the other hand, by $3 game standards, there’s a lot to see and do here, and some players will be willing to slog through the game despite the controls. In its current form, we’d call this worthy of only our limited recommendation, but as one of the most impressive titles ever to receive our B- rating, Bugdom 2 could easily merit a re-evaluation if its underlying control and save issues are fixed by the developer. iLounge Rating: B-.


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Back in August, we looked at Pour1Out, a ridiculous malt liquor-pouring simulator designed as an advertisement for a company selling beer holders. What we didn’t discuss was PhoneSaber, an app that turned iPhones into miniature lightsaber sound effect machines, complete with the famous electric droning noises and a glowing blade effect on screen. That app was pulled from the App Store by demand from Lucasarts, which owned the sound effects in question.


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Now TheMacBox has re-released PhoneSaber as Lightsaber Unleashed (Free). It’s not a game, but a promotional tool for The Force Unleashed, previously reviewed by iLounge. All it does is put a light saber graphic up on screen and make sounds that vaguely track the device’s movement, as well as the sounds of the light blade being extended and retracted. You can see the blade in full on the screen, or switch to a full-screen view of a segment of the glowing light.


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You can select from five characters seen in the Force Unleashed, with blue, green, and red lightsabers available across the characters, biographical details, and an appropriately John Williams-styled song to play in the background if you want. Ultimately, the app is little more than an excuse to wave your iPhone around and make lightsaber noises, with screen flashes whenever it simulates “hits,” but it’s cute, and a nice demonstration of how developers can collaborate rather than fighting each other for attention in the Store. We’ll check back on it if the lightsabers ever become more visually interesting. iLounge Rating: B-.


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Some long-time fans of inXile Entertainment’s web and PC title Line Rider may disagree, but this is less a game than a time-waster for really creative types. It gives you a set of simple drawing tools and lets you create a path for a gravity-bound sledding character to follow. There’s only one real instruction in the title: draw a line from the top left of the screen towards the bottom right, and you’ll be able to see the character ride your line from left to right before falling off the edge. However, fans have used the tools to create some pretty significant pieces of artwork, only small bits of which are the titular line for the sledder to ride; the rest is all background graphics, and in some cases, funny ones.


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The iPhone version, Line Rider iRide ($3) is the same simple idea, plus the ability to share tracks with other users, and a couple of other features. Typically Line Rider gives you primitive drawing tools to work with on a white background; a new “Night Ride” mode lets you draw on a black one. A feature called “Draw and Pan” makes it easier to draw huge scenes by automatically shifting the screen as you draw, and “Gravity Tilt” lets you change the effects of gravity by turning the iPhone in different directions. Of these features, it’s the sharing tool that has the most appeal, enabling you to skip past your own meager artistic skills and go straight to using user-rated, better maps that draw inspiration from art, video games, and all sorts of other themes.


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Ultimately, though it’s listed in the Games section of the App Store, Line Rider iRide isn’t really a game, but for those who enjoy doodling and playing with simple physics simulators, it’s a cool toy—the modern equivalent of an Etch-a-Sketch. If you go into it understanding that the only objective is amusement, and that you’ll only get as much out of it as you put in, you’ll find it a fun diversion. iLounge Rating: B.


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Released in the 1980s amidst Cold War tensions over nuclear missile strikes, Atari’s classic arcade game Missile Command later proved popular on home computers and game consoles, as well. Yet for whatever reason, there haven’t been anywhere near as many Missile Command clones over the years as there have been Breakout clones; the iPhone OS’s Alien Invasion is a semi-noteworthy, but also only indirect exception. Atari’s iPhone version of Missile Command ($5) thus arrives without much competition, and though there are ways that it could have been even better, we really liked this title for what it is.


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Missile Command places cities on the bottom of the screen and atmosphere-reentering missiles at the top, providing you with a limited amount of ammunition to shoot the missiles down before they destroy your cities. Unlike the original arcade game, which gave you a trackball to position a cursor that guided land-based explosives to make the missiles explode in air, you just touch the screen here to launch ammo at a given position. If the resulting explosion comes close enough to the missile to blow it up, great. Lose all of your cities and the game ends. It’s Cold War fear, neatly wrapped up in an action-intense game.


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As with Super Breakout, Atari has gone beyond just offering a simple rendition of the classic arcade game, though that’s included as well as a “Classic” mode. The so-called Ultra mode doesn’t have any of the 3-D effects of the Atari Jaguar version released years ago, but it does include very good music, nice 2-D missile launching special effects and backgrounds, plus different types of targets to shoot down. Green missiles fall slowly, red missiles need to be hit perfectly, and alien spaceships of varying sizes appear as both targets and low-flying missile launchers.

Is the game worth $5? By contrast with some of the deep, impressive titles we’ve seen for both the Click Wheel iPod and iPhone OS, and even with the long-since-forgotten Jaguar title, probably not. But it’s fun, intense on the higher levels, and certainly well-programmed for a 2-D touchscreen shooter on this platform. If it goes on sale, consider it worthy of a purchase; we’d love to see a 3-D version for the iPhone. iLounge Rating: B+.


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The last title of this week’s Gems column is Little White Bear Studios’ TanZen ($1), a simple puzzle game that is also available in a free version called TanZen Lite. Based on the classic Chinese “dissection” puzzle game tangram, you’re given the silhouette of a large, angular shape, plus seven smaller, angular puzzle pieces from which to recreate it. The smaller pieces can’t overlap, and they also can’t exceed the boundaries of the silhouette.


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While the full version of TanZen provides over 200 different puzzles—more are promised for an upcoming update—you can get a taste of the concept in the 18 puzzles of Lite, which will be enough for some players to fully sate their tangram needs. Thanks to the iPhone’s touchscreen and the developer’s use of simple one- and two-finger gesture commands, the process of selecting pieces, moving them, and rotating them is completely intuitive; the only challenge is figuring out how to do this properly for each of the puzzles.


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The fact that there’s no audio doesn’t bother us much given the price and nature of the game; this is one of those titles that provides nice background entertainment as you’re listening to iPod music. TanZen is a good game for younger players, and the Lite version is a great starter title to download for someone with a brand-new iPod touch. iLounge Rating (TanZen): B+. iLounge Rating (TanZen Lite): A-.

Earlier iPhone Gems columns are available here.