The sheer number of noteworthy iPhone and iPod touch game releases over the past several weeks has had us in playing and reviewing overdrive, so we’ve decided to push out another gaming edition of iPhone Gems this week to highlight four more titles that were worth sharing right away. One is a sequel to a rhythm music game, another is a knock-off of a famous Nintendo platformer, a third is a solid 3-D space shooter, and last is a polished but simple puzzle game.
Our pick of this bunch is StarPagga, but two of the other titles also received our general-level recommendation. Read on for the details.
In November of last year, Gameloft released Guitar Rock Tour, an ambitious but unstable game that let iPhone owners tap to plat guitar or drums along with renditions of 17 different pop and rock songs. Originally priced at $10, Guitar Rock Tour was later updated to improve its stability, add iPod touch compatibility, and reduce its price to $3. Now Gameloft has released Guitar Rock Tour 2 ($5), a sequel that feels just like the original, only with totally new songs and graphics, plus a local Wi-Fi multiplayer mode. This mode lets two people compete on the same track to see who hit more notes and received the higher score.
Guitar Rock Tour 2 starts with a collection of 18 purely rock tracks—Born to Be Wild, Sweet Home Alabama, I Wanna Rock, and no Michael Jackson this time—and plans to offer downloadable additional songs going forward to expand the game’s catalog. Once again, you can play through in a quick mode that is just any unlocked song of your choice with either four tapping pads (guitar) or two (drums), or play through a career mode that lets you move through a series of cities playing gigs. Formerly 2-D selection and character screens have been either glossed up with better 2-D art or replaced with polygonal 3-D models, and the prior game’s 3-D models have been swapped for new ones. Every city you play in has its own concert-themed backdrop that the camera moves through as you’re hitting notes, showing off various members of your band as they perform. This occupies the top half of the screen during every song.
Once again, you’ll be lucky if you have a chance to watch anything that’s going on with those performances, as you’ll be focused primarily on tapping the guitar or drum buttons to the rhythm of colored indicators that scroll down lines towards the bottom of the screen. After hitting enough notes in order, a power bar charges up to let you flip a switch and juice up your score; there’s also an opportunity to activate a beat-clearing power-up, eliminating your need to play for a brief part of the song. Gameloft has improved the music engine in Guitar Rock Tour 2 so that songs don’t cut out as much if you’re playing poorly; the music still plays, albeit diminished, giving the game a somewhat less halting flow.
Although Guitar Rock Tour 2 ultimately feels like a more polished rehash of its predecessor, the same can be said about most sequels, and to the extent that the first game’s major problems were in stability and value for the dollar, this one is a better pick. You’ll have to decide whether the 3-D cartoony performances, the covered versions of old but popular rock songs, and the Wi-Fi multiplayer mode justify a premium over a less flashy but free game like Tap Tap Revenge 2; our feeling is that Gameloft has a better underlying game engine on its hands in play and visuals, and really only needs more and better music to become an effective competitor. iLounge Rating: B.
There are several surprises in the action-platform game Ricky ($3) by FBS Software/Nabil Chatbi: first, that this pathetic excuse for a Super Mario Brothers clone has been actively promoted by Apple as an App Store “What’s Hot” pick, second, that it actually has good music, and third, that Nintendo somehow hasn’t gone after it yet for knocking off the classic Mario mushroom as an icon to sell the game.
Rather than just completely knocking off every bit of Mario, the developer has clearly used just enough of the title as “inspiration” to create this clone: there are still Mario-style pipes, hills in the background with eyes, mushrooms, and a main character with a familiar little red cap. Yet “Ricky’s” head is made from Nintendo’s Kirby, you can’t dive into any of the pipes, and oh, the bricks that you’d normally break in Super Mario can’t be interacted with here. There’s no down button, no power-ups, and almost no point to the action; you collect stars and try to get to an exit, dodging poorly animated, oddball enemies like a flying witch, an angry walking bird, and a demon, plus obvious clones of Mario villains. The levels feel like they were designed by someone who liked Super Mario but never really understood the genius of its design; in most ways, Ricky feels like a step back from the 1983 title.
There are a couple of exceptions. The music is surprisingly good, upbeat and seemingly original, though the same few tracks loop over and over again, and though the graphics aren’t drawn or animated well, they’re brightly colored and more detailed than a straight port of Mario would have been. There are also lots of levels—at least 75 split over four different worlds—and boss characters at the end of each world. If nothing else, Ricky’s App Store page is worth checking out for the bizarre, poorly written storyline that’s posted as an enticement to download, assuming Nintendo hasn’t visited and requested that the game be pulled down. iLounge Rating: D+.
More than a year after the App Store debuted, the iPhone and iPod touch still don’t have a game good enough to rival Nintendo’s classic 3-D space shooter Star Fox, but developers have kept on trying—and improving. Funsuma Games is the latest to make an attempt, and has succeeded with StarPagga ($2), a surprisingly under-marketed little game that has nearly enough polish to compete with offerings from much larger companies. You control a space ship that is deposited in the middle of bounded but substantially open starfields, with a targeting reticule in the center of the screen, laser and missile buttons in the bottom corners, and an adjustable throttle off to the right. You fly through nice but not overambitious backdrops hunting down enemy space ships, keeping your reticule centered on targets for long enough to achieve lock-ons, and shaking the iPhone or iPod touch to break free of missiles that lock on to you.
One really interesting thing in StarPagga is its mission structure: Funsuma has numbered and labeled the missions, as well as given players a set of tutorial and practice levels, but basically tosses everything out on to a big, scrollable map so you can click on a destination at will. Want to start at the last of the 12 full missions? Go ahead. Or skip anywhere else; that’s fine too. The levels are challenging, and given at least a little structure through pop-up narratives, timers, and events, but they’re not so difficult that you’ll be unable to complete later ones without experience from earlier ones. Once you complete all of the numbered missions, the ending is unlocked; local and Internet-based multiplayer are also included, with up to six players in multiplayer mode. Ships can also be customized with a handful of weapons and defensive items, all presented unlocked from the start of the game.
While StarPagga doesn’t have the most stable frame rate we’ve seen in a space shooter, even when played on the iPhone 3GS, it actually is doing quite a bit at any given time. Streaks of light fly past you to convey a sense of motion, multiple enemies and missiles are flying around, and background objects—space stations, the planet Saturn and its rings, and so on—are all rendered in 3-D rather than as plain 2-D distant art. They’re not complex models, but like the looping music, they work pretty well to convey a sense of excitement; certainly enough to justify the $2 asking price.
And that’s pretty much the way we feel about the whole title: it could use an extra coat or two of UI polish, a sexier map screen, more music, and a more stable graphics engine, but if most of these things were added, we could see this title becoming a $5 game really easily. At its current price, it feels like a bargain on gameplay, less so on aesthetics; with work, StarPagga could very easily become the basis of a truly great premium-priced space shooter. iLounge Rating: B+.
Last but not least in this edition is a completely different sort of game, Triazzle ($3) by Dreamship, which contrasts sharply with StarPagga in that it feels like a fundamentally simple game that has been lacquered so beautifully that some players might look past the gameplay and just enjoy the aesthetics. The concept is this: you’re presented with an empty pyramid made from either 9 or 16 triangles, and you need to pull triangles from the left and right sides of the screen to fill the pyramid.
This task is complicated solely by the presence of frog, insect, turtle, and/or butterfly-shaped markings on the triangles and on the pyramid that must be matched up; you need to start by picking the right triangles to match the pyramid’s corners, which have two indicators, and then work your way inwards on the walls, then finish with pieces on the inside of the pyramid. Each piece can be placed in any open spot and rotated around; you can also overlap a presumed piece with a second one in an effort to see which fits better. The levels vary in the number of animal types and colors, and both the graphics and music change from play to play.
Quite honestly, there’s little more than those backgrounds and some dreamy, calming music to make the game compelling after a few plays; unless you change the difficulty level to increase the number of animal-shaped indicators or up the triangles from 9 to 16, the challenge is essentially the same over and over again. But the artwork and music are, in and of themselves, surprisingly compelling. The creatures on the boards come to life, moving around as you play, and successful connections between pieces lead to little animations that show butterfly wings flapping or frogs jostling in a gentle, natural way. If these elements were missing, and the music wasn’t so soft and alluring, the game wouldn’t be as compelling as it is.
To pretend that Triazzle isn’t the sum of its various parts would be unfair; the developer truly takes a fine game—one that would be C-worthy if unadorned—and makes it stronger through audio and visual treats that comparable puzzle games so often lack. If the concept behind the title seems interesting to you, and you’re willing to be won over more by changing graphics and sounds than gameplay, it’s certainly worth giving a try. iLounge Rating: B.