Welcome to the final iPhone Gems gaming column of 2009! In this edition, we’re looking at three titles that we wanted to squeeze into our coverage before the year ended: one is an action-platform game, another is a licensed beat-em-up, and the third is a licensed wrestling game. Interestingly, the best title of the bunch isn’t the one with the flashiest graphics or a well-known television show to draw in fans, but rather, it’s a game with a lot of unlockable content and a smart online challenge system.
Our final strong game recommendation of calendar year 2009 is Hook Champ from Rocketcat Games. Read on for all the details.
Even with thousands of iPhone and iPod touch games now available, and dozens more appearing every week, it’s rare for us to feel like we missed a truly important one somewhere along the way. Hook Champ ($3) from Rocketcat Games is an exception, and there’s one major reason we missed it: the artwork. We’ve seen screenshots of the game for months and weren’t interested enough to cough up the cash to download it. But at some point, curiosity prevailed, and as it turns out, Hook Champ’s pixelated graphics and absent soundtrack are its only major flaws: Rocketcat has come up with a compelling play mechanic, a fairly brilliant power-up system, and enough little touches of humor to make up for its aesthetic shortcomings.
Hook Champ isn’t Capcom’s classic arcade and NES game Bionic Commando, but the premise is undeniably similar at first: you control a character who can run and jump on the ground, as well as using a grappling hook to swing from ceilings and elevated floating platforms. After a couple of levels, you’ll have enough gold coins on hand to buy a shotgun, and you’re constantly being chased through the stages, with swinging and shooting as your major ways to make it out alive.
But due to a radically different balance of the play mechanics, that’s where the Bionic Commando similarities end. Rather than being given direct joystick-style control of your character, the bottom of the screen is a large touch surface that makes you auto walk back or forth, and the top is used to fire your grappling hook. Initially, the controls feel odd, but after a period of mental digestion, you start to understand the timing and flow of firing and re-firing your hook to move around. You’re supposed to spend most of your time in the air—if you walk, a huge black monster that’s chasing you will quickly devour you and spit out your bones—and the shotgun’s primarily there to fend off the creature once in a while. Thus, unlike the militaristic gun-heavy Bionic Commando, Hook Champ is all about making your way efficiently through the levels, grabbing as many gold coins as possible, and escaping Indiana Jones-style with a treasure at the end.
Unlike some of the “retro” titles we’ve pilloried for lazy use of old-fashioned, low-resolution backdrops and sprite-based characters, Hook Champ populates its throwback levels with smart little animations, ghost trails, and transparency effects that make the similar cave levels interesting. Rocketcat exploits the simple art requirements to offer funny coin-purchasable clothes that let you customize your character, additional characters, and upgraded ropes, hooks, and other items; it now also sells Hookbot, a $1 downloadable character who can explore the levels without being chased—a cute way to make the game easier for those who need the help. For many people, the draws won’t be any of these things, but rather Hook Champ’s competitive reward system, which uses leaderboards and OpenFeint to provide skill-based challenges and bonuses for players who want to compete against others online. Consequently, there is a lot to love and discover in Hook Champ, in-game and online incentives to replay the levels to become better, and only the art and absence of more significant audio to turn some prospective players off. What’s here is worthy of a strong B+ rating; should the developer bring the visuals and sound up to match the ambitions of the rest of the game, it will have a universally appealing title on its hands. iLounge Rating: B+.
Rather than devoting a lengthy review to Electronic Arts’ The Simpsons Arcade ($5), we’re going to just sum up the title simply: despite the title, it’s not the Konami arcade game of the same name, nor any of the many prior console Simpsons titles, but rather a reskinned version of Capcom’s classic beat-em-up Final Fight with bonus content mixed in for diversity. As with Final Fight, you control a large character—here, Homer—who occupies a substantial portion of the screen, as do the enemies he confronts in waves. Most of the time, you have a punch button and a jump button, plus a virtual joystick, which are used together to move him up, down, left, and right in cartoony levels taken from familiar Springfield settings, punching, grabbing, and belly flopping onto generic men in suits and specific characters from the show. Just as in Final Fight, items such as trash cans, Homer’s famed radioactive rod, and mailboxes can be interacted with, sometimes picked up and thrown around; you can disarm opponents with weapons and use them to your advantage.
The one and only thing that’s impressive in EA’s Simpsons title is the artwork, and then, it’s the illustrations rather than the animations that make it work. Six long stages worth of backdrops are populated with funny and frankly more details than the typical mindless beat-em-up, and when characters appear—cameos of Simpson family members who show up to aid Homer with their own brief attacks, or “villains” such as the Mayor, Police Chief, and Montgomery Burns—they’re all drawn well, animated just enough to pass muster, and given a little something amusingly memorable to do. The Mayor speeds from level to level in a limo, tossing bombs and using his cell phone to call in reinforcements; the Chief whips out a taser that eventually appears as a weapon you can pick up, too. Interestingly, the game makes an early open joke of its lack of a storyline, explaining in part why the on-screen text dialogue is generally terrible, but the challenges are just diverse enough to keep the levels interesting anyway, and EA borrows Konami’s “mash the buttons to blow up character head balloons” bonus game, as well.
Other aspects of the game are merely so-so. The music’s less exciting than the 1990’s arcade game’s, and the sound effects—including lots of grunts and relatively few voice samples—aren’t memorable, unless Homer’s “woo hoo” is enough to thrill you. EA’s use of Final Fight rather than the prior Konami Simpsons title as the basis for the action wasn’t exactly inspired, but it makes sense: the larger characters compensate for the game’s only single-player and relatively mindless gameplay, which never achieves the frenzied excitement levels of Konami’s four-player simultaneous version. Due to the in-jokes and artwork, Simpsons fans mightn’t mind the title’s simplicity or shallowness; they’ll actually find the simple action a nice way to move through a fun and amusing set of set pieces. Everyone else can easily pass. iLounge Rating: B.
If the lack of options is any indication, creating a wrestling game for the iPhone and iPod touch must be a challenge: we’ve seen flat 2-D pure wrestling titles and semi-developed 3-D mixed martial arts games, but until now, we haven’t seen a 3-D wrestler that really felt as if it was built around the interface limitations of Apple’s devices. WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2010 ($5) isn’t a great 3-D wrestling game, but it goes further than any title of its sort that we’ve seen on these devices so far, making novel use of touchscreen controls while bringing licensed WWE and ECW characters into the ring.
Wisely, THQ eases you into the game with a set of two optional tutorials that teach you the basics of wrestling and more advanced techniques: rather than giving you a virtual joystick, the game has you touch the screen and drag to move in a direction—an arrow appears to indicate direction—and swipe gestures can activate additional movements, such as running. Though this input scheme isn’t always as responsive as it should be, it’s interesting, and begins to make more sense as you use it. Additionally, a single button on the right of the screen transforms contextually from a generic punch button to let you grapple, pin, taunt, recharge your stamina, and execute one signature move; a cool but less than intuitive concept sees you hold the punch button and then move your finger to one of four possible directions to select attacks, maintain a pin, or try to squeeze an opponent into submission. The joystick and button alternatives are both a little confusing at first, but after a little while, they draw you in and let you feel like you’re really wrestling, as oxymoronic as that might sound.
WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2010’s weaknesses are aesthetic. The game’s character models are presented for customization and cut scenes in closeups that reveal fairly hideous-looking textured polygons—your character looks like a chump from moment one, and continues to look rough even after going through a fair amount of customization. The more you play, the more clothing, tattoos, and the like you can unlock—fights proceed in career mode through unknown opponents and a relatively mere 11 real WWE stars, with 6 WWE arenas—but you’ll need to look past the weak character art and enjoy the game’s above-average animations for what they are; an exhibition mode lets you play as any of the real wrestlers without the need to unlock anything, though their moves are very similar to one another, apart from the signature attacks. Sound effects are extremely limited, with no in-game dialogue and very little in the way of voice samples; grunts, crowd noise, and other simple in-ring sounds are as much as you get.
Could THQ have done better? Certainly. But for a $5 wrestling game, WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2010 is a good start. By coming up with a control scheme that utilizes Apple’s touchscreens and feels like you’re actually moving with the flow of a televised match, the developer has done more justice to wrestling than games that attempt to boil the sport down to paper-rock-scissors or simpler punch and kick buttons. Further polish in the aesthetics, more characters, and a more responsive virtual joystick or alternative could help an update or a sequel to this title achieve glory. iLounge Rating: B.