This week, we’re briefly looking at two apps that draw inspiration from the natural and traditional man-made beauty of Japan: iZen Garden 2, sequel to one of the top 100 apps we’ve reviewed for the iPhone and iPod touch, and Yoritsuki, an alternative that similarly seeks to relax the user with customizable, classical artwork and gentle sounds.
Of the two titles, iZen Garden 2 is the stronger pick, though it comes with caveats; read on for all the details.
The burden of any sequel—particularly one that is supposed to carry its own price, separate from the original—is to demonstrate enough evolution and standalone value to justify another purchase. iZen Garden 2 ($3) is the sequel to one of the iPhone’s earliest charmers, the zen garden simulator iZen Garden, which gave users the ability to personalize a two-dimensional, overhead representation of a sand garden, filling it with rocks, fountains, leaves, and other items, then “raking” it with parallel lines and concentric circles for relaxation. But it barely meets the evolution and standalone value challenges: it is in essence a minor “point release” update to the original that, unlike its predecessors, happens to be charged for rather than given away for free. Clearly, developer Random Ideas hopes that fans of the first version will jump on board to try the second one, but in our view, the new title makes too weak of a case for separate existence: it merely draws a line in the sand—pun intended—to signal that support for the original iZen Garden has ended. Were it not for the fact that the developer repeatedly improved the first title over its more than one year life span, we might have objected more to this paid update.
What’s new in version 2? Not the now overdue complete overhauls of the graphics engine, sounds, or user interface, which are basically untouched from version 1.8.2 of the first title, leaving the so-so butterfly and fountain animations, four colors of sand, simple rake-changing characteristics, and general selection, placement, resizing and rotation of elements unchanged, with occasionally dissatisfying results. Rather, the title offers iterative tweaks—more “colorful” and other objects, two more background sounds, and new “sharing” features to let you display both an image of your garden and a zen saying on Facebook, Twitter, or via e-mail. The most notable additions are the new sounds Meditation Bells and Wind Chimes, each charmingly relaxing audio loops akin to the original version’s Bells, and a collection of objects that at best look misplaced: an abacus, a trinket, and a key, plus small and relatively plain additions to the other nine categories of garden-populating shapes.
There’s a sense in iZen Garden 2 that Random Ideas has run out of ways to radically improve the formula here, and is just making incremental tweaks with the “more is better” philosophy, ironically the opposite of the minimalist zen approach the app otherwise embodies. Thus, though this sequel is technically an improvement on its predecessor, our view is that it hasn’t changed enough to merit a second purchase at this time; fans should wait on a more substantial update before making another purchase, though first-timers should surely pick this up rather than the original. iLounge Rating: B.
Somewhat hyped after its release late last year, Yoritsuki ($2) from Hybridworks is subtitled “Japanese Inn and Hot Springs,” and like iZen Garden attempts to replicate scenes from the traditional, natural side of Japan. Promisingly, it presents you with a first-person view from the open doors of a ryokan—a Japanese inn—which can be shifted to your choice of spring, summer, fall, and winter artwork, each with day and nighttime lighting and animations. You’re also given the ability to customize six Shoji sliding doors, double-tapping on each to cycle through 14 different styles of wood, rice paper, and/or glass decor, and you can slide the doors open or closed as you prefer. Gentle rolling brook noises, bird chips, and other little sounds play in the background as you look out through the doors, and tapping on a clock dims the inn elements in favor of a small but clean on-screen clock and calendar date, allowing you to just stare at the natural background scenery.
Though the theme is an interesting one—we’ve experienced the real-life charms of Japanese ryokans and would be amongst the first to enjoy an app of this sort—Yoritsuki’s execution is just dull; the app does little more than present frequently looping audio and a largely still background with moving doors, the changes to which do little to make you want to keep coming back to revisit the inn. Apart from showing you distant and barely animated reflecting water, it does almost nothing with the “hot springs” part of its theme—a bummer for those who have seen the dramatic sights of Japanese hot springs such as those in Beppu—and could really stand to have a wider variety of these naturally occurring places as backdrops.
If you’re the sort of user who enjoys seeing tiny fireflies or almost microscopic leaves falling from trees, or really loves the sound of crickets at night, this app might have enough for you, but to the extent that the title really lacks the sort of depth and customization that might make it more compelling, Yoritsuki is the sort of download that you’ll be surprised to re-open a week after the purchase. Unlike the places it draws inspiration from, it is briefly beautiful, then easily forgotten. iLounge Rating: B-.