iPhone Gems: Maze, Hockey, Pinball, Golf + Rhythm, Revisited

We’ve spent the last week testing so many new iPhone and iPod touch games that today’s 19-title Gems column is a two-parter: the first part focuses on new games that are similar to ones we’ve already reviewed, and the second part focuses mostly on new genres.

iPhone Gems: Maze, Hockey, Pinball, Golf + Rhythm, Revisited 2

Below, we look at a bunch of new maze games, plus individual new air hockey, pinball, golf, and rhythm titles. The best of this bunch is Maze Finger, but there are many titles in the collection that are worth checking out.

Maze Games, Revisited

Six of the maze games we review today are “labyrinth” style games, based on a classic table game. In a pre-video game era, kids used a wooden box with tilt knobs on its sides and a maze on the top to gently make a ball maneuver through the twists and turns to an exit hole at the end. The trick was to get the ball safely to the end without letting it fall into one of a number of “trap” holes on the maze. Now, thanks to their built-in accelerometers, iPods and iPhones can dispense with the need for tilt knobs and just rely upon physical tilting to track where the ball should roll.


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On the fourth-generation iPod nano, Apple has created a free version of the old labyrinth game called Maze, shown above, to show off that device’s accelerometer. While Maze has a super-small ball, which is especially hard to see on the nano’s small screen, Apple makes up for that with really interesting maze designs and a less punitive game design that loses trap holes in favor of a timer and items that need to be picked up along the way. By comparison, the iPhone OS games all use the classic design, though they each vary a little in implementation.


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For the iPhone and iPod touch, there are at least three different games, each split into free and paid versions. First is Codify’s early release Labyrinth ($7), also sold as Labyrinth Lite Edition (Free). While the Lite version gives you only 10 demo mazes to try—remember, the original table game only had one maze—the full Labyrinth offers over 500, mostly user-generated. Consequently, the full version of Labyrinth offers more to do than any other game of this sort we’ve seen.


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It also has the best graphics engine. Codify has used nice real wood textures, a believable animation for the ball dropping down a trap hole, and an accurate physics model that feels the most like the old table game used to feel. Though there’s no music, you can hear the sound of the ball rolling on the wooden table, and it sounds as you’d expect. On the flip side, Labyrinth has the largest ball and holes—a little too large, if you’re accustomed to the old game—and the maze designs really waver between amateurish and fine. There’s absolutely no doubt that you’ll find enough good mazes in the paid version to keep you amused for a long time, and the game does save your progress through each of them, but there’s a lot of chaff mixed in with the wheat here. Many gamers will be satisfied enough trying the free Lite version that they won’t need to explore the depths of the pricey full version. iLounge Rating (Labyrinth): B. iLounge Rating (Labyrinth Lite): B.


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By comparison, FunGyre/Simiotica’s aMaze ($5) and aMaze Lite (Free) take a “less is more” approach. The paid version of aMaze has 110 levels and a lower price tag. aMaze Lite gives you 12 demo levels—the first 12 of the full game—and has slightly better proportions for its balls, mazes, and holes. You don’t have to skip through a bunch of user-created mazes to find the good ones; aMaze’s levels are all nicely designed.


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Visually, the aMaze titles are a small step under Labyrinth’s in realism. The wood textures look a bit fake, the motion of the ball is a tiny bit less smooth, and the animation of the ball dropping down a trap hole is more obviously artificial. Similarly, the audio—which, like Labyrinth, is nothing more than the sound of a ball running on a wood surface—is plain. However, the paid version of aMaze is more attractively priced, and you get a bit more in the free aMaze version than you do in Labyrinth. Both games could stand to drop in price and offer a bit more to look at from level to level. iLounge Rating (aMaze): B. iLounge Rating (aMaze Lite): B+.


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Last in the labyrinth category is Jirbo’s less expensive Marble Mash, which comes in two versions—a Free, Ad-Supported download called “MarbleMash by Jirbo,” and a $2, Ad-Less version called MarbleMash. Yeah, the “Lite” designation or something similar makes more sense to us, too.

The MarbleMash games are interesting in that they ditch the limitations of wooden maze design for more futuristic-looking backgrounds, and offer 150 different levels with timers to keep you moving quickly. We really liked Apple’s Maze because of its unique backgrounds and music, and while Jirbo’s levels aren’t visually superb, at least they look different from stage to stage. They’re offset by a total lack of audio, and one little issue found in the free version: an ad banner at the top of the page flips to show you different clickable ads all the time, and there’s a small slowdown in the game every time the banner flips. It’s not a bad price to pay for 150 free levels.


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Engine-wise, MarbleMash isn’t quite as impressive in physics or animation as the other two titles, but the low price tags and variety of mazes make up for those omissions. None of the titles above would rate our high recommendation, but with more interesting graphics and audio, or more aggressive pricing, we could see any of them becoming great. iLounge Rating (MarbleMash $2): B. iLounge Rating (MarbleMash Free): B+.


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The last of today’s maze titles is a real surprise: Maze Finger (Free) from Ngmoco is a simple title that was obviously inspired by the classic arcade game update Tempest 2000, using cool special effects to elevate a relatively straightforward title into something memorably impressive. All you do here is drag your finger on the screen from point A to point B, but Ngmoco manages to make that experience unusually exciting.


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There are 1000 mazes spread across 200 levels—you pass a “level” by beating five mazes in a row. To beat a maze, you need to keep your finger on a spark of electricity as you move through the twists and turns, attempting to pick-up additional power and avoid hitting obstacles. As you move, you see an impressive electricity effect tracking your finger, and the completed portion of the maze appears to burn away. Timed obstacles—red walls—appear mid-maze to stop your progress, so just tearing through the maze at any given second isn’t the best strategy; similarly, if your power runs down, you die. The game rewards your progress by tracking achievements, and by telling you how smoothly you progressed through each maze.


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The highest praise we can offer for Maze Finger is to say that it’s one of the coolest games we’ve seen on the iPhone OS to date, and lacks only for two things: a save feature—having to go back to the beginning all the time is the only reason it rates lower than a flat A, even for the free price—and even more diversity in its aesthetics. We love the techno track that’s here, the vocoder voices, the look of the graphics, and the way the game plays, but want even more. Given how impressive this title is, we’d be willing to pay for it, too. It’s great work by a new developer. iLounge Rating: A-.

Air Hockey, Revisited


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We’ve previously looked at four different Air Hockey titles for the iPhone, some of which were better than others. The latest release in this genre is Touch Hockey: FS5 (Free) by FlipSide5, a strong new contender with some bugs to work out.


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The concept here is, of course, the same as with the other games: you get an air-puffed table with a puck to fire into your opponent’s goal, using mallets to shoot and deflect the puck. FlipSide5’s version has some interesting spins—wireless multiplayer support, the ability to change the size of the goals, and a nice zoomed-in instant replay mode—but it also suffers from some AI and physics defects that make puck and computer mallet movement a little less than realistic. On one load of the game, for instance, one of the mallets didn’t seem to work at all, a problem fixed with a reload. As a free game, this is worth seeing, but the little glitches take away from a title that has a lot of potential. iLounge Rating: B.

Pinball, Revisited


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Back in July, we looked at one of the only two pinball games for the iPhone OS, Zen Studios ZEN Pinball: Rollercoaster. While the game was impressive in the sense that it took advantage of the iPhone’s 3-D graphics capabilities to show how an entire pinball table could be simulated as a box that could be viewed from different angles, it didn’t really excite us. ZEN Pinball: Inferno ($5) is more of the same in different wrapping paper.

Last time, the theme was a rollercoaster; this time, the theme is a rock concert, and though the artwork has changed, it still looks largely the same. You still get neon-lit ramps, flat-colored bumpers and flippers, and a table that tries to let you see a couple of levels of elevation from a high-above, “everything at once” vantage point. This view, which still can be tilted like Rollercoaster’s, is seriously not compelling on a little screen, and though there are some new objects on the table—big speakers towards the back, plus a rolling cage and projection screen between them—you can barely make out what’s happening beyond to know that the ball is getting tossed around. It’s as if someone took the time to create a really detailed model of New York City and then forced you to see it all from the top of the Empire State Building.


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If ZEN Studios was in the real pinball machine business, we’d have no trouble playing an actual table of theirs, but as video game versions of pinball go, both Inferno and Rollercoaster suffer from being too blandly presented for their own good. What sound and fury the tables offer—here, rock music in the background, and references to stage diving and headbanging rotating on a light banner at the top of the screen—remains stuck in a gameplay engine that feels stuck behind the best video pinball titles we’ve tested. Pass unless you’re desperate for iPhone pinball. iLounge Rating: B-.

Golf, Revisited


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Most of the golf games we’ve reviewed for the iPhone are attempting to simultate reality, but Neverputt ME ($1) from Lazrhog Games goes in a different direction. There aren’t any clubs to worry about, and the courses aren’t realistic: there are over 100 different holes spread across seven courses, some with jumps, teleports, or moving obstacles. It’s like miniature golf, only with a modest degree of surrealism tossed in for the sake of fun.


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In simple summary, Neverputt ME is fun once you get a hang of it, the courses range from simple to impressive, and the graphics engine is very smooth. Judged solely by the courses, Neverputt looks like Sega’s Super Monkey Ball, minus the frenetic action and bananas—nice by iPhone mini golf standards. However, it’s obvious that Lazrhog hasn’t put quite enough polish into the title at this stage: in addition to lacking any apparent way to pause the game or quit other than using the Home button, Neverputt doesn’t go out of its way to explain how to use its controls or make its menu selections easy. Pulling back or forward with your finger increases or decreases the power necessary for a shot, while left and right both turn the camera and the angle of your shot; pressing a button in the top right corner lets you shoot. All of these things work, but you just have to learn how to use them; similarly, you can select from those seven courses, but you need to learn that the course will be instantly selected as soon as you release your finger from a preview image on the screen. These little control and menu issues are annoying; there’s also no audio to enjoy.


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But the price is right, and what’s here to be played is only a hint shy of highly compelling, even with the aforementioned glitches. This title could easily become great with a little extra interface work and audio; we actually enjoyed playing it more than most of the realistic golf games we’ve seen for the iPhone and iPod touch. iLounge Rating: B-.

Rhythm Tapping, Revisited


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The final game in the first part of today’s Gems roundup is ThumStruck Free from Resolute Games. Last week, we reviewed Tap Tap Revenge, a game that let you tap and shake the iPhone or iPod touch to the beat of different songs, offering sophisticated new song downloading features to offset relatively plain on-screen graphics and simple gameplay. ThumStruck Free is a demo of a yet-to-be-released competitor to Tap Tap Revenge.

From where we stand, Resolute has a ways to go before ThumStruck can seriously challenge Tap Tap for the rhythm game throne. In an effort to make the game deeper, Resolute includes not just one horizontal bar to tap on, but rather three—one that’s purple, one that’s yellow, and one that’s red. Colored dots fall from the sky as you listen to a song, and you’re supposed to hit them as they touch the correct lines—purple dots on the purple line, yellow on the yellow line, red on the red line. A static image of an exploding planet is shown in the background, and a single song plays while you’re hitting the dots.


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It’s probably a good thing that ThumStruck is being offered as a free demo before the real game comes out: in current form, it’s only a step or two better than unplayable. Just trying to move your finger from dot to dot and line to line with the music is so insanely unfun that you can imagine Rubik’s Cube masters putting the game down in frustration—it’s robotic action, not worthy of a game. The more dots that appear at once, the less fun it is, and with few dots on screen, it merely seems like something to do rather than something to entertain. Hopefully Resolute will really change the play mechanics in time for the final title’s release. Our higher than demo-level rating is for trying to do something different. iLounge Rating: C-.

Earlier iPhone Gems columns are available here.