Welcome to this week’s second, catch-up edition of iPhone Gems. The impact of last week’s iPod unveiling temporarily had us more focused on new hardware than software, but we didn’t want to let a few more recent, noteworthy games slip through the cracks. So today, we look at a mix of different titles—Meteor Blitz, Enigmo 2, Squareball and Unify.
Our top pick of the week by far is the overhead space shooter Meteor Blitz; the puzzle game Unify also rates a general-level recommendation. Read on for all the details.
Thanks to deft uses of twin-joystick controls and 3-D graphics, Asteroids clones have in recent years been taken to new heights through games such as Super Stardust HD and Geometry Wars, so it’s no shock that the App Store now has its own alternative in Meteor Blitz ($2) from Alley Labs—the only surprise is how good the game actually is. Alley Labs places you in control of a spaceship that floats in 2-D (left, down, up, right) over the surfaces of planets, and gives you several types of weapons to use against hordes of spaceships and asteroids that appear. You use two virtual joysticks at the bottom corners of the screen to move and shoot in separate directions.
To start with what the developer has done very, very right here, Meteor Blitz has a gameplay system that just works properly. You glide over the planets, unleashing continuous bullets that are either plain energy, fire, or ice, each upgradeable by collecting little rings that are scattered when you destroy objects. Your ship can occasionally hurtle itself forwards to get out of bad jams, using a charging technique on the left joystick, and use a point-increasing gravity weapon by tapping on the right stick to snag an enemy and throw it at something else. Shaking the iPhone or iPod touch releases a screen-clearing smart bomb. The package of game elements and controls might not be wholly original, but they’re tight, and work perfectly together here to incentivize you to keep playing.
The planets and enemy characters are also beautifully drawn. Meteor Blitz makes an immediately positive impression with its planets, which are gently spherical, multi-layered 3-D objects with more realistic textures than most iPhone and iPod touch gamers would be expecting to see; enemies zoom in from off the screen, typically trying to land right on top of you and destroy your shield or your ship, and the balance of fire, ice, and energy colors from level to level is spot on. Rather than making its stages too easy, Alley Labs starts by flashing a set of 6 planets—5 unlockable—and then has you beat five stages in a row on each planet in order to move on. Even on the first planet, this is a challenge, as simple but effective “boss” ships appear with increasingly powerful defenses, and need to be taken down before you can clear any stage.
If there’s anything less than ideal in this title, it’s the music, which is good but far too repetitive, and the absence of a true “X-factor” something special to make it truly memorable. But by iPhone OS standards, Meteor Blitz hits all the other marks—it’s aggressively priced, fun to play, and very compelling visually. It’s one of the best games we’ve played on the platform in a while. iLounge Rating: A-.
The original Enigmo has long struck us as one of the most overhyped early iPhone games, a puzzler with fairly drab graphics and nichey gameplay. Apple put a surprising marketing effort behind it, and a PR firm may have helped developer Pangea post phony positive reviews, but it just wasn’t that great; as we said at the time, “brainy players will enjoy the puzzles for what they are; given the $10 price, we think others should hold off for the inevitable sequel.” Well, a year has passed since then, and we’re willing to take back the latter part of that sentiment: though Pangea Software has made strides in some of its other titles, it doesn’t seem to have learned much about creating intuitive control schemes, and the result is an Enigmo 2 ($4) that is harder to recommend than its predecessor, albeit for different reasons.
In Enigmo, your task was to scroll around in 2-D through 50 shallowly rendered 3-D environments, positioning a limited number of cog-like pieces into water machines to move their droplets from one place to another. Enigmo 2 ups the ante, creating 50 deeper 3-D environments and puzzles that start out as solvable in 2-D, in later levels requiring you to position the pieces in 3-D. And this time, it’s not just water you’re trying to get from point A to point B: lasers, plasma, and other types of generators need to be interacted with, as well.
We could write a very lengthy review discussing everything that’s right and wrong with Enigmo 2, but it all boils down to one thing: horribly, horribly broken controls. Pangea’s 3-D graphics engine is an improvement on the prior version’s, and creates puzzles that aren’t exactly beautiful but do look somewhat more interesting than the prior game’s. Brainiacs may want to slog through them, and they’ll be able to listen to some nice, vaguely mysterious new age music as they do, plus fine sound effects. But it would be impossible to sum up in any simple way just how awful and confusing the controls are, even when you’re starting the game’s early 2-D levels. In a complete reversal of the classic Nintendo-Miyamoto tutorial gameplay structure, which eases you into potential control challenges by teaching you incrementally how to handle 3-D movement, camera adjustment, and the like, Enigmo 2 drops you into stages that can be twisted, turned, and zoomed around, with pieces that can similarly be reangled and dragged through 3-D space, all without adequate instruction. Within moments, you can be completely screwing up the solutions to relatively straightforward puzzles merely because of the game’s controls, which is no fun; even when you begin to get a grasp on the controls, fine-positioning the pieces to get the right bounce or reflective angles can be a major chore.
If there’s anything saving Enigmo 2, it’s the $4 asking price, which is far more reasonable in concept than the $10 that was being asked for the original title. But the controls here are such a mess that we wouldn’t even pay $4 for this; we actually found the original game less frustrating, if otherwise less impressive. Under the circumstances, we would seriously suggest that Pangea take a break from new releases for a while and work on fixing the input schemes in its existing ones. Far more than other titles we’ve tested—yet much like several other Pangea releases—Enigmo 2 is an example of a game that could very easily be superb if its interface wasn’t a mess. We’d love to start enjoying what’s good about these games, rather than wringing our hands over what could have been; controls will make all the difference. iLounge Rating: C+.
Once in a while, we’re tipped to supposedly good games by reports from readers, and they too often turn out to be primitive, demo-class titles that rely on either a sense of nostalgia or the consumer’s gullibility to marketing to sell copies. “Squareball is the game that should be shipped with the iPhone,” says its App Store page, as it’s “the first true action arcade game with perfect controls only possible on the iDevices.” One look at this $2 title from Dromsynt should be enough to convince you otherwise, but we’ll give you a paragraph of additional detail.
Squareball deposits you inside a series of 20 flat-shaded levels that are swipe-scrolled from left to right as a square, Pong-like “ball” bounces through them. You need to move the ball from the left to the right without letting it bounce off screen into gaps in the levels’ walls, and collect all the green blocks in the process. Other flat-colored blocks are there for points and obstacles. The graphics are one step better than Atari VCS/2600 art—a major step back from similar enough titles such as GloBall—and the music is grating, retro-styled synth music that literally had us wanting to turn the volume down or off altogether. We can only say that the very idea that a game like this should be shipped with the iPhone is either the height of hyperbole or delusion; it’s one of those titles that is worth asking for your money back if you make the mistake to actually buy it. iLounge Rating: D.
Small games needn’t have amazing graphics in order to be worthwhile, but they do need something. What Zach Gage’s Unify ($1) has is gameplay, an interesting little play mechanic that turns Tetris wannabes like Sega’s Puyo Puyo on their side, then doubles up. Picture 2×1 blocks falling into a nine-column pit, capable of being rotated and moved to whatever positions you want at the bottom of the pit, in hopes of connecting four or more same-colored blocks together. Now reimagine that pit if a line was drawn in its center, and blocks “fell” from the left and right sides simultaneously towards that line. Your left finger controls the left block, your right finger controls the right block, and you try to make color matches from both at the same time. Whatever’s on top of successfully matched blocks falls down to the center, and the more matches you make, the more colors eventually appear to be matched.
While Unify’s art is nearly as simple as Squareball’s, substituting gentle shading for Squareball’s forced perspective 3-D, and limited dot, X, and corner reticule graphics to let you know that blocks and spaces are empty, occupied, or currently selected, the visual plainness here didn’t bother us as much as in Squareball. Nor did the 13-song soundtrack, which isn’t exactly thrilling, and does loop quite a bit, but at least doesn’t grate on the ears. Fans of titles such as Puyo Puyo will find this to be a nice, simple, and cheap game that could and really should receive some additional aesthetic polish; its core gameplay is solid, and new skins would only help it to compete against the likes of similar incoming titles such as Q Entertainment’s Lumines. At this price, however, it will have one immediate advantage. iLounge Rating: B.