Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems! Today, we look at three recent App Store game releases that we felt were worth sharing with you: an underhyped and highly impressive miniature golf game, an overhyped and less than thrilling platformer, and a little known, action-based tower defense game.
Our pick of the week is Mini Golf Wacky Worlds from GLU. Read on for all the details.
The average game player has a far better experience playing games than the typical game reviewer: we have to wade through many bad releases – some with a lot of potential but poor execution – before finding ones that are great enough to highly recommend. So it’s with a mix of surprise and pleasure that we spotlight GLU’s newest title, Mini Golf Wacky Worlds ($3), a miniature golf game that is impressive overall, and particularly at this price level. GLU offers players 36 holes of miniature golf fun spread across four different courses; a Tiki-themed first course is playable from the start, with three others unlockable thereafter.
What’s impressive about Mini Golf Wacky Worlds is its course design, which in modern fashion strays from pure miniature golf reality in order to create visually appealing, complex courses. On early courses, the surreal elements start out small—a little vortex that sucks your ball into a tiki statue’s mouth, a flow of lava that might as well be water, and a spiraling pathway that would be far too high for a real golf course to build. But these elements become increasingly bold and interesting as the holes go on; the second set of holes is set in a vaguely Mario-esque world of floating platforms, waterfalls, and oversized mushroom caps, all of which you play through swing by swing of your club. Later courses, Arctic Nine and Cheese World, are similarly mixes of plausible and implausible elements.
There are certain parts of the Mini Golf experience that are very impressively developed. All of the courses are in plausible 3-D, largely flat-shaded but with some textures, a design choice that generally keeps up smooth frame rates despite plenty of on-course animation, complex courses, and continuous dynamic camera motion that tracks the ball’s progress. Putts are accompanied by smoke-trailed balls that produce stars when they hit walls, and your character shakes to signal his or her happiness when putting par or better. Pre-putt course fly-throughs are handled in realtime 3-D, yet presented in a movie-like window with a scroll bar so that you can stop and re-watch any part of the presentation to your heart’s content. A four-position camera button lets you see more or less of the course at a given time, as you need, and accumulated points can be used to customize your character, change characters, and even improve their golf club’s capabilities, including adding clubs with iPhone-tilting ball movement enhancers.
The only non-trivial issue with Mini Golf Wacky Worlds is the nature of the gameplay: it is unquestionably simple, and so deliberately straightforward that serious golfers may see the title as little more than a golf-themed roller coaster ride at times. In Tee Off! mode, players need concern themselves mostly with three things: the initial position of the character, the angle the character will putt from, and the power of the putt. All three are handled with intuitive sliding gestures that make the game simple enough for anyone to play; the courses are just challenging enough that you’ll need to re-play them twice or so to achieve par scores, unlocking the next set of nine holes. Wind, timing, and other elements of golf aren’t really factors here, apart from occasional moving course obstacles or platforms that need to be dodged or hit at the right moment. They’re not so much challenging as they are there to break up the monotony of traditional miniature golf gameplay; similarly, a Gopher Mode adds gophers as added obstacles to the courses to whack with balls, and a timed mode just adds a clock. A comparatively small issue is that the music is upbeat but bland, with simple sound effects.
But for the most part, GLU has succeeded in delivering a creative and very strong new game for iPhone and iPod touch users. For $3, Mini Golf Wacky Worlds may occasionally be a roller coaster ride, but it’s a really impressive one: fans of cartoony artwork and miniature golf will find it to be fun, cheery, and a great value for the price, with lots of surprisingly cinematic moments and customization options. It’s highly recommended, and we’re already keeping our fingers crossed for a sequel. iLounge Rating: A-.
We have less to say about the other two games in today’s Gems roundup. First is Besieged ($2) by Squiddle Games, the latest in what seems like a never ending stream of tower defense games for the iPhone OS. This one is different from the rest in that it presents the tower—your castle—from the side, giving you a plain-looking scrolling 2-D landscape filled with attacking hordes of monsters, and an archer who needs to fire arrows into their midst to stop them from destroying the castle. You swipe to scroll from left to right on the battlefield, and tap on a spot to fire an arrow there, taking into account the movement of the soldiers coming towards you. Simple music plays in the background, along with fine sound effects every time you or a monster attacks or gets killed.
Many of these games are almost purely about strategy, requiring you to place defenses on a pathway and watch as they deplete the enemy forces one by one; this one is more action-focused, putting you in control of where the archers launch their arrows, then rewarding you with gold points to use towards upgrading the archers, your arrows, and your defenses. Predictably, the enemies become stronger and more capable as the levels progress, gaining better weapons—including bows of their own—and you need to focus at least as much on fortifying your castle and properly aiming your arrows as on anything else.
By the standards of tower defense titles we’ve seen, the gameplay’s very basic, the graphics and music are pretty simple, and the long-term appeal is more a question of how much you care to keep playing than any difference in the backgrounds or challenges as you go along. Sitting on the fine edge of a full iPhone OS game and something we’d place in our Weird and Small Apps column, Besieged strikes us as an average title at best, with a decent theme—stronger music, more compelling backdrops, and deeper gameplay might make it more interesting. iLounge Rating: C.
The last title today is Spy Bot Chronicles (introductory price $1), the latest in a series of 2-D side scrolling platform games from IUGO Mobile Entertainment. First in the series was Toy Bot Diaries Entry 1, a simple and wildly overhyped title, which was followed by a sequel that was better but still not great, and another sequel that we just skipped because we were getting tired of playing the same thing again and again. Spy Bot Chronicles is essentially more of the same—super-simple kid-friendly action—but with better if less diverse controls.
This time out, you control a robot using left and right movement buttons and a jump button, soon getting a laser gun that’s activated by touching wherever on the screen you want to shoot. There are doors and platforms to interact with via activation touches, enemies who show up to throw things at you or push you around, and so on. The enemies are mostly dumb robots, and require multiple shots to destroy, which occupies your fingers but generally isn’t much fun.
Apart from the shooting, Spy Bot offers standard platforming action with very little soul and limited energy; as with the prior Toy Bot titles, Spy Bot feels like you’re just going through the motions, albeit with nicely shaded 2-D artwork and decent music. At a point in time at which iPhone OS platformers are becoming considerably better, complete with 3-D art and more console-like controls, we found the action and level designs to be less “fun” than “time-consuming,” the sort of stuff that would never pass muster on a Sony PSP or Nintendo DS. Spy Boy Chronicles rises just enough above the lower standards of mobile phone gaming to seem decent, and the action is tame enough to recommend to younger players at its introductory price; that said, if it joins the other Toy Bot games at the $4 level, we’d pass. iLounge Rating: B-.