Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems. Today’s four games are bigger than the mini games we typically review in Weird + Small Apps, but smaller than the premium titles we’ve seen in abundance over the past several weeks. As such, we’re going to quickly run through this week’s titles rather than giving them lengthy reviews.
Our pick of the bunch is Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor. Read on for all the details.
Of the four titles, Orbital ($3) by Bitforge is the most visually interesting, but also the one that depends the most upon its graphics to elevate what’s otherwise a fairly simple game. Sort of like the sport of curling, you control the firing button of a cannon that sways automatically back and forth at the bottom of the screen, shooting puck-like projectiles into the top and middle of the screen. When a puck comes to rest, it creates a circle with the number 3 inside, and needs to be hit three times in order to disappear. The goal is to keep on creating and destroying circles with your pucks, while avoiding having any puck bounce back and cross over a line dividing your cannon from the rest of the playfield. If this happens, the game ends. In Pure mode, the pucks go straight from the cannon’s tip to a given direction; in a second mode, called Gravity, the circles appear and create gravitational fields. Both modes can be accessed in a two-player shared screen version, as well.
Bitforge has used a vector and particle graphics engine that looks a lot like powered-up retro titles such as Geometry Wars, giving its objects neon glowing edges, its pucks a whole lot of sparkle, and its backdrops the appearance of constant motion; it also includes an audio track that is modern, a little funky, and fun to listen to. Really, the only thing that’s weak is the gameplay, which is a little challenging, but also only a little more exciting than curling. The same aesthetics with a stronger game underneath would be a lot more compelling. iLounge Rating: C+.
Taito had a hit years ago with Bust-a-Move, a game that was exactly like Electronic Arts’ new Snood ($4), another game where you control a cannon at the bottom of the screen and fire colored blocks into a collection of existing blocks occupying the top and middle of the screen. In Bust-a-Move, the blocks were bubbles and the theme was over-the-top-Japanese-cuteness; in Snood, the blocks are colored faces—similar to Ngmoco’s Topple series—and alternate between smiles, grimaces and the like when they sit waiting to be matched up and eliminated. As is almost always the case, three or more of a kind can be removed if you position your cannon and shot correctly; otherwise the blocks keep coming closer and closer until you are crushed.
We’re not going to claim to be familiar with the original version of Snood, but frankly, the iPhone OS take on the game doesn’t exactly inspire a great deal of interest in exploring the series’ heritage. One hundred puzzles are promised for the title but look basically the same from level to level, dragging in pacing, looks, and control precision by comparison with Bust-a-Move levels and those in Gameloft’s highly similar Bubble Bash; this title is incidentally now selling for $1-$2, and strikes us as a much more interesting, better value. Try Snood only if you are interested in more futuristic music, Topple-like faces instead of bubbles and balloons, and an online mode that lets you play against other people; you will wind up spending more money in the process. iLounge Rating: C.
The best of these titles by some margin is Tiger Style’s Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor ($3), a legitimately good game that has nonetheless been somewhat overhyped. Like a much earlier Boss Game Studios console game with the same Spider name, Spider puts you in control of a spider who needs to make his way through various platformer-like levels, eating insects and spinning webs. By default, touching the screen will move you left or right in perpetuity on whatever surface you’re touching, but you can flick yourself off a surface to jump, tap your spider and then flick to create lines of silk, and join lines in triangular and box shapes to spin webs. You need to eat a certain number of insects in order to open a portal to leave a level, which requires proper replenishing of your limited silk by eating more bugs, and there are modest rewards—“secret areas”—for exploring around the levels.
Though it doesn’t rival the 3-D engine of the 13-year-old console game, Spider’s strength here is in its hand-drawn, storybook-like 2-D backgrounds, which charmingly depict various rooms of the Bryce Manor home, and in the animation of the title character, who moves with the grace of a certain familiar superhero when dashing from surface to surface and spinning silk. Sound effects are very simple, but the music is charmingly composed to match the art with a mixture of curiosity and adventure, and the controls are wonderfully intuitive. Length isn’t an issue, either, as the game has 28 levels—many on the short side if you complete them without trying to eat everything—but given the manner in which the platform and spider-specific ones have been explored before, this title is good rather than great, and will have more value and appeal to casual players and kids than serious platforming fanatics. That said, it’s a good start for an unknown company, and at the price, surely worth seeing if the theme interests you. iLounge Rating: B+.
Last but not least in this group is Synth Racing ($1), also known as iSR, from Race to the Moon. This is in short a game that has obviously been designed by fans of Sony’s Wipeout series who haven’t quite gotten around to developing a full game around their otherwise solid 3-D engine, which displays your choice of Wipeout-like hovercrafts hurtling straight forward through a maze-like collection of pillars and plates that have been arranged into obstacles and tunnels. Your goal is to avoid collisions while building up faster and faster speeds by making your craft dodge the obstacles, hit speed-up icons, and use a few tricks to increase or temporarily slow down the pacing; you tilt the iPhone or iPod touch to steer, and use buttons on screen to do speed-bumping barrel rolls, flip your ship on its side to avoid tall and narrow tunnel collisions, or “retro boost” to make things slow for a moment.
Once again, the strength of iSR is in the graphics engine, which recalls the Zone tracks of the latest Wipeout games by using simple geometry and bright, shifting colors as you fly through three different levels; decent techno tracks play in the background as you ride, along with an appropriate engine noise. Its weakness is in the simplicity and visual similarity of the courses, which are short and just about as fun to fly through as levels of space shooters such as Starfox, rather than offering the thrills and vehicle-on-vehicle jousting of titles such as Wipeout. The developers seem to acknowledge that the game is unfinished right on the App Store selling page by suggesting that it’s not yet “complete,” but this raises a question we find ourselves asking all the time with iPhone OS apps: why not actually finish a game’s development rather than releasing and charging for a glorified tech demo? What’s here is a nice start to something, but it’s not a full enough game to recommend to most people at this stage. iLounge Rating: C+.