This week, iLounge’s editors are rounding up a number of iPhone and iPod touch games and apps that we’ve really liked, but haven’t been able to shoehorn into neat comparative reviews with other releases. Yesterday, we looked at Google Earth, a puzzler called Spin, and a quarter-bouncing game called Beer Bounce. Today’s iPhone Gems looks at two genres of titles, starting with two photo comparison games, then moving on to six diverse space-themed shooting or flying titles.
Our first two titles today are based on a sports bar game, designed to reward players for quickly finding five differences between two highly similar photographs. The first is ESPN Cameraman (Free) by EpicTilt, which as the name suggests is focused solely on sports photography; the second is Bric Entertainment’s Photo Hunter ($1).
Of the two titles, ESPN Cameraman is definitely more polished. While it doesn’t offer the breadth of subject matter found in Photo Hunter, the quality of photographs and the presence of a quality—if repetitive—audio portion make the game more exciting to watch and hear. ESPN offers over 70 base images, each very obviously professional, taken from NFL, MLB, NBA, NCAA, and Olympic games, as well as other sporting events. One or both of the on-screen images has been edited to create differences that you need to spot, sometimes the position of a towel, other times the omission of a brand logo, and still others the position of a ball in mid-air. Touch either of the photos to note a difference, and a dotted circle zooms in from off the screen, showing that you’re correct. You have three hints that can be used during your session, and three lives—or failures to spot all five differences before the time runs out.
Cameraman’s only major issues are its limited subject matter and modest number of photos. If you’re not a fan of sports, you won’t get excited about what’s on display here, however, we actually found that we did better spotting differences in images that we weren’t as interested in viewing for the subject matter. On the flip side, if you’re really a fan of sports or games like this, you may well find that you’ve run through the game’s 70 images after a day or two of play. The developer promises a “Deluxe Edition” that will allow you to add “more pictures updated on the fly with the very latest from your favorite sports action.” We’ll see how that one turns out, but what’s here right now is a pretty good free app. iLounge Rating: B.
Photo Hunter has a different set of strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, developer Bric Entertainment has assembled a collection of over 120 real-world photographs in “General,” “Nature,” “Sports,” “Landmarks,” and “Food & Drink” categories, some of which are actually really interesting. It has also developed a nice front end for the game, with generally clean, colorful menus, and like Cameraman, Photo Hunter offers an online leaderboard so that you can compare scores against other players.
Where Photo Hunter treads water is in the quality of the photography and the overall game experience. Substantially Asia-themed—a fact which we happen to like a lot, but others may not be as excited about—the images look like outtakes from vacation photography, typically missing the depth of field, contrast, and composition of the shots in Cameraman. Sometimes this matters, as differences between shots can be hard to spot and indistinct; other times, it doesn’t.
There are other signs that Photo Hunter needs a bit more polish. There’s no music, and only simple sound effects; the free ESPN title does better in both departments. There are also in-game issues, such as comparatively bland-looking difference circles, a less attractive in-game interface—bad fonts and icons—and tiny photo issues. The shot of the breakfast, for instance, has a difference off to the left of the pancake plate that the game didn’t recognize. While the developer promises updates with additional user-created pictures, a realtime multi-player mode, and more, we’ll have to see how the app evolves over time; for now, it’s a little under our general recommendation level. iLounge Rating: B-.
The remaining six titles we look at today could all be summed up as falling within the “airplane or spaceship” category, but actually represent a variety of genres. Though none really blew us away, each one may be interesting to some of our readers.
There are occasionally hints of what superb gaming devices the iPod and iPhone could become. Resolution Interactive’s Clusterball Arcade ($10) is one of them. Though it’s too expensive and could seriously benefit from a controller accessory, Clusterball Arcade is a visual showcase for the iPhone OS, demonstrating how great arcade-style flying games could be on this platform.
The idea is novel and intriguing. You’re flying a futuristic aircraft through open environments filled with obstacles, tracks, balls, and floating hoops. Ideally, you fly your ship onto the tracks, scoop up as many balls as possible, and zip them through the hoops. Doing this, and picking up occasional timer power-ups, keeps the clock from hitting zero before you reach each stage’s final finish hoop. If you don’t fly fast enough, hit zip pad areas of the tracks, and run enough balls through the hoops, your timer will run out before you complete the stage; hit too many obstacles and your ship gets messed up. There are airborne and land-based dangers to avoid; of course, you tilt the iPhone or iPod to fly around them, and try to stay on the tracks.
Where this game approaches brilliance is in its use of multiple tracks per stage. There’s a fairly simple track in the center, and more challenging ones off to the sides, so as you get better, you can try to fly left or right rather than just down the middle to get more points and face more challenges. The variety of power-ups on the 10 courses, combined with the timer, keep the game very interesting; a decent, less than inspired soundtrack is included, as well.
But Clusterball Arcade falls off in the same places that so many other iPhone OS titles experience problems: controls and stability. The lack of an on-screen recalibration option means that there are only certain positions you can play the game in; sitting is one of them. We couldn’t steer properly when we tried to play the game standing up—between screen glare and the angles we needed to hold the iPod on, it was actually unpleasant. Similarly, though the sensitivity is okay, making the sorts of sharp turns the game needs for its alternate paths isn’t as easy as it should be. There are also significant stability issues; the game seemed to bring up a low memory warning every other time we played it, even after restarts and when we weren’t running any other apps at the same time. The suggested solution, restarting the iPhone or iPod touch, is inconvenient.
Ultimately, if Clusterball Arcade was less expensive and more stable, we and most users would grudgingly put up with the control issues; however, in its current form, we have to rate it as only a limited recommendation. There is a lot here to like, and arguably even love—this is a very impressive game conceptually and visually—but there’s an equal amount of frustration in trying to make it play as it should on the iPhone or iPod touch. Like so many other games we’ve tried, a little extra development time would have made a world of difference. iLounge Rating: B-.
Zone Warrior ($4) by Horsham Online has been properly described as an ode to the classic Atari 8-bit computer game Star Raiders, placing you in control of a spaceship that wanders around in 3-D space shooting down targets before docking with a nearby space station. Early stages are spent defending the stations from “space mines,” asteroid-like balls that threaten to smash into the station and you, exploding on contact. Later, you encounter enemy ships—alternately called “aliens” and “raiders”—which need to be taken down with a combination of your lasers and a limited number of missiles. Steering is handled reasonably through the device’s accelerometer—no small feat—with speed, reverse flying, and weapons handled though on-screen buttons.
On one hand, Zone Warrior is not exciting. To be more precise, it’s about as exciting as Star Raiders was 25 years ago, which is to say that the experience of flying around in fishtanks full of space mines isn’t exactly thrilling, though Horsham Online has done a good job of populating its space sectors with pretty space backdrops and fine models of planets and space stations. There’s no soundtrack and very limited audio, but there are plain but decent explosion effects and similarly decent overlays for maps and controls. Perhaps the most visually interesting moment of the game is when a tractor beam appears to dock you with a space station at the end of a level; the boxy light beam effect is simple, but nice.
In our view, Horsham has come part of the way towards making a game that’s worth $4 per download. It has the 3-D models, the general gameplay, and the backdrops right, but it needs more compelling scenarios and action than just flying around and shooting at boring targets. If you’re a fan of old computer games like Star Raiders or the Wing Commander titles, Zone Warrior might be worth checking out right now, but we’d wait to see it get more polish. iLounge Rating: B-.
We’re huge fans of shooting games, so we were excited hen we saw that Stellar Blaster ($5) by Jean Pierre Martineau had been added to the store. There’s a spaceship, enemy spaceships, boss encounters, and guns—what more does a shooter need?
The answer is “a lot.” Like Zone Warrior, Stellar Blaster feels like a throwback to the days of old computer games that people used to play on Atari ST and Commodore Amiga machines, but without the X factors that transform a plain jane title into a real video game. You’re presented with a ship from an overhead view, and turn your device to make the space background spin 360 degrees to hit targets. Enemies come from all directions, and you shoot at them while picking up power-ups to expand the direction of your weapons, enhance your shield, and so on. Buttons on screen let you shoot and move faster; take too many hits to your shield and you’re dead.
With the exception of big boss ships, that’s it. There’s no soundtrack, limited sound effects, and just level after level—25, actually—of spinning around and shooting at dumb targets until you’ve hit enough to move on. Whereas some games can pull off the retro concept with either strong homage aesthetics or smart, campy parodies of old art, Stellar Blaster instead feels like an uninspired demo that the developer deemed just good enough to try and sell. It’s not worth $5, or even $2; levels this mediocre wouldn’t have passed muster as bonus stages in the best 16-bit console shooters of 1989. We’d pass. iLounge Rating: C-.
Vektrax ($1) by Metismo is a somewhat different story. Priced at a more attractive level, it is the heir to numerous shooting games that place you in control of a spaceship that careens inside and outside of tubes, blowing apart enemies and hitting checkpoints to keep ahead of an ever-ticking clock at the top of the screen.
We had mixed feelings about Vektrax’s design approach. Having played lots of other games like this, most notably the Gremlin title N2O for the original PlayStation, which was infused with a superb soundtrack by The Crystal Method, it’s hard to be impressed by a game that puts so little effort into the art, the intelligence of its enemies, the special effects, or audio. Metismo has created tubes that differ only modestly from checkpoint to checkpoint, switching colors to let you know you’ve moved on, and enemies that seem to exist merely to provide ways to keep your fuel up. There’s no shooting button; all you do is steer by turning the device left and right, change speeds by tilting forward and back, and use a booster button—frequently—to keep yourself within the timer’s limits. Vektrax auto-fires for you, and your guns gradually spread out, enabling you to hit more targets as you spin inside and outside of the tubes.
That said, Vektrax actually has some charm. The sense of motion and turning is accentuated by the game’s tilting of its scoreboard, timer, and heads-up-display based on the way you’re holding the iPod or iPhone, and though the graphics are primitive, they’re not bad. For $1, this is a better than average little title; we would love to see the developer take the necessary steps to make it into a more sophisticated game. iLounge Rating: B-.
We’ll only briefly discuss rRootage (Free), a title from Lazrhog Games that is based on a 2003 overhead shoot-em-up developed by Kenta Cho. rRootage is an homage to the end-of-stage boss encounters found in late 1990’s and early 2000’s shooting games, which Japanese game developers such as Treasure transformed by forcing players to dodge or in some cases absorb insane numbers of bullets in order to defeat the boss. Here, the bosses and bullet patterns are randomly generated, and you can play in four modes: normal, PSY (based on Success’s Psyvariar), IKA (based on Treasure’s Ikaruga), and GW (based on Capcom’s Gigawing). All of them put you in control of a ship that is constantly firing a stream of energy from the bottom of the screen to the top, and capable of using a special ability—dropping bombs or changing colors, for instance—when necessary.
There are forty stages that can all be selected on the title screen, and each can be played in any of the four modes. In Normal mode, bullets are all deadly but can be defeated by dropping bombs; in PSY mode, bullets can be absorbed to build up a gauge that makes your ship invincible; in IKA mode, you can absorb bullets of one color but not another, and in GW mode, your ship can temporarily reflect bullets.
The concept behind rRootage is a great one—boss encounters are often the best parts of shooters, and the titles rRootage is inspired by are amongst the best shooters ever made—but the execution here isn’t exceptionally impressive. Collision detection is spotty, such that you don’t necessarily get damaged even in normal mode by bullets you touch, and there are times when the game doesn’t respond to controls at all, even when you swipe your finger on the screen to move the ship around. Music that was originally part of the rRootage title hasn’t made it yet to the iPhone OS version, and though the original game was the same way, the stages here feel unfinished—like attempts to vaguely replicate cool boss encounters without capturing all of their fun. For now, this is a demo—and an ad for Lazrhog’s other iPhone OS titles—but over time, it could become more compelling. As a free title, it’s worthy of an okay rating. iLounge Rating: C+.
We really didn’t want to waste a lot of words on Mission 22 ($1) from Hunter Research and Technology, but we felt compelled to write something after downloading it. This title, which looks good in screenshots, is nothing more than a demo with a price tag—the sort of software that we hate seeing on the App Store because it draws you in with its screenshots and marketing pitch, steals your dollar, then utterly disappoints when you play it.
With the F-22 Raptor airplane as its inspiration, Mission 22 claims to be an “addictive, action packed 2-D shoot ‘em up game with rich graphics, great sound effects, and a rocking background track.” We’d only agree with one of those three claims, and then, only partially. There is a single “rocking” background track, which is fine, but repetitive. Everything else about this title, from the bland sound effects to the flat graphics, ranges from mediocre to poor.
Hunter presents you with an overhead view of the F-22 as it flies over five types of terrain, firing its cannons and missiles to take down enemy planes and missiles. The “terrain” consists of flat, repeating landscapes that are obscured by a partially transparent layer of clouds. You keep flying for as long as you can stay alive, using accelerometer tilts to move left, right, forward, and backwards. None of this is necessarily bad. But Mission 22 is what we might charitably call deconstructionist software: there aren’t levels. There aren’t ascending challenges. There isn’t a point, besides shooting down more poorly-animated planes and missiles. Want to see a different background? You’re supposed to go to the settings menu and select different terrain. There’s just no structure here, unless you call flying until you run out of planes a “game.”
We wouldn’t. This game actually manages to be less thoughtful and worthwhile than the free Discovery Channel Cannon Challenge title we tested two months ago; the only touches that are even vaguely compelling are ones that most people won’t care about, like the occasional presence of white air trails (vortices) on the plane’s wingtips. Titles like this make us realize just why the old Nintendo Seal of Quality existed, and why Apple’s “almost anything goes” attitude towards App Store releases is hurting customers as much as it’s helping them. iLounge Rating: D-.