Welcome to this week’s second edition of iPhone Gems, which looks at two retro-inspired games from different developers. First up is Space Miner: Space Ore Bust, which evolves the classic 1979 Atari arcade game Asteroids into a deeper and non-linear shooting adventure, followed by Giana Sisters, a clone of Nintendo’s beloved 1985 run-and-jump title Super Mario Bros. Both of these games will attract fans due to the original subject matter, but only one really surpasses the original in the gameplay department.
Our pick of these two is Space Miner. Read on for all the details.
Two words—“Asteroids” and “RPG”—don’t exactly have the catchy ring of “chocolate and peanut butter,” but they do turn out to go better together than we would have expected. In Space Miner: Space Ore Bust ($5), Venan Entertainment has clearly put far more time and effort into developing this simple concept than we’d argue that it deserves, akin to spending a year gold-plating a float for a town parade, but the result is a title that actually advances the Asteroids concept with an amusing storyline, ship upgrades, and some solid if not great graphics.
To be clear, Asteroids clones and evolutions are far from absent in the App Store: Meteor Blitz and any number of other titles have provided a similar overhead view of a small ship, enabling you to turn in a circle, shoot, and thrust while trying to blow up space rocks and enemy ships. In fact, Meteor Blitz does the core of this gameplay better, using twin joysticks for more natural controls than Space Miner’s single rotating dial, thrust button, and firing button, and offering even flashier graphics. Ideally, Venan would have brought the same level of 3-D visual flare and intuitive steering to its game.
But what Space Miner does offer will, for some people, be even better: an actual story, complete with a lot of dialogue and evolving missions. You’re not just shooting rocks here, but rather, mining for space ore that sometimes appears after you break apart and pulverize an asteroid; once you’ve filled your ship with ore, you cash it in for upgraded weapons, shields, engines, and tools to speed up your ore-snagging tractor beam or improve your cargo capacity. Why should you care? Because you’re trying to help your Uncle save his ore mining fields from repossession by the bank, and soon after you discover this, you’ll find that the bank has littered the fields with robots who are trying to grab the ore as collateral. All of the sudden, the game transforms from an Asteroids-alike to a more modern overhead space shooter, and as the enemy robot ships get smarter and bigger—including bosses—you’re treated to a sort of evolutionary lesson walking you through the expansion of the overhead space blasting genre.
Where Space Miner may throw some people is in its deliberately folksy choice of themes: the game plays banjo or banjo-like music—think “old school minin’ ” rather than “futuristic space miner”—and between your hapless Uncle, the obnoxious bankers, and the downplayed power-ups (Slug Buddy guns, a Steam Drive engine), the game’s text has far more of an country twang than might initially be expected. It’s charming, occasionally funny, and enough to sustain the game through the 48 non-linear asteroid fields that are unlocked one or two at a time as you’re playing, using largely 2-D backdrops with pre-rendered 3-D objects to create visual depth. Certainly, there’s enough here for the $5 to keep you busy and entertained for a while if the concept and Asteroids-styled gameplay intrigue you; our hope is to see Venan use its considerable skills next time to update a more compelling classic. iLounge Rating: B+.
As the story goes, the 1987 computer game The Great Giana Sisters so brazenly cloned Super Mario Bros. that its publisher was forced by Nintendo to withdraw it from the market, but pirated copies spread anyway, eventually inspiring remakes and sequels. So 23 year later, we have this—Bad Monkee’s somewhat less provocative version Giana Sisters ($5)—which clearly uses the original Super Mario gameplay as a base, building upon it with additional, less compelling features, and removing much of the polish and charm that made Nintendo’s original game so memorable.
The premise now sees you controlling Giana, a girl who runs, jumps, and bops blocks just like Mario, grabbing the occasional mushroom-like spinning ball to transform into Punk Giana, a red-haired version who—like Fire Mario—can break blocks, shoot fireballs and take one extra hit before dying. Rather than starting you in the original 32 levels, some of which were extremely similar to Super Mario’s maps, Giana Sisters instead offers 80 new levels separated by map screens, and allows you to unlock the “retro” stages later in the game.
Like so many of the other Mario clones prior to Sonic the Hedgehog, Giana Sisters really isn’t that compelling of a game when evaluated on its own merits, and actually spotlights some of the subtle genius of Shigeru Miyamoto’s original design and tuning. Here, you get only left and right buttons—no crouch—along with jump and fireball buttons that don’t have quite the same bounce as Mario’s; running is automatic and doesn’t have Nintendo-style rubbery momentum. Despite obvious physical similarities, bopping stone blocks from below doesn’t kill enemies walking on top of them, and there’s little personality in these creatures: they’re fine-looking but stupid, and you won’t find a Bowser boss here. The developer’s key additions to the prior formula are the addition of numerous gemstones that litter the landscape in a Sonic ring-like manner, as well as hiding in Mario-style boxes, and areas in certain levels that can be reached by falling down the right holes, walking into warp doors, or passing behind background art. No crouch button means that you can’t duck into the pipes that are all over the landscapes; similarly, the game has Mario-like end-of-stage flags but you merely walk past them, with no greater interaction. Obviously, the original designers saw all of Nintendo’s gameplay tricks, but didn’t have the talent to improve upon them.
If nothing else, Giana Sisters scores some points with its charming, upbeat musical score, which is based on the work of a chip composer but thankfully updated with cleaner instruments, and its new artwork, which while nowhere near Nintendo’s efforts on recent portable Mario titles uses colors and 2-D sprites to fine effect. The game feels shallow even by 1985 standards, but it looks and sounds pretty good, and offers Commodore 64 nostalgics a way to relive their younger years. Everyone else will see it as a decent, brief diversion. We’d sooner recommend Castle Of Magic, which offers considerably better use of the iPhone and iPod touch hardware for a lower price. iLounge Rating: C+.