B’s, B’s, B’s. This week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems is full of flat B’s—with the exception of one title, every game we reviewed in this collection struck us as good, not great, yet worthy of telling you about. Every game here is a “shooter” in some sense of the word: the first ones are arcade-style overhead shooters, followed by a Peggle-like pachinko game, and finally a unique networked multiplayer side-scrolling title.
Normally, we use the top of our Gems roundups to draw special attention to any game with a B+ or higher rating, but this week, almost everything here is equally worthy of attention. Let’s get down to the details, shall we?
For whatever reason, overhead 2-D shooters have popped up on the iPhone and iPod touch at a much faster clip than side-scrollers, and though the overhead genre isn’t our favorite, we’ve continued to watch these releases with interest. This week, we look at two new releases: Glandarius ($5) by AQ Interactive and the long-awaited iFighter ($1) by EpicForce, which is also available in a free version called iFighter Lite.
Glandarius is a five-stage, space-themed overhead shooter that places you in control of a ship that has the ability to move left and right, but not up or down. Rather than firing automatically, you need to tap the screen to let out bursts of bullets or locked-on lasers, and there aren’t any power-ups: your standard bullets do a good job of tearing through the waves of small- and medium-sized ships that fill the stages, as well as occasional ground-based turrets, tanks, and targets. At the end of every stage is a boss encounter, sometimes evolving from its original physical form of a larger but not exactly huge ship or tank; predictably, they all need to be hit multiple times before they collapse.
On the surface, Glandarius initially appears to be an extremely well-developed shooter, with attractive multi-layer background art and very neat techno music, responsive swipe controls and a smooth frame rate—everything we’re looking for in a shooter. But as the five levels progress, completion of each taking literally minutes rather than hours, the art actually declines a bit in impressiveness rather than improving, and both the enemies and bosses underwhelm; the game’s automatic lock-on targeting and lack of power-ups reveal the title to be shallow, as well. Way overpriced for what you actually get, Glandarius would do better as a $1 game than a $5 one, but by the same token, significant additions to its gameplay and tweaks to its levels could easily make it a real standout on this platform. iLounge Rating: C+.
By comparison, iFighter is a very ambitious little game for its $1 price: it offers four levels, each with its own audio track, and three different forms of control—accelerometer tilting, swiping, or an on-screen joypad. Moreover, it thoroughly embraces its World War II military theme, giving players the ability to control a single plane as it flies over villages, water, and military installations, with full freedom of left, right, up, and down motion and upgradeable weapons. Your basic cannon expands to include multiple bullets, and assistant side planes can get called in to help widen the spread of your fire, as well. In keeping with the traditions of most of the overhead shooters out there, you’re also given a limited number of massive bombs to deploy with a button press on the bottom of the screen.
Graphically, iFighter is somewhere between good and impressive. The detail in its levels, the movement of its on-screen enemies, and the consistently solid frame rate are all laudable, but the level art is visually muted in colors and lacking in energy by comparison with Gameloft’s Siberian Strike. We could also say the same for the title’s serviceable music and gameplay, both of which are comparatively familiar and uninspired, but Siberian Strike started life as a $6 game and this is a $1 title—it’s hard to criticize a budget title for having a budget approach.
The major criticism we’d levy at iFighter is control-related: at this stage of its life, it’s obvious that iFighter was designed around accelerometer-based movement controls, and that the swipe and virtual joypad controls were added later, with none serving as a completely satisfying way to manuever your plane around on screen. In our experiences, Siberian Strike and even Glandarius offered much more motion precision, while the plane in iFighter jerks around too much, even with the joypad—something that we’d expect will be fixed with an improved sensitivity design in a subsequent release. Additionally, the game’s power-up system is so heavily focused on dispensing stars and medals that the screen often feels as if it’s littered with them, rather than the more useful and necessary weapon upgrades that players would really want. For the low entry price, this game is already worth trying if you’re a fan of overhead shooters, but it could easily be so much more with improved controls. Try the one-level Lite version to get a sense of what you’re getting into. iLounge Rating (Both): B.
To call Rockchinko ($3) a Peggle wannabe would be accurate—it’s obvious that this game would never have existed but for PopCap’s famous title—but developer Plaid & Pin hasn’t just cloned the original and added nothing to the formula; it actually has come up with a few neat tricks that PopCap could easily consider borrowing back in an eventual Peggle sequel.
Like Peggle, Rockchinko gives you control over a cannon that fires one ball at a time from the center top of the screen down into a maze of blue and red pegs, requiring you to remove all the red pegs in order to progress to subsequent levels. Here, you have 40 stages to complete, spread across eight themed backdrops, and the developer has added three things to the Peggle mix that make the stages more interesting: unbreakable moving challenge platforms that change the angle of your ball once it’s been fired, power-ups that can be collected and stored in an on-screen tray for later use, and a completely different approach to gravity. While neither of the first two elements is strictly novel to Rockchinko—Peggle has occasional unbreakable platforms and once-per-stage power-ups, too—this title uses them with much greater frequency, and that changes the game’s balance in interesting ways. More importantly, tilting the device or turning it upside down enables you to literally turn the ball upside-down inside the array of pegs and allow you to grab pegs that you’d otherwise miss; levels that seem far too hard can also be beaten with a good powerup, so you can activate multi-balls or automatic blue-peg removers at will to let you do a lot of peg damage at once.
Though these changes make the game more fun than it might have been without them, Rockchinko stumbles in some of the specifics. In addition to the graphics, which could stand to be a little less pixelated and similar from stage to stage, the game’s swipe-based control doesn’t feel as smooth as Peggle’s; it provides no line-based targeting assistance when you’re taking shots, and when you miss a shot, you don’t have a prayer at getting a free ball. Tilting the device early and often is the best way to win stages. Plaid & Pin has included a lot of music, but it’s not as charming as Peggle’s on the iPod or other devices, and sometimes a bit annoying; that said, the iPhone version of Peggle is presently all but music-less. And finally, the absence of Peggle’s Extreme Fever end of stage bonus is accentuated by the developer’s decision to clone the dramatic end-of-stage zoom-in effect and use rousing classical music to accompany it, but there’s no payoff in the form of a bonus. While Rockchinko is part of the way towards establishing itself as a viable alternative to Peggle, and currently represents a good value for the price, added polish could make it into an A-caliber title. iLounge Rating: B.
It’s simple, it’s cheap, and it’s cool: despite what it appears to be on the surface, DinoSmash Online ($1) by Eurocenter isn’t a typical run-and-shoot platform game—it’s actually a networked multiplayer deathmatch shooter where you control a cartoony, well-armed baby dinosaur as he tries to survive round after round of being shot at or hit with oversized mallets by identical dinosaurs.
Though DinoSmash Online currently feels like a work in progress due to its lack of levels, what’s here so far is pretty cool. Teams of green and gold dinosaurs are controlled by up to 16 individual players over Wi-Fi, with no need for the player to find people to fight with or against. The title boots up, starts playing upbeat music, and lets you start playing a deathmatch or capture the flag mode immediately. Should you want to do so, you can create lists of friends to play with or choose from specific “tables” that have been set up with games already, but this isn’t necessary.
Once you’re in the game, you have very simple controls: a left and right joypad that moves you and tilts your gun, a firing button, a jump/double-jump button, a grappling hook button, and the ability to switch weapons. Your oversized mallet can be used even if you have no ammo for the game’s various gun power ups—bazookas, shotguns, and so on—and you can collect weapons, life, and ammo by running around in the maze. As the entire game is presented from a 2-D side-scrolling perspective, maneuvering through the maze is mostly a matter of jumping and running at the right times, not getting shot by other dinosaurs, and finding enough hearts to keep yourself alive. The frame rate is fast, the action is intense, and the visuals are impacted negatively only by one thing: the constantly updating, text-based statuses of other people who are showing up and being cut down.
What we like about DinoSmash right now is its simple approach: rather than trying to build a huge, complex multiplayer game, the company has started with a low price, straightforward, fun weapons, and a large level that still manages to give many simultaneous players plenty of opportunity to find and blast each other. Anyone can figure out the controls, run around, shoot and get shot, then come back for more. But it’s also obvious that EuroCenter has a real task ahead of it at this point: people won’t be thrilled with the current level for long, and they may well tire of trying to distinguish the similar-looking green and gold dinosaurs, besides. With more maps and more characters to choose from, DinoSmash could easily become a killer app for multiplayer iPhone gaming; today, it’s a cheap, neat little demo with better than average production values. iLounge Rating: B.