As the iPod touch and iPhone evolve into legitimate portable gaming devices, there are signs that certain game developers are beginning to understand the platform’s strengths and weaknesses. This week, iPhone Gems looks at 10 new games from various sports genres, including two golf games, four air hockey games, two similarly limited volleyball and tennis titles, a soccer game and an auto racing game.
Several are standouts on compelling design, while several others show how certain developers continue to try and charge players for demo-quality garbage. Our gaming picks for the week are Real Soccer ‘09, two versions of Air Hockey, and Raging Thunder; read on for all the details.
The single best game this week is Real Soccer 2009 (aka Real Football 2009, $10) by Gameloft, which continues to demonstrate why it’s the iPhone’s best overall game developer. Unlike so many of the other titles we review below, Real Soccer 2009 is a fully realized 3-D game with the quality of design, graphics, and audio people should expect from an early iPhone OS title: it makes you realize what Apple’s pocket devices are really capable of, rather than leaving you wondering how the title passed any sort of approval process.
For those looking for a short, simple experience, you can play a penalty kick mode, try a practice game, or play an exhibition match; thanks to a FIFPRO license, the 198 teams range from national squads to famous cities within soccer-friendly countries, each with actual player names and stats. Those wanting more can play league games with local teams, and work to unlock 12 different cups with multi-round playoffs. There’s as much to do here as any handheld game player might hope for, and the game saves progress mid-way through competitions so that you can return to where you left off.
Graphically and sonically, Real Soccer 2009 is a very strong first soccer title for the iPhone OS. There are 12 3-D modeled stadiums, complete with crowd chants, interesting-looking if not completely amazing stands, and nice fields. While none of this is the match of the best EA soccer titles released 10 years ago on leading CD-based platforms, it’s all far beyond what we’ve seen on the iPhone in other sporting games to date. Control of your currently-selected player is handled through a translucent on-screen joypad and button overlay, and works quite well given the device’s current constraints, though not as precisely or unintrusively as could be accomplished with a separate joypad. You can zoom the camera to “near” or “far” positions relative to the “normal” default, but can’t manually change the angle or rotation, perhaps because of the need to keep the controls on the screen.
If there’s any issue with this title, it’s the cost. We’re still not sold on the idea of paying $10 for iPhone OS games, but if any piece of entertainment software we’ve seen contains enough overall labor, licensing, and polish to approach our standards for that price, Real Soccer 2009 would be the one. The next version will apparently include real-time Wi-Fi multiplayer support; if this feature or the price matter a lot to you, wait a little and you’ll probably be rewarded. iLounge Rating: A-.
Air hockey isn’t actually a sport, per se, but it’s one of the most competitive action-oriented table games out there. Based on ice hockey, the “air” version is traditionally played on a flat surface that has a light blast of air running through holes on its top, enabling a plastic disk-shaped puck to float gently above rather than resting on the table. Two players each are given an oversized plastic tool called a mallet to swat the puck and prevent it from entering an oversized goal. Typically, the first player to get seven goals wins the game.
The two best air hockey games for the iPhone OS take different approaches to rendering the game fun on a handheld device. Air Hockey ($1) by Acceleroto/Bryan Duke takes the “realistic” approach—its version looks and feels pretty close to the real thing. The puck is the right general size, the mallets are the right size, and scoring takes place unintrusively on the top of the table. Sound effects and physics simulate the real game, as it’s played, without a lot of flash, and there are four levels of difficulty ranging from easy to an amusingly awesome pro, plus a two-player game. In our view, though this isn’t the most amazing iPhone game we’ve ever played, Accelerato gets the pricing just right for a game of its caliber—this is very worthy of the $1 asking price, and legitimately fun to play if you like air hockey. iLounge Rating: A-.
A radically different take is found in Air Hockey! Fingertip Sports ($3) by Sea Lion Games, which transforms the table game into something much bigger. There’s a cheering crowd as audio, sampled voices, sharp sound effects, and substantially more graphical finesse. This version includes three difficulty levels and a two-player mode, plus large, easily handled mallets. But the size of the mallets and the puck relative to the table are too big, the physics engine is a little less accurate than Acceleroto’s, and the gameplay’s ultimately less satisfying, though considerably flashier. At a lower price, and with better-proportioned elements, this game would be as good of an air hockey title as we could imagine on the iPhone. iLounge Rating: B+.
The other two games are considerably less impressive. Air Hockey ($1) by Personae Studioes looks as if its table was drawn on a primitive paint program, and its mallets are so small as to be difficult to use. Nothing seems properly proportioned, but the physics engine is pretty realistic, allowing the puck to actually slow down rather than remaining at top speeds at all times. Despite a sound option, the game plays in silence, and it’s for one player only with three difficulty levels. By comparison with Acceleroto’s game, this hardly seems like a finished piece of software, and isn’t worth paying for. iLounge Rating: C.
AirHockey ($2) by Nicoteam also has some serious issues. On the surface, it looks a lot nicer than Personae’s design, but the game’s artificial intelligence and physics engines are screwy, such that we quickly saw our opponent stuck in the corner bouncing the puck back at itself, and later got engaged in extended but unrealistic and pointless high-speed volleys as the puck went back and forth at super speeds between two stationary mallets. The only cool thing about AirHockey is its goal sound, which blares like an air horn in stadium hockey, and the proportions of its mallets, which mightn’t be the easiest to see, but feel pretty good regardless. Still, this one needs work; the $2 asking price detracts from what otherwise felt like a better game than Personae’s. iLounge Rating: C.
If there’s any sport game genre we love, it’s car racing—we were massive fans of Sega’s Daytona USA coin-op racing series, which eventually gave way to many NASCAR, rally, and Formula One racers. Though prior iPhone racing titles haven’t struck us as totally awesome, we’ve continued to hold out hope for an game with more compelling arcade-style action. At first glance, Raging Thunder by Polarbit seems to be just such a game: it has the general look and feel of Daytona USA, with action-intense, simplified controls and four-car simultaneous racing. There are 10 different courses, four different cars with different handling, acceleration, and speed characteristics, and a few on-track performance enhancers to pick up. You need to keep passing through checkpoints to keep racing; as soon as you fail to hit one before your timer runs out, the game is over. A Wi-Fi multiplayer mode lets you select whichever tracks you’ve unlocked during the game, which is harder than it might initially sound; due to the lack of a simple single-player track selection menu, you are basically stuck going in sequence through tracks here. Gameloft’s Asphalt 4, previously reviewed by us, is much friendlier about track unlocking and selection.
Though we found Raging Thunder to be fine to control after an initial 30 minutes of getting used to the accelerometer-based tilting and automatic acceleration, precise driving proved elusive, and an odd touch-controlled steering alternative with on-screen line art proved worse rather than better. While you don’t need precision to stay on the the course, you do need it to avoid occasionally hitting the walls, which is necessary to keep advancing through tracks, and to grab or avoid icons. Lightning bolts make you go faster, while skulls make you slower, and dollars can be gathered in a championship mode to build up your car’s performance. As with too many iPhone OS driving games, the big “skill” to be learned here is the steering you take for granted on any other pocket device, and it’s combined in Raging Thunder with opponent cars who are certainly not encumbered with accelerometer-based controls.
Graphics and audio here are hard to sum up simply: the visuals are smooth, with fewer graphical hiccups than we’ve seen in other titles, but they’re not exceptionally detailed or as ambitious as in the best prior iPhone graphics engines we’ve seen. Raging Thunder’s backgrounds and cars look pretty good, like an above-par Nintendo 64 title rather than the PlayStation’s surprisingly strong original Ridge Racer, and there’s occasionally a “going fast” special effect such as light trails that actually impresses. Sonically, the game is saddled with mediocre music and sound effects that occasionally just stop working altogether, but at least there’s something here to be heard… most of the time.
Overall, Raging Thunder actually delivers smooth and somewhat interesting arcade-style racing, but between its somewhat harsh approach to track selection and its less than totally precise controls, it doesn’t deliver the completely fun experience we were hoping for. Given its $8 asking price, we’d put it in the same general category as all of the other racers we’ve tried on the iPhone to date: Asphalt 4 remains the category’s most ambitious, but with issues and too high of a price, while this one is a little less ambitious, a little less expensive, and a little smoother. If you’re looking for a multiplayer title, go with Asphalt, but if a simple arcade driving game is what you’re after, this one is worth considering. iLounge Rating: B-.
The single biggest challenge in rating golf games for the iPhone OS is that we’ve played dozens of golf titles over the years and therefore have a good sense of what Apple’s devices are capable of doing, yet nothing we’ve seen comes close quite yet, or sells at the right price for what it offers.
GL Golf ($8) by Nuclear Nova Software comes closest to earning our recommendation. It offers five different golf courses, each with 18 holes, attempts to vaguely simulate both seasons and time-of-day, and features 3-D camera motion that tracks the ball as it moves closer to the hole. You can play alone, or with up to four total players.
By comparison with most golf games released for consoles and handhelds over the last few years, there’s nothing sexy about GL Golf: the textures are mediocre, objects such as trees look completely fake, and the complete absence of pizzazz is more akin to a 1990s PC golf simulator than a modern Sony or Nintendo rendition—fun or realistic—of the sport. But the number of courses is a major plus, and the ability to pick clubs, adjust for wind conditions, and use sliders to tweak the ball’s trajectory and spin, makes this more realistic and deep than the Click Wheel iPod Mini Golf game… and a little more fun. With a better on-screen and control interface, some small graphical tweaks, and a slightly lower price, GL Golf could be a great golf title; as-is, it has the maps and the content, but not the fun factor to keep our attention. iLounge Rating: C+.
Though it looks nice in screenshots, Par 72 Golf (II) ($8) by Chillingo/ResetGame is unfortunately yet another example of a Chillingo release that feels like it was sloppily ported from an old Windows PC game. Whereas GL Golf fives you five courses, Par 72 has three. The game’s similarly presented from a 3-D perspective, but it’s all static screens—there’s no 3-D camera movement. Similarly, the control scheme isn’t just less fun than GL Golf’s; it also lacks the nuances. Textures range from slightly cleaner than GL Golf’s to decidedly uglier, depending on whether you’re on the green or the rough, and though trees look better as static images, they’re just flat objects. The game is also designed for only one player, unlike GL Golf’s one- through four-player modes.
Par 72 Golf’s only interesting features are its ability to rotate on either horizontal or vertical orientations, its choice of male or female golfers, and the fact that it has cooler-looking elevated terrain. As with its earlier Tank Ace 1944, however, these features don’t add much to its appeal, and Chillingo puts the player off through its use of tiny and sometimes nonsensical on-screen icons to access various features, sparing audio, and dull gameplay that makes you feel like you’re going through the motions. For $8, gamers should expect a lot better than this. iLounge Rating: C-.
Tennis and Volleyball
Rather than just describing the video game equivalents of tennis and volleyball as being little more than the classic Pong with different graphics, we’ll note that there have been a number of stunning tennis and volleyball games over the years, particularly ones from Sega, Microsoft, and Tecmo. Neither of the games here rises quite to that level. Tennis Slam ($5) by FinBlade is a cutesy doubles tennis game where you control two on-screen pills who bounce a tennis ball back and forth with two other on-screen pills, with very little control over your characters’ movements or heights of swings. As the computer controls both sides’ characters’ motions on court from left to right, there’s nothing left for you to do than tap the screen to swing, hoping that you return the ball rather than missing it.
Perhaps because the game is presented solely in vertical mode and much of the screen is taken up by a scoreboard, you don’t have nearly the ability to move or see what’s going on that you might in a widescreen tennis game; it’s obvious that FinBlade designed this title to look nice and be basically light entertainment. But by the standards of even the air hockey games above, especially given this title’s comparatively high $5 price tag, Tennis Slam doesn’t feel like it’s a complete game—it’s a flashy interface with very light action taking place inside, and no audio. No matter what the price, and despite how pretty the screenshots look, we’d pass on this one unless the gameplay and audio are given the attention that the graphics have received. iLounge Rating: D+.
Finally, Beach Volleyball ($2) by Resetgame/Chillingo is a complete disappointment. Despite its simplicity, beach volleyball has previously been rendered beautifully by Sega in its Beach Spikers series and Tecmo in its DOA Beach Volleyball titles, making serves and returns exciting, while offering multi-player modes. Unfortunately, this sport is transformed into utter trash here, with one small character per side, a tiny on-screen net, a poorly forced 3-D perspective that gives you little awareness of where the ball is relative to your single on-screen character, and—surprise—mediocre audio, consisting mostly of poor ball, whistle, and ocean wave sounds. The gameplay consists of dragging your character left and right next to the net and hitting the button when you think the ball is close. It’s awful, and summed up pretty quickly as “yet another bad Chillingo title.” We’d pass on this boring, shoddy game even if it was free; releasing several games this bad should be enough to get a company booted from the App Store. iLounge Rating: F.