Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone Gems! For months, we’ve been waiting for the release of two new rhythm games—Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution S, and Tapulous’s Tap Tap Revenge 2—after playing their predecessor releases for the iPhone. Now they’re here, along with three other games that vary in genre from ninja-themed shooting and spaceship-themed shooting to simplified platform-style action.
The surprise this week is that the best game we review below is, for a change, one you’ve probably never heard of. Skip straight to Sky Force Reloaded if you want an inexpensive, fun shooter to play through on the iPhone; read on for the details of the other games if one of them might interest you, too.
For a while, Tap Tap Revenge became synonymous with the iPod touch: with beat-tapping gameplay set at first to indie music tracks, then to downloadable songs from a widening number of better-known artists, Tapulous’s highly simplified version of Konami’s famous arcade game Dance Dance Revolution became a super-popular free download from the App Store. Then Tapulous started work on a series of paid sequels: Nine Inch Nails Revenge, Tap Tap Dance, and Christmas With Weezer, each with new music and tweaks to the original’s bland, flat graphics engine. Now Tapulous and Konami have both released updates to their titles: Tap Tap Revenge 2 (Free) and DanceDanceRevolution S ($7) recently joined the App Store’s growing games lineup; leading up to DanceDance’s paid release, Konami has also offered DanceDanceRevolution S Lite as a free sample version for iPhone and iPod touch users.
Tap Tap Revenge 2 is essentially a graphically overhauled remake of the original Tap Tap Revenge, applying some—not all—of the lessons learned from Tap Tap Dance to the company’s free title. Once again, you mostly tap or shake the iPod/iPhone as icons float from the top of the screen past a line at the bottom: if a ball touches the line, you tap; if an arrow touches the line, you shake in that direction. Now, there are “tap and hold” and “multi-tap” icons, too. Visually, the game rewards you for successive proper taps, shakes, and holds by making the background pulse more interestingly, and sonically, Tapulous has upgraded the music by offering a catalog of 150 downloadable tracks—most are from artists you’ve most likely never heard of, but a few are from prior Tap Tap paid download partners. As a mixed positive and negative, you need to download tracks individually as you decide you want them, saving space on your device but also requiring repeat connections to Tapulous to populate the game past its extremely anemic initial song lineup.
Once again, what Tap Tap 2 has going for it is accessibility and pricing. Unlike DanceDanceRevolution S, it’s easy enough to play that anyone can figure it out, and as you up the difficulty level, the challenges become progressively and reasonably greater—just as one would expect. Since it’s free, there’s not much room to complain about the pre-game bottom-of-screen advertising, the varied quality and interest of the audio tracks, or the repeating background art, which uses a fine, cartoony-looking 3-D starfield over and over again rather than changing to some of the cooler themed backdrops that appeared in Tap Tap Dance’s boss stages. But we’ll complain a little, anyway: the game could stand to have more background art. Seriously. Tap Tap Dance proved that it was possible, and came up with some great themes, which are absent even for songs that appear in both games such as Daft Punk’s Technologic.
That said, Tapulous has tried to make the game more compelling than before. An online server, flooded after the game’s release, offers location-based matchmaking for networked games and a leaderboard with global rankings. Unfortunately, despite a fairly novel scheme for pairing people up—the app auto-downloads a song from the catalog for both people to use—the online play is beset by lengthy multi-minute delays before you play, and less than totally fluid presentation while you’re doing so. A two-person simultaneous on-screen mode is similar to Tapulous’s prior version, however, and easy to play with another person sharing the same device. Once again, Tapulous has a fine free rhythm app on its hands, but the overall execution leaves a bit to be desired; we’d be more enthusiastic if the cool features from Dance had trickled down to this version, leaving room for improvement in the company’s paid Tap Tap titles. iLounge Rating: B.
Going from Tap Tap 2 to DanceDanceRevolution S is a little like shifting from a disco club to a rave—not, we’ll add, in a good way. Unless you’re a fan of the manic arcade and console games, and then, one who wants to subject your fingers to the same sort of frenzied Twister-on-crack sort of maneuvers that Konami has inspired, you’ll likely find this $7 title to be something close to inaccessible. To re-emphasize the prior point: this is a game for existing DDR fans, not a game that will win the series new ones.
Most of the blame rests on Konami for failing to ease iPod touch and iPhone owners into a game that is at best challenging, and at worst, completely disorienting due to a cluttered interface. In tutorial mode, you can learn the basic controls, which are almost exclusively taps on transparent on-screen up, down, left, and right arrows, with occasional holds on arrows rather than taps. A stream of arrows flows from the bottom of the screen towards the top, and you tap the transparent control arrows corresponding with whichever one or two are currently flowing through a line at the top of the screen. In other words, it’s like Tap Tap Revenge 2’s interface, only upside down, and with one of four buttons to hit on a given beat. Notably, due to how fast the arrows move, no screenshot we took could adequately capture the blurring pace of the action.
In the classic game mode, where songs range from a fair 105 to an insane 222 beats per minute, everything above is just on the fine edge of overwhelming, but add to it a dancing on-screen character and an animated background—both absent from tutorial mode, present in the actual game—and the results are initially visually harsh, quickly scaling to nearly disasterous. The streams of arrows flow over throbbing art and under the transparent controls, requiring both finger dexterity and some special degree of immunity to epileptic strobing; similarly, the music consists of ten unrecognizable but well-composed pop and dance tracks, mixed with harsh sound effects and some not as great menu music from Konami. Put together, it’s an assault on the senses, and that phrase is coming from people who have been playing and loving even intense video games for decades. Apple may be to blame for not offering an external controller option for the iPhone and iPod touch, but if Konami’s going to release games like this one, it needs to seriously rethink how much of the screen it can use for controls, command prompts, and fun graphics.
Where DanceDanceRevolution S works better is in its Shake Mode, which gets rid of the touch-based tapping controls in favor of accelerometer-based shaking, decluttering the screen in a much more pleasing way. Then, in dialogue recorded for a version of the game where you use feet rather than fingers for controls, Konami suggests that you don’t look at the screen and rather listen to spoken commands from the game’s DJ. This mode is fun, lets you enjoy the music a bit more, and stinks only in that you can’t enjoy watching the less cluttered dancing on the screen because you’re constantly shaking the iPhone. Ultimately, Konami appears to have tried its best in various ways to accommodate the various challenges introduced by the iPhone’s limited control schemes, but in our view, the result is only going to satisfy hard-core fans of the series; even then, they’d be better off playing this title on another platform. The Lite version is just a short, comparatively tame taste of the full game, and rates the same limited recommendation. iLounge Rating (Both Versions): B-.
As the first of three remaining games featured today, iNinja ($2) by Geppetto is a ninja-themed shooting game that will remind classic game fans of the intermission stages in Sega’s beloved arcade game Shinobi: you control a throwing star-tossing ninja who is off the bottom of the screen, and pitch star after star at attackers who float from the top of the screen towards you. You have several bars of life, represented by candles, to survive stage after stage of attacks.
What works: iNinja’s backgrounds are beautifully illustrated depictions of Japanese scenery, and the control scheme—flick on the bottom half of the screen to toss stars upwards, hold down to add power to your star—is simple and fun, especially when you discover how many stars you can toss at once, and how they interact with one another. Also cool is the variable factor: balls that appear from level to level, impeding the flow of your stars into the targets, sometimes staying in peg-like place and moving at other times. The music, a decent arcadey track that loops, isn’t bad, either.
What doesn’t work: the enemy artwork is at best uninspired and at worst distracting from the theme; between the repeating waves of colored ninjas and the appearance of UFO attackers, iNinja manages to remain fun, but doesn’t impress as much in the foreground as in the background. Enemy bullets, taking the form of multiple throwing knives and UFO death rays, are similarly fun to stop with your stars but not fantastic to look at. The lack of an on-screen character—Shinobi wisely used only arms, which could conceivably be added here for both damage and attack blocking—also takes away a bit from the presentation, and arguably the gameplay. More diversity, better art, and enhanced thematic music could make this simple game a big hit. iLounge Rating: B-.
One of the great fears gamers have for new platforms is that they’ll become repositories for “shovelware,” basically games that were developed for other devices, then ported without any finesse just to make a quick buck. Magnetic Joe (Free) by HD Publishing is a prime example of that sort of game—essentially, Toy Boy Diaries with no story, deeper gameplay, or decent graphics. You control a ball that floats through a maze, using magnetic tractor beams to move from place to place. Touch the screen and the nearest magnets pull him in their direction, hopefully towards a goal at the end of the stage. Your mission is basically to time your taps such that the ball doesn’t hit spikes and die before touching the goal.
There are 40 levels of this, each with primitive graphics that are basically unchanged from versions of the game that appeared on lower-grade cell phones, and a repeating song that doesn’t do much to improve the mediocre action on display here. It’s all a pretty sad display of what the iPhone can be made to do as a 2-D gaming device without a lot of effort on the part of the developers, and what sort of stuff makes it into the App Store these days. “But it’s free,” you might say, and that’s right; it is—it’s designed as a free enticement to make you interested in upcoming sequels from the publisher. Hopefully they will have way more to offer iPhone gamers than this; the recently-released sequel for other phones appears to be pretty much the same thing with new art. iLounge Rating: C-.
The best of the apps we review today isn’t the most expensive, the flashiest, or the best-known. In fact, Sky Force Reloaded ($1) from Infinite Dreams is—like Magnetic Joe—a port from earlier cell phones, and at its core, a retread of 20-year-old overhead shooting games. You control a spaceship that flies through contemporary military bases, destroying airplanes, helicopters, tanks, ground-mounted turrets, and scenery, upgrading its simple gun through multiple stages of power, spread, and ancillary weapons: missiles, a laser beam, and so on. You’ve probably seen the formula a thousand times before.
And it’s not that Sky Force Reloaded is amazing, but rather, that it is a completely and totally above competent implementation of all of its concepts. Beat a level and you’ll be told that the level’s incomplete: you needed to meet a higher objective percentage to move on to the next level. Oh, you missed the tiny human survivors who needed to be rescued? Thought you could just dodge all those bullets and planes that were wizzing by? Try again, and do better. Maybe you’ll get more of the power-ups that time, too.
What Infinite Dreams has accomplished with this title is to properly execute on several things that make an overhead shooter compelling in this day and age: there’s always something going on, the ship is easy to touch-control and automatically shoots, and there are some occasional 2-D and 3-D effects—including terrain, cloud layers, and so on—that won’t wow you, but will make you feel as if you’re not just looking at a game developed in 3 days from some mediocre artwork. Each of the eight stages has something interesting happening, plus fine retro beep music, and you can continue from stages that you’ve completed. It’s not easy to complete the stages, particularly as you progress through the title; Sky Force Reloaded makes you feel like you’re certainly getting your $1 worth.
That said, the title isn’t perfect. Power-up icons and rescuable humans are too small to discern on screen—something that could easily be fixed with redrawn sprites—the action is intense but a little under ideally smooth, and the music could surely be better. For the price, however, Sky Force Reloaded is hard to fault, and certainly worthy of our high recommendation: if you like overhead shooters, this is one that you should see, and one that Infinite Dreams should quickly follow up with a sequel. iLounge Rating: A-.