Welcome to the latest edition of iPhone Gems! This week, we’re spotlighting three applications that are pretty different from one another—an app that spotlights The Beatles’ and Cirque du Soleil’s LOVE album and theatrical performance, a just-released casual game, and a recent update to a classic arcade game series.
Our top pick in the bunch is the free application called The Beatles LOVE, but Bravo Game Studios’ Volcano Escape is also worth checking out if you’re a fan of endless climbing games. We’ve also included a brief “did you see this?” update on EA Sports’ NBA Jam, which we reviewed last week. Read on for all the details.
Cliched though the sentiment may be, we truly loved The Beatles’ LOVE album and live Cirque du Soleil performance, so we were surprised that while the album’s enhanced iTunes re-release received so much attention last week, the simultaneous debut of a related app—The Beatles LOVE (Free, version 4.4.2)—was barely acknowledged. Developed by Mobile Roadie, which creates apps that help musicians promote their music and live performances, this application leverages such a considerable quantity of audio, video, and photo content that Beatles fans should definitely check it out.
Designed largely to complement the Las Vegas show of the same name, LOVE plays Beatles music, as well as streaming video clips from the show, LOVE album, and the show’s All Together Now documentary. Interestingly, the app automatically finds and plays full songs if they’re in your iPod/iPhone/iPad library, and preview clips if not, arguably erring only in selecting original album tracks from your device rather than the remixed ones from the LOVE album. Photos and Love Insider sections include materials found in LOVE’s official show program, while other buttons found on a scrolling pane at the main screen’s bottom lead to news updates, a fan wall, and web-based stores to purchase Beatles merchandise. Taken together, these features bring the band’s sounds and imagery to life while providing new information, a limited social experience, and opportunities to acquire more content.
Viewed most cynically, The Beatles LOVE is little more than a promotional app for the band and show, mixing in bits of information with “buy” buttons, pictures, and web links—the latter within a browsing environment that isn’t optimized for the iPhone or iPod touch. But it’s hard to be cynical here: Mobile Roadie has executed so well on LOVE’s various specifics, ranging from the fun scrolling L, O, V, and E letters at the top of the screen to the content stored within its 17 buttons, that the app actually manages to transcend the value of the printed show program—something that sells for $13 and is not as easy to carry around. All we would want from The Beatles LOVE is even more content: full-length videos from the show and a more device-specific web store. It’s rare for us to load a free application and leave wanting to spend more money, but this one came very close to making that happen. iLounge Rating: A-.
As much as we would have preferred to say this in a different way, we couldn’t help but express the sentiment bluntly: SNK Playmore’s Metal Slug Touch ($2, version 1.1.1) is a turd. Released some time ago as a tilt-based version of the classic series of Neo-Geo shooting games, it more recently received updates that improved the controls and lowered the price from $5—the latter perhaps only temporarily. In any case, you can save your cash; what’s here still stinks.
Unlike the once storied original franchise, which primarily placed you in control of a soldier who walked through impressively illustrated third-world environments with guns a blazin’, Metal Slug Touch keeps you inside of a tank or an airplane for its brief four stages, endlessly shooting a cannon whilst occasionally using a second weapon—bomb or missile—plus jumping or evading, based on whether you’re in the tank or plane. Dumb enemies flock around you, dumping all sorts of ammunition on the screen in your general direction, and you either literally plow through them or try to rotate your gun towards them so that you can keep advancing to the right. Boss encounters end each level, starting with boring but large vehicles and moving up to alien ships as the crew of mindless attackers shifts from men to UFOs.
The key ingredient in Metal Slug’s successful arcade formula was its insane level of pixel-level 2-D artwork, which at one point in the past wowed fans of highly similar run-and-shoot titles by overloading each screen with so much detail that you couldn’t help but be impressed. Rolling through the iOS version’s repetitive stages, which leave too few opportunities to make meaningful jumps and even fewer to really appreciate the scenery, it’s hard for a fan to do anything more than lament how the passage of time and the over-simplification of the formula have wrecked Metal Slug on this platform. Virtual controls make both your vehicle and its gun feel imprecise; unlimited continues and too little inherent challenge also contribute to making the experience feel like a shadow of the hard core original titles; even the music sounds like it’s been dumbed down for devices that are clearly capable of more.
It’s interesting, though, that SNK has tried to re-release this game a year after it originally debuted in hopes of re-igniting interest. A smarter move would have been to go back to the drawing board and apply the virtual control scheme to a different and better Metal Slug title, if not something completely new then one of the old games. This one doesn’t feel like it’s worthy of $2, say nothing of the original $5, and would much better be forgotten than resurrected. iLounge Rating: C-.
Amongst the many casual game formulas that have been demonstrably popular in the App Store, “climbing” games, Tiki-themed titles, and run-and-shoot action adventures are as good as any three to mix together into a single release. That’s what Bravo Game Studios has done with its just-released Volcano Escape ($2), which combines the gameplay mechanics of Doodle Jump and Konami’s classic shooter Contra with the looks and sounds of Pocket God. You pick from one of six characters, most locked at the start, and use dual joysticks plus a jump button in an attempt to shoot and jump your way up from the bottom of an active volcano. Glowing lava grows at the bottom of the screen as you move from platform to platform, providing an ever-dangerous obstacles as you jump up on platforms, and “evil lava god minions” need to be shot and dodged as you continue your ascent.
As simple as the “keep moving upwards” gameplay has been in earlier games of this sort, Bravo incentivizes you to keep playing by rewarding you for reaching performance targets: lines are automatically drawn on the level to show you how far other players have ascended the volcano—with two characters unlocked at 1,500 and 15,000-foot heights—while power-up boxes can be collected and enemies defeated to unlock other characters. Only one character, Corey, is sold as a $1 in-app purchase to give you five lives rather than one, a not especially cool way of reducing the challenge level.
Volcano Escape’s strongest assets are its aesthetics and power-ups, both of which up the ante for $2 casual titles. The tiki and volcanic artwork is 3-D rendered and unquestionably superior to the flat 2-D stuff we’re accustomed to seeing in climbing titles. Bravo’s art is backed by a respectable soundtrack and audio effects that have the same sort of interesting, “out there” inspirations we heard in the company’s earlier edutainment title Mr. Hat and the Magic Cube. Additionally, though the “keep climbing” concept can easily get really old really quick, boxed power-ups such as a jetpack that plows straight through platforms help keep the pacing interesting, and a multiple sequential jump feature helps you feel as if you really have the opportunity to keep ahead of the lava—assuming that you can shoot the enemies in your path. It all works a lot better than it could have.
That said, there’s no escaping from the fact that this title could have easily become more than just a quick pick-up-and-play casual game with additional levels and challenges. Right now, it’s a good enough app to merit quick sessions here and there, but it’s obvious that developers with Bravo’s design talents could and should be doing more. Hopefully Volcano Escape will evolve into something even deeper, because the core gameplay and audiovisual assets here feel like they’re ready for bigger and better adventures. iLounge Rating: B.
Last week’s release of NBA Jam for the iPhone and iPod touch was a pretty big deal: Electronic Arts nailed everything except for the multi-player mode and iPad support fans would have expected from this latest title. And it also included some funny unlockable teams that are easy to miss amongst given all of the real NBA choices: the Republicans—George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John McCain and Sarah Palin—Democrats including President Obama, Vice-President Biden, and both Clintons, plus the Beastie Boys, an EA Mobile team, the original NBA Jam team, a bunch of team mascots, and the Stickmen used in the game’s tutorial mode.
Try entering REP, DEM, and MAS as initials to unlock the Republicans, Democrats, and mascots. You can also use the in-app purchase system to unlock all of the hidden teams without having to enter anything. These little extra treats make the latest version of NBA Jam even more like the original arcade games, which employed hidden “easter egg” features and characters to impressive effect.