iPhone Gems: Three New Action Puzzlers, Three New Shooters

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As a contrast to some of our scattered-theme game roundups of the last several weeks, the latest iPhone Gems looks at titles from two different genres: action puzzle games, and shooters.

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More importantly, there are actually a couple of diamonds in this week’s collection: Wooden Labyrinth 3D is our top pick of the week in the puzzle genre, with Heavy Mach an impressive selection for fans of shooters. Both do an unusually good job of showing off what a great pocket gaming device the iPhone could become, though another couple of titles demonstrate how the ever-growing App Store continues to be overrun by sloppy, nothing special software. The details are all below.

Wooden Labyrinth 3D by Elias Pietila


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As much as we appreciated several earlier “labyrinth” games—ones in which you control the tilt of a maze to make a metal ball roll safely around holes to reach an exit point—it was obvious that developers could do more with the concept using the iPhone’s graphics hardware. Many months later, Wooden Labyrinth 3D ($4) by Elias Pietila is proof positive of this: though it is fundamentally the same in concept as the titles we’ve previously reviewed, it already includes several features that distinguish the title as especially impressive, and an addition is planned to bolster its versatility even further.


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The most obviously impressive element of the game is that it makes you feel like you’re actually peering down into a moving wooden maze that’s really 3-D: if your ball falls through one of the holes in the maze, you get another ball, and actually see the first one rolling back inside the maze’s chassis. This little touch, realistic ball rolling sound effects, gentle guitar background music, and a fluidly animated, accelerometer-tilting shift of maze perspective all make Wooden Labyrinth a lot of fun to watch and hear. Another neat gameplay twist is jumping: some of the 100 levels have obstacles that can be hurdled over, and you vertically shake the iPhone to make the ball leap from a maze’s first floor to its second. It’s a really cool addition to the standard labyrinth formula, both in concept and execution.


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While this latter feature is not included in our high overall recommendation of this game due to the fact that we couldn’t test it, a level editor is set to add even more replay value to Wooden Labyrinth 3D; the developer will be boosting the current $3 price to $4 when the feature gets added. In our view, the ability to make more levels will only add to what’s already a really excellent little iPhone game; the only other way to improve what’s here would be to add more realistic and diverse textures. iLounge Rating: A.

Fantastic Contraption by InXile Entertainment


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This week’s second puzzle title is Fantastic Contraption ($5), published by InXile Entertainment. The iPhone version of Contraption tries its best to offer the same general experience as its web browser-based predecessor, which starts with 21 free levels, then adds additional levels if you’re willing to pay $10. For half the price, you get 43 different stages, and a level editor to let you create more.


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Fantastic Contraption is a slightly different version of the titles Touch Physics and Crayon Physics Deluxe we’re previously reviewed: here, you are given a screen with a pink ball-like shape and a pink destination area, and need to use on-screen tools to guide the ball to the destination. But unlike the prior games, which had you draw shapes and ramps to push their balls along, Fantastic Contraption has you build mini machines: the pink ball here is a passive wheel, affected by gravity, but you can connect motorized wheels and different types of pipes to it, as well as creating a second, separate machine to clear a path for the ball to take through on-screen obstacles. Connecting one wheel and one pipe may be enough to win a given level, but on others, you’ll need to change the pink ball’s elevation, shift its orientation, or find ways to make it jump gaps in the ground. It’s actually a really smart concept.


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Interface and tutorial details are where the iPhone version of this title initially suffers. Unlike classic Nintendo titles, which were playtested endlessly to help players learn naturally what to do, Contraption’s tutorials combine with a cramped, reformatted version of the game’s web-based interface to make machine creation a little less than intuitive. On a computer, you see everything that needs to be done in a single window; on the smaller iPhone screen, a second window has been added to show you the critical close-up view necessary to connect pieces to one another. Rare is the game that feels more intuitive in a browser window than on the iPhone, but Contraption is it.


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If you can get past this issue, and either you or an update to the game by inXile really should do so, you’ll find Fantastic Contraption to be a really smart, mentally challenging little puzzler. As with inXile’s earlier title, Line Rider, the price might feel a little high for what you’re getting, but there are enough levels here to start with, and the prospect of additional user-created ones will thrill some players. For now, we’d give this game a flat B, but should the developer polish the interface a little more for iPhone gamers, it could be a really big hit. iLounge Rating: B.

Fire Art Garden by Nissho Creative Corp


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The third and final puzzler we look at today is Fire Art Garden ($1) by Nissho Creative Corp, which we’ll credit with having a smart approach to improving the appeal of a very basic type of game: add fireworks. In essence, Fire Art Garden is a modestly upgraded version of the classic sliding Tile Game that kids and Mac OS users have been playing for years—the one where you’re given a board with tiles that can be slid around to form a picture.


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Here, you’re given tiles with lines on them, and need to connect those lines into a continuous fuse-shaped pattern that leads a spark over to one or more fireworks cannisters on the screen. If you have only one cannister, you just need to get the spark from point A to point B, but if there’s more than one, you need to make the spark split into multiple sparks and then guide them over to ignite all the cannisters. Succeed and you get to watch a short fireworks show; fail and you have to try again.


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While the gameplay in Fire Art Garden isn’t all that exciting, fans of tile-based puzzle games may enjoy it simply because there’s more than one solution to a given challenge, and because the game randomly generates levels to keep things interesting. Some stages have only a single type of fuse, one cannister, and no stationary obstacles, while others introduce rocks, fast- and slow-burning fuses, and several different cannisters to light at once. You quickly learn that you can either let the spark travel slowly from fuse section to fuse section, or clear a path to transport the spark on the current fuse over to the nearest cannister. At times, this is fun, at other times, frustrating.


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But what the game lacks for in-game excitement, it makes up for with 2-D fireworks, which are nice if unambitious eye candy—frankly, we enjoyed seeing them more in the game’s puzzle-less fireworks display mode than during the actual game itself, as you can somewhat control the blasts or just sit back and watch, depending on your preference. Firework fanatics won’t find the overall experience here to be as compelling as Sony’s old PlayStation 2 title FantaVision, but as $1 puzzle games go, this one’s not bad. iLounge Rating: B-.

Three New Shooters: Two-Dimensional and Three-Dimensional

Of the many genres of video games that we’ve played over the years, there’s no doubt that shooters of various types are in our top three favorite categories; every new shoot-em-up that hits the App Store renews our hope that something truly great will emerge on this platform. Unfortunately, though we’ve been playing lots of shooters looking for ones worth spotlighting here, we haven’t come across the genre’s great white shark quite yet; developers are only slowly adding little features that make them more compelling, and rarely coming close to our past favorites on game consoles and portables. More often than not, we find that a shooter that looks really promising turns out to be a mess for one reason or another, and only one title here is an exception to that rule.

Heavy Mach by IndieAn


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IndieAn’s new release Heavy Mach ($3) is that game, and due to its somewhat unconventional design, it’s one of the best shooters yet released for the iPhone. You control a side-scrolling tank that has five basic characteristics: you tilt right to make it roll forward, left to make it roll back, and touch the screen to make it fire at enemies, switch weapons, or, occasionally, jump from platform to platform. When enemy vehicles, rocket launchers, or helicopters appear on screen, you touch them to fire one of six types of weapons in their general direction, depleting their life bars with every successful hit—assuming you’re using the right weapon. Most small enemies can be destroyed with your basic, unlimited cannon, but others need to be brought down with missile or laser attacks.


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There’s a temptation to describe Heavy Mach as a tower defense-like title in that you’re essentially rolling through side-scrolling courses, collecting and upgrading weapons to attempt to take down relatively mindless but increasingly powerful hordes of attackers. But what makes the game more compelling is its action-intense but fully user-controllable design. You can keep rolling your tank to the right, bypassing some enemies, or stop and sometimes back up, fighting every one until it expires and/or dispenses more weapon power-ups. You’ll take more damage if you stay in front of an enemy that’s firing bullets or rockets your way, but you can jump, roll away, or just keep moving; it’s your choice. For once, the iPhone’s accelerometer and touch screen don’t get much in the way of making steering and shooting fun, and the weapons effects are only a tiny bit shy of awesome: seeing missiles fall from the sky, zaps of blue laser light blowing apart enemy planes, and occasionally huge boss encounters really makes Heavy Mach more fun than it might easily have been. The fact that there are 30 stages spread across six different “missions,” with more promised as free updates, is also a major selling point.


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If there’s anything conspicuously missing from Heavy Mach, it’s music, which is fully absent in favor of mechanical and gun fire audio effects, but that’s generally made up for by the great 2-D artwork, legitimate fun, and longevity IndieAn offers. The game has a console-like save system that works well, compensating for its tendency to occasionally crash, and though the game’s in-game menu/pause feature doesn’t work, it’s fairly obvious from the quality of the rest of the code that the developer will work out the bugs and improve this title over time. For now, it’s a slightly flawed but very good use of the iPhone, strong enough on shooting gameplay that we’re almost willing to overlook its glitches. If it was bug-free, it would be worthy of an A- and corresponding high recommendation, but as reviewed, it merits a B+ and a very strong endorsement: the iPhone needs more games as cool as this, and soon. iLounge Rating: B+.

ExZeus by HyperDevbox Japan


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In an ideal world, we would have even better things to say about the next title, ExZeus ($6) by HyperDevbox Japan. Visually, this three-dimensional mecha flying and shooting game is one of the most technically impressive we’ve yet seen on the iPhone—an ambitious port of a little-known console title. If you’ve ever wanted to show someone how close Apple’s devices can come to a Japanese arcade machine, ExZeus is the sort of game you’d whip out as a demonstration: from its introduction to the in-game experience, it looks, sounds, and feels like a 3-D game that Taito or a similarly second-tier developer would have released 5 or 10 years ago. By iPhone game standards, that’s a good thing.


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You pick from one of three robots with slightly different handling characteristics, and fly through five stages while viewing your robot’s back and sides, shooting lasers and locking onto enemies with missiles. The gameplay of ExZeus is roughly based on Sega’s classic Space Harrier, which is to say that things appear in front of you, you point your gun at them, shoot them, and dodge obstacles; here, there are tons of scattered point bonuses, power ups, and life boosters to grab after you’ve defeated enemies. Get hit enough and you lose a life; lose enough lives and you have to choose to continue the game; lose enough continues and the game ends. Boss encounters at the end of levels break up what it otherwise a steady stream of smaller and more easily destroyed enemies. It’s all very arcadey, which again, is very good news for the iPhone.


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But what ExZeus lacks, critically, is polish. Once again, accelerometer-based control is partially to blame, as steering your robot character is nowhere near as fun or intuitive as it was in the Space Harrier games, and due to left- and right-of-screen lock-on and shooting zones that overlap the on-screen action, shooting at enemies constantly feels imprecise and confusing. Ironically, if it wasn’t for the lock-on mechanism, it would be hard to know for sure that you were hitting most of the targets, but because of the locking-on, its associated green circle graphics, and power-ups, the game often becomes so visually chaotic that you won’t totally feel like you’re in control of what’s happening. It’s this, combined with the roughness of some of the art, that evokes the memories of second-rung developers rather than their superior peers.


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Ultimately, ExZeus is a game with virtually every element necessary to be great save for its engine, which hasn’t been ideally tuned to the iPhone’s unique display and control limitations. As such, there are many times when it’s an extremely cool game to look at and listen to, but due to the crowding of elements and your fingers on the screen, there are few times when it’s as balanced or as fun to play as even a 20-year-old game like the original Space Harrier. Should it receive some post-release polishing, we’d consider this title extremely worthy of recommending, but for now, it’s a title that simultaneously and atypically shows everything that’s good and bad about the iPhone hardware and the App Store at this point in time. iLounge Rating: B-.

SpaceX by Ketara Software


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The final shooter we look at this week is SpaceX ($2) by Ketara Software, which we spotlight this week as a proxy for the many other apparently fan-made 2-D shooters we’ve been downloading and testing on the iPhone. This one gives you an overhead view of a spaceship that constantly flies vertically as the screen scrolls ever upwards, revealing collections of enemy ships that range from easy targets to bigger and more dangerous vehicles. Your ship is controlled either by touches—overlapping the screen in a really negative way—or by tilting the device, which feels a bit floaty and imprecise; shooting is handled constantly and automatically for you. You choose from a number of different types of weapons, all purchasable when you finish a stage and proceed to a simple store packed with weapons and defenses.

We show SpaceX here because it, like so many other iPhone shooting games these days, appears to be aiming for the greatness of classic overhead shooters, yet ultimately feels so simple and incomplete that it’s hard to believe anyone would charge or pay to play it: in many ways, it is the polar opposite of a game like Heavy Mach despite the fact that they’re both 2-D shooters. In SpaceX, stage after stage passes with utterly boring backgrounds, enemy ships that have little to no AI, and a techno song that just repeats and repeats. Everything’s a flat piece of art, and you physically pass through enemy ships, which have no movement or turning animations, instead just gliding around on lines and curves in front of you. Consequently, the game just feels mindless, sloppy, and not worthy of even a dollar—beneath the standards of 2-D shooters that were being released two decades ago. If there wasn’t the single piece of repeating background music, it would feel entirely like the piece of demo code that it actually is.


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So why bother putting SpaceX in a column on gems? Because we’d like to suggest to budding game developers an appropriate alternative to releasing titles like this and expecting people to pay for them. The App Store has come a long way over the past seven months, and though free “Lite” demo versions of games are typically stripped-down versions of previously released paid titles, they could be used in a different way: a small company could put a title in development out there for free, gather input from users, and then charge for a more fully featured, superior version. This is what the Aurora Feint team did last year, and frankly, what more little developers need to be doing going forward. With roughly 5,000 new App Store releases in the last month alone, we’re done giving any benefit of the doubt to demo-quality games if they have price tags, and would advise our readers to save even their spare dollars rather than patronizing half-baked titles like this. Now that there are 20,000 apps to choose from, it’s time for quality, not quantity, to become the hallmark of App Store releases. iLounge Rating: D.

Our earlier iPhone Gems roundups are available here.