iPhone Gems: Two-Dimensional Touch Games

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been testing a ton of new and relatively high profile iPhone games, many of which we plan to briefly review in Gems columns over the next couple of days. Today’s article looks as six 2-D games, while tomorrow’s is focused on 3-D games.

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For a change, it’s actually worth reading about all of the games this week. Though we wouldn’t necessarily recommend you purchase them all, each one is intriguing enough to merit at least knowing about.



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Antimatter ($2) is the latest release from Pangea Software, a company that thus far has specialized in porting Mac games to the iPhone OS. One advantage of the prior approach is that its games have tended to push the space and length limitations people might expect from this platform, but that’s been thrown out the window for Antimatter, a one-screen action game that is certainly designed to sell for the $2 asking price. You control a dot that is finger-flicked around to touch moving lines, changing them from blue to red. The challenge is that the dot moves around a little slower than you might like, and the lines are always in motion, sometimes overlapping, so touching them to change their colors isn’t always easy.


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There is little doubt that Antimatter is a shallow game, but Pangea attempts to make up for it with nice graphics and a mighty, though repetitive orchestral audio track. Your dot is an animated antimatter star, the lines glow and pulse with little bright stars at their ends, and there are little particle effects and powerups floating around as you move, keeping the screen from becoming boring. Everything is set against a cosmic backdrop, and sci-fi fans may be drawn in by the theme and effects alone. We found ourselves bored after a very short period of time, put it down, and never had the desire to come back to it; a lack of greater depth and evolution of the concept were mostly to blame. But as a cheap time waster, Antimatter isn’t bad. iLounge Rating: C+.

Dr. Awesome


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After Ngmoco‘s first two games, MazeFinger and Topple, we were really looking forward to seeing what it could pull off with its third release, Dr. Awesome ($2). As it turns out, this is a very simplistic update to the classic Taito arcade game Qix, in which you control a white-gray dot that draws lines to section off portions of a single-screen playfield, while enemies inside the maze chase you. Completing a stage is generally a matter of trapping the remaining enemies inside a physical space that’s 25% or less of the original maze’s size.


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Qix, with its vector-styled graphics and frightening enemies, was a sensation and a real challenge; Dr. Awesome appears to be content to strip down the concept and fluff it up with repetitive medical-themed intermission screens and cleaner, but not as interesting in-game graphics. As you use your dot to cut the playfield—a cell with infectious bodies inside—down from 100% to smaller sizes, the game’s signature, cool visual trick is to zoom into the remaining portion of the cell. And the infectious enemies are interesting to look at the first 10 or 15 times you see them. But level after level, the stages and enemies are basically the same, and you’re supposed to keep coming back for more to rescue “patients” who have been drawn from your contacts list, thereby ascending in medical rank from a bottom-rung resident to a more experienced doctor.


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The weird thing about Dr. Awesome is that, despite its repetitive levels and intermission scenes that repeated far too often—images of doctor and nurse characters alternatively chiding and praising you—we found ourselves playing the title, and handing it off to be played, more than any other one in this roundup. We weren’t hugely fond of the controls, which force you to turn the iPhone around to steer your dot around the playfield, and the lack of any touch-based objectives seemed to leave something missing, as well. But we still enjoyed it and kept coming back for more, a major difference between this and Antimatter. For $2, this is a good but not great little game; merely improving its intermission content and adding a couple more backgrounds would go a long way to making it better. iLounge Rating: B.



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“Tower defense games” are a genre in which the computer sends hordes of enemies to attack a specific location on an on-screen map, and you have to erect defenses in order to stop your enemies before they reach their destination. You succeed if you defend your tower or similar location throughout a number of successive rounds of the assault, and fail if the location is successfully attacked for a certain duration or number of times. Fieldrunners ($5) from Subatomic Studios follows the earlier iPhone release Zombie Attack, replacing the hordes of zombies with hordes of soldiers and military vehicles, including everything from motorcycles and helicopters to robots and blimps.


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If you’re expecting Fieldrunners to live up to the hype—namely, Time Magazine’s laughable suggestion that it is the best iPhone game yet released, and in the same general category as Gears of War 2 or Rock Band 2—you’re going to be hugely disappointed. This isn’t an epic title with tremendous depth or stunning aesthetics; rather, it’s a simple, top-down 2-D game where you do little more than position cannons, missile launchers, goo guns and electricity towers on a map to wear down soldiers before they reach the breach point or points on your screen. There are a handful of unlockable maps with different designs and breach points, and you need to survive for 50 rounds of attacks without letting 20 enemies survive whatever gauntlet you assemble. It’s semi-interactive, and not action-intense; you spend as much time or more watching what’s happening as you spend building your defenses. Additionally, there’s no in-game soundtrack save for the audio of soldiers and vehicles being hit with ammunition rounds.


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That said, we enjoyed Fieldrunners, and fans of either Zombie Attack or the broader tower defense genre will appreciate its evolution beyond the simple one-screen, similar enemies found in other titles to the diverse collection of soldiers, vehicles, and scrolling maps found here. It’s pretty easy to figure out how to drag and position your weapons around on the screen, accumulate money to buy and upgrade them, and then watch to see where they succeed and fail at cutting into the ever-increasing strengths of enemy attackers. For the price, we’d expect better audio, slightly more compelling action, and a bit more up-front diversity to let players try more than just the grassy field level, but Subatomic is definitely heading in the right direction with this title. iLounge Rating: B+.

Tap Tap Dance

We’ve seen the tap-to-music games Tap Tap Revenge and NIN Tap Tap Revenge; now Tapulous has released Tap Tap Dance ($5), which could be described as “yet another game where you watch dots and arrows stream down from the top of the screen to the bottom, then tap or shake the iPhone at the right moment to earn points.” However, Tap Tap Dance elevates that concept over its predecessors with decidedly better art and better music, falling short mainly in that it lacks for as many audio tracks as its predecessors.


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The “Dance” name refers to the collection of 10 techno songs that Tapulous has assembled this time out, mostly from known artists—Daft Punk, Junkie XL, Moby, The Chemical Brothers, Tiesto, and Basement Jaxx amongst them. And Tap Tap Dance finally accompanies the songs with a thoroughly new visual engine, one that doesn’t make the most impressive use we’ve yet seen of the iPhone’s visual powers, but does move and change based on two factors: your continued tapping performance, and on occasion, where you are in a given song. A boss-like confrontation set to Daft Punk’s Technologic, for instance, keeps completely changing up the backgrounds as the song continues, a truly cool effect that would be even more powerful if applied differently to each of the game’s tracks. As-is, this special treatment is only offered to three of the 10 tracks, and then, only once per track at the end of each of the game’s difficulty levels. When the tracks repeat, you don’t get the special art, just a generic view of the back of people’s heads at a club.


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Tapulous says that this engine will appear in the next-generation free Tap Tap Revenge application in the future; in our view, you might want to wait until then to see it unless you’re really a fan of the music here. The $5 asking price for 10 tracks represents another price jump over Nine Inch Nails Revenge, which offered 13 tracks for the same price, and Tap Tap Revenge, which offered infinite track expandability—generally, with lesser-known artists—for free. We consider the new graphics engine to be the most compelling part of this title; consider Dance worthy of your attention if you’re a serious Tap Tap fan or like the included bands enough to cough up some cash to tap along to their songs. iLounge Rating: B.

Yahtzee Adventures

The least impressive title in this roundup is Yahtzee Adventures ($5) by Electronic Arts. Click Wheel iPod owners may recall that Electronic Arts released an uncompelling version of this simple dice game earlier this year, and thanks most likely to the persistence of the Yahtzee license, the company has returned to the well yet again for a similarly mediocre outing on the iPhone.


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Yahtzee’s gameplay is so simple that it hardly makes sense as a piece of software. As we noted previously, you do nothing more in Yahtzee than repeatedly shake a cup with six-sided dice in an attempt to match or sequence as many of the dice as possible. The cup starts with five dice, which are tossed onto the table in your first throw, giving you the option to keep or re-roll as many as you want. After three throws, you have to pick one of 12 scoring categories for your dice, telling the computer to give you as many points as possible for the matches you’ve made. You try to end the game with the highest possible score. There’s also a Rainbow mode with additional dice colors and scoring categories, as well as “Duplicate” and “Battle” modes for multiple players.


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Obviously, Electronic Arts released either before or after the Click Wheel Yahtzee game came out that this wasn’t enough to keep people playing for long, so it has added a new “Adventure” theme to the boring gameplay on the iPhone. You’re now presented with weak, tiny pieces of art in-between stages, letting you play against cartoony Yahtzee masters in foreign lands, learning strategies as you go. Not surprisingly, you now get to shake the iPhone to roll your dice, if you want to. And so on. EA has made no effort to improve the in-game graphics, animate the dice a la MotionX Poker when you shake the iPhone, or really do anything to earn its $5 asking price.

While we view Yahtzee Adventures as a somewhat embarrassing attempt to repackage and sell an already less than stellar game on a more advanced platform, our ratings of both versions are the same for two reasons: they sell for the same price, and despite the mediocrity of its presentation, the iPhone game does add a little additional depth that wasn’t found in the Click Wheel version. We’d still steer clear of this title, but if you’re a Yahtzee fan, you may find it acceptable enough to try out. iLounge Rating: C.



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The final game in today’s roundup is 2079 ($2) by Eric Tong, a title that will be sort of familiar to players of the Bizarre Creations shooter Geometry Wars. You control an armed spaceship on a grid-like surface, tilting the iPhone to steer, and using a finger on a transparent on-screen joypad to shoot. As with classic arcade shooters of this type, namely the original Robotron: 2084, you can shoot and steer in different directions, and need to do so effectively to drive away wave after wave of flying attackers. Plus, like Geometry Wars, you have the ability to use a limited number of shockwave-styled bombs to clear the screen, causing ripples in the surface underneath your ship. It is a simple gameplay formula to clone, and easy to make compelling with enough on-screen enemies and powerups. Here, the enemies keep coming, and the powerups appear as cubes on the grid, requiring you to shoot them open before you receive point bonuses, more numerous guns, and the like, all of which disappear if ship gets destroyed.


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While 2079 isn’t as impressive visually as the vector art-based Geometry Wars or its sequel, Geometry Wars 2, there were a couple of things we really liked about it. First, the developer has taken the very smart step of auto-calibrating the steering controls to the device’s orientation when the game begins, allowing you to quickly recalibrate should you want to do so. This makes control a comparative snap relative to the hundreds of messed-up accelerometer-based action games we’ve previously tried. It has also used the transparency of its shooting joypad to its advantage. There are two camera modes, one that places the joypad off to the right of a zoomed-out screen, and one that uses the full screen for action, scrolling as you move. Even though your finger covers part of the screen, the camera generally moves such that you’re not obscuring important in-game art. Other developers could learn a lot from this game’s smart approaches to controls.


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Could 2079 be better? Yes. A lot, really, by comparison with the Geometry Wars titles, which literally seemed to explode with particle and line effects, warping grids and shapes. The audio is merely ambient, and mostly just shooting and object noises, and there isn’t a huge amount of depth here. But, as with Dr. Awesome, and unlike the flashier, decidedly better visual engine in Antimatter, we came back to 2079 repeatedly for more. It’s a good $2 game, and certainly points the way towards a brighter day for accelerometer-based control schemes in iPhone games. iLounge Rating: B.

Earlier iPhone Gems features can be found here.