As the App Store continues to mature, the number of bona fide good and great games will hopefully keep on growing. This week, rather than rounding up a variety of bad, okay, and worthwhile games in one genre, we tried to seek out some really great ones in a wide collection of genres, and partially succeeded.
Though we cover nine different genres in today’s nine games, the vast majority of them are actually worth checking out. Our big picks of the week are Burning Monkey Casino, The Price is Right, and Zombie Attack!, but you’ll find a lot of interesting new titles here clamoring for your dollars. A few good free titles are also included, as well.
We begin this week not with a review, but rather, with a brief ode to the history of video games. Adventure (Free), which is being given away in the App Store by Peter Hirschberg, was amongst the earliest action-adventure games released for a video game console—the first one that we remember playing on the Atari VCS (2600) game console back in 1980. Simple but effective in creating a compelling, challenging world, Adventure let you control a square traversing a world full of castles and mazes in search of an enchanted chalice. To find the chalice in a castle, you needed to locate keys to unlock the castle gates, slay dragons with a sword found someplace in the kingdom, and use items such as a bridge and magnet to navigate through the mazes. It was the Legend of Zelda, years before that game existed, and it was surprisingly cool—all you had to do was walk around in the environments, pick up items, and carry them to other screens without getting killed by the dragons.
What made the game most noteworthy was the presence of a hidden item, widely acknowledged as the world’s first “Easter Egg” in a game, which years ago was called the “speck of dust.” This dot could be found in a maze, dragged to a certain wall, and used to walk into a hidden room acknowledging Adventure’s creator, Warren Robinett. Nonchalantly, Robinett had created a number of features that would later play major roles in popularizing and generating buzz for subsequent video games; entire books and magazines would later be dedicated to nothing more than easter eggs, cheat codes, and walk-throughs of more complicated action-adventure games.
How is Adventure on the iPhone? Generally authentic. Simple to control. Unpretentious. And free. We aren’t rating it today, but if you’re a fan of video game history, as we are, take a moment and check it out. Fans of action adventures should know where the genre comes from, and this is an easy way to learn while having some fun. Here’s how to find the speck of dust, if you want to give it a try. iLounge Rating: N/R.
If Sonic the Hedgehog was an armadillo, his 2-D adventures were rendered with 3-D graphics, and his enemies were primarily ants, scorpions, and birds, Armado ($5) by Tricky Software would be his game. Though Armado substitutes gems for Sonic’s golden rings, eggs for gems, and rings for Sonic’s other power-ups, it is very much in the same conceptual mold: run mostly in one direction, jumping over obstacles and smashing enemies by curling up into a ball and landing on top of them. Here, you run either up or own a hill that’s presented in 3-D, and try to make your way to the top or bottom before moving on to the next stage. Control is entirely accelerometer-based—tilt to move left or right—except for jumping, which is handled with screen taps.
To be completely fair, comparing Armado to Sonic the Hedgehog is somewhat generous to Tricky Software’s title, as Sonic has had successful 3-D outings with plenty more to do than just run around, and there’s something to be said for that character’s personality and universe. Armado’s formula, which is basically to have you run up each large spiraling anthill, then down it, isn’t nearly as charming or interesting as Sonic’s 2-D loop de loops, multiple pathways, or weird but interesting boss encounter structure. Like virtually every animal hero who has followed Sonic—Bubsy the Bobcat or Crash Bandicoot, anyone—Armado the Armadillo doesn’t have the personality draw of Sega’s famous mascot, and thus what you’re left to like or not like are the environments and audio.
Tricky has done better with the former than the latter. The 3-D worlds are generally fluid, and change a little from stage to stage, with different lighting and special effects, occasionally unexpected new obstacles, and just enough enemies to keep the action varied, though it is almost exclusively a “keep running and jumping” affair. Armado’s music, by comparison, is ponderous and boring, seemingly designed to lower the tension rather than increase it, and the sound effects aren’t anything special, either. However, by the iPhone’s presently low standards of action platforming, we’d call Armado as close to good as we’ve seen to date; it should be seen not as a template for what we’d hope to play on this device in the future, but as a baseline. iLounge Rating: B.
We’ve been waiting for a good casino game to appear on the iPhone, and though Freeverse’s take will appeal more to some users than others, Burning Monkey Casino ($1) is a bona-fide cool title. For a dollar, it’s so legitimately well-designed and entertaining that it would hard not to recommend it to our readers—the only major thing it lacks for is structure, though it makes up for that in style.
Burning Monkey Casino is a deliberate throwback to the look and sound of the 1950’s, with stylized renditions of video poker, blackjack, and slot machines, mixed with a three card monty table, scratch and win cards, a “money wheel,” and a simple pachinko machine. Each of the games has been formatted to fit on a single iPhone screen without scrolling, and backed by a continuous soundtrack of amusingly retro music—interrupted occasionally by a lounge comedian who pops into the screen, complete with a spotlight, to tell jokes. Overall, the title feels as if it was constructed purely to keep you amused, and it actually succeeds.
The design is a little on the informal side. You’re given $100 in cash to start, but a “Mo’ money” button on the main screen lets you take as much more as you want, and Burning Monkey Casino gives you the ability to play all of the games as much as you want. As such, though you can bet as little as a banana or as much as $100 per play, there’s little punishment for losing and little reason to care if you win. Freeverse also lets you change the rules for some of the games, with 18 different versions of the poker machine alone, and a slot machine that can go from a single spin of three reels up to three spins of five reels with hold buttons.
While Burning Monkey Casino’s presentation isn’t flashy, and its voice-overs are actually a little annoying, the game does more for $1 than most of the casino titles we’ve seen on the iPhone thus far. It’s a no-brainer download if you want to have a bit of casino fun on the road, but if you’re looking for something where the stakes feel higher or the look is more modern, you’ll want to keep looking. iLounge Rating: A-.
We were never sold on the idea of rubber ducks in video games until Sony started to use them in PlayStation technical demos, illustrating how they and the water beneath them could be modeled realistically in 3-D, then eventually transformed into a cute game—Super Rub-a-Dub for the PlayStation 3. Majic Jungle Software’s Duck Duck Duck 2.0 ($1) for the iPhone isn’t quite that ambitious, but it’s a cute little title with a simple, inoffensive theme that may be fun for kids to try playing.
You’re presented with an overhead view of a pool of water with a rubber duck and whirlpool inside. You need to move the rubber duck to the whirlpool by tilting the iPhone, nothing more. Then another duck appears in a different color, and the number of whirlpools increases to two, each in a color matching the duck. Ducks need to be matched with the correct whirlpools to move on to successive stages, and occasionally, an evil swan floats into the water to dislodge ducks if you don’t move fast enough. There’s also a mode where you can just keep floating the ducks around for fun, and as with the earlier title Koi Pond, you can touch the water’s surface to make ripples, as well as to propel a given duck forward even if you’re not tilting the device.
Simple? Yes. Cute? Yes. Ambitious? Not really. Having seen and actually paid for duck and water games before, it’s hard to be super enthusiastic about something this simple, but if you’re looking for something to entertain kids, Duck Duck Duck isn’t bad. iLounge Rating: B-.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: external controls are the single biggest thing preventing the iPhone and iPod touch from becoming truly great portable gaming devices. Fastlane Street Racing ($6) by Atod is yet another 3-D racing game that we really want to love, but find hard to fully embrace because of the limitations of accelerometer-based steering.
On a positive note, Fastlane has the elements we’d expect from an “arcade-style” racing game—words that have been blurred by the disappearance of arcades, and the emergence of comparatively deep, but less exciting simulator-style racing games such as Sony’s Gran Turismo and Microsoft’s Forza Motorsport. This isn’t a game with real cars, real cities, or fancy features such as online play. Instead, you can choose from 10 made-up race cars, a bunch of made-up tracks—most of them designed for speed and fun, rather than twisty curves and braking—and just play against computerized opponents. This is the sort of game, like Namco’s classic Ridge Racer titles, that has you drive through the center of an urban track while elevated trains zip by overhead on their tracks, suggesting that you’re in the midst of an exciting, augmented world rather than the real one.
And, for us, this formula mostly works. It’s very obvious that Fastlane isn’t as ambitious as Gameloft’s Asphalt 4, but we found it to be more stable, and generally easier to control, as well; as much as we hate accelerometer-based steering, Atod has come as close to getting it right as we’ve yet experienced on the device. Tilting turns your car, one on-screen button accelerates, and the other brakes or reverses. It’s simple, mostly non-intrusive, and “just works,” though a joypad would surely “just work better.” A modern techno soundtrack plays as you’re driving, and thought the scenery isn’t perfectly fluid, insanely detailed, or bettered by environmental effects, what’s there looks good whether you’re viewing the game from a first- or third-person perspective. The iPhone still has a long way to go before it gets its Ridge Racer, say nothing of Namco’s later, superior sequels, but by the platform’s currently low racing game standards, Fastlane Street Racing is a legitimately good little game. iLounge Rating: B.
There are times when simple little games really catch our attention due to impressive design. Fingeric (Free) from Luga/Twopixels is an example—it’s the sort of action puzzle title that really should be a minigame in a much bigger game, but what’s here is interesting enough that we’d recommend a download as is. At least, for now.
The concept is very straightforward. There are three fingertip-sized circles on screen linked by a larger circle. You mostly ignore what’s in the center of the large circle and focus on what’s in the small ones: either dots or arrows. If there’s a dot, or two dots, you tap the circle once or twice. If there’s an arrow, you swipe the circle in that direction. If all three of the circles have curved arrows inside, you place three fingers on the screen and use your fingers to simultaneously rotate them. A timer keeps you moving quickly, and if you make mistakes, the game ends.
That’s it. But for whatever reason, that simple gameplay—combined with a futuristic background track, and clean artwork—is actually compelling, sort of like Ngmoco’s MazeFinger minus the strong audio feedback. However, the developer plans to start charging for the game later this month, which seems a bit premature given what’s currently here to be played. For now, we consider this another good free diversion, and wouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves coming back to it for quick sessions here and there. With any price tag, though, we’d expect to get more involved gameplay, more varied background art, and more music. Our advice to the developers would be to keep this game as a free demo for a more complete full title. iLounge Rating: B.
Game shows are not easy to convert into video games. As we saw with last week’s review of Deal or No Deal, it’s extremely easy for a developer to nail the core 20-minute game concept, but completely lack any reason for players to come back and try again. On the other hand, developers need to find ways to deal with game shows where real-life players progress so quickly through the game that they’d only get 5 minutes on the air. That’s what Ludia has managed to accomplish in The Price is Right ($5) for the iPhone—a surprisingly well-developed rendition of the classic “guess the actual prices of these items” game show that has starred Bob Barker and Drew Carey.
Like Deal or No Deal, you don’t get to see the real host or any of the real models who have appeared on the show, but unlike that earlier title, they’re not really needed in any way to make The Price is Right interesting. In addition to digitizing a bit of video and some compelling audio, including the game’s music, Ludia has created really nice versions of 16 of the TV show’s pricing games. They’re impressively complete with detailed artwork and camera zooming effects, plus apparently licensed real-world items that you need to price. You get to play the early Contestant’s Row, mid-show Big Wheel Spinning and end-of-show Showcase Showdown games, as well.
The only major deviation from the TV show’s rules is a concession to the reality that most people who appear on The Price is Right bomb out without winning anything. No gamer wants to be that guy who sits in Contestant’s Row missing the winning bid by a dollar, and few people would enjoy watching the game abruptly end—or play through other people winning prizes—if you lose. So Ludia has created a “three strikes” concept, enabling you to progress through the game even if you’re not the winning bidder, but eliminating you after you lose three games, and precluding you from advancing to the Showcase Showdown unless you actually win on the Big Wheel. It’s a smart way to keep you playing without overaggressively rewarding you for not playing well.
The Price is Right’s only failings are ones inherent in the real game: the prices always seem a little off of actual prices, especially when you’re not able to judge the weights or volumes of the bags of cookies or bottles of hair spray you’re trying to guess at, and as time goes on, inflation may only make the numbers seem more bizarre. Additionally, like the game show, you’ll have to decide whether the excitement of playing the pachinko-like game Plinko or spinning a wheel to win fake money is really compelling enough to keep you playing. In our view, however, Ludia has come almost as close as is possible to nailing the essence of a legitimately beloved TV game show, so if you like Price is Right, this title is worth a download at its $5 asking price. That said, we can easily imagine developers of similar games seeking sponsorship from real-world companies to offer their iPhone games for free, or getting the sponsors to offer real prizes that make the excitement that much more tangible. iLounge Rating: A-.
We tried our best to be enthusiastic when IUGO Mobile released Toy Bot Diaries Entry 1, an early action platformer that was obviously creative but also not exceptionally compelling, and now, as promised, there’s a sequel. Toy Bot Diaries 2 ($4) is basically more of the same, spread out through new levels, which fans of the original will likely enjoy—unless, of course, they tired of the action in the first game.
Once again, you control a toy robot as he seeks to restore his memory by collecting cell phones scattered around the game’s levels, while making his way around huge and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. While the core gameplay hasn’t changed—Toy Bot walks, uses magnetic boots, and jumps only with assistance from a laser grappling hook—the levels are a little more interesting than before, with more compelling scenarios, such as grappling from flying UFO to UFO in the clouds. We continue to think that some simple changes to Toy Bot’s play mechanics could make this series a lot more compelling, and we were highly displeased early on that the game crashed mid-level and, thanks to either a save bug or a lack of checkpoints, didn’t let us resume mid-way through our play session, but these issues aside, Toy Boy 2 definitely improves on its predecessor. iLounge Rating: B.
In all candor, we weren’t expecting to enjoy Zombie Attack! ($1) from IUGO Mobile as much as we did, but this simple, fun little game is actually a lot of fun—it’s limited only by the developers’ decision to restrict its scope in the name of a low price.
The premise: there’s a house on a plot of land with a beat up gate and little else to protect it from a never-ending horde of zombies. A hole in the gate on the bottom left lets zombies in, and the house is on the top right, with your character tilt-controlled to any other location on the screen. He can build four types of weapons, ranging from a rotating axe blade to a flamethrower, gun, and cannon, and use them to keep the zombies from destroying the house. Every dead zombie gives the player more points to build and enhance the weapons, in hopes of keeping more zombies from tearing the house apart. Your character can die and respawn as many times as necessary, but if the house is destroyed, the game is over.
Simply put, Zombie Attack! is smart fun. We found ourselves coming back again and again to the single stage to see if we could improve our score, using different combinations and locations of weapons, each powered up as much as we could muster on the meager dollars earned from slaying zombies. While the controls are imperfect—tilting isn’t as ideal as a game pad for moving around a character or depositing new weapons—the imprecision actually works to ratchet up the tension, and your ability to come back to life removes the biggest obstacle to being able to accept accidentally wandering into a horde of zombies. What’s missing? Music; all you hear are the groans of zombies getting hacked up by the weapons, or your player and house being hacked up by zombies. And the game could really use more levels. We’d love to play more of this title, and would gladly pay for more variation in stages, audio, and objectives. IUGO has a winner on its hands with this one. iLounge Rating: A-.