Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! This week, we’re looking at five recent releases, most of which are for the iPhone: two are separately launched versions of the same rally game in different iPhone and iPad apps, while another is a free iPhone/iPod touch upgrade to a prior iPad release, and the other two are dedicated iPhone/iPod touch games.
Our top picks of the week are the iPhone 3GS/iPod touch 3G version of Geometry Wars: Touch, and the iPhone/iPod touch title Super QuickHook. Read on for all the details.
Back in 1995, the heyday of video arcades, Sega released Sega Rally Championship, a racing game that exposed a then-considerable rift between American, European, and Japanese gamers. Europeans went wild for Sega Rally based on their appreciation for its accurate and visually impressive rendition of off-road rally racing, a driving sport that was at best modestly appreciated in the United States. Players took control of real-world cars that needed to be raced through several tracks as a voiceover provided guidance on the direction and sharpness of upcoming turns, as well as other road conditions that led to plenty of bumps, drifts, and mud. Sega’s game went on to inspire numerous and superior competitors, as well as a few sequels that were barely acknowledged by American players.
This past week, 2XL Games released 2XL Trophylite Rally ($8) and 2XL Trophylite Rally HD ($10), iPhone/iPod touch and iPad versions of the same basic game. Each one puts you behind the wheel of 31 supposedly different but highly similar rally trucks that race through samey lap and rally-style tracks, listening as a virtual crew member signals out upcoming turns: “easy left,” “S-turn,” and “over crest” amongst them. Most of the nicely textured, desert-themed tracks provide occasional opportunities for you to pass one opponent’s car at a time, watching as they kick up dust clouds and lens flares from the setting sun pass through your windshield. Multiple interior and exterior camera views are available, too. The iPad version is just like the iPhone one, only with added visual detail and a slightly less fluid frame rate than is achieved on the iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touch.
But unlike Sega Rally and so many of its sequels, 2XL’s Trophylite titles are missing the sort of grime and excitement that make rally racing games really compelling: the tilt-based controls and touch-based accelerator work well enough that you needn’t ever worry about the danger of powersliding off the tracks—a mixed blessing given how hard some of the rally games for other platforms have been—and everything else feels cleanly implemented, too much so, really. Trucks don’t get dirty as they hit the paths, music doesn’t play while you drive, and the racing action is only modestly more exciting than driving a real car. Some of the game’s grime omissions are less noticeable on the iPhone and iPod touch screens, which feel blessed just to receive a smooth-running race game, but they never really succeed in the intensity or action department, either. 2XL Trophylite Rally and Rally HD are the rare games that could have used a little extra time to become less clean, and feel too expensive—particularly as two separate applications—given the repetitive content. iLounge Rating: B-.
We loved it on the iPad during launch week, and this week, Geometry Wars: Touch (version 1.1.0) became even better thanks to two changes by Activision: the price has dropped by 50% to $4.99, and the game has added iPod touch and iPhone compatibility. The good news: iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touch owners now have the opportunity to play an impressive vector art-based dual-joystick shooter that has deserved its popularity on home game consoles. Bad news: prior-generation iPhone and iPod touch owners are going to be bummed out by the game’s lackluster graphics, which lose their glow, wavy backgrounds, and some of the particle effects on the older devices.
Geometry Wars: Touch was clearly designed to be played on a device the size of the iPad, which provides ample room for fingers to use the virtual controls, and enough graphics power to fit all of the razor-sharp line artwork and effects from the original games on the screen. Scaled down to the third-generation iPod touch and iPhone 3GS, the proportions of the on-screen elements—your spaceship and the abstract art enemies you’re shooting at and dodging—are a little off, but enough of the game’s visual effects have been preserved to leave the game feeling largely intact and appealing. The older devices introduce less than totally smooth frame rates, enemies who blink in rather than fading or zooming in, and a flat graph paper like grid in the background. It’s as if Activision wanted to offer something to users of prior-generation models but couldn’t be troubled to optimize the code for them. At least the music remains great from device to device.
Thus, Geometry Wars: Touch winds up as the first application we can recall reviewing with three separate ratings. iPad owners who appreciate retro-styled shooters should consider the download to be a sure-fire winner at the $5 asking price, with 2009 and newer iPod touch and iPhone 3GS users falling a little behind that, and older iPhone/iPod touch users getting a game that’s better than okay, but not great. Hurray, in any case, for such wide compatibility within a single application; Activision deserves a lot of praise for creating such a great game in the first place and enabling a single download to work on all of these devices, even if the performance isn’t ideal on some of them. iLounge Rating: A (iPad), B+ (iPhone 3GS/iPod touch 3G), B- (iPhone/3G, iPod touch 1G/2G).
Disney’s 1982 live-action/CG movie Tron inspired not only official arcade and home video games, but also a host of tribute titles—many of them focused on the film’s light cycles. These single-person car/motorcycle hybrids left behind dangerous walls of light as they zipped through grids, providing characters with tense opportunities to stay alive while forcing villains to crash and give up their chases. Penkaku’s LightBike 2 (Free, v. 1.0.1) is the latest App Store take on the light cycle concept, and since it’s free, it’s worth checking out despite its issues.
On the plus side, LightBike 2’s graphics are at least as impressive as in any rendition of light cycle racing we’ve ever seen—they’ll likely give some of the official games for the upcoming Tron Legacy sequel a run for their money. The full screen is used to provide you with a rear view of your cycle as it manuevers atop a glassy grid, leaving a blazing gradient trail of light wall behind, and if you look carefully, you can see the walls drawn by three other competitors at the same time—AI-controlled or humans over Bluetooth or Internet Wi-Fi connections. Pankaku’s cycles, trails, and grid all look very sharp, and techno music plays as you drive. The company adds to the traditional light cycle clone gameplay by introducing boost and jump buttons, as well as a second type of track that has ramps and elevated surfaces to contend with, rather than just a flat grid with ever-increasing walls to avoid smashing up against.
The problem: the gameplay just isn’t quite right. You’re given two big arrow turn buttons to steer your cycle on 90-degree left or right turns, and either boost or jump when you’re going straight. Jumps don’t feel responsive, and the camera angle makes it difficult to see far enough ahead to really plan out your turns to strategically destroy your rivals. LightBike 2 consists solely of repeated four-player skirmishes to see who lives the longest, and there’s not much of a reward for surviving in any given match. That having been said, the basis of a really great game is here in Pankaku’s graphics engine and polygonal artwork; with the right controls and camera perspective, this title could justify not only a download, but a purchase. iLounge Rating: B.
Last but certainly not least this week is Rocketcat Games’ Super QuickHook ($2, version 1.00), the long awaited “spiritual sequel” to the deliberately retro-styled sleeper hit Hook Champ. Once again, you take control of a character whose basic move set consists of running on the ground, swinging from a grappling hook, and firing off rocket boots, using momentum and acquired capabilities to move through levels collecting coins. A shop provides you with numerous opportunities to power your character up, switch characters, and even just change outfits—all continuations of concepts that Rocketcat debuted in Hook Champ and then used to great advantage throughout successive updates, adding more stuff for players to acquire and unlock.
One of the major conceptual issues with Hook Champ was the retro 8-bit audiovisual design, which was threadbare in a way that some players were willing to accept without question but others felt turned off by. Super QuickHook upgrades the repetitively dark, cavernous 8-bit backgrounds to a level that Rocketcat has described as akin to 16-bit artwork, but actually is a little off that mark—like Hook Champ, there are shadow trails, flocks of birds, and other animations that would have only appeared in the 32-bit generation, alongside tiled background art that would have struggled to impress even on the Super NES. That said, the art nicely fills out 18 different initial levels, and there are moments when the animation or parallax scrolling are impressive enough to transcend the flat art. There’s also in-game music, now, and it’s quite good—ranging from what better but not phenomenal developers squeezed out of the Super NES’s Sony audio chip to tracks that are actually really compelling and driving.
Yet as was the case with Hook Champ, to focus on the art and music too much is to miss much of the appeal of Super QuickHook, which thrives in equal parts because of its addictive gameplay, its amusing integration of its storyline and shop, and its attractively low price. Levels that might seem linear and simple are made worthy of multiple visits by secondary and in some cases tertiary challenges that hide coins off the beaten path; a deliberately oddball storyline places a group of off-kilter adventurers in the midst of an avalanche—fighting over meat and land rights, no less—and the opportunity to acquire new talents, such as a vacuum-like proximity coin grabber, makes the game more fun as you continue to earn coins. A randomized Avalanche level lets you collect coins by just staying ahead of a massive snowfall, too. This is a better game than its predecessor in essentially every way, while preserving all of the assets that worked before. It’s very worthy of our high recommendation. iLounge Rating: A-.