Welcome to iPhone + iPad Gems! Today, we’re looking at two recently-released apps—one a game, the other an ABC educational app for kids—as well as two updated versions of popular Scrabble- and Scrabble-like apps for the iPad.
The unifying theme this week is “B’s,” as none of the titles rated higher than a B+, or lower than a B-. Our top pick of the bunch was ABC Play by Peapod Labs, followed by the latest version of Words With Friends HD for the iPad. Read on for all the details.
After releasing last year’s impressive ABC Wildlife, an educational app for kids, Peapod Labs has been busy churning out sequels—the musical-themed ABC Music, transportation-teaching ABC Go, and now the sports-focused ABC Play ($2, version 1.0), a similarly universal application that works on iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches. Though the version number correctly suggests that this is the first release of this app, the underlying software is what Peapod Labs refers to internally as “version 2.4” of its platform, the same general user interface found in the earlier ABC apps, but with tweaks.
Once again, the core of ABC Play is an alphabetically organized grid of photographs tied to words, typically with more than one word per letter, and multiple pictures for each word. Peapod has plumbed the depths of sport to come up with some of these sports, including the comparatively obscure Zorbing and Orienteering alongside shoehorned Equestrian and Quad Bike entries, plus virtually every well-known sport you can think of. Thanks to Flickr, the developer has come up with another collection of often stunning images of everything from aikido to cycling to golf and skiing, each picture linked to a different YouTube video that fleshes out the sport. After navigating to a word, tapping on any of the letters at the bottom of the screen takes you to a different word starting with that letter, announcing the letter and the word; swiping left or right calls up the previous or next photo without forcing you to return to the grid for navigation.
At this point, the formula is so well-established that the small interface changes are easy to miss, though kids will appreciate them. ABC Play transitions right from its intro screen to the grid of choices without requiring user interaction, and hints at its tappable letters with gentle bounces and blip sounds. Another epic orchestral song plays in the background as kids browse the screens, stopping only long enough to let the videos play without interruption. Additional buttons guide young readers to one fact about the sport per photo, and back to the grid if they so desire.
The only real issues we had with ABC Play related to the age-appropriateness of some of the words and sports, which unlike the Wildlife picks may well go over the heads of young children: “synchronized swimming,” “ultimate frisbee”—alongside both “frisbee” and “frisbee golf,” no less—and “cross-country” are all fine to include within the app, but kids will struggle with some of the complex words and concepts, and parents may scratch their heads when trying to explain them. Unlike the earlier ABC apps, our nearly three-year-old girl tester wasn’t as engaged by ABC Play, seemingly because of the sports that were coming up on screen, but also possibly because of the app’s considerable familiarity. Older kids and boys might feel otherwise. In any case, this is still a solid educational app with a UI that keeps on improving with every generation; we’d recommend it most aggressively to kids whose parents want to guide them through the different sports, and have an appreciation for particularly impressive sport photography. iLounge Rating: B+.
Match-three and match-four games are so common now in the App Store that the release of yet another one normally wouldn’t even make it onto our radar. As much as we’d like to tell you that Touch Apps’ new Monster Blaster ($1, version 1.0) brings something particularly special to the table, it’s basically just another remake of Sega’s Puyo Puyo, this time with little monsters replacing jellies, and an added power-up bar nestled off to the right of the iPod touch/iPhone screen. It has Retina Display support, but doesn’t offer high-resolution art on the iPad, a universal feature that might otherwise have been a primary selling point for something that’s been done over and over again.
The formula here is very simple. A seven-block-wide platform fills up with two linked-together monsters falling together from the sky, requiring you to use swipes for movement and taps to rotate the current two monsters so that four or more same-colored creatures are matched. When that happens, a Killer Instinct-style announcer calls out the words “Super Combo,” “Ultra Combo,” and so on, and little cartoon explosions make the matched monsters disappear. Filler blocks touching the monsters are eliminated at the same time, and ice cubes containing power-ups melt, too. You can use a vertical-moving drill and various similar types of explosives to clear out multiple creatures at once, tricks that will become necessary as the pace of the game picks up and more colors of monsters appear.
There’s technically nothing wrong with Monster Blaster besides the controls, which have been simplified to the point of occasional inaccuracy—an issue that can make an otherwise good puzzler less than thrilling. Otherwise, it’s cheap, the graphics are nice enough, and there’s a song that builds up into genuine background music as you continue to play the game. Fluid elements that have been executed with varying degrees of impressiveness in different Puyo Puyo titles and clones are replaced here by explosions, which like the rest of the game are competently but not amazingly animated. There’s just no spark here, no online competitive or cooperative mode, and no added depth. If you’re a fan of this sort of matching game, Monster Blaster is a fine pick for a dollar, but it could really benefit from proper iPad support and greater depth. iLounge Rating: B-.
We’ve previously covered various versions of the classic board game Scrabble for iPods, iPhones, and iPads, so our prior reviews will fill in most of the details regarding Electronic Arts’ most recent update to Scrabble for iPad ($10, version 1.2.61). As before, Scrabble provides one-player and various multiplayer modes that enable you to assemble one word per turn from a tray of seven letters, using previously-assembled words on the board to provide additional letter options.
A jazzy soundtrack plays continuously in the background as you mull your next word, with on-screen buttons providing a limited-use Best Word cheat, a letter-swapping tool that can get you out of useless letters, and a pass button that forfeits your turn. EA also includes a limited dictionary that lets you look up words to be sure they’re real—according to either of the game’s alternately-selectable tables—and a “shuffle” button to rearrange the tiles on your tray. A free Scrabble Tile Rack application allows iPhone and iPod touch users to keep their tiles on their smaller-screened devices while the iPad sits in the center of multiple players, using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to keep all of the devices in sync with one another.
The major issue with Scrabble for iPad was and is its high price, which is still at $10 a year after its release, providing pluckier competitors with plenty of room to step in and challenge EA. That’s where Newtoy and Zynga’s Words with Friends HD ($3, version 4.0) comes in. Newtoy doesn’t have the Scrabble license, but it has created a streamlined alternative that’s simpler and based largely on an asynchronous multiplayer mode. You log into Facebook and/or Newtoy’s server, then use simple tools to look for your Facebook friends, Twitter followers, contacts, or random online opponents. There’s also a pass and play mode so that two people can physically hand the iPad back and forth from turn to turn.
Newtoy’s lower price comes with compromises: no music, limited sound effects, and no CPU-based AI player. The UI is forced into a portrait orientation, unlike the rotating one used by Scrabble on iPad. And despite its significant similarities, the board isn’t exactly the same. Scrabble’s board is 15×15 in size; Words With Friends HD is only 12×12, with different placements for the double and triple letter and word bonuses. It feels like Newtoy made just enough changes to the original game to avoid losing a lawsuit.
But some of the tweaks are positive. There’s an integrated chat window, akin to Messages on the iPhone, that lets you talk with your online opponents; it’s not quite perfect (or useful) when played with someone in the same room. You can play multiple games at the same time by switching between games in progress, using push notifications to alert you to turns that have been taken by remote players. And there’s also a completely free version of the app, Words With Friends HD Free, that runs an ad banner at the top of the screen for users who don’t want to spend the $3 for the app. Online asynchronous games work between the separate iPad and iPhone/iPod touch versions of the game, too.
The most recent versions of Scrabble have responded to the Words With Friends threat by adding asynchronous Facebook-based playback, a chat window, and support for up to 25 multiplayer games at a time, and the features worked decently—due no doubt to bugs that EA hasn’t yet fixed. We experienced delays, crashes, and other hiccups such as slow push notifications for new moves, and were unexpectedly logged out of Facebook Connect for reasons unknown, all reasons that our rating has fallen from the otherwise solid prior version we reviewed. Assuming that the bugs will be remedied eventually, our big question for EA is one that has hung over the company’s corporate head for the past several years that it’s been making iOS games: how long does it think it can maintain Scrabble for iPad’s $10 price in light of both of Newtoy’s less expensive options? For the time being, it’s easier to recommend the stripped down Words With Friends HD apps to iPad users, as they deliver a solid experience—minus frills—at considerably lower prices. The ball’s now in EA’s court to improve Scrabble for iPad or reduce the price to a more competitive level. iLounge Ratings (Words With Friends HD): B, (Scrabble for iPad): B-.