Welcome to a brief new gaming edition of iPhone + iPad Gems, where we’re looking at three recent releases that caught our attention just as we were putting the finishing touches on our 2011 Buyers’ Guide—a resource we’d strongly recommend if you’re looking for the top 100 iPod, iPhone, and iPad games of 2010.
Our top pick of this bunch is the puzzle game iSlash, but iPad gamers who love the classic arcade title Breakout or Apple’s subsequent Vortex should also check out Circuloid. Read on for all the details.
Though many game genres have been impressively represented on the iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad, the App Store is still waiting for its Smash TV—Williams’ impressively energetic overhead shooter that combined shooting and award grabbing with a great theme, constantly changing rooms, and well-planned action-intense puzzles. By comparison with that 1990-vintage high point, Halfbrick Studios’ Age of Zombies ($3) is basically just more of the same thing we’ve seen on Apple’s devices in the absence of such innovation—an uninspired “keep shooting” title from the otherwise talented developer behind Fruit Ninja and Monster Dash. Here, humor is supposed to take the place of smart level design, so Halfbrick continually peppers the stages with a mix of jokes and profanities that are only rarely funny, leaving the player to focus on a game that feels a lot like the iDraculas and numerous other monster-slaying shooters we’ve previously played.
Age of Zombies places you in control of a character who wanders through a time machine’s worth of levels, fighting zombie infestations in prehistoric and future times, as well as gangland Chicago, Egyptian crypts, and Japan. For giggles, Halfbrick changes up not just the expected background artwork and zombie designs from stage to stage, but also the audio cues and boss concepts, all of which feel a little unpolished and overly cartoony but diverse enough to be above average for a $3 title. The shooting action remains largely the same from stage to stage, however, as you move around open but small areas trying to steer clear of massive hordes of zombies that eventually become more dangerous—but not smarter—as they vary from person-sized grunts to oversized attackers and then carry their own weapons. One of your joysticks moves you, the other fires in whatever direction you want.
All of the elements might have worked really well in a game with more thoughtful level designs, but instead, the game quickly becomes an exercise in hunting for whatever weapons are randomly popping up, then using projectiles and either grenades or similarly crowd-clearing bazooka rounds to get rid of as many zombies at a time as possible. Later weapons, such as a flamethrower, are way less exciting than they could be in both visuals and actual gameplay impact; the game’s best guns come out quickly but don’t require any special skill or thought to use effectively. While Age of Zombies gets an extra point for offering a combined iPod/iPhone/iPad universal application, the iPad game is merely an upscaled and low-resolution version of the iPhone/iPod title. We would expect that a sequel to this title could easily become great if Halfbrick decides to evolve it, but in its current form, it’s only recommendable to dual-joystick shooter fans who don’t mind repetitive, modestly funny action with needless sprinklings of off-color language. iLounge Rating: B-.
There are many Breakout clones in the App Store, but Apple’s own Vortex—a relatively early and quite good Click Wheel iPod game—is for some reason not amongst them. iPad gamers now have an alternative in Macoscope’s Circuloid ($2), which takes the same general concept of placing destructible bricks in the center of a circular well with paddles rotating around, and offers its own twists on the well-established formula. One notable change is high-definition artwork, which struck us as more interesting than what Taito offered last month in its high-resolution redraw of the classic game Arkanoid, along with a quickly looping but moody soundtrack that plays through the 54 current stages. More levels are promised in a near-term update.
Where Circuloid really works is in its approach to level design: rather than just repeating the same exercise with different graphics over and over again, its levels play with several different themes: you can’t always count on having the same number of rotating paddles on the walls, the same distribution of useful power-ups or power-downs taken from a pool of 10 items, or—most obviously—the same brick patterns. Every Breakout clone changes up the bricks from level to level, but this one actually has bricks that move, sometimes scattering into really small pieces on the first hit, and becoming as capable of being destroyed by your paddle as by the ball or balls you’re batting around in the well. Macoscope also does a good job of figuring out when the stages are getting boring, dispensing a power-up you can catch when only a small number of bricks are left, ending the stage automatically if you grab it.
Circuloid’s major issue is in the control department. We couldn’t get either the touch or the slider controls to feel “right” to our hands, and really didn’t want to play with accelerometer tilting for the paddles, either; no calibration is included to make the controls go slower or faster for an individual user, either. While it’s arguably a greater challenge because you need to accommodate the game’s input requirements rather than your own needs, Breakout games thrive or fail on the strength of their interfaces; this one falls short of its greater potential largely because it feels like a great arcade machine with an imprecise knob attached. Updates will surely improve Circuloid further. iLounge Rating: B.
Last up in this roundup is Duello Games’ iSlash ($1), a game that successfully combines two different genres to create a new type of puzzle experience—for iPhones and iPod touches, only upscaling to the iPad. The first genre, finger swipe slashing, is familiar to fans of Halfbrick’s Fruit Ninja, and the second, reducing a large play field into smaller areas, takes inspiration from games such as Taito’s classic arcade title Qix and Ngmoco’s more recent Dr. Awesome. You’re presented here with a series of wood puzzles filled with bouncing throwing stars, and need to use decisive swipes to slash the wood downwards to a smaller size; a meter on the top of the screen tells you what fraction of the original surface can remain intact in order to move on to the next level, and you’re rated on the number of swipes you take to achieve that goal. The trick: you can only cut the wood to eliminate pieces that contain no bouncing stars, and if a star touches you, you fail.
Aesthetics and evolving gameplay are the two main reasons iSlash works so well. The game has an undeniable Japanese theme due to the bouncing shuriken and sword-like slashes; Duello plays to this theme considerably better than Halfbrick did in Fruit Ninja by changing up the backgrounds with subtle but attractive background artwork, using sound effects judiciously, and playing sparing, calm music while you’re swiping away at the wood surfaces. Stages continue to become smarter at a fair pace, enabling you to learn the basics of cutting the wood before being forced to deal with new challenges such as uncuttable metal surfaces, more difficult cutting angles, and then making bolder slashes to earn star-destroying dynamite.
For the $1 asking price, iSlash does pretty much everything right. It’s not a high-energy game, and could stand to offer true iPad support, as well as more power-ups or blade customization as bonuses, but what’s here for the time being is great—worthy of our A- rating and high recommendation. A free version called iSlash Lite is available as a demo. iLounge Rating: A-.