Welcome to this week’s edition of iPad + iPhone Gems! Today, we’re looking at four titles, one so new that it’s coming to the App Store next week, while the other three are already available. They’re a mix of apps, light games, and edutainment, each quite nice for what it’s supposed to be; two stand out as particularly ambitious.
Our top picks of the week are ArtRage and Toca Hair Salon. Read on for all the details.
Having previously tested the significantly more expensive Mac application ArtRage Studio Pro, the biggest surprises in Ambient Design’s iPad painting app ArtRage ($7, version 1.1.6) are how much of the look and feel of the OS X version remain intact on Apple’s tablet—and how much the experience improves simply by adding a touchscreen interface. Using a straight-line left-of-screen toolbar rather than the bottom corner arc found on the Mac app, ArtRage provides access to oil, watercolor, airbrush, palette knife, paint roller, paint tube, inking pen, pencil, marker, chalk, crayon, eraser, and flood fill tools, many of which sound self-evident but actually work better than their common names would suggest.
Ambient Design lets strokes trail off and in some cases tracks pressure, impacts on canvas texture, and surface wetness, resulting in digital art that actually looks more like physical art. Paint can be given your choice of varying degrees of metallic luster, and most of the tools can be tapped to change their size and other characteristics, resulting in the appearance of 3-D depth, moisture, and mixed materials. Multi-touch gestures provide zoom, panning, brush size, and undo-redo shortcuts; buttons let you load images to include within your art, or serve as reference points for painting. Individual layers can be maintained at varying levels of opacity, blended together in different ways, and then merged down.
Apart from restrictions imposed by the iPad hardware—such as its inability to actually treat a paintbrush accessory such as the Nomadbrush differently from a finger—the app’s limitations appear to be mostly in Ambient Design’s ambition. Advanced tools from ArtRage Studio and ArtRage Studio Pro would be welcome here, but there’s not even an in-app purchasing scheme to support their addition. Yet. We suspect that Ambient Design will continue to build on this impressive painting program, and that every addition will only make it better. At its temporary $3 asking price, it’s a steal; at the regular $7 price, it’s still worthy of our high recommendation. iLounge Rating: A-.
Equal parts Tilt to Live and Asteroids, Zach Gage’s Bit Pilot ($1, version 2.0) is a simple but fun retro game with universal support for the iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad. You control a tiny spaceship that flies inside a box, dodging asteroids and avoiding laser bombs that occasionally zip from one side of the screen to the other before exploding into expanding lines of light. Intuitive one- or two-finger gestures make the ship move in any direction—more quickly with two fingers than one—and guide it towards moving pill-shaped point and health bonuses, the latter represented as additional layers of a polygonal shield. You have only one ship, and accumulate more points by surviving wave after wave of additional asteroids and light bombs; shields deplete with each hit you suffer from a rock, and you die instantly if you touch the final pulse of light emitted horizontally by the laser bomb.
While the underlying concept of Bit Pilot is even simpler than Asteroids—there’s no shooting to worry about, just steering—the Tilt to Live-like challenge of avoiding an increasingly crowding collection of obstacles inside the box is entertaining, and three game modes switch up the challenges: the basic game described above has multiple difficulty levels, Tunnels starts you with tons of big rocks that require precision dodging, and Supermassive shrinks your view of the ship and introduces lots of tiny rocks to steer around. Apart from the Retina Display support, the bitmapped and light vector graphics are deliberately primitive; similarly, the chiptune music has post-8-bit energy with restricted NES-style instruments, following in the retro theme. For the asking price, and given the game’s nice unlockable audio and difficulty settings, we like what’s here; it doesn’t have quite the style or depth of Tilt to Live, but it’s a nice throwback game with atypically responsive touch controls. iLounge Rating: B.
Planned for release next week, Fish Odyssey ($1, version 1.0) by Napoleon Games is the sort of inexpensive but cute little casual kids’ game that Apple’s devices are becoming famous for. You’re presented with five lanes of water that are viewed from a side-scrolling perspective, initially with one whale or dolphin in a lane, then multiple swimming animals at once. The goal is to tap each whale or dolphin right before it gets stuck in a barrier in the lane; if three animals hit the barriers, that’s the end of the game. You can save an animal from a wave with a swipe if you’re quick enough, and tap more than once for a double- or triple-jump, too. Though that’s all there is to do, kids will like this title and find it to be entertaining, scaling upwards in difficulty as more lanes fill at a time, and additional jumps are required from multiple dolphins and whales in sequence.
Fish Odyssey is a textbook example of a good $1 game that does exactly what it’s supposed to accomplish for that low asking price. There’s a relaxing song playing in the background along with nautical bird and dolphin noises, plus splashes as the animals jump the barriers; the cartoony graphics and animation aren’t mind-blowing but do the trick, and the action provides a challenge without requiring complex controls. It’s solid and fun, though as light on depth as the surface jumps the whales and dolphins perform over and over again. Universal iPod, iPhone, and iPad support, including Retina Display optimization for newer iPhones and iPod touches, adds to its appeal. iLounge Rating: B.
If there’s any overachiever in this group, it’s Toca Boca/Bonnier Digital Services’ new Toca Hair Salon ($2, version 1.0). Universally compatible with iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches, Toca Hair Salon lets kids cut, color, and style the hair of four different characters—a brown-haired girl, a lion, a bear, and a red-headed boy. While the concept might sound boring to an adult, the experience is one that would have been all but impossible with physical toys three or thirty years ago, and ideally suited to touchscreen devices. Moreover, the execution here is very close to superb, using impressively fluid and detailed animations to realistically render blowdrying, trimming, and growing of hair, as well as color-spraying, razoring, and combing effects. Using extremely straightforward bottom-of-screen tools, a child can trim the lion’s mane down to look like a business professional, or punk out the girl’s hair with a multi-colored mohawk.
Once you’ve had a chance to play with Toca Boca’s tools, the only things you’ll wish for are greater depth, more of them and more characters to use them on; for instance, the razor only trims rather than leaving a totally smooth surface, the hair growing tool can’t be used to create mustaches, and there are so many other types of animals and faces that would be fun to groom with the interface. But what’s here is great: charming sound effects for the characters, slight perspective shifts in the background as you tilt the devices, and the opportunity to save your images for later amusement. In its current form, Toca Hair Salon is a great way for young children to have fun—assuming that they don’t have siblings who might lose their hair to newly-trained barbers. iLounge Rating: A-.
Thousands of additional iPhone, iPod, and iPad app and game reviews are available here.