Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Today, we’re looking at five new releases spanning a bunch of different genres—racing, action platforming, shooting, fighting, and even classic console emulation. There’s a little something for everyone here, but retro gaming fans will find a lot inside to sate their needs for old school action.
Our top picks of the week are Hook Worlds and Asphalt 6: Adrenaline. Read on for all the details.
By executing impressively on proven formulas, Gameloft has dominated at least a dozen different game genres on the iPhone and iPod touch—including racing, though less impressively there than in other categories. Alongside the company’s realistic driving game GT Racing: Motor Academy has been the Asphalt series of arcade-style driving games, which dispense with realism in the name of making courses fun and more action intense: collisions, power-ups, turbo boosts and brightly-colored tracks were the highlights of Asphalt 4 and Asphalt 5, the latter better than the former. Today, Gameloft released Asphalt 6: Adrenaline ($7), and it has finally gotten the formula right—apart from its unnecessary lack of iPad HD support.
When running on the iPhone 4 and iPod touch 4G, Asphalt 6: Adrenaline is a beautiful, polished racer in ways that its predecessors couldn’t be on earlier iOS devices. Armed with more powerful graphics processors and extra memory for detailed polygonal models and textures, Gameloft has included 42 different unlockable vehicles—primarily cars, but also motorcycles—from major manufacturers, each attractively rendered in your choice of body colors, which race at generally fluid frame rates on interesting tracks. Thanks to hidden shortcuts and the continued presence of cash and turbo boosting power-ups on the tracks, now indicated with spotlights that can be seen from a distance, you constantly need to decide whether to drive safe on a main road or swerve around to grab items, potentially putting your car in the path of oncoming traffic.
Collisions with rival cars and street traffic are shown in pleasant Burnout-style slow motion, penalizing you when you’re wrecked and rewarding you for taking out others. Different types of races spread over 55 events will alternately challenge you to eliminate a certain number of rivals or just place in the top three after lapping the track, unlocking additional events, vehicles, and purchasable vehicle enhancements after each victory. Six-player wireless multiplayer modes and upbeat, energetic techno music add to the game’s appeal.
The reason Asphalt 6 succeeds where its predecessors fell short is the cohesiveness of the entire experience, which feels like the result of trial and error in earlier titles. Over-used blur effects are gone in favor of a two-stage turbo system that can turn the entire track neon blue temporarily in an homage to Tron, shortcuts feel more organic rather than forced and artificial, and the balance of racing, car combat, and picking up power-ups has been tuned such that you’re not always feeling like you’re missing out on one part of the experience—say, grabbing things—by focusing on driving. Similarly, the cash and unlocking system works perfectly this time, providing you with proper access to better cars and items at a rapid enough pace to keep the game interesting. If Asphalt 6 ran at full resolution on the iPad as it does on the iPhone 4 and iPod touch, it would be worthy of a high recommendation; that iPad users are supposed to purchase a second version for the same $7 price just to unlock the same high-res artwork is an unnecessary disappointment, and a reason to wait for a price drop. iLounge Rating: B+.
Developed solely for the iPhone and iPod touch, Rocketcat Games’ new Hook Worlds ($1) is the latest title in the company’s series of retro-themed grappling hook platformers, following 2009’s Hook Champ and mid-2010’s Super QuickHook. Those unfamiliar with the series should know that the prior titles involved using simplified run and jump/grapple hook controls along with purchasable power-ups to explore and escape from caves, expansive temples, and outdoor environments; the charm was in the deliberately 8-bit and 16-bit-styled characters, who were given personalities through funny dialogue and numerous customization features.
Hook Worlds offers four different takes on the prior theme, albeit with one big change: you no longer need to worry about the left and right control of your character, which is handled automatically in Canabalt “endless running” fashion. The first game, Curse of the Watcher, forces you to grapple and rocket boot-jump through trees and ruins as you attempt to escape from a laser-firing octopus demon. Next is Bounty Gunner, a run, grapple, and gun shooting romp with ghosts to shoot, tons of coins to collect, and spikes to avoid; then there’s Cybergnome 202X, which involves grappling and gravity-shifting so that the ground and ceiling are reversed as necessary to keep on moving. Fourth is Hook Champ 1000, unlocked only if the game was either purchased in its first weekend of availability or downloaded after Rocketcat releases its first free update. This is a deliberately Atarified downscaling of the original Hook Champ, with even simpler and more pixelated graphics and forced-run controls.
Hook Champ 1000 is the only mini-game in the bunch that doesn’t have modern chiptune music, reverting to a simpler track in keeping with the ultra-retro theme. The other titles each combine really nice music with enhanced versions of the pixel art characters and backdrops seen in earlier games, with even cooler grappling hook firing effects, neat rain in the Cybergnome world, and nice gun graphics in Bounty Gunner. Screenshots still can’t totally capture the appeal of this title, as the smoothness of the motion and nice glowing trail effects are highlights of the art style, but what’s here is very nice for the budget price.
Though Hook Worlds is fundamentally different from its predecessors due to the simplification of its controls and offering one level per adventure, Rocketcat’s decision to include four different games for one low price was very smart. The single biggest knock on endless running games is that their linearity and repetitiveness makes them ill-suited to extended play, but Hook Worlds includes enough variations on the basic “run and jump” theme to keep players interested in moving between the different adventures. In keeping with the company’s prior titles, plenty of unlockable items can be equipped after successful play—here gauged by points for surviving or medalling in each world—and there are funny cartoony introductions to enjoy, with endings promised in an update. For the $1 asking price, this is a great little action game, and particularly worthwhile for fans of the prior titles and retro gaming in general. iLounge Rating: A-.
Rather than writing an extended review of Colin Walsh and Celsius Game Studios’ new shooting game Red Nova ($1), we’re going to leave our initial take unfinished, in keeping with the title itself. Compatible with the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad, Red Nova is an intriguingly ambitious overhead perspective space shooter, using way better than average music and a smooth 3-D graphics engine to place you in control of one of three space ships armed with unlimited bullets and a limited lock-on missile capability. Using a virtual joystick in the bottom left corner, you turn or thrust your ship around space in Asteroids style, tapping or gesturing in the bottom right corner to fire bullets, lock on to other ships, or use occasional power-ups. Additional gestures in the top left and top right corners of the screen recharge your shields or absorb the current power-up into your limited supply of shield- and weapon-replenishing energy.
In short, Red Nova has almost all of the elements it needs to be a great shooter—except for structure. The music is epic, the spaceships move fluidly against a surprisingly compelling though completely repetitive starfield, and once you master the initially complex controls, you start racking up tens of enemy kills in a session without problems. But the enemies quickly start to look very familiar, and there’s not much to do besides wipe more of them out. With additional backdrops, a mission structure, and a power-up or reward system of some sort, Red Nova could become a really impressive title. Right now, it’s a solid skeleton in need of additional meat. iLounge Rating: C+.
There are two camps of 16-bit gamers: those who ignored NEC’s TurboGrafx-16 game console in favor of Nintendo’s Super NES or Sega’s Genesis, and those who were seriously hard-core fans of the niche console—a platform largely developed and populated with games by Japan’s Hudson Soft. If you’re in the latter camp and don’t mind compromising somewhat on the sound and frame rates of popular TG-16 titles, you might want to check out TurboGrafx-16 GameBox (Free), a just-released Hudson Soft title that provides emulated access to 16 different titles from the platform: Bonk’s Adventure, World Series Competition, Military Madness, Victory Run, New Adventure Island, Soldier Blade, R-Type, Necromancer, Dungeon Explorer, BomberMan ‘94, Vigilante, Ninja Spirit, China Warrior, Gradius, Salamander, and World Class Baseball. All of the titles come from either Hudson or its more recent parent company Konami, and most are either banner or well-known releases from the console’s U.S. library.
Though it would be possible to review each of these titles individually, it suffices to say that Hudson’s emulation interface offers a limited trial of a different title each day—several minutes of the shooter Salamander yesterday, and ten minutes of the action-platformer Bonk’s Adventure today—with $3 in-app purchases to unlock the full games inside. We grabbed Ninja Spirit, one of the only TurboGrafx-16 arcade translations that didn’t see release on another major platform, and found that the game ran decently on the iPad: more than occasional slowdowns were noticeable in the graphics but particularly surprising in the music, suggesting that Hudson didn’t do an especially good job of optimizing the emulator for Apple’s most powerful devices—a surprise given that the app runs only on iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPod touch 3G/4G, and iPad devices.
Otherwise, the UI is reasonable: virtual controls partially overlap the screen, which generally isn’t an issue, and a new save feature enables you to resume playback from wherever you left off, making previously inaccessible games easier to move through. Whether you’ll want to spend $3 per title to play these titles will depend on your nostalgic impulses; we’d sooner get the actual and properly ported R-Type for $1 than a downgraded TG-16 port for $3, but you can decide for yourself whether less widely available classic titles such as Military Madness, BomberMan ‘94, and Bonk’s Adventure hold enough appeal to be worth a few bucks a piece. In any case, Hudson owes it to gamers to improve the quality of the emulation here, as there’s no reason that this old console should be stuttering on any Apple hardware. iLounge Rating: C.
By the time one-time leading arcade game developer Midway was absorbed into Warner Brothers, the Mortal Kombat one-on-one fighting game franchise was arguably its only remaining crown jewel—the reason that the Mortal Kombat team survived to become NetherRealm Studios and work on further sequels. Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 ($7) is not amongst them: published by Electronic Arts with assistance from Warner Brothers and developer Big Head Games, this iPhone- and iPod touch-ready title is based on one of the many Mortal Kombat sequels, offsetting a serious reduction in character roster with a dramatically updated graphics engine. While the controls and relatively weak gameplay won’t thrill serious MK fans, Ultimate MK3 is a decent enough start to the series for the App Store, and will hopefully see post-release updates to bring it up to higher standards.
The new graphics engine is the game’s single strongest feature. What used to be flat 2-D backgrounds and digitized characters have been updated into polygonal 3-D models with similar-looking textures, so screenshots don’t fairly represent just how much has changed in this release. Because of the polygon models, the iPhone and iPod touch game can zoom in on the action and present modestly more dynamic views than before—benefits not found in, say, Street Fighter IV—with only modest compromises on the original level of texture detail. While UMK3 would have looked more impressive with higher-resolution iPad-ready art, the new graphics are a step up overall from the original arcade title, and look more modern than might otherwise have been expected from a 1995-vintage translation. Ten backgrounds keep the fights from becoming visually repetitive too quickly.
On the other hand, calling this game “Ultimate” Mortal Kombat 3 may lead to some confusion. The star feature of the same-named arcade and console game was a huge roster of combatants, but this version is closer to the original Mortal Kombat 3 release: it currently includes only 13 characters, 9 of whom are initially selectable before unlocking an additional 2, plus bosses Motaro and Shao Kahn. Lookalike ninjas are plentiful in this roster, while additional characters such as Kabal, Kano, Kung Lao, and the robo-ninjas Sektor and Cyrax are out. Moreover, the gameplay is at least as bad as it was in the early MK arcade games, if not worse. Fights against centaur boss Motaro are the definition of cheap and stupid, and the controls—whether in simplified 5-button mode or more authentic 6-button mode—feel imprecise and problematic. Only with a dedicated special move button do the franchise’s signature fatalities, babalities, and friendship moves feel possible, and even then, the series’ trademark blood has been toned down. Local Multiplayer, keep-going-til-you-die Survival, and keep-going-against-Shao Kahn Shao Karnage modes are alternatives to the single-player Arcade mode, which presents you with tower-like progressions of 8, 9, 10, or 11 matches depending on the number of challenges you want to face before finishing the game. Endings are almost comically spare, apart from the inclusion of icon codes that unlock additional and not particularly interesting modes in the game; additionally, the game’s once copious levels of blood have been toned down somewhat, reducing the number and duration of splashes.
Overall, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 feels like a teaser—a legitimate attempt to bring half of a once popular arcade fighting game onto a platform that is still challenged by the need for virtual controls. What’s here is necessary but insufficient to give the App Store the real Mortal Kombat experience that players have been waiting for; improved controls, more characters, and enhancement of the gore have the greatest chance at winning back some of the fans this series has lost over the years. iLounge Rating: B-.