Welcome to this week’s first gaming edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! This week, we’re catching up on some titles that were released during our mid-November vacation break, so there’s a lot to cover. This edition focuses on a collection of sci-fi-, fantasy-, and horror-themed action games and shooters, but there are many other titles in these and other genres to discuss in part two.
Our top picks in this collection are Gunstar Heroes, Mushihimesama Bug Panic, and Rage HD. Read on for all the details.
After developing one of the best games of 2009, The Iconfactory surprisingly stopped updating its skee-ball-inspired Ramp Champ and set to work on a new title called Astronut (Free/$2, version 1.0), which relies upon an extremely simple play mechanic: like Namco’s much earlier Star Trigon, you control an astronaut who orbits planets and other objects in outer space, using a “jump off” button to break orbit and fly in the direction of another object. Unlike Star Trigon, you’re also given a limited-use boost button to help you in situations where you might be in trouble—making a bad jump or flying into a cloud of bad guys—but the key to success is to properly jump from planet to planet until you reach the end of a level. You hold the iPhone or iPod touch vertically and generally move upwards, sometimes falling back if you err in your timing or need to backtrack. Scattered hearts replenish your limited lifebar, and shards can be collected to interrupt the standard levels with rocket bonus missions.
While we’ll commend Iconfactory for using a smart single-app purchasing scheme we’ve seen before, offering the first four levels as a free trial with the remaining 20 levels as a $2 in-app purchase, we didn’t find ourselves wanting to buy the rest of the game after trying the initial levels. Star Trigon’s claustrophobic, bounded stages felt like better puzzles than the ones we tried in Astronut before becoming bored of the onwards-and-upwards, “see how far you can get” action. The game is also sonically threadbare, with fair special effects and no music to speak of. If you’re a fan of this sort of game, Astronut’s fine, but by comparison with the richly detailed and sonically charming Ramp Champ, it’s hard to get excited about. iLounge Rating: B-.
We recall having heard the story behind the development of BulleTrain .22 ($2, version 1.01) some months ago: Downsized Games was founded by former Electronic Arts employees who lost their jobs, then created this first-person shooter as a parting shot at EA’s CEO, who shares the same initials as BulleTrain’s main villain—a character who is repeatedly knocked for corporate doublespeak throughout the game’s narrative. Sadly, BulleTrain is a dismally boring and poorly-paced little title, made vaguely interesting solely because of the insane clip at which you’re supposed to be shooting at cowboy targets on the semi-futuristic train that hovers before you.
To call BulleTrain .22 akin to Time Crisis, Rage, or other forced-movement first-person shooters in the App Store feels truly over-generous, as this game has more in common with late 1980’s and early 1990’s shooting gallery titles than the majority of 3-D shooters released over the past 20 years. Downsized Games merely scrolls a polygonal train left, right, and back again in front of you while you tap at targets. Because of the constant motion of the train or the need to hit targets more than once, you essentially bob back and forth using as many taps as possible to remove enemies from the screen, revisiting past territory that rapidly looks similar to what’s come before. The developer frequently flashes jokey but not-so-funny dialogue from the game’s villain on the screen, and introduces brief blastathon segments with truly out of place verbiage that suggests that the developers really need to let go of the events that inspired the game’s development and move on to greener pastures. A fairly dramatic update, with equal parts snipping, repacing, and new level design, will be needed before this game becomes worthy of even its $2 asking price. Note that the game is incompatible with the iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPod touch 1G/2G, and upscales with the 1X/2X button on the iPad. A needlessly separate iPad-only version called BulleTrain .45 has been released for the samg asking price. iLounge Rating: C-.
Thanks to their pacing and innovation, some classic games may never feel “old,” and Sega’s side-scrolling run-and-shoot action game Gunstar Heroes ($3, version 1.0) is one of them. Developed by subsequently famous Treasure after its staff fled the overly corporate Japanese developer Konami, Gunstar Heroes is a spiritual sequel to Konami’s Contra franchise, albeit with play mechanics and a cartoony sci-fi theme that wouldn’t have flown in the grittier Contras at the time. Elements of Capcom’s beautiful but brief actioner Strider inform the platforming here, which gives you a joystick and three buttons to run, jump, climb, slide, and shoot your way through intense near-future backgrounds.
Gunstar Heroes diverges from its numerous predecessors—and some successors—by including character interactivity and intensity that just weren’t seen before on Sega’s Genesis, from which this title is ported, or other consoles. Your Gunstar character shoots, switches between two weapons, and jumps, but he also grapples with enemies when necessary, throwing them into the air, and needs to outwit over 25 different bosses and mini-bosses along the way. Screens are filled with explosions, early sprite rotation effects, and other visual tricks that established Treasure as a master of 16-bit hardware; only the chiptune music and low 320×240 resolution make the game feel a little dated. Fans of side-scrolling shooters owe it to themselves to check this game out; a two-player Bluetooth cooperative mode is available for the last three generations of iPod touches and iPhones, as well as the iPad. iLounge Rating: B+.
We weren’t afraid to say that we weren’t impressed with the gameplay behind Cave’s visually amazing “bullet hell” shooters Dodonpachi Resurrection and Espgaluda II, but its new title Mushihimesama Bug Panic ($5, version 1.0) is a completely different story. While Bug Panic’s theme—an anime-styled girl on a quest to eradicate robotic bugs—may initially turn off some potential players, the innovative gameplay combines with some of the company’s signature visual tricks to provide an even better experience. One on-screen joystick controls your character’s movement on an overhead-perspective, scrolling map, while the other serves as an innovative shooting and targeting system for the equivalent of a grenade launcher, releasing one or more projectiles at targets you’ve pointed or locked on to while running. Though the concept sounds similar, the latter controller enables you to feel like you’re doing something different from the mass of dual-stick shooters we’ve tested. So too does the map unlocking system, which lets you backtrack to prior terrain and unlock new areas to explore once you’ve cleared out certain enemies.
Unlike the company’s other shooters, which used only a portion of the iPod touch or iPhone screen, Mushihimesama Bug Panic thankfully fills the entire 3.5” display, scaling with the 2X button for the iPad. While the background artwork isn’t as mind-bendingly detailed as in the prior games, and the music’s a little on the dreamy side for a shooter, the small issues are made up for with plenty of the same overlapping character, projectile, and explosion artwork Cave used before, plus similar opportunities to grab bonus items scattered around the stages. “Bullet hell” moments where projectiles become overwhelming are comparatively few and far between; you survive the numerous levels by avoiding multiple hits, and will have a lot of fun doing so. As with the company’s earlier games, there’s a hardware cutoff—iPhone, iPhone 3G, and iPod touch 1G/2G users need not apply. iLounge Rating: B+.
As the basics of id Software’s first-person shooter Rage HD: Mutant Bash TV ($2, version 1.0) have been discussed in detail already, we won’t rehash them here except to note that the legendary developer has brought some of the graphics and audio from its latest PC and console game into an all-new iOS-optimized experience. In part because of in-game video but also due to its use of huge, detailed textures and polygonal models, Rage HD for the iPhone 4, iPod touch 4G, and iPad has a 743MB footprint versus the $1 540MB version for older iOS devices; each game takes up a lot of space by first-person shooter standards.
That having been said, Rage HD is about as close to incredible-looking as anything has been on Apple’s devices to date—an amazing demonstration of what’s possible when an experienced developer optimizes both a graphics engine and an experience for iOS hardware. As with the company’s earlier Doom Resurrection, you don’t control your character’s feet or movement, instead focusing solely upon moving a targeting reticule, firing projectiles, switching weapons, and dodging enemy attacks with a button. But because id Software knows exactly where you’ll be throughout the game, rather than giving you full freedom of movement, it can use the maximum number of polygons and highest-quality textures possible for every given situation… something it does incredibly well in this title. The mutants you’re killing and the backgrounds you see in the Running Man-esque “Mutant Bash” game show environments look incredibly realistic, putting to absolute shame the artwork in games such as Namco’s Time Crisis games, Capcom’s Resident Evils, and even Gameloft’s several impressive first-person shooters. Rage HD is gritty, more violent, and just plain believable. You don’t see polygonal edges; everything looks smooth.
There’s so much to like about Rage HD—the challenge of trying to hit enemies, money, ammo, and bullseyes as the camera deliberately bobs and weaves through the 3-D levels, the truly menacing-looking enemies, and the trashed apocalyptic scenes—that the game’s issues feel trivial. They are, in short, relatively bland audio with only low-pitched ambient music, action that moves a little too quickly to let you appreciate the scenery, and an iPad button layout that’s not as intuitive as the iPhone/iPod touch one. For $2, it’s hard to complain: Rage HD is unquestionably the most impressive game id Software has released for iOS devices to date, at the best price, and is highly worthy of any shooting fan’s attention. iLounge Rating: A-.
While we don’t want to knock Namco for releasing what amounts to a fine port of a classic arcade game that was once enjoyed by some people, we were never big fans of Splatterhouse ($3, version 1.0), and can’t claim to be especially impressed by the title’s recent debut on the iPhone and iPod touch. Once considered groundbreakingly violent, Splatterhouse places you in control of a side-scrolling character who uses knives, boards, and guns to kill hordes of undead monsters, turning humanoid and slug-like enemies into gooey splashes of green, blood-like fluid. That color’s a concession to the blood-averse censorship mentality of 1988, when the game debuted.
Even back when it was considered to be a big deal title for NEC’s TurboGrafx-16, the issue with Splatterhouse was that its gameplay was extremely shallow; you’re given an on-screen D-pad and buttons for attacking and jumping, but the action consists basically of walking left and right, hitting things with a board or a gun, and then repeating the action. Some stages challenge you to jump over obstacles, squat and kick, or avoid flying enemies, but there’s no getting away from the fact that this game feels like it’s straight out of the late 1980s; only a widescreen but limited “Splatter Rush” mode that talleys your kills for bragging rights is different from the original title; Namco even runs it at sub-iPhone resolution, enabling you to use zoom buttons to make the original art come closer to filling the screen. We’d call Splatterhouse worthy of some players’ consideration on the basis of nostalgia alone, but it’s hard to consider this game as even vaguely worthy of a $3 asking price when titles like Rage HD are doing so much more to push the iOS platform forward for less. iLounge Rating: C+.
Thousands of additional iPhone, iPod, and iPad app and game reviews are available here.