Welcome to this week’s first game-focused edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! We’re expecting this to be a pretty big week for App Store releases based on the mid-week debuts of titles ranging from Real Racing 2 to N.O.V.A. 2, as well as the recent debuts of new RPGs from Gameloft, so we’ve put out this edition of Gems early to focus on a bunch of other titles that are worthy of your attention. Once again, they span a collection of different genres, but all have high production values and come from noteworthy developers.
Our top picks in here are Backbreaker 2, Cut the Rope: Holiday Gift, and the free portion of the new rhythm game WINtA. Read on for all the details.
NaturalMotion’s Backbreaker Tackle Alley gave the iPhone and iPod touch their first television-quality football game at a time when no one—including Naturalmotion—was capable of rendering a full-fledged football experience with sufficient realism on Apple’s pocket devices. By stripping Backbreaker down, such that you controlled only a running back dodging tacklers before showboating to touchdowns, NaturalMotion focused its polygons, animations, and lighting effects on only two major people and a stadium at the same time, resulting in visuals as close to believable as the iPhone and iPod touch could muster in late 2009. Now the company has returned with Backbreaker 2: Vengeance ($3, version 1.1), a Retina Display-enhanced sequel that expands a little upon the original, missing only iPad support in the process. New graphics, including improved character models and new stadiums, are cleaner than before but very similar in execution and feel—the original Backbreaker was beautiful, and this one remains so unless you try to run it on the iPad.
Once again, you take control of a running back who needs to navigate a field littered with bonus point zones and obstacles, starting with buttons to spin, accelerate, and juke, then adding a limited jumping ability to hurdle over barriers and sometimes people. A new Vengeance mode places you in control of a defensive player tasked with taking down a running back, turning the tables with a target-tackling button and beam of light to focus you on the player in need of being taken down. Both of the modes feel substantially like what was in the original title—fun, though simple—with gradual evolutions in the gameplay that come out as you play through the 100 new “wave” stages, which are again action-based puzzles requiring you to run and either dodge or make tackles; running backs now get to showboat and double-showboat with even riskier, slower moves as they reach the end zone. While nothing here feels like a big step from the last game, Backbreaker 2 is still one of the best-looking football titles in the App Store, and a fun action puzzler for sports fans. Full iPad support would help it justify the asking price, which is higher than the last version’s was. iLounge Rating: B+.
We were really impressed by ZeptoLab and Chillingo’s charming puzzle game Cut the Rope when it appeared out of nowhere in October, and the game subsequently caught fire to become one of the most popular App Store releases of the year. The formula of a cute, hungry monster awaiting a piece of candy, delivered by strategically snipping strings of rope and using on-screen objects such as bubbles, was perfectly in line with the casual gaming needs of iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad owners, and executed with cloying sweetness. Its only bitter point: separate and differently-priced versions for the iPad and iPod/iPhone.
Consider Cut the Rope: Holiday Gift (Free, version 1.0) to be a further inducement to get on board with the original game, or a treat for those who already bought in: it’s a 25-level, Christmas-themed promotional version of the prior release, with a new addition—teleporting stockings, which let you warp the candy from one spot to another—and some holiday artwork, including snowflakes if you shake the device during the title screen. You’re still trying to touch three stars with the candy before depositing it in little monster Om Nom’s mouth, but can move on to the next unlockable level without doing so. Where Cut the Rope: Holiday Gift really improves upon its predecessor is in universalizing iPod, iPhone, and iPad support within one download; should its sequel follow suit, we’ll consider it one of the best gifts possible for iOS fans. iLounge Rating: A-.
Capcom’s best-known zombie-killing series, Resident Evil, effectively created an entire genre of “survival horror” games that used dramatic lighting, camera angles, and ambient audio effects to turn fairly plain walk-and-shoot games into legitimately frightening, memorable adventures. But Resident Evil’s shocking scenery and deliberate pacing weren’t the only way to approach the subject matter, so Capcom created Dead Rising, a somewhat lighter alternative that took inspiration from Dawn of the Dead and other camp zombie films from the 1970’s and 1980’s: rather than putting armed paramilitary fighters in dark mansions, you controlled an average guy up against hundreds of zombies in a well-lit shopping mall. Strict inventory and ammo management were tossed away in favor of simple items that could be picked up and used to whack zombies en masse, and the camera perspective was shifted to show you up to 800 enemies on screen at once—on full-sized consoles, that was.
Dead Rising Mobile ($5, version 1.0) is Capcom’s iPhone version of Dead Rising, designed to run on all of Apple’s 2009-2010 pocket devices, not the original iPhone/3G or iPod touch 1G/2G. It’s even deliberately blocked from loading on the iPad. You take virtual joystick and button control of Frank West, the everyman seen from a close-in rear view, as he confronts hordes of zombies with golf clubs, baseball bats, knives, shopping carts, and other semi-funny tools, beating them down one or several at a time whilst hunting for 15 particularly dangerous Mad Zombies. A mission structure takes you from one repetitive zombie-killing sequence to another, with only the glibness of the weaponry distinguishing the experiences as you rack up a body count. Instead of 800 zombies on screen at once, you’ll have to settle for something closer to 10, one of several factors that decrease the Mobile version’s intensity and appeal.
Because the graphics engine is primitive, large mall rooms are rendered substantially with black, and the blocky polygonal enemies pop in as you come closer to them; the audio is also grunt-and groan-heavy, with upbeat music included mostly for irony. A poorly-drawn polygonal arrow rotates to point you in the direction of your current objective, which invariably involves Frank going someplace to hack away at more mindless enemies, finding food to keep him going in the meanwhile. Whatever appeal the console versions of Dead Rising had due to the masses of zombies and special effects its weapons included, Dead Rising Mobile pares down so much of the experience that you’re left to wander from boring space to boring space hunting for stiff-looking things to kill or eat. Pass on this one unless you’re looking to be zombified, yourself. iLounge Rating: C.
Thanks to some impressive development work by Backbreaker developer NaturalMotion, the now classic table game Jenga has been brought to the iPad and iPhone/iPod touch in needlessly separate but otherwise neat little 3-D games. We looked at the iPad version Jenga HD ($5, version 1.0), which uses the 1024×768 display in portrait orientation to provide you with a view of a wooden tower—naturally one-colored in Classic Mode, or multi-colored in Arcade Mode—which you deconstruct one block at a time while moving those blocks to the top of the stack to score points. Classic Mode is focused solely on repeating the pull and build exercises until the tower collapses; Arcade rewards you for making color matches at the top of the tower, and offers assisting boosts in exchange for earned in-game coins. A pass-and-play multiplayer mode supports up to four people at once with Classic rules.
Given the challenges inherent in simulating a table game that is played in three dimensions with actual physics as a consideration, NaturalMotion has done a pretty good job with Jenga HD. The tenuousness of safely extricating each block is replicated by gestures and an arrow-based on-screen indicator that suggests the direction and force you’re using to move the wooden piece out of the tower; you’re also able to tap blocks out of, or back into place as an alternative to tugging on them. Pinching lets you zoom in or out, which is rarely necessary on the iPad, and tapping on a block lets you highlight it before moving it around. The only real UI issue we noted was that rather than using two fingers to rotate the tower, the developer handles both rotation and block pulling with single-finger gestures, which sometimes leads you to accidentally change your view of the tower when you want to be controlling one of the blocks. NaturalMotion’s physics engine also struck us as a little less realistic on the iPad than we’d expected from the company behind the hard-hitting Backbreaker games; tower collapses are slow and almost soft by comparison with real life, and the pleasant enough music masks any sound effects that could add to the tension. These issues are fairly small, however; if it wasn’t for the split iPad-iPhone/iPod versions of this game, Jenga HD would otherwise be very easy to recommend to all fans of the real world title. iLounge Rating: B.
Last but certainly not least here is WINtA (Free, version 1.0), a collaboration between Ngmoco and famed rhythm music game developer Masaya Matsuura—the legendary creator of Sony’s near mascot game PaRappa the Rapper. WINtA (“War Is Not the Answer”) is described as a re-invention of the rhythm genre, using a new system to have players tap along to songs: multiple boxes appear on screen at once, with one or two shifting from a color to all-white in an indication that it’s time to tap. More specifically, the box grows to become white at the final split second you can hit it, and the correct timing is to trigger it before that. Hit the beats and the music plays essentially uninterrupted; miss them and the vocals tend to cut out until you get the next beat right. A whammy sound on some tracks can be held and moved around to produce a deliberate distortion of the original note; it’s indicated with a + atop a square box.
What’s exciting about WINtA is that it feels like a demonstration of a new alternative to Tapulous’s Tap Tap Revenge series—one that gives you the same sort of active beat-focused tapping, but with challenges that change in look and feel from song to song while remaining incredibly stylish. On the song Rising Up, the screen fills with stars and arrows that need to be tapped one or two at a time; a track called Am I Crazy fills the screen with fish and lines of boxes that illuminate in uncertain patterns, and Disco King has a moving grid of squares that look like they were taken from a futuristic disco ball, shifting in 3-D as the song plays. The visuals all use simple colors and shapes, but they’re exciting, like the best moments of Sega’s Rez mixed with a traditional rhythm game. Matsuura has effectively laid out the template here for an evolution of the tapping genre to get past the predictable “balls or bars over the tap line at the bottom of the screen” rut that so many other games have fallen into, with each song serving as a slightly different demonstration of how graphics and music can be tied together in a more compelling way than before.
But WINtA has some weaknesses of its own, and they’re all about the songs. Perhaps not surprisingly, the free game includes only a very brief tutorial track and the title song War Is Not the Answer, a weird little dance-ish track with PaRappa-like influences; you’re supposed to download the rest of the music one song at a time for 99 cents a pop. This mightn’t be an issue if there were lots of additional, great songs that could be enjoyed outside of the application as well, but two of the 99-cent tracks we downloaded were very short—1 minute, 21 seconds for Disco King, 2 minutes and 6 seconds for Rising Up by Gan Juan—while the only other options were the well-executed 4-minute I Heart Rollerskates, and the nearly three-minute Am I Crazy, which was bad enough that we wished we’d never bought it. There are no song previews in the app’s store, and no way to see what the levels are like; having purchased them all, none is worthy of $1 on its own. As-is, WINtA is currently worth seeing solely as a demonstration of what one of the brightest minds in music gaming thinks is possible and likely to be compelling on Apple’s devices; post-release pricing tweaks and additional tracks could prove him correct. iLounge Ratings: (WINtA) B / (In-App Purchases) D+.