Welcome to 2010’s final kid-focused edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Today, we’re rounding up a collection of fun little applications that range from simple games to a 3-D storybook and the iPad edition of the well-established iPhone/iPod touch episodic franchise Pocket God.
Our top pick in the bunch is Grimm’s Rapunzel, but there are a couple of other titles that merit some attention, too. Read on for all the details.
Ever since the iPad was announced, iOS developers have been actively experimenting with different types of interactive books, and the variety of different options has been impressive—The Elements demonstrated how 2-D books could be evolved with digitized photography, and now Ideal Binary has near-brilliantly rethought children’s books with Grimm’s Rapunzel – 3D Interactive Pop-up Book ($2). Combining a spoken version of the classic fairy tale Rapunzel with frequent interactive sequences, this application evolves the very concept of what a story can be: after brief pages of text are read either by the app or the user, the book flips open to create a faux 3-D backdrop for simple action sequences that challenge young readers to bring the story to life, then moves on to additional text once each sequence is completed. English, French, and German versions of the voice and text narration are offered, all against a dreamy single music track that loops as you make your way through the book.
While the voice work and story are pleasant enough to stand on their own, it’s the interactive sequences that really make Grimm’s Rapunzel stand out—only their simplicity precludes them from being as amazing as they could have been. An early level has you plant and then water seeds in a garden, and one mid-story sees you tapping on notes to guide a prince to Rapunzel’s rescue, both legitimately impressive the first, second, and third time you see them. But too many of the interactive levels involve just gathering things up to toss into a bag, each requiring the same simple swipe-and-release gestures; by design, they’re simple enough that even young kids will rapidly master them. Despite the repetitiveness, the levels are generally well-illustrated and made fun through bubbly pop-up animations, plus a limited ability to swipe on the screen to temporarily change your viewing angle. The interactive portions wind up feeling like you’re looking at an actual 3-D pop-up book, with inspiration from Nintendo’s charming Paper Mario series.
Better yet are the pricing and the app’s universal compatibility. Grimm’s Rapunzel is sold for a very reasonable $2—“a special introductory price”—and the app runs on the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad without requiring multiple purchases. With a little extra diversity in the interactive sequences, this app could easily justify a slightly higher price and a broad selection of sequels; as-is, it’s a great little storybook for $2, and its visual presentation in particular should serve as an inspiration to every developer of edutainment apps for iOS devices. iLounge Rating: A-.
The first four applications we look at today are all from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/The Learning Company, and they’re all iPad-specific, starting with the Curious George mini-games George’s Curious Climb for iPad ($4) and Go George Go! for iPad ($4)—the latter is regrettably also sold in a separate, nearly-identical iPhone/iPod touch version, not tested, for $3. For those who mightn’t be familiar with Curious George, he’s a happy little monkey whose adventures alongside The Man in the Yellow Hat have been chronicled for 70 years.
Fans of classic video games may recognize the basic concept of George’s Curious Climb as originating with the 30-year-old title Crazy Climber, which saw a man scale a skyscraper window by window while avoiding injury—the concept has been radically simplified for kids. Here, George is a window cleaner who jumps between three buildings, alternating as dirty windows appear, and dodging stationary obstacles as the screen continues to move up the sides of the buildings. For the first four or five levels, it’s literally child’s play, as you simply tap on a dirty window to watch George jump and clean before moving on to the next one, but levels five and six introduce enough obstacles—fenced windows, birds, and so on—that there’s a modest degree of challenge.
The major issue with Curious Climb is the eight-level title’s brevity, combined with its repetitiveness. An adult will be able to play through the entire game in six or seven minutes, while really young kids may find it more challenging, but will encounter the same obstacles again and again. By contrast with some of the legitimately educational kids’ titles we’ve played, there’s not much more here than a video game simple enough for three-year-olds to play, albeit illustrated with pleasant and reasonably animated art from the Curious George series, plus music box-style plink plunk music. What’s here doesn’t feel like it’s worthy of the $4 asking price, but it’s not bad, either—just overly simple. iLounge Rating: C.
Go George Go! follows the same general pattern. Here, Houghton Mifflin offers a three-level game that consists of two phases per level: first, you dress Curious George in your choice of six hats, six bodysuits, and six pairs of shoes, and then you either tilt the iPad or swipe on George to move him through a very simple maze populated with collectible fruit and one exit. The graphics in the maze change based on the outfit you pick for George, and there’s a little extra animation if you pick an outfit with matching elements—a spaceman’s helmet, suit, and boots—rather than different parts, such as a bandleader’s hat, a fisherman’s clothes, and a postman’s shoes. Given a mixed outfit, the game auto-selects a backdrop based on one of the clothes you picked, so George might be in a fisherman’s boat, a spaceship, or a car as he collects the fruit. The changes in art don’t impact the three mazes in any other meaningful way, and the level of animation in the maze portions of the game is extremely limited.
As with George’s Curious Climb, the key benefits here are the Curious George artwork and happy music, while the issues are repetitiveness and brevity. The three levels vary only a little in challenge, as the game introduces locked paths that are all opened when you find a key, and fruits that teleport from one place to another—neither particularly difficult to handle given how small and short the mazes are. There’s no penalty for leaving fruit behind; the “game” is just about getting a higher score by collecting more pieces before reaching the exit. If it wasn’t for the changing background artwork based on George’s outfit, there would be almost nothing here to recommend, and even then, the came could easily have been structured to get kids to make proper clothing matches and then explore more themed mazes for a reward. If we had to choose between Go George Go! and Curious Climb, we’d opt for the latter based on its superior animation and more numerous levels, but neither title really delivers the sort of experience we’d expect for the price. iLounge Rating: C-.
The other two titles are similarly simple. Gossie’s Eggcellent Parade for iPad ($3) is literally the same game as Go George Go!, but with characters from Olivier Dunrea’s Gossie & Friends childrens’ books replacing the Curious George elements in the prior title. Here, you dress up Gossie the baby goose in stage one, then lead her through three mazes gathering goslings and other barnyard animals—the only differences here are that everyone you gather follows you through the maze, forming a parade as you move to the exit, and the music’s country-themed. To the extent that this game is less expensive than Go George Go! and a little more interesting because of the collection of animals wandering through the mazes, it merits a modestly higher rating, but the same issues of simplicity and repetitiveness exist here too. Fans of the books may enjoy this, but again, a universal iPad/iPhone/iPod touch application would have been better. iLounge Rating: C+.
By comparison, Ollie Ollie Oxen Free! for iPad ($3) is a legitimately different game—and a better value than the others, too. Here, you get to choose between two activities—a two-level “hide and seek” game that lets you hunt for five goslings in two different farm backdrops, scrolling left, right, up, and down before pointing to the hiding places of the geese. Voice narration tells you where to look, and little animations in the otherwise flat illustrated backdrops hint at where they’re hidden until you tap on the right place. While this isn’t the best Where’s Waldo-style game we’ve seen for kids, it’s fun for really young players, and the combination of voice work and pleasant graphics works well.
The other part of Ollie Ollie is called “My Stickers,” and offers kids a choice of 12 unlockable backdrops and 12 stickers to apply on top of them, plus eraser-undo and picture-saving tools. While far simpler than some of the dedicated drawing apps we’ve seen for the iPad, this portion of the app gives little fans the ability to compose their own Gossie & Friends scenes with an interface that’s easy enough for really young children to understand. It could stand to have more to do, but for the $3 asking price, it feels a little more developed than the other Houghton Mifflin titles here—iPhone and iPod touch support would have made it easier to broadly recommend. iLounge Rating: B-.
If you haven’t heard of Pocket God by now, here’s the quick summary: at a time when really deep iOS games were fewer and further between than today, Bolt Creative released an iPhone/iPod touch application for $1, pitching it as an episodic experiment in App Store gaming. Players who bought in on week one got a very simple title that let you interact with pygmies who could be grabbed with finger gestures and dragged off of an island into the ocean; over time, and generally once every week or two, the developer added new features including mini-games, more backdrops, additional interactions with dangerous creatures, and objects to use for laughs. The $1 investment was low, and over time, Pocket God lived up to the developers’ implicit promise that it would become more than a full-fledged game, rewarding those who stuck with it—or later adopters—with so much to do that the interface felt like it was bursting at the seams.
Effectively resetting the franchise, Pocket God: Journey To Uranus ($5) is an iPad-only sequel to the original title, and as the higher price and device-specific nature suggest, it’s a little more of a stretch to buy into on day or week one. You’re still presented with flat 2-D backdrops populated by pygmies and dangerous things to make them interact with, but most of the content found in the prior title is gone here—a choice that makes the price a little harder to bear. Instead, Bolt is giving Pocket God a streamlined, fresh start with similar themes and characters, plus more screen real estate to play with. Once again, you start with a simple island, but now there’s a volcano in the distance; little happens until you hit a plus button on the screen to generate more pygmies and try to toss them sequentially into the volcano, as well as at floating targets that appear alongside it. As with the first Pocket God’s mini-games, this turns out to be a fun way to occupy a little time, limited somewhat by the imprecision of the flicking controls, and deliberately made challenging by winds that really blow the pygmies off course. It’s only part of the experience.
What’s new is your ability to drag a pygmy up through the atmosphere into a new outer space area populated by planets and aliens, some leading to an additional mini-game. One is a simplified clone of the classic Atari game Tempest, placing you in control of an alien who circles the edges of polygonal tubes while shooting at and jumping over enemies who emerge from each tube’s opposing side. Another is an obvious duplicate of the old Williams game Joust, challenging you to tap the screen to fly and tilt the device to change the left or right direction of your jousting dragon and pygmy, knocking out other dragons by landing on them. The more you play, the more dragons appear, increasing the challenge. Neither of these 2-D mini-games is as impressive as later and official reformulated versions of the titles have been, and the planet Uranus feels seriously underdeveloped at this point, but these aren’t huge surprises given Pocket God’s prior trajectory. You start out with only a few things to do, with each area hinting at what’s to come in future versions. Bolt Creative is once again taking requests, and there’s obviously plenty of room to expand on the theme by duplicating other historic arcade titles.
Putting aside the questionable value of cloned versions of old games, which makes Pocket God: Journey to Uranus feel less original than it might otherwise have been, the major issue with this sequel is that there’s not yet enough content to justify the $5 asking price—it goes without saying at this point that there are huge and impressively complete 3-D titles selling for the same or fewer dollars as this relatively simple title. Once again, you’re investing in the hope that enough new features materialize to transform what’s currently here into something great, and though that eventually happened with the prior $1 title, it’s hard to be sure that this one will merit more cash. Our advice would be to keep watching this app to see what the developers do with it, and buy in when a major new feature or two really make it stand out from the pack—for now, it’s a good start with too little meat for the price, but we strongly suspect that it will evolve a lot as time goes on and be worthy of more serious consideration. iLounge Rating: B.