Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone and iPad Gems! Due to the continued flood of new app releases we’ve been sifting through, today’s roundup is again a rapid-fire look at eight different titles—each with less detail than we’d normally prefer to include in a full review. Our goal is to let you know about three noteworthy recent iPhone/iPod touch games, and bring you up to speed on a handful of new iPad titles, as well, including several that were previously released as iPhone apps.
Our top pick of the week is Gameprom’s Pinball HD, but a number of other titles received our general recommendation. Read on for all the details.
Currently available only in iPhone and iPod touch form, Dwindle ($2) by Unwind is a cute puzzle game that came out just before the launch of the iPad. The concept: circle, square, and triangle icons appear on a blank piece of paper, and you need to draw lines with your finger to surround them with the same shapes to make them disappear. With a big enough drawn shape, you can eliminate several same-shaped icons at once, but anything that doesn’t match what’s inside your drawing creates a point penalty and changes to a different, moving icon as a punishment. Levels start out easy enough with only a handful of shapes to remove, but quickly challenge you to decide just how many icons you can really eliminate at once, and how quickly you can act on them before a timer runs out. Dwindle’s graphics are simple, but the play mechanics work—and feel right, besides—alongside music that is just mellow and upbeat enough to set the pace. This one’s worth checking out. iLounge Rating: B.
Capcom’s Dark Void Zero ($3) emerged, apparently, as somewhat of a company in-joke: it’s yet another faux retro title with deliberately 8-bit graphics, music, and gameplay, originally pitched tongue-in-cheek as a long-lost title that once had been destined for Nintendo’s NES-based PlayChoice arcade cabinets. Strip away the marketing and you’re left with a sorta-Bionic Commando sorta-Metroid run/shoot/jump platformer that challenges you to navigate three levels with scattered power-ups, jet-packing, opening locked areas, and switching weapons as necessary. Due to your ability to shoot upwards, fly with the jetpack, and take out enemies that aren’t just statues, the action’s fun and—if one can really say this fairly—overachieving by 8-bit standards. Additionally, Dark Void Zero has the sort of strong chip soundtrack that most games would never have managed to rival in composition. But the game’s very short and controls aren’t fantastic: they’re 8-bit responsive on the iPhone and iPod touch, but a mess when you try to play on the larger screen of the iPad. For the price, Dark Void Zero’s a good little game; it’s a shame that the art and music will only appeal to nostalgics. iLounge Rating: B.
The hype surrounding Cave’s overhead shooter Espgaluda II ($9) was so intense that you’d think it was the dawn of some new era of gaming on Apple’s pocket devices, but the reality is somewhat less exciting: this is, like so many other iPod touch and iPhone shooting games, a title that impresses only to the extent that you can get past its control scheme. Espgaluda II places you in control of a flying fantasy-themed guy or girl who fires huge quantities of energy at targets that scroll or fly from the top of the screen downwards. In keeping with a Japanese shooting game category known as “bullet hell,” your targets saturate the screen with their own energy pulses—directed generally at you—and you survive both by blasting and, in some cases, by absorbing their fire. Boss encounters are numerous, high point tallies are common, and screenshots can’t really do justice to the intensity level of the action.
There’s actually so much stuff going on at any given time that Cave actually requires users to have either an iPhone 3GS, third-generation iPod touch, or iPad to play the game, and having seen other overhead shooters for earlier Apple devices, there’s definitely a difference here: Espgaluda II has a sprite-based graphics engine that feels two or three times as complex as in most similar games. A pulsing techno soundtrack and numerous control options—some stripping out virtually all the need to press buttons, and others with some buttons—make the game as exciting and challenging as you want it to be. But it’s hard to feel completely satisfied with Espgaluda II given that a significant portion of the screen is eaten up by a pad to move your character, and that the price is by iPhone and iPod touch standards high enough to justify a somewhat better experience. Some shooter fans will be impressed by how far the iPhone 3GS and iPod touch 3G appear to have come with this game from a visual standpoint, but others—including us—will again walk away wishing for the sort of controller that does real justice to a game of this sort. Try the free Lite version before plunking down $9 for the full game. iLounge Rating: B.
Two weeks ago, we looked at BoardBox, a title that sought to transform the iPad into a replacement for several classic board games—chess, checkers, reversi, go, xiangqi, and tic-tac-toe among them. Now there’s another option, Game Table ($1) from a company called Label Interactive. Game Table’s collection of games is a little different, offering only standard checkers, chess, poker, and the ability to play other card games assuming that you deal the cards differently. Like BoardBox, Game Table doesn’t provide the AI to let a single player go up against a computer opponent, and it doesn’t really even care so much as to whether you follow the rules of a given game—it’s just there to provide the pieces and the board, generally with several different board options, so you can play the games yourself. We’re not fans of the DIY approach to games, but BoardBox executes on the concept better than Game Table, offering more games and better-looking art, besides. The only real advantage Game Table has over BoardBox is its lower price, which is just about right for a collection of movable art with such limited functionality. iLounge Rating: C-.
Having previously reviewed Electronic Arts’ racing game Need for Speed Shift last year for the iPhone and iPod touch, we’re not going to rehash all the details here: Need for Speed Shift for iPad ($15) is the same game with some visual tweaks, additional cars, and enhanced controls; its 18 tracks remain the same as before. The cosmetic differences are the most noteworthy: Shift gets a dramatic boost in resolution and texture detail that make the game look especially great in screenshots, though the frame rate is somewhat chuggy, and occasional draw-in issues see big chunks of background scenery popping into view at once, the primary reasons for this version’s lower rating. Music, however, remains strong, the controls feel a little more responsive on the big iPad than they did on the smaller iPhone and iPod touch, and the new ultra-high-end car models really show off the game’s impressive 3-D polygonal detail. Apart from the fact that Need for Speed Shift starts out so slow and continues to cost a lot more than most other racing games out there—issues EA had the opportunity to fix for the iPad release, but didn’t—there’s a lot to like here. iLounge Rating: B.
Having previously released three highly impressive iPhone and iPod touch pinball games—The Deep, Wild West Pinball, and Jungle Style Pinball—Gameprom has created a compilation of all three titles for the iPad called Pinball HD ($3, formerly The Pinball HD). Rather than rehashing the various details of the earlier three games, it suffices to say that Gameprom has preserved all three tables, their sound effects, and action, while radically upgrading their textures to take advantage of the iPad’s larger screen.
The results are only a little short of amazing: for $3, you get to play three completely different pinball machines that adhere to real physics but generally make more of their table designs than did classic arcade machines, with rich colors, occasional sub-surface depth—see Jungle Style Pinball’s moving central maze, for instance—and heavy voice samples that would have been hard to pull off in actual wooden cabinets. You currently have two different ways to experience the games: a landscape mode that fills the entire screen with a forced-perspective view of the full table, and a portrait mode that pans around the table to follow the ball’s movement while zoomed in. Gameprom has submitted a version 1.3 update that enhances the landscape mode by zooming further in and moving around.
It’s worth noting that Pinball HD was a pretty solid release when it first appeared in the App Store, but it’s just getting better over time: current version 1.2 fixes early bugs that prevented the background music from playing and caused some performance stuttering, while making the camera motion in portrait mode more dynamic based on the tilt of the iPad. Even in its current form, the new game is unquestionably worth downloading if you’re a pinball fan, as it does an impressive job of showing off the iPad’s 3-D capabilities at a very aggressive price; we’re very anxious to see what Gameprom does next on the iPad. iLounge Rating: A-.
We include PopSoft’s PopMath Maths Plus ($1) here mostly because we haven’t had a chance to get to it before, but the photos tell most of the story: this is an extremely simple math game for kids, featuring a collection of bubbles that float around with questions and answers inside. Using addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division—or a combination of all four—you match the correct answer bubble with each question in order to clear the bubbles and move on to the next stage. There’s no audio, only modest bubble animation, and flat, cheery background art that changes from stage to stage. PopMath Maths Plus is barely upscaled for the iPad and a particularly bad example of how an iPhone/iPod touch-compatible title can be “converted” to run on both devices, but for $1, it’s a decent enough teaching tool for kids who are learning early math. iLounge Rating: C-.
Electronic Arts doesn’t want to give up on Scrabble—the classic crossword board game it released for iPods and iPhones in 2008, reviewed at the prior link—so now we have Scrabble for iPad ($10), an updated version that makes interesting use of the iPad hardware. Though the iPad version of Scrabble is expensive by board game standards, it’s far more worthy of that asking price than was the iPhone and iPod touch game, which debuted for $10 and has now settled at a more reasonable $5 price level. Our prior review discusses the game concept and EA’s earlier efforts in detail.
Somewhat surprisingly, the graphics and audio haven’t changed much in the iPad game—apart from added detail in the wooden letter tiles and your ability to see player avatars and more scoring detail on screen at once—but there’s a new gameplay twist: EA has added a feature called Party Play Mode that enables up to four players to use their iPhones and iPod touches as wireless tile racks, relying upon the iPad as a communal game board rather than as a pass-and-play slate with one player’s tiles on display at a given time. The Scrabble Tile Rack application is free, and has a small 2.6MB footprint that can quickly be downloaded over cellular or Wi-Fi networks. Unfortunately, we found Scrabble’s wireless connectivity to be unreliable during testing, the only reason our rating didn’t go higher, but the concept of dividing the board and racks is a neat idea given the increasing ubiquity of Apple’s pocket devices.
The game also includes support for more traditional wireless play and Facebook turn-by-turn play, as well as a standard single-player mode that is augmented mostly by a decent in-game dictionary and a limited-use “best word” tool that lets you make optimum use of whatever’s on the board and in your rack at a given moment. In its current form, Scrabble for iPad isn’t going to light the world on fire, but as an early demonstration of how classic board games can evolve to fill multiple wireless devices—with different screen sizes and capabilities—it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re a Scrabble fan. Fixes to the wireless feature will make it worthy of greater attention. iLounge Rating: B.