Welcome to this week’s gaming edition of iPhone and iPad Gems! After a somewhat lackluster collection of new releases last week, we’re excited to be able to share a handful of actual sparklers with you today. The five titles we’re looking at today span five completely different genres—driving, match-3 action, fighting, puzzles, and trivia games—but are similar in that they all have atypically impressive production values in at least one or two ways.
Our top pick of the bunch is Remedy’s combat driving game Death Rally, but all of the titles here are worth considering. Read on for all the details.
We were impressed when Electronic Arts released Reckless Racing late last year, demonstrating that an outstanding 3-D graphics engine—with properly themed art and musical accompaniment—could breathe new life into the well-worn overhead driving genre. Now Remedy Entertainment has taken up the same challenge with Death Rally ($3, version 1.1), which is conceptually similar, but adds a substantial combat and power-up system that increase its depth, plus the promise of ongoing post-release updates to keep the title fresh over time. While the challenge of building your car up means that Death Rally starts out somewhat less than totally satisfying, the rewards for continued play are compelling.
Released with universal iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch support, Death Rally is a single-player, non-linear race game starring a driver who has been forced to fight up to five vehicles at a time. You start with a small, basic car that totes an unlimited but weak gun, using race results and on-track pickups to earn and improve additional vehicles and weapons. Remedy rewards you for every race you participate in, giving you at least the opportunity to repair damage to your vehicle, and at most a ton of points that can be used to level up your speed, handling, armor, and weaponry. Some of the items you’ll assemble piece-by-piece through on-track pick-ups, including spiked bumpers and a laser sight, don’t need to be upgraded once they’re installed, but others—a sniper cannon, gatling gun, missiles, and the like—become better as you level them up from stage 0 to stage 9.
If there’s any major weakness in Death Rally, it’s that the game’s joystick-based driving controls appear to have been tuned for real satisfaction using a vehicle with maxxed-out handling, with deliberately disappointing steering characteristics when you start. As a result, you’ll begin the game and lose a lot of even beginner-level races to opponents that weave through the considerable number of turns with skill you can’t possibly have, and won’t earn until much later. Once your handling and speed are bumped, you’ll start to fly through the tracks, pose a real challenge to whichever opponent is selected as the extra point bonused “boss” for a given race, and be capable of taking on challenges of whatever difficulty you want.
But that takes a while, so it’s a good thing that Death Rally is loaded with enough big and little frills to keep players entertained in the process. Presented from either fixed-position or dynamically rotating overhead camera perspectives, the entirely 3-D graphics engine rivals Reckless Racing’s impressive predecessor in offering eye-popping levels of detail, here with somewhat darker thematic leanings relative to the banjo-strumming country world in EA’s game. While both games are gritty, Death Rally offers the urban grit counterpart to Reckless Racing’s rural world, swapping explosions, the occasional moving train, and a crashed airplane bridge for the earlier game’s particle effects, junkyards, and natural settings. Each course has a surprising level of 3-D depth, contributing to a feeling that what you’re seeing is “real,” though tall structures sometimes interfere with your view of the action. Both games litter their tracks with objects that you can crash into, but Death Rally makes them repositories for cash, ammo, repair, and nitro bonuses.
In a somewhat unusual streamlining of the weapon controls that will confuse some players, Remedy initially gives you manual control over your unlimited gun, then automates that gun if you add a secondary weapon so that you can control the latter’s limited ammo on your own.
Because of this control system, your understanding of what and how to shoot will change over the course of the game; due to the focus on trying to blow up your opponents, whose life bars appear as popovers as you blast them, you mightn’t even realize that you can blast open the aforementioned objects for bonuses until later in the game. It would have been nice to have control customization options, including multiple weapon buttons, rather than being forced into this control scheme.
Small issues aside, Death Rally already has a lot to offer, and Remedy promises to add additional content—cars, weapons, and levels—to keep it interesting over time. While some players will hunger for an online multiplayer feature, we’ve found the single-player mode to be impressively addictive, with six tracks that evolve in difficulty as you play, flipping between original and reversed layouts, then between standard races and versions with challenges—no weapons, all nitro, one-on-one battles, and so on. For the current $3 asking price, which is halfway between what EA is charging for its needlessly separate versions of Reckless Racing, Death Rally is a great value, and its universal iPad/iPhone/iPod support is exactly the model that other developers should follow. It’s already worthy of our high recommendation, and we expect that it will only get better over time. iLounge Rating: A-.
Nearly two years ago, we reviewed and liked MumboJumbo’s iPod touch and iPhone game Luxor, an Egyptian-themed take on the rolling ball match-three games Zuma, Puzzloop, and StoneLoops of Jurassica. Now the company has released a universal iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch sequel called Luxor: Amun Rising HD ($3, version 1.0.0), delivering 88 new levels, superior graphics, and the same surprisingly high production values found in the original title.
Whereas most of the rolling ball match-three games out there place a cannon at or near the center of the screen, letting you make matches by spinning the cannon to fire one colored ball into the middle of a moving line of mixed colors, Luxor tweaks the formula: here, the cannon’s at the bottom of the screen and capable of moving left and right as you choose, shooting straight upwards from whatever its position may be. Successful matches of three or more balls reduce the size of the snaking, continually advancing line, which will end the level if you don’t stop it from reaching an end point at the end of an obvious track. The better you play, the fewer lines you’ll have moving on the track at the same time, and the faster you’ll move on through the linear collection of levels. Expect many hours of gameplay from the 88 stages—quite possibly an hour for every five or ten, depending on your skill.
What makes Luxor: Amun Rising HD work particularly well is MumboJumbo’s beautifully designed graphics engine, which provides razor-sharp details in everything from the menus to the in-game artwork, and uses beautiful special effects that range from subtle to explosive. A full and gently haunting orchestral soundtrack properly sets an Egyptian tone for the sandy brown backdrops, which use hieroglyphics, interestingly designed bridges, and attractive renditions of primitive tunnels to keep the stages looking interesting, despite the continued presence of very similar lines of spinning balls. Those are rendered in 3-D, and spiced up with frequently offered power-ups, which slow down, stop, or blow apart the lines; gemstones and ankhs are also tossed out with frequency as point bonuses.
The only issues with Luxor: Amun Rising HD are ones that may or may not affect you. First is the compatibility, which is limited to iPads, third- and fourth-generation iPod touches, and similarly recent iPhones, a consequence of the improved graphics engine. As users of all of the recent devices, we’re not bothered by this, particularly given how nicely MumboJumbo has tweaked the layout and features for the smaller- and larger-screened devices, but legacy iPhone and iPod touch users will feel left out. Second is the prospect of a price bump that threatens to take the game out of the high recommendation category we’d otherwise have placed it in: at the $3 asking price we found it at in the App Store, Luxor: Amun Rising HD is a must-grab for fans of match-three puzzlers, but for the “Regular Price” of $10, it’s probably worth passing on. Our B+ rating recognizes this title as a worthy improvement on its similarly good predecessor; if you can get it for the original $3 price, jump right in, but otherwise, wait until it falls again on a sale.
iLounge Rating: B+.
While Sega’s Streets of Rage 2 ($3, version 1.0.0) isn’t worthy of the same sort of extended discussion as the prior two games, we wanted to bring it to your attention regardless, as it’s one of the rare old Sega Genesis games that we’d actually call worthy of paying for again—assuming that you’re a fan of classic fighting games.
While it is essentially just a footnote at this point in the history of fighting games, Streets of Rage 2 was a critically important release for the Sega Genesis two decades ago, finally demonstrating that Sega’s internal development teams could build a street brawling title to rival Capcom’s then-popular Final Fight. One or two players could simultaneously make their way through eight levels filled mostly with dumb but numerous thugs, who populated seedy nightclubs, alleys, amusement parks, and even an alien nest; three buttons enabled players to punch, kick, jump, and launch unlimited special attacks, the latter heavily influenced by Capcom’s then-surging one-on-one fighting game Street Fighter II.
Streets of Rage 2 was important for three reasons. First, it solidified the reputation of musician Yuzo Koshiro, who created one of the most impressive chiptune soundtracks ever released on any game console—an often anthemic techno score that was never rivaled in later 16- or 32-bit fighting titles. Second, at a time when tiny characters and flat backgrounds were the norm, it boasted taller, more detailed characters with superior animation to their predecessors, and scenes with multiple layers of parallax scrolling. And third, it introduced a collection of four player characters, unusually numerous for a common street brawling title, each with extremely distinctive moves. Of these assets, only the soundtrack remains a standout feature today, and thankfully it has been preserved without problems for this release; other sound effects generally, but not always, sound as good as they did in the original Genesis title as well. You can also play a two-player cooperative game over Bluetooth if you’re using an iPad or third-generation or newer iPod touch/iPhone.
Like earlier Sega titles, Streets of Rage 2 runs inside an emulator that is built primarily for the iPhone and iPod touch, offering you the choice of an upscaled, screen-filling game with translucent overlaid controls, or an original-resolution 320×240 window with opaque buttons on the sides. On the iPad, the latter lets you see and control the game pretty much as it originally looked on a TV, while the former compromises everything in the name of a bigger on-screen image. Sega could really stand to update its emulator software with proper iPad support, but based on its past track record with Genesis titles, we’re not holding our breath: it even seems to be using a pirated version of its own Streets of Rage 2 game at the core of this emulator, which oddly bears the phrase “Released by Mr. A” at the bottom of the in-game title screen rather than crediting the musician behind its amazing soundtrack. It’s almost as if Sega’s daring people to notice how little it cares about these things.
Is Streets of Rage 2 worth buying for $3? If you’re a fighting game fan with retro leanings, we’d say yes. The game’s levels are largely similar to one another in action, but the bosses, backdrops, and music make this title memorable, and as you’re limited to three total credits, you won’t likely beat it on your first or second attempt. That said, the amount of porting work Sega did here appears to be relatively minimal, and we’re not huge fans of the translucent button overlay control scheme, which interferes a lot with the otherwise cool art, and doesn’t provide ideal joypad responsiveness, either. This is a good title with room for improvement, more in the emulation wrapper than anything else. iLounge Rating: B.
Having already reviewed 2D Boy’s World of Goo extensively earlier this year, we’re not going to repeat our prior discussion of this amazing action puzzle game… but we do need to offer this brief update. The original iPad game has been renamed to World of Goo HD, dropped in price to $5, and augmented with full compatibility for third- and fourth-generation iPod touch and iPhone devices.