Welcome to this week’s edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! Today, we look at six recent releases that vary from iPad-only to iPhone, iPod, and iPad compatible, including three edutainment apps for kids and three games. With the exception of one of the titles, either the app or the developer will be familiar to readers of past Gems columns, and the genres are all ones we’ve explored at least a little in earlier releases.
Our top pick of the bunch is Drawing Pad. Read on for all the details.
If there’s anything to criticize in Darren Murtha Design’s iPad art application for kids—and there’s not much, really—it’s that Drawing Pad ($2) doesn’t automatically save the last piece of art created with its tools, starting every fresh reload with a blood red marker unless you manually saved and then reload the prior drawing. Depending on the child using Drawing Pad, however, this can be a good thing: the app’s paintbrushes, pencils, crayons, markers, shape stamps, and stickers can be used to create either beautiful, colorful compositions or completely chaotic messes, the latter sometimes easier to wipe away with a press of the Home button and reload of the app than going into the erasers menu and crumpling up the page to begin anew. For younger kids, even the messes will be a ton of fun to create: a huge collection of vehicle, animal, face and flower stickers can be dropped, rotated, resized, and stamped; different types of paper and photos from your gallery can be used as backdrops, and the drawing tools come in so many colors—attractively presented as scrolling images within a drawer that can be pulled out or hidden—that the single biggest challenge is in deciding what to use next.
Though the application is streamlined for simplicity—the paintbrushes don’t have pressure or opacity controls, for instance, and only come in two sizes—there’s subtle sophistication behind the scenes. Multiple levels of undo and redo, activated with arrows, make it easy to reconsider your last addition or eraser-aided subtraction, stickers can be layered atop each other using actual layers, and the proper selection of the graphic you want to change is more accurate—even given multiple layers—than most other programs we’ve seen on Apple’s multi-touch devices. This isn’t just some fourth-rate, slopped-together drawing tool; actual expertise, balanced by a focus on kid-friendliness, brought these elements together.
What’s especially impressive about Drawing Pad is the pricing. Like the company’s similarly great $1 Shape Builder, there’s just no excuse to skip this $2 title if the concept appeals to you or your child. It does exactly what it promises, is easy enough for a two-year-old to figure out, and is so aggressively priced that it’s hard to ask for much more functionality with a straight face. If we could expand it, we’d ask only for more of the stamping markers—currently three colors each of hearts, stars, bubbles, and dot-arcs—and the stickers, which let younger users create more interesting things than they could with finger-swipe painting and scribbling alone. Even without these additions, however, this is a truly great creative tool for kids. iLounge Rating: A.
By comparison, we really wanted to like Edutainment Resources’ new Poke Me! and Poke Me! HD, but found ourselves profoundly disappointed with what appears—only after testing—to be a work in progress. Poke Me! is the followup to the company’s earlier Feed Me!, a great educational matching game that stars a hungry purple monster who you feed with the correct multiple-choice answer to a problem he’s dreaming of. There’s nothing as thoughtful here. Both versions of Poke Me! place the same monster in the center of a vertically-oriented screen—one for the iPhone and iPod touch, the other for the iPad—and you’re supposed to interact with him, making him walk across a 2-D environment and eat things.
To be clear, the problem isn’t the concept. Edutainment Resources’ character, now just called “the Monster,” proved in Feed Me! to be an awesome, mascot-worthy creation, and the idea of being able to do more with him than just stuff alphabet letters, numbers, and colors into his mouth is appealing. But the developer has dropped the ball on this title by making the Monster so modestly entertaining that even kids will tire of him within minutes. Walk him through a grassy scene and he can eat apples, minus the cute sound effect he had in Feed Me!, but other than shaking the device, rubbing him, or poking him, the only thing you can do is watch him board a spaceship for the Moon. There, he does the exact same things, save to eat little UFOs and board the same spaceship back to Earth. It’s boring, nearly charmless, and saddled with a less than totally smooth scrolling graphics engine, too. For now, this title is free—the only reason it doesn’t fall into our “bad” rating category—but should it wind up with a price tag in the absence of radically improved depth, it’ll be a real shame. A promising character like this shouldn’t be damaged with such lackluster outings. iLounge Rating: C-.
To the extent that decades-old games such as Nintendo’s Metroid and Konami’s Castlevania are still amongst the world’s most beloved and respected side-scrolling platformers—without many peers other than their sequels—it should be acknowledged up front that the task of creating action-adventure games like these is seriously challenging. For that reason, and although we don’t issue ratings based on pure effort, the fact that Dodo Domination’s new iPhone and iPod touch game Grokion 01: Inception ($1) can even approach such memorable titles and sell for such a low price counts for something.
Grokion places you in control of a robot with an arm cannon and jumping abilities, tasked with shooting down land- and air-based enemies while moving through side-scrolling environments. As in Metroid and many of the Castlevania titles, Grokion differs from the typical side-scroller in that you can and will double back to rooms you’ve previously visited, jumping upwards and precariously straddling tiny platforms to explore their edges for power-ups and energy recharges. Your character, the rooms, and enemies are all 2.5-D—constructed from textured polygons—with special emphasis on the fluidity of your character’s puppet-like motions and fully rotatable arm cannon. Generally good, Metroidy synthesizer music makes up for plain sound effects.
The challenge with games of this sort is, as Nintendo and Konami have found, in providing sufficiently interesting backgrounds, bosses, and items to make players want to continue exploring, and Grokion feels like it’s halfway there: the rooms have a sort of generic sci-fi look with relatively simple platforms and enemies, but they vary enough from location to location to make you feel like you’re not just running through the same art repeatedly, and occasional dialogue interruptions don’t weigh down the Metroid-like pacing of the action. Action-based puzzles aren’t as smart or as forgiving as in the Metroid series—a rotating platform with spikes at its edges mercilessly kills you with a single touch, for instance, if you’re not in the right place—but along with the smart but not too smart enemies, contribute to a sense that you’re actually going to get hurt if you’re not careful. For the $1 asking price, this is a good enough game that we’d generally recommend it to fans of action-platformers; with additional polish and excitement, Dodo Domination could have a title worthy of a more premium price on its hands. iLounge Rating: B.
If it feels like iPod touch and iPhone users have seen Guitar Hero ($3) before, that’s because they have—sort of. Activision’s famous series of accessory-dependent rhythm games has taken so long to come to the App Store that clones such as Tap Tap Revenge and Guitar Rock Tour have all but eliminated the need for the original series, making Guitar Hero feel extremely late to its own gig. That said, Guitar Hero brings enough “new” content to the table that it would be worthy of checking out, apart from a serious bug that completely screwed up our testing experience.
As with the earlier tapping rhythm games released by Tapulous and Gameloft, the core of Guitar Hero is tapping along as colored discs fall from the top of the screen through four potential tap points of a bottom “note catcher,” earning points for properly hitting and sometimes holding a different note. All of this is accomplished on screen without the need for a separate peripheral. Failing to hit a disc leads the music to fade out or distort until you start tapping on time, restoring the song to its proper balance. Unlike the Tap Tap games, which had you shake the iPod or iPhone on occasion, Guitar Hero sometimes interrupts the taps to let you strum with swipe gestures if you’re on the guitar, or hit the note catcher anywhere with an accent bar on the bass, using challenging mixes of simultaneous two-point taps and repeated left-right strums to mix up the action. A Star Power meter can be built up and used to boost your points, temporarily transforming the constantly animated, colorful background and character art into a silver flash-bulb affair of rocking poses. Most of these little differences from the clone titles are minor, but they do contribute to making Guitar Hero look and feel like its own game.
The biggest differences are in Activision’s character customization engine, which provides a great deal of personalization for your on-screen avatar—enough that you might struggle to locate the places where you can toggle specific attributes, such as gender. Each hand can have its own items, with pants, shoes, shirts, hair, facial hair, guitar, and bass choices as well, typically at least half unlockable through continued good performance. On iPhone 3GS, iPod touch 3G, and later hardware, you get to see your character all throughout the game, jamming in the background while you’re tapping and strumming; older devices use a “stylized photo shoot” graphics engine instead. Guitar Hero lets you use this engine to pose and share your avatar with friends online, and doesn’t try to sell you additional clothes—a sign of restraint on the developer’s part.
But there is stuff to buy, namely songs, and that’s where Guitar Hero has its major issues. As a contrast to the Tap Tap games, which offer large collections of free and purchasable songs, and the Guitar Rock Tour titles, which include bunches of licensed but soundalike tracks, Activision uses only original tracks from original artists. Consequently, this $3 game comes loaded with only six songs, including one track each from Queen, The Rolling Stones, The White Stripes, and Weezer; Activision then expects you to buy additional three-song packs for $2 each from a surprisingly threadbare in-game store. This store’s few tracks are mostly from minor artists—there aren’t even additional tracks from the Stones or Weezer—and they don’t come with any frills other than song-specific challenges. Additionally, the downloading process isn’t entirely stable. Guitar Hero crashed during our testing in the midst of downloading the three-song Queen pack, then refused to restart until we reinstalled the game, losing our avatar and saved game in the process. Thankfully, the music pack was restored with a subsequent download, and the game worked properly after that.
Overall, Guitar Hero has the bones of a solid rival to the Tap Tap and Guitar Rock Tour games—especially on iPhone 3GS and iPod touch 3G hardware—but not enough musical meat to compete with the more robust audio collections of its established App Store rivals. If you’re looking for real music from the original artists, it’s one of relatively few available options, but currently offers too little for the $2 per add-on set asking price, and the risk of losing everything to a crash is unpleasant. We’d pass on it until and unless the catalog grows and the app receives a necessary stability update. iLounge Rating: B-.
Last but not least this week is the just-released Meteor Blitz HD ($5) from Alley Labs, an iPad-specific update to the intense iPhone and iPod touch overhead shooter Meteor Blitz we reviewed back in September 2009. We were such big fans of Meteor Blitz that we’ve kept it as a permanent fixture on our iPhones, coming back to it now and again just to see the impressive layered globe-styled 3-D background art and blow away a few enemies with the dual-joystick controls. It looks pretty good on the iPad, too.
Meteor Blitz HD is nothing more than an iPad-specific remake, containing the same music, levels, and enemies—albeit with one obvious change: proportions. Your ship now occupies a smaller fraction of the larger screen, and everything is more finely detailed, which has the benefit of making the weapons you fire look crisper, but the detriment of actually reducing the visual impact of the pixel-shifting backgrounds. Previously, the spinning globe backgrounds were obvious and impressive, particularly given that cloud and ground layers moved at different rates, but now there only appears to be one rotating layer, and the curving effect is so subtle that you mightn’t even notice it. Combined with this game’s higher price tag, we’d far sooner recommend the original version of Meteor Blitz instead: chunkier though it may be on the iPad’s screen, the cross-device compatibility, lower price, and better background effects make it a smarter purchase. iLounge Rating: B.