Welcome to a special rapid-fire edition of iPad + iPhone Gems. We’re clearing the decks of queued-up applications in the lead up to next week’s release of new iPods, so most of the 10 apps below are all getting only quick writeups designed to let you know whether to invest your cash and time, or move along. Without further ado, let’s dive right into this grab bag of titles.
Our top picks are ABC Wildlife!, Let’s Create! Pottery HD, No, Human, and Twitter version 3.1 for iPad. Read on for all the details.
ABC Wildlife! ($2, version 2.2) from Peapod Labs is an iPhone and iPod touch version of the animal and alphabet learning tool we reviewed earlier and more fully this week for the iPad. Selling for $1 less, it uses the same pre-screened photos and videos from Flickr and YouTube, with ever-so-slight formatting changes for the smaller devices’ screens, along with the same music and easy-to-tap user interface. As with the iPad edition, this is an excellent application, limited solely by the need for a persistent Internet connection to access the content. Though we don’t see the need for separate iPhone and iPad versions of this app, and continue to think that the developer should just merge them together, we’d recommend either version very highly for kids, particularly ones who are ready to learn the alphabet. It’s one of the best animal apps we’ve seen because the visual content is so striking, and tied together with such a nice interface. iLounge Rating: A-.
Assault Squadron ($3, version 1.2.2) from Chillingo/The Binary Mill is a combination overhead and side-scrolling shooter that relies upon the “bullet hell” system we’ve previously discussed—a flood of projectiles on the screen at once—to overwhelm you. With higher production values on the cinematics and music than the sort of flat in-game artwork, which is low-resolution iPod touch/iPhone-formatted, the game makes a continually better impression as you play through, discovering the challenges of its power-up system and the variety of its rotating levels. Limited continues will keep even good players coming back for more, too. iLounge Rating: B.
Edamame Touch ($1, version 1.0) from 965 Studios is crazy. Even as fans of the steamed Japanese soy beans on which it’s based, there’s really no other way to explain it than to say that it’s not really a game, not really entertainment in our book, and seemingly just a bizarre experiment in what can be done by stylishly mixing the concepts of tapping, achievements, and food in a $1 app. You tap the screen to pop soy beans out of a pod with three possible beans inside, and watch as some beans emerge with emoticon faces and different coatings, while light music plays in the background; then you repeat this over and over again. We wouldn’t recommend it, but much less ambitious applications have succeeded in the App Store. iLounge Rating: C.
Epic Citadel (Free, version 1.01) by Epic Games is a live demonstration of the 3-D graphics engine that will be used in the company’s upcoming Project Sword RPG-brawler for iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad devices. There’s no point to the release other than to familiarize players with the power of Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 running on iOS 3.2 or iOS 4—you’re given two joysticks for movement, or the ability to tap on screen to set your destination while swiping to turn your head—but the demonstration is stunning, apart from the absence of people or objectives. Armed with beautifully detailed 3-D models of a castle, nearby village, and a tent collection by a stream, Epic Citadel lets you see everything from high-resolution textured polygons to simulated wind and cloth movements, smoke, water, reflections, flying birds and falling leaves.
Looping audio provides a little ambient sound as you walk around and look at everything, which is guaranteed to thrill on Retina Display-equipped iPhones and iPod touches, while impressing at a slightly lower frame rate on the iPad. The polygon counts are seemingly off the charts—so many that they’re not really visible in many situations—and should make for an interesting game once the characters and fighting mechanics have been inserted. In its current form, what’s here isn’t worth rating, but it’s definitely worth seeing. iLounge Rating: NR.
Let’s Create! Pottery HD ($5, version 1.01) from Infinite Dreams is—and we don’t say this lightly—a work of genius; any company that can find a way to turn something like creating pottery into a viable video game, complete with great graphics and a really smart touch-based interface, deserves a hearty pat on the back. The concept: you start with a cup-sized piece of spinning clay that can be stretched via touches to vase-like proportions, then molded with two-finger gestures to have curves of your choice. After heating the piece of pottery to make it solid, you paint it with finger gestures and special pattern tools, and then sell it—brilliantly either via an automated auction or an in-game order fulfillment system—to make money to buy better tools.
Infinite Dreams’ 3-D engine uses the accelerometer to adjust your view of the spinning object against a deliberately blurred background, a trick that makes the experience seem almost entirely real, and ambient sounds are played in the background as a modest sonic backdrop to the sculpting action. Amateurs will note that the game is missing the ability to generate fluid, messy clay rather than a nice-looking finished product, and experts will wish for tools that let you make more sophisticated sculptures rather than just simple cups, bottles, and vases; these features should appear in a sequel. For now, whether you’re just interested in making something cool on screen or want to actually play through the game to earn your way to better tools, Let’s Create! Pottery HD is really impressive; thanks to the touch-based interface, it’s a beautiful little example of what the iPad can do that traditional game consoles cannot. iLounge Rating: A-.
NASA App HD (Free, version 1.0) from NASA is an iPad-specific version of the browsing application developed by NASA for the iPhone and iPod touch. Using a still image of the solar system as a touchable initial screen to educate users about the Sun, eight planets, our moon and the International Space Station, the application offers easy touchable access to photos, videos, and tons of space science data compiled by NASA and other researchers over the years. The scope of the application is impressive, providing tappable access to maps and web sites of NASA facilities, a calendar of upcoming events, an alphabetized and tappable index to web pages about additional NASA-aided space projects, and much more; that said, like the iPhone application, NASA App HD uses the iPad primarily as a canvas for non-interactive 2-D images and text that are informative but not dynamic, and formats video pages in a manner that doesn’t make full use of the iPad’s landscape screen. As a free application, this is worth grabbing, but we’ve seen more impressive and engaging use of this device’s 3-D capabilities in applications such as Solar Walk—NASA could do itself a great favor by partnering with a developer capable of taking its superior depth of materials to the next level. iLounge Rating: B.
No, Human ($2, version 1.0) from Vol-2 is a iPhone and iPad universal game that reformats its graphics properly for small and large screens without needlessly charging extra for the privilege—part of the reason it rates our high recommendation today. The artwork consists primarily of shaded 3-D polygons with a really nice mix of bright colors, plus clean fontography to introduce and close each level; by contrast, sounds are extremely minimalist and music is non-existent. Its “No, Human” name and visual style feel like throwbacks to Atari’s classic and breakthrough arcade game I, Robot.
But this is a completely different game, a seriously cool little puzzler with a comic premise: you are the universe, fighting a battle to stop humans and their spacecraft from succeeding at space exploration. Fifty separate single-screen puzzles require you to use a very limited number of meteors in conjunction with physics and other objects to stop various astronauts, telescopes, and spaceships that are stationary, awaiting defeat. All you do from stage to stage is swipe on orange meteors to set them moving in a specific direction at your chosen speed, but the puzzles become more challenging as the game introduces additional forces—gravitational fields, ice cubes, activation-ready additional meteors, and more. We played through the entire game in two days of off and on sessions, enjoying just about every minute; modest audio aside, this is a fun use of touch and 3-D technologies at the right price. iLounge Rating: A-.
Rain Go Away ABCs ($2, version 1.0) from Appbrella had us really excited at first—the classic song “Rain, Rain, Go Away” was in our heads as we loaded the iPad and iPhone universal application for the first time. The good news: this is a cute illustrated tour through the alphabet, with each letter presented on the fixed portrait orientation screen in front of initially rainy, cloudy weather, tappable twice to speak the letter and provide its phonic equivalent. Below the letter is an object that can be tapped once to display and speak its name. Then the interface oddities begin: you need to shake the device to animate the object—not so easy or smart for a little kid and an iPad—and a “tip” icon on screen brights up some poorly formatted text, typically an instruction for adults, that will just confuse younger children. Apart from the tappable voices, the application is silent, without a musical rendition of the song; the “going away” of the rain takes place as you advance from A to Z and see progressively cheery weather in the backgrounds. While this is a nice enough learning tool with solid art, it could use some additional polish to improve the interface for children, and at least a hint of music so that it’s not so sonically dry. iLounge Rating: B-.
Social for the iPad ($3/$2, version 1.0.0) from Object Factory is a third-party response to Facebook’s surprisingly extended failure to release a proper iPad application for its web site, and all things considered, it’s not a bad start. Though we’ve spent months wrestling with the question of whether web sites really need to release iPad applications when they run fully in the Safari browser, the reality is that Facebook doesn’t do this on the iPad—it drops photo and video uploading, chat, and now Places support amongst other things. Former Facebook application developer Joe Hewitt has blamed Apple’s App Store development policies for his decision to walk away from the product, and every iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad Facebook user has suffered as a consequence.
Social restores some of this functionality to the iPad, and plans to do more in the future. A button at the top of the screen lets you upload a single picture at a time from your iPad’s library, as well as creating albums, groups, events, and pages using modified versions of Facebook’s web pages. Buttons at the bottom of the screen provide one-tap access to your news feed, favorites, profile, friends, notifications, requests, and other features found in the official Facebook iPhone application—minus Places—while chat is included in an experimental, not totally optimized fashion that works, albeit with occasional manual refreshes of the screen; the developer plans to improve this and other features going forwards. For users who have been hating or hacking around their inability to properly share content from an iPad to Facebook, Social has a good start on making things better, but we expect it’ll take some time for it to become as awesome as a proper Facebook iPad application could be. iLounge Rating: B.
Twitter (Free, version 3.1) from Twitter is the most recent version of the official iOS-optimized Twitter client that was once known as Tweetie, this week adding full iPad support for the first time. Unlike official applications that have merely upscaled or reorganized their content to fill the iPad’s larger screen, Tweetie has arrived with some cool new user interface tricks of its own, offering up a “sliding doors” system of content panes that overlap layers of content atop one another, shifting prior layers to the left as new ones appear. It efficiently fills the top-level pane with the content from the URL linked in the tweet—a web page or photo, for instance—or with the profile information of the user you’ve selected if there’s no URL there; this makes browsing Twitter content from your timelines a real pleasure.
Frankly, the new pane new concept alone merits a download of the application, as it demonstrates how a smart icon-based list on one side of the screen can be overlaid with a scrolling timeline of content, then a useful web browsing layer atop that—all while preserving the ability to either click on new things from the prior layers, or move the individual panes to occupy more or less of the screen as needed. It’s a highly efficient use of the iPad’s screen space, and aided by fairly intuitive buttons that make it easy to compose tweets with pictures and URLs. The only thing that we constantly find ourselves wishing for on Twitter clients, including this one, is a web-quality, simple way of seeing the full timelines of fellow users; it currently takes too much hunting and effort, without displaying the custom backgrounds users choose for their pages. It would be great to see the official client lead the way in restoring this part of the Twitter web experience, rather than just turning all of its users into data streams. iLounge Rating: A-.