Welcome to a special edition of iPhone and iPad Gems. Today, we’re looking at four apps—three full and one lite—that offer different takes on sports, one offering impressive statistical and video tracking of horse racing, another providing a full-fledged simulation of the game of hockey, and the last using a famous football icon as inspiration for a completely different type of puzzle game.

The most impressive app in the bunch is the free Equibase Racing Yearbook, but all of the apps here receive at least our general recommendation. Read on for all of the details.

Equibase Racing Yearbook


Most of the video-streaming sports applications we’ve seen over the past couple of years in the App Store have required annual purchases, but there’s one—and an impressive one—that doesn’t. Equibase Racing Yearbook (Free) from Equibase Company is an impressive new thoroughbred horse racing guide that’s designed for the iPhone and iPod touch but runs on the iPad as well in 2X mode, supporting widescreen or portrait orientations on each device. Unlike the other applications below, the Racing Yearbook is primarily a statistics application, tracking 2010 races, the horses that rode in them, as well as their jockeys and trainers, and providing chronological results on a track-by-track basis. A web-based link is also provided so that users can check today’s races live, in an iPhone web app format. Everything the application does can be accessed over 3G or Wi-Fi.


Video is the single most impressive component of the Equibase application—specifically, that you can randomly select any race, or pick any horse, jockey, or trainer, and then grab free streaming video of the full event directly from within the player. While the videos start out chunky, seemingly attempting to determine how much bandwidth they can gulp, they become more detailed after 10 or so seconds, providing full play-by-play voice narration and letting you watch the entirety of major races held this year. Statistics, including the win, place, show, exacta, superfecta and trifecta payouts, are kept for each race, along with the full order of finish and result charts with odds. If you’re a gambler, the research opportunities provided by this free app are incredible, and there’s so much video to watch that racing fans can keep themselves occupied for days just going over the history. Equibase has done an impressive job with this app; though the video could stand to be fine-tuned to avoid the initial over-compression, all it otherwise lacks for is direct online access to OTB or similar legal betting facilities, for obvious reasons. iLounge Rating: A-.

NHL 2K11


Competition tends to bring out the best—or at least more variety—in sports video games, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Take-Two Interactive’s uncontested 2K Sports NHL2K11 ($7) is a solid rather than incredible first take on delivering an iPhone and iPod touch version of hockey. On positive notes, the game’s entirely 3-D rendered, with an on-screen virtual joypad and up to three virtual buttons (shoot, pass, speed boost) that provide a portable console-quality control experience. Respectable AI for the NHLPA-licensed players and decent puck physics make for games that look and feel pretty close to the real thing; crowd noise and puck-firing sounds keep the game from being silent, and alternate camera angles and goal scoring animations kick in to make the experience a little more interesting than it initially seems, too. Quick Play and two season modes (41/82-games) are included,  as are practice and shootout features, all for a single player. The game runs smoothly on the devices it does support, omitting the first-generation iPhone and iPod touch, as well as the iPhone 3G.


What’s missing in NHL2K11 is sizzle. By default, the camera provides a fairly boring take on the action, and though you can choose a parametric alternate camera that presents things with a little more verve, it’s obvious that creating dynamic and interesting camera work wasn’t the primary goal here. Close-ups reveal chunky polygonal characters and so-so, pre-Retina Display textures that pass muster on Apple’s pocket devices but not on the larger iPad screen. Sonically, the game’s bland, too; apart from the occasional comment from the stands, there’s no voice content during the action, and goal scoring sound effects are pretty weak: when you score a goal, it sounds like alarms from a submerging submarine, while goals scored against you are all but silent. 


All of the NHL’s teams are in the full version of NHL2K11, with the free Lite version limited to a single period of play between the Blackhawks and Flyers—plus a commercial for Geico at the beginning of the action. We’d call the full version good enough to sate hockey fans until something better arrives in the App Store, but the list of ways in which this game could be improved is long. We’d put a multiplayer mode, play-by-play commentary, some special effects, better camera work and character models at the top of our list. iLounge Rating: B.

Steve Young Football HD


Thanks to companies such as Electronic Arts and Gameloft, there are bona-fide NFL football games for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad in the App Store now, but there are also a bunch of football inspired titles that have no NFL license yet attempt to capture elements of the game, anyway. Despite the expectation-raising title, Steve Young Football HD ($5) is an iPad-only game from Vaporware Labs with a very streamlined concept: you control a cartoony version of the former Hall of Fame quarterback as he tries to score touchdowns on a series of 80 different overhead football field puzzle-themed levels. You don’t need to know much about football, Young, or even the iPad to play the game: at first, you’re just trying to get the quarterback into the end zone using a single swipe gesture.


It’s actually a little more complex than that: you’re given four chances—they’re called downs, though you can’t make progress up the field and have only a limited ability to impact the obstacles that create each field’s puzzle. You’re also given an area where you have direct control over Young, plus a yellow line that indicates where he’ll start for his one swipe-based rush to the end zone. Ideally, you complete a puzzle by getting all of the stars on the screen, but to move on and score a touchdown, you just need to have one star in your possession and generally stop in the end zone rather than running out of the stadium. As the levels progress through four different background themes, ice patches, pigs, tornadoes, shirtless fans, explosives, pits, and other interactive obstacles preclude you from just making a straight point-to-point run; Vaporware also adds maze-like elements, pinball machine bumpers, and destructible parts to the puzzles to challenge you to merely make it out alive before your downs run out. There’s also a multiplayer iPad-to-iPad or single-iPad mode where players can take turns using a level creator to set up obstacles that protect their stars from the other player.


Steve Young Football HD isn’t a fancy-looking game, and there are times when the puzzles seem like pushovers; this appears to be entirely by design, as the “get one star to move on” structure lets you keep playing for a few hours and make reasonable progress even though you’re only half-solving the levels. But the concepts in here are actually very good ones, and continue to get better and more creative as the game goes on; only the flat art, the too-frequent repetition of Young’s voice samples and the lack of in-game music keep the title from achieving as much as it could given the fun use of football to inspire a puzzle game. Football fans should consider this one worth seeing, regardless. iLounge Rating: B.

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