Welcome to this week’s edition of iPhone + iPad Gems, which takes a rare combined look at both apps and games. Two of the games are based upon classic arcade releases, while two are edutainment titles for kids, and the last of the items is a very cool walkie talkie-like free voice messaging app we’ve been testing for a couple of weeks.
Our top picks in the bunch are HeyTell and X-Men. Read on for all the details.
By Namco’s past standards, Galaga 30th Collection (Free) is a fairly aggressive iOS repackaging of four of the company’s past shooting games in a single downloadable package. The initial free download comes with a remake of the classic arcade game Galaxian, while in-app purchases enable you to individually or collectively ($8) unlock three additional remakes of very similar titles: Galaga ($3), Gaplus ($3), and Galaga ‘88 ($4).
To Namco’s credit, the application is iPod, iPhone, and iPad universal, and all of these games were legitimate standalone arcade or console releases, so although they’re grouped together, the asking prices aren’t totally crazy here. Galaxian is the most basic of the group, an unabashed Space Invaders clone with left-right swipe ship movement controls and tapping for firing shots. Galaga evolves Galaxian with more interesting and faster-moving formations of enemy ships. Galaga ‘88 lets you control multiple ships at the same time, adding cartoony enemies, static and moving background art, and fireworks to the game. Finally, Gaplus adds the ability to move up and down throughout the bottom half of the vertical orientation screen, has even wackier enemies, and lets you control a “Phalanx” of even four or five ships at a time. Most of the games share the same soundtrack; Galaga ‘88 and Gaplus have their own unique music, but only Galaga ‘88 really has properly developed background art in the otherwise starfield-filled series.
Largely identical controls and a common point collecting system tie all of the games together. You can shoot multiple rounds with a series of quick taps, subject to a bullet-limiting meter in the top right corner that requires pacing or recharging after particularly intense bursts—a way to keep the challenge up. The other critical challenge is a very limited number of reserve ships: you have two extra lives, after which the game is done.
But unlike the arcade and console games, these four titles are tied together with a secondary point system called Galaga Points. When a game ends, your raw score is translated into points that can be accumulated between the four titles, then used to purchase consumables, such as an extra ship, Galaga Point multipliers, limited use power-ups, and skins for the arcade cabinet. These and some simple across-the-board overlays and graphics filters add most of the “new” appeal to these otherwise plain shooters; an introductory video that adds tremendous bulk to the download is the other bonus of sorts. While none of these games here has been upgraded so completely as to be on par visually, sonically, or conceptually with Namco’s Pac-Man reimaginings, they’re all better than the original titles they were based upon, and for the asking prices, worth considering for fans of classic overhead shooters. If you don’t want to buy the entire collection, download the free Galaxian and grab Galaga ‘88, the best parts of the package for half the price. iLounge Rating: B.
Originally released in February of 2010, HeyTell (Free, version 2.2.1) from Voxilate has evolved into a truly amazing piece of software—an iPhone and iPod touch-formatted voice messaging app that transcends the SMS and MMS features included in Apple’s Messages app. With HeyTell, you can instantly send and receive voice messages, using push notifications on both sides to guarantee that the messages arrive quickly after they’ve been sent. The app works over EDGE, 3G, and Wi-Fi, with short messages consuming as much data as a regular e-mail, while sounding noticeably clearer than 3G phone calls. And let’s mention this again: messaging is totally free. All you need to do is press a large talk button, then release it when you’re done—the message is sent immediately.
HeyTell’s single biggest hurdle is the sign-up process, which for the sake of privacy requires you and your contacts to engage in some individual non-voice authorizations via SMS or e-mail before you can share voice messages. While you can set your privacy level to permit immediate contacts from people who have your contact information (“low privacy”)—or only people you have specifically authorized (“high privacy”), or friends of people you’ve authorized when using the “medium privacy” setting—the app’s default settings all but guarantee that you’ll need to ask individual permission from most people you want to reach with the app. Once that’s done, however, you’ll want to use it all the time for brief voice message bursts, and a Group Broadcast in-app purchase ($3) lets you message multiple people at once. Apple should include these features in its Messages application; until and unless it does, HeyTell unquestionably deserves a download. iLounge Rating: A-.
Duck Duck Moose’s series of edutainment apps have been amongst the very best releases for kids since the App Store opened, so every new release gets our immediate attention. The latest is Musical Me! – by Duck Duck Moose ($2, version 1.0), a musical semi-sequel to the company’s Word Wagon, which introduced the character Mozzarella the Mouse—the host of this title. While Musical Me! is a somewhat freeform experience, and largely repurposes art from Word Wagon and Fish School, it’s a fun little title for kids; we’d recommend it for ages 3 and up. It’s an iPhone- and iPod touch- title with Retina Display support, though some of the graphics display at higher resolutions on the iPad, too.
Musical Me! consists of a set of five activities: Dance, Rhythm, Memory, Notes, and Instruments, only two of which are structured. Starting with the unstructured activities, Dance plays seven different songs—all with vocals and light instrumental accompaniment—while kids tap and swipe on cartoony monsters to make them dance with simple animations. Notes presents eight songs, each with up to ten notes at a time—initially positioned properly to be tapped or play buttoned in sequence—plus the ability to change each note’s pitch, or compose a different eight-note song. Then there’s Instruments, which plays your choice of seven vocalized songs while kids interact with six different percussion-tapped instruments, bringing one to the foreground at a time.
As is typical of Duck Duck Moose’s apps, each of these three activities is beautifully illustrated, and the music’s wonderful, like the angelic ideal of a parent singing nursery rhymes to a child with light accompaniment. Moreover, two of the activities have the sorts of simple interactive distraction animations Duck Duck Moose excels at—tappable fish to play with alongside the Notes, and a frog and fly during Instruments—which somewhat make up for the fact that the activities themselves require some parental hand-holding and guidance. Without help, and perhaps even after it, younger kids won’t have much of an idea what to do through these screens, besides to just keep tapping the screen at random. Mozzarella the Mouse floats in the top corner of each screen, and can be tapped upon to transition form one activity to the next. Expect to see him get a lot of attention as kids try to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing.
The other two activities are more structured—and even have three levels each of difficulty—though they’re again best suited to kids three and older. In Rhythm, a flock of birds flies from left to right as a drum beat provides metering; kids are supposed to tap the birds in sequence to create five or eight different songs, one note at a time, using several selectable instruments. Memory provides a repetition game in which three, four, or five planets at a time are used to create do-mi-so patterns that need to be matched by the young player. While these activities provide potentially fun games for children, they—like the others—could really benefit from a tutorial option so that kids can learn what they’re supposed to be doing. Even on the easiest Level 1 settings, younger players will likely struggle with the quick pace of Rhythm and the somewhat less than totally obvious requirements of Memory until they have been coached in how to handle them properly; the higher difficulty levels step up their challenges even further.
While it’s great to see Duck Duck Moose branching out into more types of kids’ apps, and there’s certainly enough here to justify the $2 asking price in the most basic sense of the word “justify,” Musical Me! feels a little unpolished. Between the recycled art, the three overly free-form activities, and the two structured but initially challenging ones, it’s not the strongest title this generally great developer has put together. On the other hand, the music, the number of activities, and the continued quality of the artwork—apart from its lack of true iPad support—are all assets. We’re hoping for an update that adds a little more gentle hand-holding for first-time players, as well as the true iPad support these apps need. iLounge Rating: B.
Developed by Bacciz, Peekaboo! Guess Who? ($1) is a solid, though not quite perfect animal education app for young children. Illustrated with simply animated cartoons, Peekaboo! is divided into four sections—Farm, Jungle, Circus, and Ocean—which each have their own animals to identify. In the simplified “2+” mode, players are shown the animal, played a sound effect, and then asked to pick the right animal from three large dots on the side of the screen. The standard “Kids” mode merely plays the sound effect and provides the three choices, so the game is solely about matching the sound to the animal.
What’s great about Peekaboo! Guess Who? is the obvious attention that was paid by the developers to helping kids through the experience. After non-responsive pauses, assisting fingers appear on screen to show what you can do—ideal for helping kids to learn on their own how to play. The art and music are both very simple, but effective: a happy piano and string song that plays through the four-area selection screen and all of the areas, plus cartoony illustrations that look equally nice on the iPad and smaller-screened devices. The only major issue is that some of the animals aren’t easily identified by their sound effects: in the jungle section alone, the wolf, rhino, panda, parrot, and gorilla are represented with audio samples that may stump even adults, sounding somewhat synthetic and unnatural. In its current form, this will be a fun game for young kids; with improved sound effects, it will be truly great for the asking price. iLounge Rating: B+.
Thanks to virtual joystick and button innovations, say nothing of the added horsepower of Apple’s latest iOS devices and the extra screen real estate of iPads, it really doesn’t take much for a developer to completely ace an arcade game-to-iOS translation any more. Konami’s X-Men ($3, version 1.0) is the best example yet—a port of the once beloved 1992 arcade fighting game of the same name, which never really showed up on home video game consoles due to a subsequent licensing agreement between Marvel and Capcom, a rival of Konami.
To get this point out of the way early, there’s only one thing seriously wrong with X-Men, and that’s inherent in the genre: it’s a shallow, repetitive street brawling title much like the many similar games that were popular in arcades at the time. You control Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Dazzler, Colossus, or Nightcrawler as they walk through the streets and buildings of a Sentinel-infested world, destroying what seems like a never-ending collection of robot and other oddball attackers before confronting end-of-level bosses. Eight classic Brotherhood of Evil Mutants villains, including Pyro, The Blob, Juggernaut, Mystique, and Magneto are in the game, each reasonably animated with two or so of their famous mutant powers. Up to four people can play at once over local Wi-Fi.
You use a virtual joypad to move your X-Man, plus one attack button, one jump button, and a special move button to launch ground- and air-based attacks, plus limited-use mutant powers that typically shred multiple attackers at once. The robots, Savage Land attackers, and the like change somewhat over time, and the number of projectile attacks increases, but these are far from the smartest or most diverse punching bags Konami ever placed in a game; X-Men was, like many other fighters of its era, designed primarily to suck quarters out of players’ pockets by attrition. Merely keeping your lifebar replenished is the challenge here, and since there are unlimited continues to keep you going, the challenge isn’t too high—adjustable difficulty levels will give more experienced players more to handle.
Apart from some currently being fixed bugs that are impacting only one or two older iOS devices, Konami’s port of X-Men is awesome. The arcade game was ambitious back in 1992, packed with multiple characters, huge scaling explosions, fantastic music and sound effects, and having actually owned the arcade board at one point, we can state that the port includes everything: the cinematics, all the levels, and all the gameplay. iPad owners get to have the buttons off to the sides of the screen, while iPhone and iPod touch gamers get transparent overlays, each working quite well to replicate the original control scheme. Thanks to the universal iOS support, the aggressive pricing, and the strong quality of its content—genre limitations aside—X-Men is a sterling example of how to bring forgotten classics into the App Store. Our hope is that Konami will plumb the depths of its backcatalog (Xexex, please) to bring more of the titles from that area to Apple’s devices. iLounge Rating: A-.