Welcome to this week’s second gaming edition of iPhone + iPad Gems! We’re looking at four additional titles in this collection, which is best summed up as focused on ambitious mini-games: hockey, BMX biking, and Mario-style platforming, alongside a music trivia title.
Our top pick of the bunch is the action platformer and puzzle game Kami Retro HD, but we’d also recommend that sports fans check out Icebreaker Hockey and Touchgrind BMX. Read on for all the details!
If you’ve had an opportunity to play NaturalMotion’s Backbreaker Football or Backbreaker 2: Vengeance, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Icebreaker Hockey ($3)—a follow-up that uses a highly similar graphics engine and play mechanics. As with the prior games, it’s iPhone and iPod touch-only, sadly lacking for iPad support for no good reason.
NaturalMotion’s formula with Icebreaker is deliberately action-intense and laser-focused. As is obvious from the name, hockey’s the theme this time out, and like Backbreaker, you’re solely controlling a single member of the team as he makes repeated attempts to score goals. The challenge is primarily in dodging an increasing number of members of the opposing team as they try to check you onto the ice, while trying to rack up as many points as possible. Skating over fixed and moving colored boxes gives you a chance to earn some points; showboating as you reach the goal slows you down and racks up additional bonuses for every second you spend mugging for the cameras. Your reward for continued play is unlocking of eight total teams—basically just different colored players—plus 50 stages and multiple challenge levels, including smarter opponents and rinks with virtual obstacles that need to be skated around.
Apart from the less than total plausibility of showboating to the sport of hockey—unlike football, rare is the NHL player who shows off on the way to a goal—and the fact that Icebreaker’s basic-level goaltenders are designed to be complete pushovers, this turns out to be a really cool way to experience some of the thrills of hockey. Between the detailed 3-D polygonal Retina Display graphics and NaturalMotion’s streamlined control system, Icebreaker lets you enjoy completely smooth skating in plausible rinks, using accelerometer tilting to steer your player, quick dodge, turbo, juke, and stop buttons to avoid getting checked, and very straightforward shooting and showboating buttons to score bonus points. This isn’t a deep game, and absent in-game music or play-by-play-style voice work, the audio portion is a little too sparing. The absence of iPad support in the iPod/iPhone app is a bummer, too. But with so few hockey games in the App Store, this one stands out, and it’s definitely fun for as long as it lasts. iLounge Rating: B+.
Apart from the fact that Kami Retro HD ($3, version 1.0) is another unnecessarily iPad-only title, we have to say that we’re really impressed by what Gamevil has accomplished with this unique Super Mario Bros.-influenced action platformer. Unlike the Mario titles, which continued to evolve past their pixelated 8-bit graphics and 2-D gameplay, Kami Retro HD starts from the premise that the game’s original art and color palette could become more interesting merely by being rendered as gradient-shaded polygons, and that the gameplay could be focused on the challenges of running and jumping with swipe controls and time pressures. It adds stars to collect—mostly for the purpose of marking the correct pathway through a given level’s puzzle—and cute little glowing and pulsing polygon animations that help the levels feel energetic and interesting.
You control a character named Kami who emerges, running automatically, from a portal in the sky. Swipe diagonally on him to make him jump in that direction, swipe backwards to make him change directions, and position objects that you’re given to help him survive in each of the game’s over 60 levels. In early stages, you’ll need to position springboard platforms to help Kami survive unjumpably large chasms, and later, fans and other objects will help him to fly through the air from one platform to the next. Just when you’re on the edge of mastering each level’s layout and timing, Gamevil adds the next challenge: there are multiple Kamis that need to be moved from the initial portal to the exit, and they overlap one another—so you’ll be finishing the level with one as the next one is starting.
The point at which we can get behind a “retro” game is when it’s obvious that the developers aren’t relying on that word as a crutch for mediocre art and music; Kami Retro HD certainly isn’t. While the music is relatively simple bleeping and blooping, it’s pleasant and happy enough; the character and background animations are comparatively spot-on, bringing what could otherwise be fairly primitive-looking 2-D block renderings to life. Fans of early 8-bit platformers and simple action puzzle games will love what Gamevil has accomplished with this title; it’s the rare ode to classic gaming that manages to transcend its forebears. iLounge Rating: A-.
Illusion Labs has come a very long way since releasing Touchgrind back in 2009. Though it received a lot of exposure from Apple due to its status as a very early iPhone skateboarding game, Touchgrind presented the sport from a less than totally thrilling overhead view—one which enabled the semi 3-D title to have a smooth frame rate but made its background artwork sort of boring, while obscuring what would otherwise have been obvious gameplay objectives. Now the company has released a BMX bike version called Touchgrind BMX ($5, version 1.0.1), and it’s hugely improved: a truly 3-D game with better backdrops and more impressive objectives, utilizing a similar gameplay mechanic.
Paralleling Touchgrind, you control your BMX bike by putting two fingers on it, using swipes of one or both fingers to spin its wheel and/or frame through 360 degrees of freedom on any available axis. You’re presented with a rotating globe of possible tracks to explore, all but one of which are locked from the start. Additional levels are opened only if you succeed in achieving a number of objectives on the first industrial park stage, which like the others is filled with ramps, one obvious path to follow from start to finish, and slight side detours that can (and should) be explored as part of the objective system.
While TouchGrind BMX has three noteworthy issues, so much of the game is well-executed that they’re somewhat forgivable. They start, in order of importance, with the still somewhat unusual approach to objective discovery and tutorial modes—Illusion Labs basically drops you into the first course and leaves you to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing, and how well you’ll have to do in order to explore additional levels; that so many are locked makes the title initially seem too confining. The issues continue and end with the game’s graphics and sounds: the 3-D engine is completely fluid when Retina Display support is turned off, but becomes just a hair less than totally smooth when it’s flipped on, and no iPad support is included in the game. There’s no in-game music, and sound effects are again modest, making what otherwise could have been a heart-pumping experience feel a little more like an exercise in technical biking.
Having said all of that, the experience of controlling the BMX bike here is excellent—you’ll quickly learn how to do all sorts of physics-defying tricks, get opportunities to see the game’s beautifully-built, realistic-looking levels from different ground and air angles, and enjoy experimenting with unlockable bikes, too. Illusion Labs’ menu system is as beautifully illustrated and animated as ever, tying everything together with panache that’s missing from most iOS games. And an update promises to add at least one additional track to the several that are currently here. We’d expect Touchgrind BMX to become even better over time, but in its current form, it’s starting out much better than the first Touchgrind title, and we can’t wait to see where it goes from here. iLounge Rating: B+.
Darren Murtha Design has developed a couple of our favorite iPad and iPhone apps for kids, and continues to plug away on new and interesting releases for adults. We’re only briefly mentioning (and not rating) the company’s latest release, Tuned, as it showed up for a little while in the App Store before disappearing for reasons unknown—it’s an interesting, if not particularly deep new music trivia game.
The concept is very simple: Tuned draws upon the iTunes Store’s catalog of new music, challenging you to identify the artist behind each song snippet it plays. It accomplishes this by streaming the iTunes Store sample of each song, providing you with four potential choices as to the artist’s name. Think of it as “name that artist” without much time pressure, but with a selling angle; after you answer, you can continue listening to the rest of the Store’s sample, buy the track from iTunes, or move on to the next song. Your only other reward was the display of album art for whatever song you’d just heard. The game was designed to let you proceed through a country’s top 50, top 100, or top 300 songs, including genre-specific games, and either one- or two-player modes; the ad-supported free version was top 50 and single-player only, with the rest of the modes unlockable through an in-app purchase.
For the time being, Tuned isn’t in the App Store. The game’s ability to download the iTunes Store’s top 50 has seemingly shut down, as well, and it’s unclear as to whether any or all of the title’s functionality will reappear. If it does, we’ll update this with additional details and a rating. iLounge Rating: NR.