For all of the impressive growth experienced by other genres, music games on the iPhone and iPod touch haven’t yet had their “PaRappa the Rapper” moment, the point at which everything that’s come before has to improve after a developer comes up with a wickedly creative new approach. Instead, there have been plenty of sequels to familiar games, each with just a little something new relative to earlier versions, and developers have been milking the same few formulas to the point of near exhaustion. Thus, we have this edition of iPhone + iPad Gems, which looks at two recent releases that could have easily been updates to titles we’ve reviewed before, but instead make nearly wholesale visual and audio swaps that justify their existence as standalone titles. Our top pick below is the iPhone and iPod touch version of Rock Band Reloaded. Read on for all the details.
Tapulous deserves credit for making Lady Gaga Revenge 2 ($5, version 2.0.1) more than just a song swap from its mid-2009 predecessor Lady Gaga Revenge, a good but not great tapping game that switched off between horizontal and vertical orientations to create three- and four-pad challenges. From level to level, the original Revenge displayed nice but repetitive artwork with the artist’s visage moving around with minimal animation. Fourteen tracks included 10 original songs and four remixes that captured the majority of Gaga’s hits through mid-2009, after which her career and popularity accelerated like a bullet.
Though it doesn’t offer either Retina Display or iPad resolution—and regrettably runs the same on the iPad as on Apple’s pre-2010 devices—Lady Gaga Revenge 2 otherwise refreshes literally all of the artwork found in the first title with enviable style. Clean fonts and a redesigned UI are easier on the eyes than before, and in a step forward that generally deserves a round of applause, Tapulous even includes a variety of different backgrounds this time, some 2-D and others 3-D, each used repeatedly. Some of the levels are so visually cluttered, including moving foreground and background images, that players will struggle to focus entirely on keeping pace with the tapping and holding down actions; this appears to be deliberate, however, and worsens during “boss stages,” which are meant to be the game’s most challenging levels.
Once again, the game is split into portrait and landscape modes, with three pads to tap during portrait levels and four during the landscape boss levels. Four levels of difficulty evolve from simple tap and hold gameplay to multi-pad simultaneous tapping and directional shakes, with star icons giving you one or two power-ups to use as score multipliers. Activating either of the icons transforms the background into something different, visually busier, and more exciting until a timer runs out. Unlike the first game, Gaga 2 does away with simultaneous multiplayer in favor of a “brag over Twitter, Facebook, or e-mail” feature.
On a related note, a couple of Tapulous development touches struck us as tricks rather than treats. To minimize the app’s initial size, Lady Gaga Revenge 2 downloads most of its music only after you’ve grabbed the initial 19.7MB file, a process that’s easy on the user but takes a little extra time any time you actually install Gaga 2 on a device. A bigger problem is the developer’s approach to boss levels. You’re instructed to use the app to post an advertisement for the game on Facebook or Twitter in order to unlock the boss stages. On the list of top ten annoying iOS post-app purchase unlocking behaviors, Gaga 2 just vaulted up the charts to #3.
Obviously, whether Lady Gaga’s music appeals to you is a matter of personal taste, and might be enough to make up for this app’s other idiosyncrasies. Alejandro, Bad Romance, Dance in the Dark, Fashion, LoveGame, Monster, Paper Gangsta, So Happy I Could Die, Speechless, and Teeth are the game’s ten included tracks, ranging from Fashion’s sub-three minute run time to Dance in the Dark’s exhausting six-plus minutes of continuous tapping. There are fewer tracks in this version than in the last one, but the improvements in the art bring the two titles up to par in overall value. More than before, you’ll get a rich sense of the sometimes disturbing imagery Gaga brings to the table with her music, which makes the game feel like a better tribute to the artist than its predecessor. But Gaga 2 is dragged down by its reliance on low-resolution art, its lack of iPad support, and the multiplayer and extra tracks found in the first game. If you’re a Lady Gaga fan, it’s good enough to pass muster, but you may well feel yourself wondering why it feels behind the curve of current universal and Retina Display iOS releases. iLounge Rating: B.
Though the original $10 version of the popular console game Rock Band hit the iPhone and iPod touch with only a little more impact than a dull thud, Electronic Arts has returned with a sequel—Rock Band Reloaded—for the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. This time, there are actually two versions: the iPhone and iPod touch game Rock Band Reloaded ($5), and separate iPad-only version Rock Band Reloaded HD ($10), which the $5 title helpfully points you towards if you load it on a 9.7” display. As bad as the practice of selling two versions of the same game for different iOS devices is, it’s that much more annoying to be told to “look for the iPad version of this game on the App Store” after completing a purchase and excitedly giving a game its first load. EA has never been shy about trying to make $15 per title on an iOS game, but this just feels like shaking the money tree at the worst possible time.
As was the case with Lady Gaga Revenge 2, EA had the choice to either update its prior Rock Band title to this version, or develop a standalone title with new content. Given what’s changed here, we can’t blame the company for releasing something totally new. In addition to updating the polygonal and 2-D artwork to generally support Apple’s Retina Displays and iPad screen, Rock Band Reloaded includes 15 music tracks in its initial 153MB download, as well as additional free and paid songs in an In-App store. Once again, you’re expected to buy two tracks at a time for $1, one you want and one you might not want. The songs are very heavily skewed towards rock, as one would expect from the title, but vary widely in date and style: some are 1980’s classics such as Duran Duran’s Hungry Like the Wolf and Billy Idol’s White Wedding, while others include nearly easy listening songs from Roy Orbison, rock-rap from the Beastie Boys, and metal from Megadeth. Far more tracks are old than new, but the included set of songs spans a nice collection of rock genres and isn’t lacking for second-tier hits. A “Quick Play” mode lets you take your chosen part in any of the included songs right away, while a World Tour guides you through a series of unlockable events in different countries, and Multiplayer—significantly, unlike Lady Gaga Revenge 2—offers local Wi-Fi or Bluetooth multiplayer for up to four band members to play together.
The core gameplay remains highly similar to the original Rock Band: you’re given either a Guitar, Bass, Drum, or Vocal section of a song to perform, and get to keep on listening to that fraction of the track for as long as you can keep tapping in time with the notes, words, or beats. There’s a meter in the center of the four tap zones that can be activated after charging up to provide point multipliers, Some of the songs go beyond the prior game by letting you actually sing along to the music in a Vocal mode, building on the prior game’s tap-along-with-the-voice feature by using the microphones built into most iOS devices. Though the game recommends that you attach mic-aided headphones for the best results, we didn’t have any problem singing along using the iPad’s integrated microphone, and found the game’s performance to be forgiving enough that errant notes didn’t matter.
Unless you’re willing to just accept “cash grab” as a justification, EA’s decision to split the game into iPad and iPhone/iPod touch versions doesn’t make a lot of sense. The biggest addition to the iPad version is your ability to actually see the same respectable rather than spectacular polygonal characters and 3-D backgrounds that are also displayed on the smaller-screened devices, rather than just the edges of heads and stages as the camera moves around. (Pre-2009 iOS devices display flattened slideshow-like graphics instead.) Rock Band Reloaded HD lets you choose to run the game in portrait, landscape centered, lefty and righty modes on the iPad, even swapping off between the modes mid-song if you desire, with the landscape modes providing the best view of the backgrounds, albeit with the challenge of playing two handed on a large display. If you’ve ever tried switching off between typing on the iPad in widescreen and landscape orientations, you can imagine the challenges you might have in centering your fingers for rapid-fire tapping on the wide screen; this is the rare situation in which separate instrument controllers would have made as much sense on Apple’s devices as the virtual buttons on the screen… except that no one would have spent the cash to buy them.
Due to the improvements in the iPhone and iPod touch version of Rock Band Reloaded—a lower initial price, Retina Display support, vocalization and additional music tracks—the sequel rates higher than its predecessor. But to the extent that EA has again dropped the ball on unifying its incredibly similar iPhone and iPad applications into a single purchase, then rubbed salt in the wound by advertising one in the other, we can’t recommend the iPad version despite the benefits that the larger screen can offer. It’s high time that developers stop selling separate apps solely for the sake of trying to make an extra buck off of fans; now that iOS 4.2 has unified the features of all of Apple’s current devices, there are fewer excuses than ever before for artificially maintaining a distinction between increasingly similar screens. iLounge Ratings (Rock Band Reloaded): B+ / (Rock Band Reloaded HD): C+.