Between true nostalgia for once-popular games and the willingness of some gamers to buy new releases that evoke the aesthetics or controls of prior-generation designs, retro gaming remains a compelling segment of the video game world. The line between games that rest on their nostalgic appeal and ones that are legitimately compelling to new audiences is a blurry one, and as the App Store continues to fill up with both ports of old games and original but retro-styled new ones, we find ourselves wondering just how mainstream or nichey many of these titles really are.
Today, we review three throwback titles, two of which are brand new with old-school graphics, while one’s a port of an old game with some new paint. Depending on your perspective, one, two, or all three may be your cup of tea; we were most impressed by the inexpensive but deep shooter, Isotope.
Though we’ve previously played and enjoyed vector graphic shooters for the iPhone, a title called Isotope: A Space Shooter ($3/$1) by iDrinkApp.com/Affogato trumps prior efforts in two key ways: control and depth. Borrowing the basic concepts from earlier, similar titles such as Geometry Wars, Isotope places you in control of a space ship that is viewed from an overhead perspective and flown through rooms that fill up with colorful, line-based enemies and bullets. By default, your left finger steers the ship while your right finger points and fires its guns; colored directional pads appear on the screen’s sides to clue you in, intelligently moving a little to accommodate shifting fingers. This control scheme works instantly to make your ship easy to move and blast with, if not quite powerful enough to quickly clear the screen of enemies.
That, the developer handles with an upgrade system that is at once a major draw for the game and also an unnecessarily confusing part of its design. Blowing away enemies earns you experience points and cash that can be used to upgrade your ship, buy new ships, or buy new elements for your ship, and the more you explore the game, the more you realize that there’s a huge collection of choices: 40 ships, numerous add-on “modules” and “satellites,” and various levels of power, many found in “stores” that need to be purchased just to see what’s inside. While Isotope offers a wonderful array of customization options, as well as over 30 different missions, the fact that you constantly need to purchase things—pay to unlock every level, every collection of levels, every upgrade, every collection of upgrades—slows down the game’s pace and confuses the player. Compounding this is the fact that you can buy certain upgrades but not actually equip them until you’ve boosted your CPU, which requires experience points; the game and play screen feel unnecessarily cluttered with scoring metrics.
But if you can get past this complexity, Isotope’s game design is seriously cool. Each of the missions sees you trapped in a maze with doors that are opened with triggers, which when hit activate a number of different types of enemies that need to be cleared out, followed by a boss encounter. Each of the bosses is a little different from the one that came before, and the fact that there are bosses at all—let alone so many of them, with better artificial intelligence than the drones you’re most commonly destroying—keeps Isotope from becoming boring. While the vector styled line and particle effects are old fashioned, there’s so much going on at the same time that they work well for the game, and a simple synthesized soundtrack matches the theme.
Overall, Isotope is a really impressive little shooter that’s worthy of its $3 asking price, and for fans of the genre, a near no-brainer while it’s on sale for its current $1. Our hope is that the developer radically streamlines the upgrade system, but even in its current form, this is a very strong title. If the concept interests you, a free version called Isotope Lite provides five missions as a sample. iLounge Rating: A-.
Back in February, we looked at a game called Pinball Dreaming: Pinball Dreams, which apparently was a hit 17 years ago on the Commodore Amiga computer platform. Developer Cowboy Rodeo had plucked the $6 title from the archives of Digital Illusions, seeing potential in its four separate pinball machines, and gave them a modest update to enhance the colors and details of their 2-D overhead graphics. Now the company has returned with Pinball Dreaming: Pinball Fantasies ($6), which offers another four tables and highly similar gameplay.
This time, the machines are a little more dreamy than their predecessors: Party Land is a fantasy circus, Speed Devils is an exotic car table, Billion Dollar Gameshow is what it sounds like, and Stones ‘n Bones is a more stylized version of the prior title’s Graveyard table. As before, the tables are basically flat surfaces with illuminating targets and bumpers, plus simple ramps and elevated channels; now there are more curves, brighter colors, and third flippers; you can still toggle between old and updated versions of the tables if you want to play the game as it was, and rotate the iPhone or iPod touch to play in widescreen or horizontal mode. Control remains the same as before: tap the bottom left and right corners to activate the flippers, and pull on the bottom right to fire the ball onto the table.
On the flip side, Pinball Fantasies has fallen a little—in our view, at least—in sonic appeal, and though the pinball gameplay is up to the prior title’s standards, it’s still a step below our favorites on other devices. Owing to its Amiga heritage, the game is packed with scratchy sound effects that might well be nostalgic but don’t sound great by contemporary standards, such that audience applause in the Billion Dollar Gameshow adds what sounds like a layer of background sizzle to the music; other stages are also on the rough side. The developer promises to have free, remixed MP3 versions of the tracks available from its web site, but as of press time, they weren’t available, and it’s unclear as to how or whether they’ll integrate with the title.
We still feel that pinball is an under-exploited game genre on the iPhone, and to the extent that Pinball Fantasies offers another collection of games to play at a reasonable package price of $6, it’s a good option. That said, it will hold a lot more appeal for fans of the original Amiga games than for other iPhone and iPod touch gamers, and it doesn’t represent anywhere near the best that this platform can do aesthetically. iLounge Rating: B.
The last game in today’s roundup is Turn Turn Tank: Globe Defense ($2) by Triple-Q, a Japanese-developed title that will be released on July 23 into the App Store. Smaller and simpler than the other games reviewed above, Turn Turn Tank managed to keep us playing anyway with gameplay that worked quite well given its retro visual and sonic theme.
Triple-Q describes Turn Turn Tank as a combination of a shooter and a tower defense game, which is technically accurate, though the game is far more of a shooting experience. You’re placed in control of a tank that rotates around on top of a planet at the center of the screen, firing bullets at enemies that inch closer and closer to your position as they move inwards from lines that are drawn from the edges of the screen. Most of what you’re doing is spinning around, blasting every enemy that appears, but when their numbers become overwhelming, you can pull a bomb icon from the bottom of the screen to take out a bunch of them at once, or a spiderweb icon to trap some for easier shooting; both of these abilities are numerically limited. Thirty stages are offered to keep you busy.
From stage to stage, you have to deal with increases in the number and complexity of the lines leading towards you, as well as seven different types of attackers that vary in speed and number of bullets required to stop their advance—these are the tower defense elements, with some attackers moving straight, and others bouncing as they come closer, effectively dodging bullets. Triple-Q makes this all interesting by flooding the screen with particle explosions, keeping a techno beat pulsing in the background, and continually trying to overwhelm you with waves of new attackers. Controls are extremely simple: touching the globe lets you rotate, tapping a bullet button on the bottom right of the screen makes you shoot, and pulling icons from the bottom left activates the limited power-ups.
Overall, Turn Turn Tank isn’t the most original game we’ve seen—it feels at times a little like Zuma/Puzzloop, Asteroids, and numerous other simple shooters—and as with many retro titles, the backgrounds leave something to be desired. But for a couple of dollars, the game is legitimately fun, due mostly to its gradually increasing challenge level, the thrill of seeing particle explosions, and the different patterns enemies take as they approach your position. More diversity in the art and audio could make this game even better, but what’s here is a good start. iLounge Rating: B.