Welcome to the latest edition of Small Apps + Updates, our occasional brief looks at apps that we’ve either previously covered or felt were worthy of only micro-sized reviews. Today, we’re looking at three small but highly publicized games from a developer named Halfbrick Studios, as well as recent free updates to three big apps and games we’ve written about either in reviews or news.
Like many small developers in the App Store, Halfbrick Studios has made a name for itself by parlaying a cute gimmick into a $1 casual game with mainstream appeal. Fruit Ninja ($1, version 1.3.2) leverages the 3-D graphics hardware of pocket-sized iOS devices to make polygonally-rendered fruits and bombs fly up from the bottom of the screen before falling down again, giving you an opportunity to slice each piece with finger swipes before it disappears. You can miss three pieces or hit one bomb before the game ends abruptly, and the goal is simple: slash as much fruit as possible, with bonuses for multi-fruit combos. The separate iPad-only version Fruit Ninja HD ($5, version 1.01) adds one mode to the iPhone and iPod touch game, allowing two people to split the screen in half and slash against one another—a feature shown off in a recent iPad commercial. Both games have minimalist zen-style background sounds that all but disappear against slashing and splashing sound effects.
But as has been amply demonstrated in the past, what works for a $1 iPhone and iPod touch game doesn’t necessary justify a considerably higher price on the iPad, even when higher-resolution iPad artwork is added to the mix. To the contrary, the two versions of Fruit Ninja are so much alike and so basic, with five flat backgrounds—most, like seven different-colored knife slashes, unlockable in a “dojo”—that it’s hard to consider the $5 “premium game” price point being right for a title like this. Fruit Ninja is a nice enough amusement for $1, less ambitious than mildly entertaining as a time-waster, but we’d pass on the iPad version unless it drops significantly in price. iLounge Ratings (Fruit Ninja): B, (Fruit Ninja HD): C.
As a consequence of Fruit Ninja’s success, Halfbrick’s just-released game Monster Dash ($1, version 1.00) is of interest today, and as the price suggests, it’s another simple game with a catchy hook. This time, Halfbrick combines the ever-popular zombies and monsters theme with the “run until you die” gameplay of Canabalt, a stylish but very simple game that generated a lot of discussion last year. In Monster Dash, you keep running without the ability to stop or meaningfully slow down, jumping from building to building shooting monsters until you fall off of a building or lose all of your life bars. There’s one shoot button, one jump button, and no other controls; you can typically replenish life at a rate of one heart bar per level by jumping up to a floating heart icon found in some semi-tricky spot as you’re running.
What we like about Monster Dash is the fact that Halfbrick changes up the background art every 1000 meters—and on each restart of the game—flipping between desert, metropolis, Chinese and Transylvanian-inspired stages that each have their own variations on the game’s theme song, as well as different enemies and obstacles. Better yet are the game’s limited-use weapon power-ups, which appear as treasure chests that need to be touched, and permit two handfuls of lightning, piercing bullets, vertical bulletsprays or horizontal bulletsprays, each fun if not hugely different in effect. However, the limited variety of enemies and obstacles per stage, combined with the sort of plain, not-as-stylish-as-Canabalt art work against the title. This is certainly a good $1 game—better for the price than Fruit Ninja, in our view—but it could benefit from additional content or depth in a future update. iLounge Rating: B+.
Having previously reviewed Apple’s iBooks and Amazon’s Kindle e-Book readers on both the iPhone and the iPad, we were looking forward to seeing what Barnes & Noble’s Barnes & Noble Nook for iPhone (Free, version 2.0) and Barnes & Noble Nook for iPad (Free, version 2.2) brought to the table. The short answer is “very little.” Nook for iPad is a rebranding of the prior BN eReader application, and it has a few positives that should be mentioned up front. B&N promises a catalog of over 1 million books, a LendMe feature that lets Nook users share their books, and the ability to read Nook purchases on computers, dedicated Nook readers, and non-Apple devices. These are all missed opportunities in iBooks, and ones we’d hope Apple to address in the future.
But otherwise, the Nook application seems less like a serious rival to iBooks or Kindle than a means to let existing Nook customers use their books on the iPad and iPhone. As with Kindle but not iBooks, you need to use a web site rather than in-app purchases to acquire new books, and the B&N web site so lacks for charm that you’ll want to just hunt for new releases in the iBookstore rather than browsing through its labored listings page by page on the web. Nook’s in-app user interface is somewhat spartan, as well, a “clean” look that works better on the iPhone and iPod touch than on the larger-screened iPad; there are no bookshelves, just an empty gray surface with book covers and star ratings on top, and the reader app dispenses with page-turning animations and other UI niceties in favor of somewhat boxy visual elements. Once a book is opened, dictionary, Wikipedia, and Google lookups are included, along with an in-book search, simple one-color highlighting and note-taking features, the latter three not as developed as in iBooks, though marks made on one device do transfer to other Nook-running devices just as in competing apps.
Where Nook falls short on both platforms is really in the reading experience. The iPad version doesn’t split into two pages when you rotate to landscape orientation, an omission that makes sense (and still applies) only on the more cramped iPhone/iPod touch display. A scant five text sizes are offered on both devices, along with eight fonts and some other settings that are initially intriguing but not especially useful: you can create alternate background, text, highlight and link colored themes, change the size of the margins—two settings on iPhone/iPod touch, four on iPad—and change brightness, as well as toggling forced justification for the text. Unless you really want blue backgrounds, however, you’ll find the preset themes—black on white, gray on black, dark gray on light gray, black on beige or white on dark brown—to be adequate, just as similar preset color schemes are in Kindle. Most surprising is the fact that books actually have noticeable loading pauses every handful of pages, something that shouldn’t be necessary at all, let alone for books that are purely text without in-line images. If it wasn’t for the size of Barnes and Noble’s library, its existing customer base, and the in-app lending feature, there would be very little reason to take Nook seriously on the iPad; for the time being, we don’t see ourselves having any reason to revisit it again. iLounge Ratings (Both): C+.
It was the 2009 iPhone/iPod touch application of the year, but since then—due to the departure of its key developer—the free application Facebook hasn’t come anywhere close to users’ expectations for its evolution, and the just-released version 3.2.1 doesn’t do much to change that impression. In fact, Facebook is one of the only major social networks to completely drop the ball on support for the iPad—there’s still no version of the app for the 9.7” display, forcing iPad users to load up the clunky-looking iPhone version if they want to share pictures or videos from their devices.
But for iPhone and iPod touch users, Facebook still does what it did last year, plus a few additional features. New and much discussed today is “Places,” a competitor to the location-tracking service Foursquare that exactly zero of our editors have ever been interested in using. Places plans to leverage Facebook’s existing business listings and advertisers to provide geolocation information, enabling Facebook users to “check in” at destinations and instantly share that information with their friends. As of now, Places isn’t working on any of our iPhones—a placeholder graphic appears to “thank you for your patience”—and readers in major cities across the United States are reporting the same thing. Apart from modest enhancements to support higher-resolution text, photos, and UI elements on the iPhone 4’s screen, Facebook feels like it has been stagnating in development for too long; our former high recommendation for the iPhone/iPod touch application has thus slipped to a general recommendation, recognizing both its continued utility and extended malaise. We continue to hold out hope that the app receives a proper update with full iPad support in the very near future. iLounge Rating: B+.
Finally, we wanted to highlight two recent Gameloft updates that bring past major titles up to snuff with the iPhone 4’s 960×640 display. First is Modern Combat: Sandstorm ($5, version 1.4.6), which won the 2009 iPhone/iPod touch Game of the Year after our full review, and now features high-resolution textures, polygon edges, and gyroscope controls. Though we experienced a control-related bug after downloading Modern Combat and trying to resume the game using multitasking, the already impressive artwork looks even better on the iPhone 4, and the gyroscope feature enables head-turning without the need for on-screen swipes. If you’re a fan of first-person shooters and haven’t already downloaded this game, now’s the time to give it a shot. Our prior high recommendation remains unchanged.
Gameloft’s Prince of Persia: Warrior Within ($7, version 1.0.8) has received a similarly impressive iPhone 4 upgrade that takes its artwork into the “wow” category, with the same sorts of high-res textures and ultra-fine polygon edges found in Modern Combat. Unfortunately, the game still suffers from the same frequent mid-stage loads and other issues noted in our full review; the lower price and improved art may make the rough edges a little easier to handle. Our prior general recommendation remains unchanged.