Welcome to this week’s Small Apps + Updates roundup, which takes quick looks at recent budget app releases and noteworthy tweaks to past apps. This edition focuses largely on a collection of small but interesting recent games, as well as showing off Apple’s iPhone 4 Case Program application—the rare app that enables users to get something for free just by running it.
Though all of the apps in here are worth seeing, Plunderland and the updated version of N.O.V.A. are the two real standouts. Read on for the details.
iPhone 4 Case Program (Free) was released today by Apple as a tool to help iPhone 4 customers order the free Apple or third-party cases promised at last week’s Antennagate event in Cupertino. Unlike the vast majority of apps in the store, iPhone 4 Case Program will only install on iPhone 4 hardware, which the app checks for serial number and iTunes Store account information that’s used to process a single case order per iPhone 4 device.
As of the first day of the application’s availability, Apple offered seven cases in a total of eight colors through the Program, ranging in MSRP from $20 to $30, each with 3-5 week shipping dates; different cases may be available in the future. It also uses your iTunes Store account to automatically populate address information unless you make changes. Simple, straightforward, and easy to use, the app’s only failing is that the included photos are tiny—like the ones in the standard Apple Store application—and not especially useful for picking the right option for one’s needs. iLounge rating: N/R.
For those who haven’t heard of N.O.V.A. – Near Orbit Vanguard Alliance ($5, version 1.2.1), here’s a snapshot of our earlier full review: released in December 2009, Gameloft’s title was a brazen clone of Microsoft and Bungie’s popular Xbox first-person shooter Halo, borrowing the space marine theme, enemy behaviors, and even the concepts behind its levels. While derivative, N.O.V.A. added a handful of its own tricks—simple screen-filling 2-D puzzles—and the April 2010 standalone iPad game N.O.V.A. HD went further, including multi-finger door locks, multi-enemy targeting, and a new grenade tossing system that all depended on the larger iPad screen.
Version 1.2.1 of N.O.V.A. for the iPhone and iPod touch brings half of N.O.V.A. HD—specifically, the enhanced graphics—to the iPhone 4. While the graphics don’t make a massive change to the artwork, the added pixels soften the edges of polygonal objects, while in some but not all cases making the textures a little better, too. On the control front, the pocket version of N.O.V.A. does not add the multi-finger gestures found in the iPad game, but instead adds gyroscope controls as an option for head-tilting, allowing you to turn and tilt the device to change your perspective. Some users will like the new control feature, but we found it to be a distraction from the swipe and tap controls, which worked so well in the prior version of the game that we didn’t need another option. Gyroscope controls can be enabled and disabled from the game’s options/controls menus. In any case, N.O.V.A. is as strong of a game today as it was last year, plus $2 less expensive and better looking, besides—consider it a must-see if you’re a fan of first-person shooters and the Halo series. iLounge rating: A-.
There are occasionally brilliant little inexpensive releases in the App Store, and Johnny Two Shoes’ new game Plunderland ($3, version 1.0) is one of them. By combining the artistic styles and simplicity of two of the biggest App Store franchises—Rolando and Pocket God—this developer has unleashed a comedic and fun little pirate adventure upon the world, fully realized with beautiful high-resolution cartoon graphics, seafaring ambient sounds, and novel gameplay. You take control of a boat with several crew members who can be thought of as bars of life, tilting the iPhone or iPod touch to make it move left or right on a parallax-scrolling 2-D ocean. Swipe gestures fire your cannon or cannons at other ships, as well as other ground-, water-, and air-based targets, many of which drop currency or items as they’re destroyed. You grab as many of these things as possible to power up your ship, visiting a store inbetween the game’s levels.
Plunderland works because it combines predictable physics with unpredictable environmental conditions and fun graphics. You know how to steer your ship and fire the cannon, but as you’re pitched around in the water—sometimes by huge waves—and forced to shoot at balloons and boats, aiming becomes a challenge; sailors, natives on islands, and other enemies keep things unpredictable by attacking you back, sometimes even jumping on your boat to try and kill off your crew. Because you’re a pirate, you’re actually on the wrong side of the situations you encounter, a great comedic ploy that provides Pocket God-like opportunities to destroy peaceful villages and topple structures, all calm and nicely animated until you show up with guns blazing.
Taps on the screen bring totem poles down and hidden treasures to the fore, and swipes let you pitch people into the air, tear ships apart, and so on. Though the game could benefit from a soundtrack, it’s otherwise a ton of fun and so impressively detailed on the iPhone 4 that games such as Rolando and Rolando 2 suddenly look rough around the edges. If the concept here sounds even vaguely appealing, don’t think twice about grabbing Plunderland. iLounge rating: A-.
Sega has a backcatalog of thousands of games that could conceivably thrill App Store gamers, but with few exceptions, it has chosen to release sloppy, sluggish ports of its old titles—often based not on the original arcade games, but rather emulated code from the 1988 Genesis/Mega Drive console. Following that pattern, Space Harrier II ($1, version 1.0.0) is an emulated version of the same-named Sega Genesis 3-D shooting game, which looked pretty good back in the day despite the fact that it threw away the 3-D graphics hardware of its arcade predecessor Space Harrier. On the iPhone and iPod touch in 2010, it’s not so hot. Overlapping an unimproved rendition of the Genesis’s 320×240 screen, you’re given a translucent virtual joystick, a single button for shooting, and separate top-of-screen buttons for “menu” and “start” that could have easily been combined together had the programmers wanted to make the minimal effort necessary to do so. There is, however, an option to shrink the Genesis screen to a tiny window occupying the center of the screen, with opaque controls off to the sides.
Opening with the goofy box art from the Genesis title, the game places you in control of a man who runs and hovers across checkered box battlefields, shooting down targets as they come closer towards the screen. At the end of every stage is a dramatic boss encounter, normally requiring you to shoot down multiple segments of a snake-like dragon, or several spaceships flying in formation. Just as with the Genesis game, the characters and background art move towards you in pseudo 3-D with chunky, pre-rendered sprites, all at a depressingly low frame rate with only decent musical accompaniment and minimalist sound effects. On the iPhone 4, it runs at almost Genesis speeds, but on older models such as the iPhone 3G, the music stutters and the frame rate drops further. Even as fans of the Space Harrier series, seeing the game running so sluggishly here makes the $1 feel like a wasted investment; that said, it’s not as bad as tossing away $3-$6 for other recently released Genesis titles such as Ecco, Sonic the Hedgehog, Golden Axe. iLounge rating: C.
The upcoming Disney movie Tron: Legacy looks remarkable, and Disney is promoting its release—many months ahead of time—with the free game Tron (Free, version 1.0.0), a title that it promises to evolve over time with additional mini-games. For now, the Tron application contains promotional trailer sections for the console game Tron Evolution and the Tron: Legacy film, a San Diego ComicCon attendee-tracking section called Comitron, and a mini-game called Enter the Grid: Tanks Arcade. The game is an evolution of the classic overhead tank title found in Midway’s Tron arcade machine, giving you dual joystick control over a roving tank and its separately rotating turret. New are your abilities to switch weapons, upgrade weapons, and explore multiple maze-like levels—each with the glowing edges and futuristic enemies one would expect from the classic Tron world, plus teleports, switches that need to be toggled and walls that need to be destroyed to open up new areas. A multi-player mode lets multiple tanks fight through 2, 4, or 6-combatant arenas over Wi-Fi servers, as well. We’re going to hold off on rating Tron until additional content is added, but for the time being, it’s a neat little free application for fans of the movies, and worth seeing. iLounge rating: N/R.