Welcome to the 24th edition of Weird and Small Apps! We have a lot of ground to cover this week, as the apps we’ve selected are all over the map in terms of functionality. Inside, you’ll find a couple of questionable car-related applications, a number of relaxation and self-improvement audiobook apps, a retro Nintendo 8-bit music synthesizer, and a collection of mini games.
This week is somewhat rare in that none of the applications rated a general level recommendation or higher; at best, several titles merited our limited recommendations and B- ratings. To give you a sense of the caliber of these apps, the week’s most noteworthy title is an iPhone OS version of the classic arcade game Q*Bert, but four unrated meditation applications may also appeal to some users. Read on for all the details.
We start out this week’s app coverage with two modestly useful car-related applications, 0to60 ($1) from Karma World and Porsche Archive ($3) by Jeff Maynard, that we felt were worth comparing. What both of these apps are doing is relatively low utility repackaging of statistics in app form: 0to60 is a grade school-like “which car would win in a 0 to 60 race” app, while Porsche Archive provides threadbare statistics on a number of past Porsche models, plus stock photographs.
While neither of these apps is in our view worth purchasing, they’re illustrative of the way App Store developers have sought to turn a quick buck by picking and marketing low-hanging factual fruits. Like Maynard’s earlier “Entrepreneur” app, which looked like little more than a collection of tips in page-flipping form, Porsche Archive is similarly little more than a collection of car statistics in page-flipping form. Cars have relatively bland “overview,” “specifications,” “how to spot” and “variation” listings, plus one small picture, and there’s also a poorly formatted VIN decoder that doesn’t fit the screen well or look good, but works. By repackaging free information from the Internet in a poorly-crafted $3 package, all this app does is demonstrate how low the bar truly is for publishing in the App Store; it is at best very modestly useful, with a weak interface. iLounge Rating: C-.
By comparison, 0to60 wraps even less useful information in a much nicer package—one that demonstrates that the developer actually cared about making an app that felt like more than a series of flip pages. As a single audio track loops, 0to60 presents you with a two-panel screen that lets you choose two cars from a highly incomplete list of USA, European, and Asian models, skewed towards sports cars—Honda for instance has a total of four cars listed, while Porsche has 14. Then you get to watch as generic iconic versions race from a 2-D overhead perspective on a street towards a finish line, representing their 0 to 60 speeds. As a finale, 0to60 displays statistical lists of their speeds, fuel economies, engines, power ratings, and transmissions. In essence, 0to60 is adding a hint of glamor to what is essentially a very simple statistical comparison anyone could make online, but at least it’s trying to wrap its content in something more than a web-quality shell. Is it good? No. Would we buy it? Absolutely not. But at least it’s headed in the right direction. iLounge Rating: C.
In the absence of a more advanced iPhone unlock screen, developers have been trying to come up with simple “show me a bunch of useful stuff at a glance” applications that offer some of the functionality users would want in a one-page app. Glance ($1) from Mendelini is a program of this sort, combining an unlock screen-like clock with date, a simple weather indicator, and an RSS feed ticker on the same page. You can customize Glance’s colors, set an alarm, use a snooze bar to pause the alarm, choose from a number of RSS news feeds, and adjust the app through three dimming levels. Clean and straightforward, the app doesn’t provide any additional pass-through features for the clock or weather save to change them from 12/24-hour displays or Fahrenheit to Celsius, but does open Safari if you see an RSS headline that you like. Though we’d be inclined to pick a free, similar app such as Kensington’s Rise & Shine instead, this one’s nice enough if you want to add RSS and an integrated alarm to the mix, and are willing to cough up $1 for the privilege. iLounge Rating: B-.
Four apps in this week’s roundup will go unrated for the time being, as we wanted to spotlight them, but don’t have a large enough base of experience with competing products to feel comfortable assigning them grades. All four apps are from Mental Workout, a company that has created a simple but clean interface for playing relaxing audiobook-style voice tracks that can be fast-forwarded, reversed, or paused mid-play, complete with a bottom-of-screen progress bar. Three of the apps are inexpensive: Be Happy Now ($3) includes “mindfulness,” “peaceful place,” “gratitude” and “compassion” meditations, plus three bonus meditations on improving one’s perspective on life. Mindfulness Meditation ($2) includes a 10-minute “deep relaxation” meditation, plus 5, 10, 15, and 20 minute “mindfulness” meditations, and Open Your Heart ($3) includes four total “forgiveness,” “gratitude,” “lovingkindness,” and “mindfulness” meditations. All three of these applications include content from the author of Meditation for Dummies.
By comparison, the considerably more expensive Insomnia ($20) contains content from Dr. Gregg Jacobs, who provides an introduction and a five-week, five-session guide to sleep improvement, plus a 10-minute relaxation exercise, a sleep diary, and a graphical progress indicator. You’ll obviously know whether one of these apps might help you; we’ll say only that the gentle, dreamy introductory music and clear audio samples used for each application were enough to lull us into mid-day relaxation—a good thing—and that the lower-priced apps strike us as useful little ways for people to hear a soothing, helpful voice with good tips. iLounge Rating: NR.
If there’s any quintessentially 1980’s arcade game—at least, in the sense that everyone knew its name back then, yet it never quite evolved beyond its original concept—the 1982 Gottlieb release Q*Bert would be a great example: this utterly simple title had a weird name, weird main character, and simple gameplay, none of which have resulted in memorable sequels or improvements despite several attempts over the years. So the original game returns in Q*Bert Deluxe ($2) from Sony Pictures Television. In the classic arcade mode, you control the horn-nosed orange character as he jumps diagonally from block to color-shifting block while trying to avoid getting killed by various types of weird enemies. A Modern mode upgrades the primitive graphics to higher resolution ones while adding background music, and a Jungle mode goes further, adding more complex mazes, more detailed block graphics, and additional music.
We’d considered giving Q*Bert Deluxe a longer review, but ultimately, this game strikes us as paradigmatic of the Weird and Small Apps column—an inexpensive game with limited gameplay and niche appeal. Each of the versions has the same objective: move diagonally from block to block, changing their colors—sometimes once, sometimes more, to unify them all under the same color—while preventing monsters from touching you or changing the colors of the blocks. Trying to use the little on-screen joystick isn’t fun, so thankfully, swiping elsewhere on the screen to move is an option, and one that works; it makes the game as fun as it ever was, which in our view is a little bit better than marginal. Of the three modes, Jungle Mode is the most appealing due to its modestly redesigned artwork, but none of the games is a great use of the iPhone, or appealing to anyone save for those with serious Q*Bert nostalgia. iLounge Rating: B-.
Another release that depends upon nostalgia is NESynth ($2) by Newforestar, an app that lets users simulate the limited beep, pop, and static-like musical capabilities of Nintendo’s 8-bit game console, alternately known as the NES and Famicom. From a title screen that evokes Konami’s old game Gradius, four interfaces can be selected, including a single keyboard, a double keyboard, an NES controller, and a Famicom controller; each provides access to an eight-octave sampler, with keyboard-specific setting screens to adjust attack, release, and waveform types that simulate various types of 8-bit music and sound effects, plus interface-wide sweep, arpeggio, reverb, and delay settings. A Peer-to-Peer mode lets two people connect their devices to play at the same time, but no save feature or more sophisticated composition and editing mechanism is included. With additional features, this could be a really good app for retro-obsessed musicians; as-is, it’s a cute novelty with neat interface options. iLounge Rating: B-.
Somewhat novel and nice, though not flashy, Fishtank Manager ($1) from Cellular GmbH is a simple matching game with a pet store theme. At the top of the screen is an ever-moving stream of fish, which need to be swiped with your finger into three tanks below, and then swiped again to satisfy customer requests as indicated by graphical bubbles at a cash register. The challenge is to manage more types of fish than can be placed individually into the three tanks, learning which types of fish will eat others, while quickly satisfying customer requests for specific types of fish; every missed fish or waiting customer docks a limited life bar, bringing you close to losing the game. This is a decent gameplay concept with average graphics, better than average music, and stock sound effects; an improved tutorial system and more impressive graphics would make it a cooler little game. iLounge Rating: C+.
Spaceship shooting games have been taken to relatively great heights on the iPhone over the past year, so it’s hard to get really excited about SpaceWars Deathmatch ($1) Makebari. In essence, this game is nothing more than a way for up to four ships to shoot at each other against a plain starfield backdrop, with one or two of the ships controlled by local wirelessly connected humans, and between one and three ships controlled by the computer. Spacey music plays, and simple shield and weapon power-ups appear now and then, transforming your unimpressive continuous pea shooter into an unimpressive triple pea shooter, and so on. While the dual joystick controls are intuitive and work properly, there’s so little to this game in depth or graphics that it feels little better than a cheap demo of the iPhone’s networking abilities. It’s not bad, but not a great use of the iPhone OS. iLounge Rating: D+.
Having reviewed some impressively and semi-impressively designed quiz show games for the iPhone OS—Gameloft’s TV Show King and 1 Vs. 100 are both $1—Way No Way ($1) from Spinapse comes across as a comparatively plain trivia title that’s backed with legitimately interesting trivia questions. The premise: spin a wheel to see how many points you’re about to earn, then get a question, and answer it either “Way!” or “No Way!” After ten answers, you get a score that is submitted to a worldwide scoreboard, and can play again. That’s it. Way No Way is absolutely not flashy, has little graphical appeal and no music, and offers little more than sound effects to register wheel spins and answers; the shallowness of mere “yes” and “no” responses makes the game considerably simpler than four-answer trivia titles. But we genuinely liked the questions and answers here, anyway; for a buck, this is an okay little title with some nice content. iLounge Rating: C.
Hundreds of additional iPhone app and game reviews are available here.