Welcome to this week’s edition of Weird + Small Apps, a collection of free and budget-priced iPhone and iPod touch applications developed to serve limited but interesting purposes. The collection of eight applications this week includes new titles in genres we’ve covered before: mini-games, music-making tools, kids’ stories, reference tools, and gimmicky weird little apps.
No app reviewed in this week’s column rated higher than a B+—that’s Epicurious, the recipe application, our top pick—but a few others rated flat Bs for offering pretty good features, too. Check out Base Jumper, Bowls, and Zillow, amongst the others featured below.
With used cartridges of Nintendo’s genre-defining flying games Pilotwings and Pilotwings 64 going for $5 to $10 online, some might wonder why we’d be excited about Base Jumper ($2) from Vir2L Studios—a short little iPhone title that has a lot in common with Nintendo’s skydiving and rocket belt levels. The reason’s simple: over the course of three total city, canyon, and forest levels, Base Jumper does more to capture the spirit of the beloved games than anything Nintendo has released in 13 years. Here, your character does nothing more than plunge from sky to ground while trying to maneuver through hoops towards a target zone on the ground; you tilt the iPhone up, down, left, and right to try and score points.
At the end of each level, you pull the ripcord on your parachute and try to land. Save for a hidden “adrenaline” button that lets you temporarily slow down the action, that’s it. But Vir2L has created levels that are visually quite cool—highly reminiscent of the ones in Pilotwings 64—and coupled them with dreamy music. If the levels were longer, and there were more of them, this would be a truly superb little game; for now, it’s a good start. iLounge Rating: B.
Just like Base Jumper, the single biggest issue with Jelly Biscuits’ mini-game Squashem ($2) is that you’re far too quickly left wanting more. Like Katamari Damacy and its iPhone version I Love Katamari, you use the accelerometer to control a ball that rolls around 3-D environments trying to gather up target items that are on the ground. But here, the items are little people—10 moving little people—and the environments are trippy, very interestingly drawn and contoured maps.
While you can choose from multiple textures for your ball, a great idea, there are only six levels in the game, and Squashem only offers two difficulty levels that vary solely in the ability of the 10 running people to avoid your oncoming ball. While Jelly Biscuits has demonstrated a knack for cool level ideas and great artwork, the title is over before it really starts, and comes across as a Super Monkey Ball wannabe without comparable depth. If this game had five times the number of levels, it would be a seriously worthwhile download; as it is, it’s not yet worth the $2 asking price. iLounge Rating: B-.
The temple chimes of Asia are some of the most relaxing and beautiful sounds we’ve ever heard. Unlike downloaable tracks and apps that play pre-recorded music making these chimes, Bowls ($2) by Oceanhouse Media allows you to use the chimes and Tibetan singing bowls to create your own tracks. The good news is that Bowls is affordable, has some nice sound samples, and provides you access to different types and pitches of resonant metal instruments, including tingsha cymbals, bells, bowls, and gongs. Unfortunately, the app stretches the instruments out across seven pages that require you to scroll from screen to screen to play more than two at once. This is done to put some beautiful bowl and instrument imagery on screen, but it’s somewhat akin to letting you see four spectacularly rendered piano keys at once rather than the entire keyboard. If all you’re looking for is a way to make a few sounds at once, rubbing bowls to get them to hum before fading out, Bowls does a fine job; we wish there was a way to access more of the instruments on one screen. iLounge Rating: B.
After seeing the beautifully illustrated and surprisingly well-accompanied $1 Wheels on The Bus app, our expectations for kid-friendly iPhone apps were established: colorful, interactive apps with great audio will win us over any time. By comparison, iStoryTime – The Brave Monkey Pirate ($2) from FrogDogMedia takes a different approach: it offers a hand-drawn, largely white-screened 22-page book with accompanying child or adult voice narration in English, allowing the user to simply hit a play button and watch the book go, or scroll through pages manually. While the Monkey Pirate story is charming, and the child narrator comes across as enthusiastic when reading it, the adult narrator seems less so, and unlike Wheels on the Bus, the artwork doesn’t make truly optimal use of the iPhone’s screen. For twice the price of Wheels, it feels like it does half as much except in story length. Extra polish on the art and audio would have made this better. iLounge Rating: B-.
Though there are tons of recipes and recipe applications available to iPhone users these days, Epicurious Recipes and Shopping List (Free) from CondeNet is a truly interesting new option. While it mightn’t have the sheer number of recipes found in apps such as BigOven, it includes a database of over 25,000 options—many with photos and initial narrative text that places them in context—and they’re substantially taken from Conde Nast magazines such as Bon Appetit, Cookie, Gourmet, Parade, and Self. The real killer features, however, are its sorting capabilities: in addition to a main menu with choices of both types of foods, drinks, and levels of chef skill, you can search separate food and drink databases using multiple, iconic and smart criteria.
The food database offering “main ingredient,” “meal/course,” “cuisine,” “dietary consideration,” “dish type,” and “season or occasion” filters, with the drink database filtered by “main alcohol ingredient,” “nonalcoholic main ingredient,” “cuisine,” “drink type,” and “season or occasion;” completely non-alcoholic beverages are included as well. A shopping list feature, which adds any recipe automatically to a list so that you can remember to grab its ingredients, is really smart in concept, though unfortunately dumb in execution, doing nothing more than making you scroll through the whole recipe as you’re walking around rather than just giving you to specific ingredients to purchase. But for that small issue and the presence of fairly intrusive ads—full-screeners that load between database accesses and after every cluster of recipes you’re scrolling through—this app would be universally recommendable to all foodies; it’s otherwise very impressive. iLounge Rating: B+.
If you’ve bought, sold, or shopped for a house over the last few years, you’re probably well aware of Zillow.com, a web site that uses recent selling price data and agent-posted photographs for various homes to help purchasers assess property values and neighborhood options. The new app Zillow (Free) from Zillow.com enables iPhone users to access this data, which was previously problematic at best when using the company’s web site through Mobile Safari; here, the app contains the tools to provide somewhat clunky access to Microsoft’s Virtual Earth maps and correspondingly selectable properties, plus individual property listings with more detailed data and sometimes photographs. While Zillow’s pricing estimates were historically known to be on the overly optimistic side—especially during the pre-housing crash days, they’re caveated with a more realistic price range that suggests how low the numbers might actually be. This is an interesting tool, particularly for real estate agents on the go, and though it could benefit from smoother and better maps, it does the trick for now. iLounge Rating: B.
Every week’s Weird and Small Apps column seems to bring at least a couple of “meh” options to the table, and there are two of them this week, starting with iKnow (Free) from InterScape. Designed as the equivalent of those carnival oracle machines with animated gypsies and crystal balls inside, iKnow consists of a screen that tells you to speak a question and push a button, plus movie clips of a talking fortune teller who provides a brief or nebulous answer. While the production values and animation in these clips are surprisingly good for a free app, the answers have little value, and the app’s lack of depth makes it little more than a gimmicky demo. It’s merely okay, and then only because of the price. iLounge Rating: C.
Last but not last is PixelContact ($1) from 08 Inc., an app developed in Japan, and of interest to a specific niche of users. Pixel artwork—primitive drawings made with a few colors of square dots—had its heyday in video games twenty to thirty years ago, with a resurgence in “retro” gaming titles roughly ten years ago. PixelContact lets you paste NES-quality character graphics into the photo blocks for your contacts, choosing from a variety of 50-some deliberately simple, three- or four-color icons to represent people. That’s it. While the concept of adding clip art to contacts is a good one, we’re not really impressed by the options available here; if you’re a real pixel art fan, the low asking price might tempt you more than it did us. iLounge Rating: C-.