Welcome to the ninth edition of our weekly Weird and Small Apps roundup, which looks at a collection of mini-apps that range from games to tools to time-wasters. This week’s 13-app edition is an interesting one, in that it includes quite a few titles that are actually compelling despite their limited scope—only one app in this particular collection qualifies as somewhat “weird.”
Our top picks of this week are Postcards, Cosmic Nitro, and FML, but there are a few others, including some clock applications and Flower Garden, that are also worth seeing. Read on for all the details.
Every once in a while, a developer comes up with a truly great idea that has all the potential in the world to be successful—so successful that it would be easy to imagine Apple incorporating the same thing into one of its own programs. Case in point: direct from iPhone postcard making, using the device’s camera, as well as the same printing and mailing services currently accessible via iPhoto. Take a picture wherever you may be in the world, send it electronically to a server with address information and a note, and voila, your postcard arrives at your chosen destination back home. For those who still prefer real postcards to e-cards, it’s a great idea.
Last week, we started to test two different iPhone postcard apps, CardPuppy ($2) by Wildcat Mobile and Postcards (Free) by Stolen Bases/WYWH. Both apps let you take any iPhone photo, camera shot or synchronized from iTunes, transform it into one side of a postcard, and then add address and note details to the other side of the card for mailing. CardPuppy comes with a credit good for one postcard, selling additional credits via an in-app PayPal/credit card system for $2.50-$3 based on quantity, while Postcards gives you two cards for free and then uses an in-app charging system to let you pay $1.30-$1.60 for additional cards, with a minimum quantity of five postcards for $8. Our suspicion is that these prices may go up when Apple introduces In-App Purchasing and its corresponding 30% surcharge with iPhone OS 3.0; if they do, we may revisit our ratings.
While neither of these apps produces ideal results, there was no doubt in our minds that Postcards and its WYWH.net service did a better overall job. Though it rendered our photograph smaller, which we didn’t like, Postcards used a glossy laminate that kept the photo on our sample card intact during mailing, and the text portion of the card emerged completely legible, as well as wisely laid out. CardPuppy used a smaller, apparently non-laminated card with a larger and initially nicer-looking version of our photograph—taken with a DSLR, both were perhaps B or B- quality in printed color and contrast—but our CardPuppy card took two days longer to arrive, had one corner of its ink smeared, and our text was overlapped by a large postmark due to the way the card was laid out and stamped. Notably, card delivery time will vary based on your proximity to the services—Stolen Bases/WYWH ships from New Jersey, CardPuppy from California—as well as the delay from your order date to day of shipment, and there was a lag of several days between when our CardPuppy order was placed and when it was mailed. The fact that Postcards is free and charges less for its cards is all the more reason to prefer it; in an ideal world, Stolen Bases/WYWH would print larger and even cleaner photos, and offer one-off card pricing, making its offering even better. iLounge Rating (Postcards): B+. iLounge Rating (CardPuppy): C.
Having reviewed a cross-section of different clock applications back in November of last year, when there were already around 50 options available, we haven’t felt the need to re-examine the category in depth since then. Today, we’re looking at two more such clock apps, neither revolutionary, but each with something that might appeal to certain users. NightTime Plus ($1) by Chilli X is an improved sequel to an early, simple app that filled the screen with oversized time digits that were designed to be easy to read from a distance. This time, the art’s a bit better—complete with faux dimmed LED surfaces, your choice of several textures, and a light color selector—there’s a day-of-week indicator at the bottom, and there’s a chiming alarm with a snooze timer, capable of being deactivated with a shake, a large on-screen button, or supposedly a shout, the latter of which we couldn’t get to work on even the iPhone. You can turn the iPhone or iPod touch on its side for an alternate version of the screen, as well. Simple, clean, and functional, this clock’s only other issues are interface-related; sometimes figuring out how to access the various settings is a little less than intuitive. We’d love a version with a greater variety of font choices. iLounge Rating: B.
By comparison, there’s nothing clean or understated about Bikini Times Clock ($1) and its Lite version (Free) by GoldenPlum. Bikini Times takes a different approach, filling the vertical-orientation screen with an image of a bikini-clad model, then placing the clock and calendar date at the bottom. While we’re not going to editorialize on the content of the licensed, professional photography, we will say that Goldenplum’s general concept here is a good one: you get to choose the art (two backgrounds in Lite, ten otherwise), one of five clock fonts, one of six clock colors, time and date formats, one of three dimmer settings, and settings for a single alarm with an adjustable snooze timer, five sounds, and a vibration feature. While the interface isn’t as polished as it could be—the fonts, calendar details, and so on could all stand to be better—the general idea here, combined with the ease and number of changing settings, is a good one. Both versions are worthy of our general recommendation; you can decide for yourself whether the theme of the photos matches your needs. iLounge Rating: B.
Two of this week’s mini-games are decidedly more ambitious than the rest, though they’re both based on game concepts developed by other companies years ago. Galcon.com’s original strategy game Galcon remains one of the coolest mini-strategy games for the iPhone, and now the company has released Cosmic Nitro ($1), an update to Atari’s Missile Command. There’s still a city at the bottom of the screen and a collection of things falling from the top of the screen downwards; you still need to tap them to stop them from hitting the city. However, the art has received dramatic upgrades in diversity: the falling objects now range from comets to asteroids to black holes and UFOs, each with different speed, movement, and post-tap reactions, such that a tap may release a fast-moving bomb or two toxic clouds that need to be dealt with. Every themed level has its own collection of challenges to deal with, as well, and the intensity is intentionally ratcheted up on occasion to force you to use a screen-clearing offensive shield, activated by an upwards swipe. Derivative though it may be, and slightly less impressive in art detail than Atari’s official Missile Command for iPhone, this is a nice, cheap little game that will keep your fingers moving. iLounge Rating: B+.
Even more derivative and a little less impressively executed is Tap of the Dead ($2) by Try This Networks, a clone of Sega’s Typing of the Dead series. Understanding Tap of the Dead requires a little background: Sega created a light gun-based zombie-shooting game called House of the Dead, and later created a keyboard-based version where typing words could kill the oncoming zombies. Tap of the Dead is the sort of ugly but “close enough” clone that appears when a company like Sega is too slow to enter the App Store and Apple isn’t policing the clones: here, you’re given four icons in the corners of the screen, and as poorly drawn and animated 3-D zombies appear against flat backdrops, you have to quickly tap the icons to shoot them. Each zombie requires an initial sequence of shots before a final set of icons appear and let you finish them off.
While this title is sonically and visually unimpressive, and the levels are extremely short, there are over 45 of them, and the action’s not bad at all. With better aesthetics, this title could easily be Sega-quality; make of that what you will. iLounge Rating: B-.
Three additional titles are worthy of brief mention, as well. Global Net Value depressed us a couple of weeks ago with a few markedly unimpressive titles, and though its newest one ClashPuzzle ($2) isn’t great, it’s a step in the right direction. Here, the idea is that you start with a plain shape—initially a four-block cube—and are shown a different shape, plus a 2-D room with jagged walls. You need to strategically smash the shape you start with against the walls to transform your blocks into the shape at the center of the screen, then swipe the blocks on top of the shape to finish the level. It’s a simple concept, and neither the visual nor the sonic execution is really great, but the puzzles are actually sort of fun, and become more complex and interesting as you keep playing. GNV needs to step up a bunch in terms of polish, but this title comes as close to being worth a try as we’ve yet seen from the company. iLounge Rating: B-.
It’s hard sometimes to understand the reasons behind certain game releases, and Flip Cup ($1) by GameResort is one of them. This talented developer, maker of Biplane and Downhill Bowling, has stepped away from its previously ambitious designs and come up with what is essentially a tropically themed physics demo—a bar game where you have to use swipe gestures to flip five cups from an upright position, landing them either upright or upside down on a table. You get some points for a successful upside down landing, more points for a rightside up landing, and even more points if you achieve a landing after tagging the roof above the table or a coin that floats near the roof above the cups. The graphics are colorful but plain, the music is surprisingly nice—a Hawaiian-styled track—and the gameplay is quickly forgettable, with the only noteworthy change coming in the unexpected swapping of cups for other objects as the game goes on. It’s worthy of a buck if the theme interests you, but otherwise, you’ll find your dollar better spent on the company’s other, now discounted titles. iLounge Rating: B-.
Finally, there’s My Little Eye ($2) from Heads Up Software, which is like the photo comparison games we previously reviewed, only less compelling. Here, you’re given a series of high-resolution, scrollable and zoomable photographs, plus lists of multiple items that need to be located in each, like Where’s Waldo but without anything quite so interesting. In one, you see the lower portion of the Eiffel Tower and need to locate things such as a red car, water from a sprinkler, and a white triangle. Double tap on something when you see it and it gets checked off your list. An app like this may eventually interest some users, but with a boring interface, boring objectives, and photos that aren’t exactly professional in quality, this title has little more appeal than being handed a shopping list and needing to find items on a web site. It’s not worth paying for. iLounge Rating: C-.
The last three apps in today’s collection have nothing in common with one another, but they all caught our attention for various reasons. First is FML (Free) by Enormego, an app interface for the frequently funny personal disaster micro-blogging web site Fmylife.com, in which users can come and post brief tales of woe for other users to read and comment on. As an app, FML is interesting in that it found a way into the App Store—and its top 10 free apps list—despite the content of the originating web site, which contains rough language, plenty of “F***” references, and even a topic header that is decidedly not family-friendly. FML accomplishes this by sticking with the six safe categories, “love, money, kids, work, health, and miscellaneous,” and omitting “sex,” but otherwise leaves the site’s content and comments to be read, using a better organizational interface than the web site’s own iPhone-formatted page iPhone.fmylife.com: you can click on tabs to see the best and worst entries of the past day, week, month, or entire site, and cut to recent entries. All that’s missing otherwise is the ability to comment. This is a nice little app for a funny website. iLounge Rating: B+.
Out of all the titles in today’s collection, there’s no doubt that Flower Garden ($3) by Snappy Touch is the only rival Cosmic Nitro has in terms of obvious time and talent that went into its development. In an effort to mimic the success of Koi Pond, Snappy Touch has come up with a sedate, simple concept that will appeal to some people: you can assemble a garden from a collection of potted flowers, starting with three types of seeds and unlocking more as you succeed in growing them, then cut the flowers individually to turn into bouquets. Your only responsibilities are choosing seeds and watering the pots, and once you’ve cut the flowers, you can mail them as pre-rendered bouquet photos to e-mail recipients. Outdoorsy animal and insect noises play as you water and rotate your pots, switching between up to 12 at a time.
Our feelings about Flower Garden are somewhat mixed, as the app’s actual interest level—even to a gardener—is about as appealing as sitting and watching flowers grow, since the only interaction you really have with the title is repeatedly watering the flowers in stages to bring them to bloom. There’s a watering button, which you press down, and a gauge that shows you the safe watering limit for each type of flower: some can go endlessly without additional water, others require watering every eight or so real-time hours, and many can be over-watered to the point of losing strength. If a plant is left to go dry, it takes a bunch of watering and coming back to the application hours later before it can be recovered, if at all, and some of the flowers literally take multiple real days to blossom. Setting the iPhone’s time and date ahead can speed up the process, which is frankly necessary to unlock more than the most basic types of seeds; repeatedly returning to the application on time to avoid letting your plants die is also critical.
While the flower-growing process isn’t fun, the e-mailed cards turn out well, and the 3-D representations of flowers are pretty cool, too. If there was a more compelling underlying gameplay mechanic here, and a more reasonable approach to letting different users choose their own preferred methods for passing the time—mini-games, perhaps?—Flower Garden would be more appealing, but as-is, it needs a little work. On the fine edge of our B- and B ratings, it scores the higher B based on the quality of its rotatable 3-D flower art, and the nice 2-D e-mailed bouquets it generates and sends without requiring a lot of user input. iLounge Rating: B.
The last title of the day, and definitely the weirdest, is Appy Newz ($2) from Appy Entertainment. It’s an inspired idea: use a pre-generated template to create a fake magazine cover, complete with tabloid-style text and ridiculous graphics, both at least somewhat customizable. You provide the text for the magazine’s title, a starburst badge, and a headline, then can choose a background, an object, and a person to include in the image. Once it’s done, you can save the cover, e-mail it as an 800×533 image, or go back and edit it some more. While the included artwork is in many cases downright bizarre—from the weird dancing people to the knives, nuclear explosions, and toy robots, it’s seriously so crazy that we wouldn’t want to use most of it for anything—the concept here is a good one, and would be improved with better art and an eraser tool to let user-created art layers work better together.* Worth $2? Not really, but with better content, perhaps. iLounge Rating: B-.
[Editor’s Note (*): This sentence was updated post-review for specificity.]