Welcome to this week’s roundup of Weird and Small Apps. For this twelfth column, we have
thirteen fourteen different apps to show you today, starting with comic books to precede today’s release of the movie Star Trek, continuing with new restaurant and location apps, a few marginal mini-apps, and a couple of mini-games. Editor’s Note: We added app #14, a standalone Star Trek game, after initial publication of this roundup.
Our top picks are the impressive 3-D mapping, subway, and location finder UpNext 3D NYC, and the four Star Trek comics. The remaining apps are a real mix of decent to good picks with titles that really lacked in either the execution or concept departments. Read on for all the details.
While iVerse Media’s Star Trek Countdown ($1 each) series of digital comic books isn’t the first to be available in app form, nor is it even close to the first comic book series available for Apple’s pocket devices, it does raise an interesting set of questions: are $1 apps a smart way to distribute comics? Having been released as four separate comic books and an $18 paperback collection, Countdown’s four pieces collectively tell the story leading up to this week’s new Star Trek movie—basically, how an old Ambassador Spock and key crew from the Next Generation Enterprise were previously involved with Nero, the movie’s villain. Each app is comprised of multiple, well-drawn art panels that are cut from the comic books’ pages and notably cropped to provide readability, without offering a way to zoom in or out to see the whole of the original art; all you can do is flip in a linear fashion from panel to panel with your choice of three screen transition effects.
iVerse’s Star Trek comics differ markedly from the $2 Watchmen Motion Comics, which transformed the original 12 Watchmen comics into 25 or 30-minute videos with animated individual panels, a passive form of entertainment that used voiceovers and Flash-style movements to keep you watching. The advantage of the Countdown apps is that they’re easy to download to an iPhone or iPod touch and convey most of the comics’ content in an easy to read, user-paced format, but for those seeking the complete original panels, something visually enhanced like Watchmen, or comics that can also be viewed on a computer, these apps fall a little short of the ideal. For a buck each, though, they’re easier to buy than the comics, and harder to complain about. iLounge Rating: B+.
When we first downloaded Star Trek: The Mobile Game ($3) from Electronic Arts, we’d planned to give it a standalone review. As it turns out, however, this simple title definitely belongs in the Small Apps category: it’s a plain jane overhead shooter with just enough Star Trek content to avoid being dismissed as just another sloppy licensed game. You take command of the original Enterprise under the command of a young James Kirk, who along with his crew occasionally appears as an icon on screen with a line or two of text-only dialogue, overlapping levels that scroll ever-upwards as you’re attacked by enemy ships. Initial levels place you under Klingon fire, with Cardassian and Romulan stages thereafter, each possessing new ships and challenges.
While the Klingon stages are primarily focused on seeing the Enterprise destroy ships—a process aided by phasers that lock onto nearby targets and photon torpedos that shoot straight forwards—the Cardassian stages require more dodging of dangerous background objects, and the Romulan ones add floating proximity mines to the mix. In each case, you’re mostly just steering your ship around, blowing things up and collecting the health and weapon power-ups they drop; a system to upgrade your weapons, shields, and power-up-recovering tractor beam is the only thing that will keep you interested in performing well.
That’s because the game is sluggishly paced and repetitive. Most ships emerge in easily destroyed waves, unimpressive boss ships appear and then crumble under the might of your weapons, and from stage to stage, the levels look almost identical to one another. Animation is consistently mediocre, and the music is orchestral but dreary, repeating over and over underneath sound effects that do the same thing. Thus, while Star Trek: The Mobile Game’s core gameplay may be just what one might expect from an Enterprise-focused overhead shooter, there’s literally nothing exciting about this adventure—like too many App Store game releases, it’s hard to notice and easy to forget. iLounge Rating: B-.
The concept behind FoodMenus ($1) by Blue Sky Internet Ventures is fantastic: download an app, enter a local restaurant name, and get its menu details, address, and phone number instantly. As restaurant fans, and ones who often wonder about what’s available on a menu while we’re on the road, the idea of a central electronic database or reference point for local menus just makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, FoodMenus isn’t it. The developers have created an application that displays restaurant and star rating information taken from another service, grafting onto it a menu search feature that appears to be pulling similarly named restaurants’ menu results from the Internet. Search for a local New York place called Duff’s or Mother’s, as we did, and you’ll get the menu from different places in different states; search for another place like Bocce’s, and you’ll be confronted with a list of 10 possible menu pages, with either 0 or 1 of them actually for the right restaurant. While the app may work for chain restaurants, it’s obviously using searching tricks that make it more than unreliable for local ones, and we wouldn’t pick it up in its current state. iLounge Rating: C-.
Similarly somewhat off but considerably more expensive is ViaMichelin’s series of 2009 Michelin Guides, which vary in price from $7 to $19 based on the names and numbers of included countries contained within the app. We tested New York City – The Michelin Guide Restaurants ($7) and immediately encountered a stunning problem: there’s no way to search by restaurant name. Instead, Michelin gives you the ability to search “near an address” or “near here,” the latter using the iPhone’s GPS or location services, and the results returned range from useless to only semi-useful: we couldn’t find some places we’d liked in New York City, and for others, there was little more than a breezy paragraph with little real advice.
So how does this qualify as a small app? It’s under a Megabyte in size, and actually depends on an Internet connection for its listings, forcing travelers to be within Wi-Fi range or find cellular connections in order to receive information. While Michelin is excited to break with tradition and let users comment on individual establishments for the first time in its history, the app would have been a lot more useful if it stuck to the company’s strengths: contain a full, searchable book that let us look up restaurants by name. As-is, this pricey paid guide is less useful than free ones such as Urbanspoon and Yelp. iLounge Rating: C-.
We were seriously intrigued by UpNext 3D NYC ($3) from UpNext, an app that claims to be an “interactive 3D map to explore Manhattan,” letting you “fly and zoom through the city fluidly, in its full 3D glory, without network hiccups or download times.” While the 3-D maps are somewhat generically assembled in the case of most buildings, major landmarks—except for the Fifth Avenue Apple Store—are represented, alongside clearly marked subway routes, recently opened and longtime businesses in categories such as Dining, Nightlife, Shopping, and Recreation, and in some cases photos of the venues.
The venue list is searchable either by typing or touching buildings, and the individual businesses are complete with phone numbers, addresses, and reviews taken from other web sites including Yelp, TimeOut, and CitySearch. While we’d love to have even more freedom to explore within UpNext’s 3-D models, this interface is the future of mobile mapping; NY denizens or tourists will find the current version useful, but we really hope it sparks an international drive to create more detailed, iPhone-ready maps for other cities, as well. Should Google Maps on the iPhone ever look like this, the world would be a much better and easier place to navigate. iLounge Rating: A-.
The last of the food apps today is TipOut ($3) by Paul Blackwell, an interesting release that suffers from a less than ideal interface. TipOut’s purpose is to allow either a restaurant manager or wait staff to apportion tips between multiple employees based on the number of hours they worked, and the percentages they’re entitled to receive for their given jobs. One screen lets you enter the percentages for different types of servers, another lets you identify all the servers who are working, and another gives you a calendaring system with the ability to note how many hours and which people worked on given days, dividing the cash and credit tips that were generated between them. A button also lets you export results to PocketMoney or other iReceipt-compatible formats. While the application generally does what it’s supposed to do, initial setup is more difficult than it needs to be, as TipOut drops you into its empty pages without any explanation, expects you to set up all of the employees as Contacts on your device, and then uses a somewhat limited categorization system to assign percentage allocations. Some users—and you know who you are—will find the app’s features substantially useful for their restaurants, while others may need a little more hand-holding through the setup process or greater versatility in assigning either tips or positions. A little added polish would make this a better app overall. iLounge Rating: B-.
Of the three marginally useful mini-apps we look at today, inTouch Address Book ($3) by Inversity is in the middle of the pack in questionable value. This app does nothing more than tell you whether contacts on your list are “available” or not to be contacted, making certain automatic judgments based on their area codes and then allowing you to fine tune them with more specific time zone, opening or availability hours you input yourself. The results are displayed as green, yellow, or red balls on a modified version of your contacts list, and frankly, the automatic guesstimates aren’t very impressive. While a feature like this could conceivably be useful as an optional element of the iPhone’s current contacts system, we wouldn’t pay for it, let alone $3. iLounge Rating: D+.
Moments ($1) by Luga is arguably the most useful of these apps, but not by much. It exists as a flippant alternative calendar of sorts, letting you post very brief notes attached to timers that count upwards or downwards from the current calendar date. You get the choice of three different themes—sadly, all with the awful Marker Felt font—and the app keeps track of whatever events you may find to be noteworthy, telling you how many days have passed or are forthcoming. You can change the timers to just display the original date, or post notes without any calendar information. Like inTouch, Moments offers functionality that could and possibly should be included with the iPhone and tied into its existing calendaring structure; as a standalone $1 app, it’s easy enough to pick up if you think that the feature is of interest. More fonts and themes would make it better. iLounge Rating: B.
The last and least valuable of the marginal apps is Team Up ($1) by PokitLint which does nothing more than randomly assign a specified number of players to two teams—red or blue. You give it the number of players who need to be assigned, and then are supposed to “have each player touch the screen to recieve (sp) their team assignments.” Each touch starts with the screen flashing a color and a player number, while the speaker announces “red team” or “blue team.” Does the world really need an app for this? And for only two teams, no less? TeamUp is a poster child for the “why bother” software that is padding the App Store’s catalog; it’s easier to just call out words at random than spend the time to download and run this app. iLounge Rating: D-.
Of the small games we review today, Perfect Balance Harmony ($1) by Ttursas is the most interesting. We’ve looked at balancing games such as Topple and Topple 2 before, and marveled at their impressive production values and cartoony themes, but Perfect Balance Harmony takes a different approach: you get 80 different stages with multiple blocks at the top of the screen and one or more pegs at the bottom of the screen, and you need to get all of the blocks from the top to balance in the gravity zone at the bottom without falling over. There’s nothing comical or upbeat here, nor a need to worry about the iPhone accelerometer collapsing your structures; instead, the challenges are complete with soft, zen-like synthesizer music that’s designed to be relaxing, and you do nothing more than swipe the blocks into place and rotate them around until they’re in stable positions on the bottom pegs, with more than one acceptable solution per stage. Though it’s not quite as polished as the Topple titles, we genuinely liked this title for the price; it’s worth seeing if you’re a fan of relaxing block-based puzzlers. iLounge Rating: B.
Slippy Feet ($3) by Studio Lidell is a shallow, semi-cute game that feels a step or two better than the typical technology demo. You control a penguin who has to collect falling snowflakes by moving left and right on iceberg platforms, occasionally jumping to get more than one snowflake at a time; you tilt the device to move left or right, and swipe the screen to jump. That’s it: if you don’t have enough snowflakes before the timer runs out, you lose, but if you do, you move on to the next of the 12 levels. Other than the timer, the only peril is falling off of the large platforms, which will happen if you slide too much to the left or the right. While the game is as cute as any game with a penguin character must be, there’s no music and the gameplay isn’t all that fun—it’s like playing the least enjoyable, slippery ice levels in old Super Mario games without any of the enemies or the payoff for completion. For the price, it’s way too simple. iLounge Rating: C.
Hundreds of additional iPhone app and game reviews are available here.