In honour of Rowntree's Randoms, which I'm currently struggling to overcome a soul-crushing love for, we've ditched themes for this instalment of the iPhone Roundup, in favour of a selection of games that capture the almost frightening range of the App Store. Be warned: there are some obscure genres like flying, shooting and sports in the five titles that follow, but I've also thrown in some more traditional offerings, like finger-powered heretic-smiting and at least one good ol' needle-threading sim.
Ace Combat Xi: Skies of Incursion
- Developer: Namco Bandai Games
- Price: £3.99
Have you a grappling hook? And night-vision goggles? I've got a Taser (do not ask me why) and glass-cutters, and I thought we could team up. I'm thinking of paying a midnight visit to Namco Bandai, in order to see just what exactly was left on the whiteboard when the Ace Combat crew selected "Skies of Incursion" as the best of all possible subtitles for the latest episode of its jet-fighter saga.
It's no use wondering what they were thinking, probably, just as it's no use pointing out that, if the good lord had wanted us to steer planes with smart phones, He would have stuck a "Chocks Away!" button somewhere in the voicemail settings. Don't question it, just play: and in Skies of Incursion's case, you'll probably end up having a pretty good time until the short campaign is over.
Skies of Incursion is pretty but rather brief, then. The opening cinematic and the sharp in-game presentation make it clear that someone spent quite a bit of money on this: the handful of plane models are beautifully animated, while the ground zipping past somewhere beneath you is detailed and quite pretty.
The game's handful of missions are over almost before they've started, however - the game originally launched with just five, and I think the latest patch has upped it to eight - and you're left with the option to replay the game on a higher difficulty or wait for another content update.
Brevity is hardly a sin with iPhone games - after all, I'm about to get all misty about an NBA title that gives you four basketballs, a single hoop and a high-score table - but Skies of Incursion's presentation and sense of brooding grandeur tricks you into thinking you're going to be getting more.
That said, it's no disaster. There's a handful of different planes to unlock, two different camera views - in-cockpit and chase - and the controls, a mixture of tilting for steering and on-screen buttons for weapons, work better than you might suspect, although while you're getting used to them you could spend quite a bit of time plummeting towards the ground, all the while unseen bogeys whittle away at your undercarriage with all manner of delightful rockets and machinegun bullets. At least it will pad things out a bit.
There's a sense, ultimately, that this is a work in progress: hold off for a few months, and chances are good there may well be quite a bit more game to enjoy on your first playthrough. If you're desperate for a jet-fighting sim today, however, be aware that this is slick but rather empty at present.
- Developer: MrFungFung
- Price: £1.79
Here's a little-known fact about Mozart: he composed some of the music for Mini Squadron on the iPhone. It was nice work, too: pacy, melodic. I don't know why it was left out of Amadeus.
Tak Fung's arcadey shooter turns to the - copyright free - classics for its soundtrack, mostly after putting them through some kind of Clockwork Orange-themed plinky-plonkifier, and it's a refined score for a refined game. Screenshots may have suggested you were buying into a traditional sidescrolling shmup, but Mini Squadron's actually a fast-paced arena blast in which you take on wave after wave of enemy planes while zipping about tightly-bound maps with some lovely cartoon backdrops.
Art is a real strong point, actually, and much of the long-term pleasure comes from unlocking a generous range of new plane designs. Sure, they all come with slightly different handling models, but more importantly they have nutty paintjobs and some even boast funny propellers too. The various aircraft are so pleasing to fiddle around with, I almost always find myself focusing on how the planes look rather than how they fly when I'm making my selection.
And yet Mini Squadron's far more than merely pretty: sneaky stall mechanics add an element of trickery to master once you've got to grips with the otherwise straightforward screen-overlay controls, and the enemies, even in the early stages, are every bit as manoeuvrable as you are. A range of handy power-ups and modes - including local Wi-Fi multiplayer - add depth to the endless attacks of the buzzing baddies, and while variation isn't the game's strongest suit, MrFungFung's debut can still exert a real hypnotism.
It's a simple game, then, but an extremely polished and engaging one. That said, I would like everyone who downloads it to send a quick email to MrFungFung petitioning for the removal of sections in which you have to shoot ducks. Ducks are our friends.
- Developer: Freeverse
- Price: 59p
These are the rules of basketball: you buy a team scarf, a large foam hand, and a mug full of frozen margarita that has little fairy-lights trapped inside the plastic, and then you sit back while some very tall millionaires put a rubber ball through some metal rings. It's way better than it sounds.
NBA Hotshot simplifies things somewhat. Like NaturalMotion's excellent Backbreaker Football, Freeverse's game cuts out most of the things normal people don't understand about potentially awesome American sports, and focuses in on a single, defining action. For Backbreaker, that was hugging men in strange trousers; for Hotshot, it's the reliable pleasure of shooting at the hoop.
Controls are smart and as precise as they need to be - a flick of the finger and you've either hit the target or missed it - while a range of very simple complicating factors, like flashing balls which score you more points if sunk, along with Three Strike mode and multiplayer options, pad things out somewhat. Most of the time, however, NBA Hotshot is enjoyably basic: a game to be played for a minute at the bus stop or while you wait for your lawyer to fetch you from the holding cells.
And while, mechanically, it may not be very different from offerings like Backflip Studios' Paper Toss (not bad in itself) the branding alone elevates it. There's something undeniably pleasing about basketballs - except when they hit you in the nose - and while there isn't much to Hotshot, you'll lose more time to it than you might expect.
- Developer: BULKYPIX
- Price: 59p
Babel Rising proves that the only real difference between games and organised religion is that games generally make their deities plod through a tutorial before the smiting begins. "God, to play your first game I would like you to learn how to use your new powers," suggests Bulkypix' first prompt, popping onto the screen accompanied by the kind of bombastic, quasi-tribal opera music William Shatner probably insists on playing whenever he makes love to a nice lady.
Babel Rising is, as far as I'm aware, gaming's first Breugel-'em-up. Heretics build a tower, and it's up to you - you know, as God - to strike them into dust before they reach you. To help you out you have a range of different attacks, all gestural, to keep the infidels in their place.
Your powers are tiered, ranging from the basics, like God's Finger and Lightning, through Tsunamis and wind attacks, all the way up to Earthquake. The more powerful the attack, the longer it will take to recharge, so most of the game comes down to tailoring your strategies as the enemy climbs ever closer.
Babel Rising may open the door for many satisfying exegetical discussions - if you're God, who wrote the tutorials, eh? - but as a mere game it's slightly imbalanced. Early on, you'll discover that it's all too easy to rely on God's Finger (I'll admit: typing that sentence is a first for me) while Earthquake is too sleepy on the recharging to ever be truly useful.
More damningly, however, Babel Rising needs to be more fun on a basic level if it's going to be this simplistic. Ironically for a game about building towers, the idea just doesn't scale very well, and after you've played it through once or twice you'll have seen just about all you need. On the second day, this particular god deleted it.
Despite its shortcomings though, there's a strange kind of charm in the very concept of Babel Rising. The infidels may be building a tower, but Bulkypix has built a folly - and while I'm glad I don't have to play it any more, I'm at least a little bit happy that it exists.
- Developer: Spicysoft
- Price: Free
I can be quick with this one. Itotooshi is a needle-threading simulator. That's right.
In Spicysoft's blockbuster, you control one end of a constantly unspooling thread, while slotting it through the eyes of a series of needles that appear before you at differing heights. Miss a needle and the thread explodes and you die. The whole thing's practically a documentary.
Itotooshi is an odd little game: its controls are rather sluggish, the interface is truly horrible, the general experience is comically unrewarding, and I absolutely dare you not to enjoy it all the same.