Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Azkend. ($2.99, version 1.10)

iTunes Link.

I held off buying Azkend when it first came out because it was a $3 game. $1 games are impulse buys. I've been burned too many times with $3+ games to keep blindly buying them. I then saw on a forum that there was a free online (or it could have been a downloadable) version, and I tried it out. Big mistake. Played it for 30 seconds, closed it out, and bought Azkend immediately. It is that good.

The best part of Azkend is the controls. It's a match 3+ game, but you swipe your finger over like tiles to create a chain and then release your finger to break the tiles. It is oddly satisfying, and one of the best match-3 control schemes I have ever tried (and I've tried a lot of them).

When you first start up the app you get a bit of back story. You found a relic in far Asia and took it back home. As relics tend to do, it brought a curse over your head, which you now wish to get rid of. You are retracing your steps to put the relic back. I find a backstory is always welcomed because it keeps pushing you until the end to see how it all works out.

Right at the beginning you get to select whether you want sounds or not. I don't particularly like this because you have to restart the app to change your choice. This is the first app that does this and I'm curious as to why they chose to handle it this way.

The gameplay is deeper than most match-# games. First you match 3+ tiles to turn their spot blue. Sometimes they're filled with obstacles and you have to turn tiles around them or on them to first break them free, THEN you can turn their spot to blue by matching the item on that tile again. Once you turn the whole board blue, you then get either a talisman piece or a gem at the top of the board and you clear tiles below them to get them to touch the bottom of the screen. The obstacles include steel, ice, and tar. You have to match objects on a tile twice to break through steel, you have to turn tiles around a tile to break through ice, and you have to turn tiles around tar to make it disappear. Take too much time with the tar and it infects adjoining tiles. You also get wildcards that can take the place of any other tile. Sometimes part of the board are locked out and you have to turn tiles around them to unlock them. Sometimes there's holes that make matching more difficult. If you wait a few seconds without making a move, there's two ways the game helps you. It points out possible tiles to match and sometimes it shows you what tiles you have left to turn. It would be nice to be able to turn these suggestions on or off.

From the main menu you can select Play, Instructions, and Options. Instructions cover just the basics (Talismans are not covered here), but at least are nicely illustrated. There's just a couple of options: To turn the music on or off, and the sound effects on or off. There's also some credits information under options, and the version number. Once you press play you have two modes to try out: Adventure and Survival. Adventure mode has a total of 70 levels. It will take approximately two and a half hours of game time to complete, given you don't fail any levels the first time around. Survival it just what it sounds like: Keep going at it until the timer runs out. As you progress the timer resets back about 10 clock minutes (out of 60).

If you have a game in progress you can continue it or start a new game. If you were in the middle of a stage and you either exited out to the iDevice's springboard or selected Save & Exit to go back to the game menu, your progress in the current stage is saved, which is really nice. The "world map" shows how many stages you've done, how many stages you have left, how many stages you have gold-starred (completed the stage in a certain amount of time or less), Achievements, Talismans, Play the current level, or Save & Exit.

The Achievements page is pretty detailed. It shows how many Achievements (out of seven) you have obtained, how many tiles matched, total time played, total levels completed, Talismans activated (power-ups used), Expert Levels Rank (out of 100%), and longest chain. Clicking on each Achievement shows a mini-description. They include:

- Completing 40 levels with expert rank
- Strung together 24 or more tiles
- Played over 5 hours
- Unleashed the power of Talismans over 200 times
- Summoned 9 or more lightning bolts with one move
- Strung together 12 or more tiles
- Played 20 levels

The last four are relatively easy to get, while the first three will take some time.

Talismans are special tiles. Match 4 or more to activate them. They include:

- Explode tiles around it (more tiles matched, bigger explosion)
- Shoots a destroying (i.e. tile turning) ray of light from the last selected item
- Gives you a lightning rune (more on this later)
- Calls a falling star to help you turn tiles
- Summon a destroying hammer
- Lightning arcs zaps multiple random items on board
- Destroys all items underneath the activated item (my favorite, as if you get this at the top of the board it really helps your progress)
- Destroys all extinction tiles on board

At the game screen you have your game progress to the lower left, the timer to the lower right, and your lightning meter at the bottom center of the screen. Tapping on any of them brings up the in-game menu, which includes the option to go back to the game, access to the paltry options menu, access to the instructions page, and the option to save and exit back to the main screen.

Every time you match at least one-non-blue tile, you get a lightning bolt added to your lightning meter. Once you get five, you get some lightning strikes that turn tiles.

As far as sounds, there are clicking noise when you select menu items. There's also different sound effects during the game, depending on whether you are matching tiles, using a Talisman, or obtaining a gem piece. There some Indiana Jones-esque music. I found (through using an iPod Touch 2G's speakers) that in order to be able to hear the music properly I had to turn the volume all the way up, but then the sound effects were too loud. It would be great to have different sliders for the music and sound effects.

The biggest complaint I have with the game is that you cannot replay a specific stage. I would love to be able to go back to any stage I already complete in the Adventure game and re-do it over and over again until I get gold. You can only go once through each stage as you go through the game. Hopefully this gets added to a future version of the game!

You cannot go wrong with this $3 game. You can spend an easy three hours on this on the first go-around and then go back to it for more. I can see myself replaying the main adventure mode two or three times, and that's 4-7 hours right there It would extend the replayability if you could re-do individual stages. The Survival mode lets you jump right in to the main gameplay. Highly recommended, as it has polished graphics, satisfying controls, inventive gameplay, nice music, and different modes to keep you occupied for hours on end.

Monday, April 27, 2009

AliceX. ($1.99, version 1.0)

I had a hard time coming up with this review because this is one game I did not personally enjoy.  Enjoying a game is so subjective that a game I don't like might become your most favorite game in the whole world.  The reason that I did not enjoy this game is because the gameplay was totally different from what l was expecting, so I hope that by writing this review you will know what the game is about and will get exactly what you expect if and when you buy it.

This is a port of the first game ever developed for the Mac.  Having never owned a Mac (until now, three weeks or so after getting this game) I had never experienced this game before.  It was made by Steve Capps, who went on to do a lot of projects for the Mac, including writing the Mac Finder (which allows you to find pretty much anything stored on your Mac).  So this is not a new developer but someone who has years of experience and expertise in the business.

When I first heard about the game my excitement ran sky-high because I read it mixed Alice in Wonderland and chess.  I love chess, and have been playing it for about 26 years.  I'm not a chess purist and love variations of it, my favorite being Crazyhouse.  There's other games in the app store that have mixed chess and other game genres and created games I love.  And l love the story of Alice in Wonderland.

I didn't connect with the game because instead of starting with chess and creating a game out of that, this is a quick-reflex game that incorporates chess rules.  So it's not chess with something else added to it, it's something else with chess added to it, which makes a huge difference.

When you first start the game you get a nice splash screen which disappears after a couple of seconds.  Then the rules to the game start auto-scrolling on the screen.  You can swipe up or down to stop the auto-scrolling and go back and forth through the rules.  The rules are very detailed and include graphical explanations and also explain how chess pieces move.  A quick screen tap or reaching the end of the rules takes you to a difficulty-selection screen which provides four difficulty levels.  Once you select the difficulty level, you are thrown into the game.

The game screen is simple and uncluttered.  On the top you have your score and on the right the current level.  There's no level-selection screen.  It would be great if you could re-visit earlier levels.  You can touch anywhere near the top to bring up the in-game menu.  In here you can turn the music and/or special effects on or off, change the theme, start a new game (in the same level), or go back to the rules by selecting About.  The majority of the screen is occupied by the chessboard.  You are on one side and the regular set of chess pieces on the other.  The goal is to capture those pieces and earn points, and letting some of those pieces queen (letting the pawns get to your bottom row and turn into queens) so that you can reach 750 points.  Be captured and you lose points (but it is possible to pass even if you are captured a couple of times; be captured too much and you won't reach the goal of 750).  You lose 27 points each time you are captured.  If you are captured the game pauses and you get to move first.  As soon as you make the first move in the game or after being captured, you and the opponent can move as you please without having to wait for the other player to move.  You move by selecting which square you want to move to.  Each time you play as a new piece, you get a highlight of where you can move to help you out.  Then you are on your own after that level.  There are a total of 96 levels and a challenge to get a perfect score of 999 in each one of them.

The game has a few visual themes, including red opponents against Alice (the characters seem to resemble characters from the story), politicians including Bush, Cheney, and Rice look-alikes while you are in a suit (which obviously wasn't part of the original Mac game), regular-looking chess pieces against Alice, and what looks like a singer, his posse, and his woman against a dressed-down you.  You can't directly choose the theme, you can only cycle through them.

Back to the main gameplay.  This game is all about moving fast and having quick reflexes.  In order to avoid being captured you're going to have to constantly be tapping on squares to move out of the way.  lf you just frantically move from square to square you will be able to escape 99% of attacks.  There's a moving trapdoor that doesn't take points away from you but pauses the game until you make a move.  Pieces can also fall through the trapdoor, which takes away from potential points.  This game is mostly a quick-moving, quick-reflexes game.  If you like this type of gameplay, this game will be perfect for you.

The music changes depending on the theme.  Sound effects are minimal - Alice "Ouches" when captured and there's a pinging noise when capturing other pieces.  

When you start the game you can move as a queen, which means you can move in any direction any number of squares.  Next is the rook.  Now you cannot move diagonally anymore.  As you progress through the levels your movements get more and more restricted and hence the game becomes harder.

The game seems to be a straight port with dated graphics but it doesn't deter from the gameplay.  It would be great to have the ability to change to a specific theme without having to cycle through all of them and it would also be great to be able to select the level or at least any level previously unlocked.  Ideas for further gameplay modes could include options to do single-board games as the piece of your choice.  If you go into the game with the mindset that this is a quick-reflex game with some movement restrictions based on the game of chess, you will get exactly what you bargained for.  If you go in expecting a chess game with some varied gameplay thrown in, you might end up disappointed.  $2 is a bargain price for a Mac port, and highly recommended if you are a fan of quick-moving games (and specially if you have played and enjoyed this game before).

Amoebas. ($0.99, version 1.0)

iTunes Link.

Amoebas is a color-matching game. Two things make it unique - its different shapes and a rotating screen. lf you end up buying this game and it doesn't grab you right away, give it a couple of days. When l first started playing it I didn't really get the game and wasn't enjoying it very much, but by the third sitting something clicked and now it's a very solid 5-minute game that has survived a few iDevice purgings.

When you first start the game you get a colorful screen with a few options. You can start a new game, resume a saved game, view the high scores, view very detailed instructions with game screenshots, change some settings, and submit your highest score to the online scoreboard. This last option lets you enter your name, country you're from, and a comment. Settings include turning sound on or off and turning the accelerometer on or off. The touch controls work whether you have the accelerometer on or not. There are four different sensitivity options if you want to turn it on.

The main game board resembles a beehive. You have two pentagons sharing an open side, forming kind of an hourglass shape. You have pieces that consist of little balls, from one ball up to three balls (but the balls can be stretched out and take the space of five balls). The balls are arranged into different shapes and sizes.  In order to make the amoebas disappear, you have to match at least seven of the same color. You drop them into each of the pentagons and they stick to the three sides of the wall that look like they have glue stuck to them. You lose when an amoeba reaches a cutoff line on each of the pentagons, which is about 30% from the edge to the center. Each pentagon has a grid of circles that help you figure out how an amoeba will end up. lf you shoot an amoeba into a non-sticky wall, it just bounces onto a sticky wall.

The screen includes an X that takes you directly back to the main menu, your current score, your high score, a button to shoot off the amoeba from the center into the pentagons, a button to flip the board 180 degrees, a button to rotate the amoeba (it only goes left), and buttons to rotate the board left or right. There's a sight line that helps you figure out where an amoeba will land. The accelerometer only controls the rotation of the board. You can also rotate the board by touching the screen with your finger and swiping left or right to rotate. This works pretty much anywhere on the screen that doesn't have other icons. Something very nice is that when you lose, it asks you whether you want to start a new game right away, so there's barely any down time.

If you don't shoot off the amoeba into the pentagons the game will do it for you eventually. It gives you a generous amount of time at the beginning which gets shorter and shorter as the game goes on. I really only have two main suggestions to improve the game. One of them is to change the way the pause works. Instead of going back to the main menu I would prefer if there was a pop-up that allowed you to return to the game or go back to the main menu. The other suggestion is to have a timer somewhere on the screen that would give you an idea of how much more time you have left before the amoeba auto-shoots. It could be in the shape of an hourglass or a bar or just numbers counting down. A little nitpick is to maybe add an arrow that rotates the amoeba to the right also.

The real challenge lies in knowing how to squeeze the amoebas close together so that you don't run out of room. The single-celled amoebas are specially a challenge because it's hard to stack seven of each different color and still have room for the bigger amoebas. Something really nice is that if you have amoebas on top of other amoebas, getting rid of the amoebas closest to the wall will make the amoebas on top of those disappear also, as long as those are not touching a wall in any way. A good strategy is to try to place as many single-celled amoebas on top of larger ones so that you can get rid of them when you match seven of the other.

Sounds are minimal but pleasing. Menu items make a metallic noise when selected and the amoebas make satisfying squishing noises when being shot (more so when making a match).

As a dollar game, this is a bargain. It has inventive and colorful graphics and gameplay that is a bit different than your regular run-of-the-mill match three, and having to match seven makes it a bigger challenge. There are no glaring flaws and it takes a familiar concept and adds a few twists that refreshes the gameplay. And who doesn't like amoebas? Definitely recommended.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Chocolatier. ($4.99, version 1.0)

iTunes Link.

This is an incredibly deep time management/simulation game. The goal is simple: To sell chocolate and make tons of money. There's a backstory of restoring to fame a chocolatier family's name, which is always welcomed and may give people the extra push to finish a game.

When you start up, you can begin or continue the story mode, go into the Free Play Mode (must have a story mode game started before being able to go into Free Play mode), change options around, get help, view high scores, or change player. When you go to change player, you can add another player, change the player's name, or delete a player profile. You can have up to three players at a time. High scores have the player's name and rank, how much money they have made, and in how long they have made it. It includes boards for free play and story mode, and story mode also breaks earnings down into how much per week. Deleted players stay in the scoreboards.

Help includes 10 very detailed illustrated pages on how the game works. Options include sound effects volume, ambient sound volume, music volume, a mute audio option, and game credits.

When you first start story mode, you get the backstory and also get walked through the game as you encounter for the first time each of the game's pieces.

The music is upbeat and pleasant. There's tapping noises as you select items in the screen. There's some little machine noises as you make the chocolate. Sound effects are minimal but serve the game well and blend into the background.

Think it's easy selling chocolate? Think again! There are many steps to selling chocolate, and you will go through all of them in this game.

You need a factory. Thankfully you are given one at the beginning of the game and you can buy bigger and better ones around the world as you make money.

You need a recipe. You start with a basic milk chocolate recipe and buy more as you go through the game. In Free Play mode you have access to all recipes right off the bat.

You need ingredients. Cacao beans, milk products, an assortment of nuts, mint leaves, and so on. You have to buy them. You can go anywhere in the world to buy them and scope out the different markets.

Something might be cheaper in New York than where you are in San Francisco but you'll spend money to travel back and forth, especially if your factory is in San Francisco. You have to weigh the cheaper ingredients cost with travel cost, and if you find a killer deal make sure to buy a lot of that item, as items don't go bad! Also make sure you don't run out of ingredients halfway through making chocolates.

You need to assemble the ingredients together to make the chocolate. This is the part of the game that surprised me the most. I wasn't interested in Chocolatier at first. There were two main reasons. The first is that I already had a lot of time management games and wasn't sure I wanted another one. The second is that the screenshots don't really convey how much fun this game really is. And this point is illustrated best in making chocolates. There's a kind of game where you rotate wheels to make balls fall into other wheels and once you fill the wheel with like-colored balls, they disappear. The factory screen reminded me of that, and since I don't like those games, I didn't think I'd like this one either. I couldn't have been more wrong about making chocolates. It is my favorite part of the game now.

You shoot different ingredients into the wheels and once you put one of each ingredient into the wheel and the wheel reaches the right side of the screen, it gets made into chocolate. Make sure to aim right or you'll throw away your ingredients! The wheel starts spinning slowly and then gains momentum. Once you run out of ingredients you set the pace for that factory and it churns out chocolate at the rate you set.

If you are ever at a loss as to what to do next, there's a screen that shows you what you have done and what you currently have to do. You can also haggle at the marketplaces to get cheaper prices. But a word of caution: Haggle too often or too aggressively and the sellers will get mad at you and that can never end well.

It would be beyond awesome if a mini-games section was added and you could go right into making chocolate with infinite ingredients. Another mini-game could be making money by buying and selling ingredients, or factories.

After you make the chocolate, you now have to travel around and find people to buy it from you at the highest cost possible. The more you sell quality product the more money you make and the more reputation you gain.

All of these aspects add up to an incredible time management/strategy game that's a lot of fun to play. Highly recommended. Other than the suggestion for mini-games there's really not a whole lot to say in the way of recommendations because the game is loaded with features as it is.

The Good: Tons of game modes add up to a very deep and fulfilling experience.

The Bad: Can't go straight into just making chocolates.

The Ugly: No ugly here.

Bottom Line: Highly recommended for fans of time management games. It's a bit pricey at $5. Will you get $5 worth out of it? Yes! It won't be $5 wasted.

Rune Memory. ($1.99, version 1.1)

iTunes Link.

Edit: When I published this review this morning the game was $1.99. I just noticed the game has been lowered to $0.99. If you don't have a memory game and want one, this has great sounds and graphics. And if the price being lowered has anything to do with this review, that means the developer is very responsive to feedback and we could very well see improvements in this app's future.

This is a memory game, in which you turn and match pairs of tiles in order to clear them from the board. There's some Zelda-esque music while you play. There's a little clink noise when you match a pair. That's it for music and sound effects. The music is relaxing and pleasant, but there's no way to turn it off (other than lowering the volume). There's a bit of a loading time when starting the game, and it's probably related to the relatively large size of the app (for a memory game, that is) at 22.2 megs.

From the title screen you have to screen to get to the board, but it doesn't say anywhere. It'd be great for it to have a Start button. Games are not saved from session to session. The ability to save would be a great addition.

A good twist is that not only do you have to match objects, you also have to match the color of the object.

When you make a match, both tiles get a ring of flowers around them which disappears in a few seconds. This game would NOT let me take a picture while two tiles were turned (first time I've encountered this), so you'll just have to take my word for it.

The game screen includes a 4X5 board, an option to reset the board, how much time has elapsed, and your best time so far. There doesn't seem to be a way to reset the best time. A little butterfly flutters across the screen, disappears, reappears. There's four pairs of flowers in bloom.

The Good: Relaxing music and polished graphics.

The Bad: Too basic. Not enough options. No saving. Bit of a load time every time you start a game.

The Ugly: No option to turn the sound off.

Bottom Line: Too basic right now. There's tons of memory games at the app store and others have more options. If you want a memory game with pretty graphics and relaxing music, this is a good choice, but I wouldn't recommend at the $2 price tag. Add boards of different sizes and maybe a storyline where you progress through boards of escalating difficulties, and this could easily go up a buck and still be highly recommended. If you want a memory game and are trying to decide which to get, this has more polished graphics than others and the sound is a plus also. So if you want a memory game this is as good as other options and better in the graphics and sound areas, but lacks options.

Plate Pursuit. ($0.99, version 1.0)

iTunes Link.

You're probably familiar with the premise of this game. You're in the middle of I-15, sister to the left, brother to the right, dog jumping from one pair of legs to the other, one parents driving while the other looks at the map, and every two minutes "Are we there yet?" Someone comes up with the idea of counting license places to pass the time and, paper and pencil handy, half an hour goes by.

Now you can do the same thing with your iDevice.

Plate Pursuit automates the recording of license plates as you pass them on the road (just make sure the person driving isn't the one playing!). It also incorporates state trivia, a very nice touch.

When you fire it up, you get to the main menu. From there you can start a new game, resume a previously started game, change the settings, view your achievements, and get some help. Help explains the game and the settings, which is great as at first I thought a setting meant something but wasn't completely sure.

Achievements include number of plates found, points won, and how many questions you have gotten right in a row. In settings, you can turn the sound effects on and of and you can reset the game. You can also turn the badge counter on and off. The badge counter is a nifty feature that shows in the game's icon (in the Springboard) how many plates you have found in all your games. It looks the same as how many updates are available for your currently installed games on the app store icon.

If you choose to resume a game you get a list of all started trips. This is great because if you go to a major city you can have a game for that trip and then other games for side trips. You can delete a trip by doing a left-swipe over the trip name and then tapping delete (or tapping anywhere else on the screen to get rid of the delete button).

When you start a game, you get to select a trip name and then you get the Alabama plate in front of you. You can't swipe left to go to the last plate alphabetically (great if added but not a deal-breaker). If you have found that plate before, you get a little number in a circle on the top right of the screen. If you tap on it you get a trivia question. There's three possible answers. You tap once to select an answer, and once more to submit it. Answer it right to get more points and if you answer it wrong you lose points (30 points per question added or subtracted). If you answer it (right or wrong) the plate counter goes up. You can cheat a bit and cancel out of it and tap on the plate again to get a different question, so if you don't know a question you can swap it out without losing points. It'd be great for the same question to be displayed until it's answered.

Once you answer the question or click cancel you go to the main screen. You can also click Found from the trivia question screen to raise the plate counter and get 10 points added to your score without having to answer the questions (which means the question itself is 20 points).

From the plate screen you can click on the top right button to go to the main menu or on the top left button to bring up an alphabet bar and go quicker to a state plate. This is an awesome addition for those times Utahns happen to be following Alabamians. Great great great addition.

There's no music and not much in the way of sound effects. A little flipping noise when you click on a plate and get a question, and right-answer and wrong-answer noises. That's about it.

The Good: No more paper and pencil, and the addition of trivia questions more than doubles the replayability.

The Bad: It'd be great if the badge counter could be trip-specific and it remembered your last-played trip, instead of counting all plates found in all trips. There could be a setting option to count all plates or just plates found in the last trip played. The trivia portion needs to be reworked a bit also. It repeats questions too much. It should keep tabs on what questions it has asked per trip and skip those already answered correctly. If it runs out, it should just show "No more questions!" somewhere around the plate in the main screen, and if you touch the plate it just increases the plate counter. Lot less annoying than answering for the tenth time that the abbreviation for Nevada is NV. It also needs a lot more questions! It would also be great to have the option of keeping tabs of questions already answered on a per trip basis or globally. If I already know all the questions I don't want to answer them all over again each time I start a trip.

The Ugly: Found a bug. If you go to Resume Game, swipe left to bring up the delete button, and then press back to go to the main menu, buttons become unresponsive if you go back to Resume Game. You won't be able to select a game or swipe/delete. You will have to exit the app and restart it, and it will work again.

Bottom Line: Can't go wrong for a dollar. Fix the trivia side and can't go wrong for $3. Especially if you travel. I find myself using the app just the trivia side.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Squares! ($0.99, version 1.1)

iTunes Link.

Squares is a strategy game. I personally don't consider games like Squares! as a pure strategy game because there's chance involved. It all depends on what kind of board you get. Where you win or lose is not wholly dependent on how good you play. High dependent, yes. Wholly dependent, no. The goal is to turn all the tiles on the board to either green smiling faces or yellow scared faces (you get a better score for green than yellow). The game ends if you turn any tile into a red "dead" face. When the game first starts, the board has no faces in it and instead is a 5X5 board consisting of tiles with arrows in them. Each time you successfully turn all squares to green or yellow faces, you advance a level. You keep going through levels until you have no choice but to turn a yellow face into a red face (and it will happen sooner or later in every game).

There are four icons at the bottom. The left circular arrow starts a new game (and puts you back at level one). The rightmost icon provides you with some help on the gameplay and game elements, and the icon that looks like a checklist shows you the high scores and gives you the option to erase all of them. The second icon from the right is the "shake" icon. During the game, if you run into a situation in which your next move would mean game over, you can either shake the iDevice or tap this button to bring up a menu with two options. You can undo your last move or you can "shake the board. If you shake the board, the arrow tiles are reshuffled. You have five shakes per game (and not per level, as I sadly learned). You cannot undo more than one move at a time and it uses up one of your shakes. Thankfully you can do a shake by either shaking your iDevice OR pressing the shake button and then Shake. I hate shaking the iDevice in fears of damaging it and really appreciate the alternate button.

On the upper right hand corner there's an "i" that gives you a brief description of the game, allows you to turn the sound on or off, and gives you come copyright information. I found this "i" to be one of the most unresponsive iDevice game buttons I have found so far and it always took me multiple taps to activate it. Maybe the sensitivity can be looked at.

The game saves your progress whenever you exit the app, which is great. No need for long play sessions.

Let' walk through a few steps in order to illustrate the gameplay. Here's a fresh board:

We are going to tap the upper right hand corner tile. Notice what happens.

The arrow is now pointing up and the tile that was being pointed at by the tapped tile turned green. Let's see what happens if we tap the tile below the green tile which is an arrow pointing up, towards the green tile.

The tile being pointed at by the arrow turned yellow AND the tile we tapped on turned into a green tile instead of staying as an arrow and changing direction. If you tap on an arrow pointing at a green tile this will always happen - the green tile turns yellow and the arrow tile turns green.

Now look at the green tile. There's two arrows pointing to it. If we tap the tile below, the green tile turns yellow and the arrow tile turns into a green tile.

If we now tap into the tile to the left of the lower yellow tile, the arrow tile turns into a yellow tile and the yellow tile turns into a red dead tile and the game ends.

As it stands right now I view this game as a casual strategy.chance game, in the same vein as Yahtzee. Luck and skill. It's only a buck and it's nice for quick games, especially since it saves your progress. I have an idea that I think could turn this game into a deeper and truer strategy game. "Levels" could be made that have a fixed ending configuration and are not random. There is one or more ways to go from the beginning board to the end board without having any yellow faces. If you solve it, you go to the next level. There's an undo button that takes away from your score but you can press it an unlimited number of times, and there's no shake button. This would turn it into a puzzle/strategy game and would add tons of replayability to it, especially with a lot of levels. It could be even better if someone could design and build a program that creates board with a pre-determined solution without having to turn any tiles yellow.

Graphics are simple and cutesy and serve the gameplay well. There's no music and the only special effects are swooshing sounds when the tiles turn and a sharp game ending sound when you turn a tile red.

Bottom line? It's a twist on the "lights off" games where you have to turn the whole board into a different color. Different, but not really earth-shattering. It's a good deal for the price and it's entertaining for the train ride. A true puzzle/strategy mode would make this into a highly recommended game, would add replayability, and would elevate it from casual entertainment/just another app into gaming gold. And would it a stead even at a slightly higher price.

Mini Golf Ace. ($1.99, version 1.0)

iTunes Link.

I first found out about this game on a bulletin board, and many people gave it a try because of its low price (and were satisfied for the most part). I wasn't convinced because of the screenshots, as I very much enjoy the lush grass and sparkly water of Let's Golf!, and I think graphics definitely add to a game. More than graphics alone, though, I like the sense of environment. The course is on top of a blue mat (as can be seen if you go out of bounds, as the ball goes off the course in little bounces) and is metallic-looking. No grass, no water, just the metal-looking course and obstacles. Everything's blue, shades of blue, some white, and the orange ball. There's not even a flag next to the hole. There's no character hitting a ball, no clubs to choose from, no wind or sand. There's just the course, the hole, and the ball.

I was still intrigued by the game, as I love mini-golf. When I started playing it in order to do this review, I was pleasantly surprised.  I love the sterility of the environment, as it takes all frills off and gives you one thing and one thing only:  golf.  This game focuses on the gameplay and has a strong physics engine.  The ball moves like it's supposed to.  It is very easy to get lost in the game itself without outside window dressing.

The game does save your progress, which is a very nice feature in any game and especially helps in this one as there is no one-hole game option.  There's just a straight 18-hole course.  Up to four players can join in the fun (but make sure you have enough time to finish it or the other three people are easily accessible at the same time!).

When you start the app you have two options:  view the high scores and Start.  If you have a game in progress you won't get to this screen.  You get a pop-up message letting you know you have a game in progress and asks whether you want to continue it or now.  If you want to continue it, you are taken to the course.  If you don't, you are taken to the Start/high scores screen and your save is erased.  If you tap on Start, you get to put in your name and add up to three more p layers.  Then you are taken to the first course.  You have six shots to sink the ball in.  If you don't, you miss the level but are still taken to the next course, so you are playing 18 holes no matter what.  It records how many hits it took to sink the ball and records seven hits if you miss the level, even if it would have taken you more than that to sink the ball.  Maybe in future revisions there could be an option to have ulimited hits and only move on to the next level if you make the hole (and have a "give up" button that adds something like five hits to your score and takes you to the next level).

You hit the ball with your finger.  When you press your finger to the ball, you have a little green circle that goes around the ball and a green arrow closing off the circle and showing here the ball will go.  You press your finger to the ball, slide it away from the ball, and release it to shoot.  It's a bit like pool as you slide your finger away from where you want the ball to go, and the pointing arrow makes it possible to be precise.  The more you pull back, the bigger the circle gets.  A green circle means you're good, a  yellow circle means you'll be close to going out of bounds, and a red circle means you'll probably go out of bounds.  Out of the handful of times I've hit with a red circle I've gone out of bounds every single time, and every single time I've hit with a yellow circle I've stayed in the course.  I've found yellow circles necessary sometimes to give the ball the little "oomph" needed to get over an obstacle.  If you go outside of the course (off into the outside "mat" with little bounces as you go) it counts as a hit and you go all the way back to the beginning of the course, but any hit you've used up is still gone.

As soon as you hit the ball the green navigation circle and arrow disappear.  Once you hit the ball and it finally stops, the green navigation circle and arrow flash briefly when the ball is ready to be hit again, which is a great touch as it is sometimes difficult to tell if the ball is done moving or not.  The number of hits flases after your fifth hit, indicating you only get one more try.

You can tilt the device left or right to rotate the view of the course.  It's kind of an inverted control.  If you tilt it to the right, the course rotates to the left because your view is rotating ot the right.  So if you want to rotate the course to the right, you would tilt your device to the left to rotate your view to the left.  It takes a bit of getting used to.  Maybe there could be an option to select what to rotate when the device is tilted - the view or the course.  At the beginning I kept trying to turn the front of the device left or right instead of tilting it up and down towards the sides.  All good now.  There's also no zooming in and out by pinching and expanding like web pages on Safari, a fact I sadly learned by using up one of my hits as it interpreted a pinch as a grab-and-release.

The use of the accelerometer to look around the course is brilliant.  It further accentuates the point that this game is a technical masterpiece.  The one request people have made is that there be a top-down sort of view, because if there's an obstacle between you and the ball, you can't see the ball.  You can rotate the view, but it's not the same as you'll be hitting the ball from the side at an awkward angle.

The picture above highlights this problem.  You have to hit the ball from the side instead of from behind, making the shot very hard (and I missed the course on that one).  Two options could be implemented:  to either have a top-down view or have an obstacle automatically dimmed when the game senses the obstacle is in-between you and the ball.

There's no music and special effects are minimal.  There's a clicking noise when you hit the ball, and canking noise when you hit any object in the course with the ball, a nice plopping noise when the ball falls into the hole, and a sad "aww" chorus when you miss a level.  It'd be nice to add a happy "yeeeeah" sound (or any other happy sound) to hear when you make the hole.

The game area has the current game's information at the bottom.  The course ("lane" - the controls of pool, the levels of bowling, this game has it all!) number, your name, how many hits you've used in the game (this part is very important, as a 4 doesn't mean you're on hit number 4, it means you've used up 4 hit; you start off with 0 hits), and how many hits you've used on each hole.  On the top there's two icons.  The left-pointing arrow to the left brings up a menu asking you whether you want to cancel the game in progress or not (if you do cancel, the current game is not saved) and the question mark to the right gives you minimal (surprise) information on how to play.  The controls are simple and the goal is simple, so there's not much help needed here.  THe game follows its theme of simplicity in everything it does, from the gameplay to the graphics to the sound to the game screen to the controls.

When you finish the game it lets you know how many hits you used for the 18 holes and how many points you score.  THere's no indication as to how the score is calculated.  This would be a nice addition to the help info.  In-between each hole there's a little loading screen (2 seconds tops) that gives the name of the following course.  

Bottom line?  Excellent game.  High production values, easy to get lost in it, great controls.  Maybe the future will bring more game modes or options.  I really enjoyed this game and see myself playing it until I don't miss any holes in any particular game.