Wednesday, April 15, 2009

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.

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