Look: We know that not every iOS game is perfect. They all have their little quirks and irregularities and some are flat-out broken. But among those that are actually playable, some contain a core mechanic that stumbles somewhere along the way. And maybe it’s a cool idea, but it feels like it could just be executed a little better.
That’s where this series comes in.
We round up games that are not necessarily bad but just fall short in some area, and we suggest other titles that do it better — so your brand-new iDevice become a gaming machine that you’ll never want to put down.
Culprit 1: Alpha Zen
The Issue: Wasted potential.
Alpha Zen is a cool enough idea: It’s a puzzle game that has you fitting words together crossword-style to fit within a defined space. But that’s basically it.
It’s not so much that it’s too easy to put the words together. It’s that your payoff for doing so is really small. You got those words to fit into that box, and now what? I guess it’s on to the next set of words and the next oddly shaped box. It doesn’t give you much to admire or appreciate, and no sense of progress.
It’s not a bad game, though. It’s just short on satisfaction.
The Solution: The Room and The Room 2
These puzzle games, on the other hand, are about nothing but payoff.
The Room and its sequel have you solving mysterious puzzle boxes, examining clues, and always wondering what the hell is going on, and while you never quite figure it out (I don’t think; it’s actually kind of vague), it’s the process of getting there that’s so satisfying.
Some rooms start you off with a simple box, but after you’ve spent 20 minutes prodding it and examining its various secret compartments, maybe it ends up as a pyramid. Or it’s opened up to reveal intricate and beautiful mechanisms. Or a freaking laser comes out of it.
All of these things are awesome, and maybe it’s not fair to expect “words in a space” to live up to that, but I do know which one I’d rather spend an hour on.
Culprit 2: The Simpsons: Tapped Out
The Issue: Cynical and imagination-stifling
The Simpsons: Tapped Out presents players with an interesting scenario: What if the entire fictional town of Springfield were suddenly and unceremoniously wiped off the map? How would you rebuild it?
And then you start playing it and you find out: You’d rebuild it one building at a time and with massive delays in between. Tapped Out is one of those dreaded “freemium” games which attempts to extract money from players by refusing to let them play it. Restoring a building takes time, and players can run down the clock with an in-app purchase. Or they can wait or just delete the app like I did.
Even outside of that chicanery is the fact that what you’re really building is another person’s world. You might decide where the Kwik-E-Mart and the nuclear power plant go, but they’re still prefabricated pieces of an already existing world. So whatever your configuration, you’re building Springfield.
And if you’re going to start with a blank slate and build a world, why not make it your own?
The Solution: Minecraft: Pocket Edition
Yeah, I mean, this is pretty obvious.
The biggest world-building game since Sim City is almost the exact opposite of Tapped Out‘s ready-made building blocks. It has blocks, sure, but what you build with them is up to you.
Minecraft in all its various incarnations is basically what I hoped the Lego tie-in games would be: “Here are some blocks, go make whatever you want. And also, look out for monsters.” Because you need monsters, you know.
While both games promote patience, the types they encourage are diametrically opposed. Tapped Out teaches the patience of refusal: “If you wait, you’ll get this.” Minecraft, on the other hand, gives you the patience of creation: “If you take your time and plan, you can make this world exactly how you want it to be.”
Which sounds better?
Culprit 3: The Infinity Blade series
The Issue: Repetitive and grind-crazed.
The Infinity Blade series is a mobile juggernaut because of its slick production values, epic plot, and simple gameplay. It’s also incredibly boring, and the series’ overarching plot, which involves generations of a family attempting the same quest over and over and a battle against beings that can die repeatedly and still come back, actually serves as a metaphor for the experience of playing it.
Success in Infinity Blade requires proper gear, and getting proper gear demands that you fight the same battles several times with little variation. You can speed things up by exchanging real money for in-game currency, but that just makes you better equipped to do the same thing.
The combat is at least interesting, though; it requires pattern recognition and a sense of rhythm and timing. But it’s all you do, and it doesn’t offer much variety because that’s more or less how that whole “infinity” thing works.
The Solution: Bit.Trip Run!
I didn’t cut developer Gaijin’s running-based rhythm-game-in-disguise a whole lot of slack when I reviewed it last month, but an update with new control schemes means it’s worth checking out again.
Run! tasks you with guiding the brave, perpetually running Commander Video through a bunch of colorful worlds rife with obstacles and hurdles to overcome. Like in Infinity Blade, timing and rhythm are crucial, but where Bit.Trip wins out is in its variety. The Commander must run, slide, kick, jump, and use a shield to keep moving forward, and the individual levels provide enough different barriers that it keeps you focused and challenged.
Plus, the narrator is the guy who does the voice for Mario, and that’s just straight-up awesome.
Culprit 4: Draw Something
The Issue: Neither social nor cooperative
Draw Something isn’t nearly what it used to be, but when it came out last year, it seemed like everyone was playing it. If you aren’t among “everyone,” here’s how it works: One person chooses one of three objects and draws it and then their friend tries to guess what the drawing is. It’s like playing Pictionary without having to be at a lame party.
People were crazy about this game, but they missed its critical flaw: Despite being a game you could play with your friends, it contained no social interaction or any real need for cooperation. You’d be looking at a crappy drawing of a gorilla with your friend’s name on it, but the fact remained that for all the “fun” you two were having “together,” anyone in the world could have drawn that half-assed gorilla.
It’s also hard to think of a game for which the cost of losing is lower than this one’s. If the other person guesses correctly, you earn coins that you can use to unlock more colors to draw with terribly. If you lose, the next round starts. That’s it. Draw Something tries to trick you by including a “Winning streak” counter, but it really doesn’t mean or do anything.
The Solution: Spaceteam
Just look at this.
Do you see all those people in the same room working together to complete a task? Doesn’t that seem, I don’t know, pretty social? Don’t they all look happier than any Draw Something player you’ve ever seen in your life?
Spaceteam is a multi-player extravaganza in which a team of players take the roles of a spaceship crew. Everyone has his or her own oddly named control panel on their screen, and the game displays adjustments that need adjusting. When the instructions appear, the player calls them out, and the person with the appropriate console flips the switch or turns the dial or whatever. Every once in a while, everyone has to shake or invert their devices to avoid imaginary wormholes.
Is there any part of that that doesn’t sound like a good time with your friends? Next to that, is there any part of Draw Something that does?