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Thursday September 14, 2006 6:52 am

EXCLUSIVE Reviews: Zuma, Pac-Man, Bejeweled, and Tetris on iPod

Yesterday, we reported on Apple’s move to bring several popular casual games to the iPod - and for those that are fans of instant gratification, you’re in luck… today we’re going to review them! The iGames now currently available for Apples 5G and 5.5G iPods include 9 titles: Bejeweled, Cubis 2, Mah-Jong, Mini-Golf, Pac-Man, Tetris, Texas Holdem, Vortex and Zuma. To really test how well Apple’s done, we picked four of the titles that we thought would be more challenging to port for the click-wheel interface: Bejeweled, Pac-Man, Zuma and Tetris. And for all you out there wondering whether the new iGames are worth your $4.99, you can find our full review of these 4 titles (along with tasty videos) and our thoughts on the iGames functionality in general after the jump!

Part I: The iGames Functionality

For a piece of hardware that previously counted Solitaire among its most advanced games, there’s no question that the newly-introduced iGames are a huge leap forward. With Microsoft’s mysterious Zune on the horizon (which is rumored to play games downloaded from Xbox Live), Apple’s iPod had some catching up to do. And we’re happy to report that, overall, the iPod’s hardware appears to be up to the task.

For starters, all iGames launch fairly quickly - after selecting a game, there’s a brief delay of a few seconds (similar to the startup time for Java on a Java-enabled cell phone), and then you’re quickly taken to the title screen. One nice touch here is that Apple has taken care to make sure game-playing doesn’t interfere with your music listening - if you’re catching up on the news through a podcast, or listening to the latest Gorillaz album, the game will launch just as fast and your music won’t even skip a beat. In all of the games, you’re also given the option to disable the in-game music, so that you can continue listening to your own library while aligning tetrominos or shooting marbles. It’s smooth and seamless and exactly what you would expect from Apple.

The controls for the games are, by nature of the iPod’s interface, somewhat limited. Still, Apple’s found some innovative ways to make playing games on your iPod more intuitive. Not only can you use the clickwheel as a scroller now, but the 4 directions on the clickwheel are actually recognized by many of the games! So for example, pretend you’re using your iPod and about to go back a menu. But instead of clicking the menu button, you just tap your finger on that point on the click-wheel, much like tapping on a trackpad. Games like Pac-Man and Bejeweled are able to recognize that tap as “up” (with fastforward tap meaning right, rewind tap meaning left, and play tap meaning down, of course), meaning that the click-wheel actually functions as a passable joystick. Likewise the designers have found some pretty innovative ways to play with a single thumb. Just don’t expect to set too many personal high scores in these games. For folks looking for a way to kill time on their commute though, these games could be a godsend.

Some other nice features are the ability to set the brightness of the display within games (which should help to save battery power), and the ability to save and quit your game at any point (perfect for short, stop-n-go gaming sessions).

Overall, the setup and execution of gaming on the iPod is very high-quality, with smooth graphics, great features, short load times, and the ability to work flawlessly with music playback. We had to subtract a few points for the somewhat limiting control scheme even though Apple came up with some creative ways to use it. Still, I’d guess that it won’t be too long until we see a gaming dock attachment.

Grade: A

Part II: The Games

Bejeweled
Bejeweled from PopCap Games started as a web-based game in which you used your mouse to select and swap gems on a grid, trying to create chains of 3 or more for points. The game relied, in the upper levels, on the ability to recognize patterns that could be lined up quickly and getting your mouse pointer to the right place quickly. So on a non-touchscreen system like the iPod, it’s no surprise that Bejeweled is a somewhat cumbersome experience. Instead of moving your mouse pointer to the gem you want to swap, you now have to use the scroll-wheel to “scroll” through the gems (as if they were in numbered order). Once you have selected the gem you want to swap, you use the above-mentioned tap functionality to point which direction you want to swap the gem. This isn’t the most intuitive setup, and one wonders why Popcap didn’t instead settle on a more keyboard-like setup. For example, you could use tapping as a control pad at first, to select the gem you want to swap, then click the center button to select that gem, then tap to choose the direction to move it.

Control mechanics aside, Bejeweled looks great. Granted, it’s not the most processor intensive of games, but the gems look great and the artwork is all very bright and crisp and fluid animations. Between levels, Popcap’s created some really cool pseudo-3D effects for level transitions that look great. The sound is very good while being unobtrusive and blends in well with whatever tracks your playing at the time. As mentioned above, the standard list of options includes the ability to change brightness settings, turn on or off the in-game music, and save your game for play later.

Overall, this is a nice-looking game that has some pretty good production values. We’d love to be able to have some more control options though, so that we aren’t forced into the scroll-wheel style gem selection. Don’t expect to set any personal high-scores with the current setup, but this is still one of the best casual games out there.

Grade: B


Pac-Man (see video at top!)
Pac-Man is the only truly “retro” title to be released for the iPod so far, but if this first outing is any indication, retro gaming on the iPod could be great. Thanks to the above mentioned tap-control interface, controlling Pac-Man is a breeze. Just as you would expect, you can move the chomping yellow guy up, down, left and right simply by tapping the appropriate direction on the clickwheel. And to make sure that the game thinks you’re pressing in the right direction, NAMCO has even included a diagram of the joystick in the lower-right, which shows what you’re doing. It’s not as good as playing with the original retro ball-joystick (what is!), but it’s pretty darn good.

If you’ve played Pac-Man in the arcades, you’ve played Pac-Man on the iPod. All of your favorite retro graphics, waka-waka sounds, and level transitions are here, in shrunken-down format. While it would be a stretch to say that the graphics in Pac-Man look great, they’re suitably retro and all of the artwork fits with the theme of the original game. The only thing that keeps Pac-Man on the iPod from true greatness is a slight amount of “stutter” that becomes noticable after playing for a while. True arcade junkies will notice that Pac-Man isn’t moving as smoothly as he usually does.

Still, all in all, this is a very respectable port to a new platform, and the game goes a long way towards demonstrating the use of the clickwheel taps as an effective D-pad.

Grade: B+

Tetris

Marking the one billionth time the falling four-block tiles have appeared on an electronic device, the iPod version of Tetris was developed by EA, and is probably the biggest mixed bag of the group. Tetris features a cleverly-designed control scheme (scroll to move the piece left to right, click to rotate or drop pieces) and it’s a great try at implementing a one-thumb Tetris. But somehow it doesn’t quite cut it.

Similarly, the graphics and music are sleek and pretty, but there are some minor annoyances. The music, which you’ll probably never listen to after the first play, is on a 15 second loop, and the game also has the bad habit of making the most irritating noise known to man when you try to scroll a piece too far to either side. And while the graphics are all very cool, it’s strange that EA chose to give you a 3D view of bottom two pieces in your queue.

Grade: B

Zuma

Now, talk about a game that was practically designed for the iPod. You play as a rotating frog that shoots marbles, trying to line up marbles of the same color. Simply due to the game’s play mechanics, this game was the most intuitive port to iPod of the bunch (and one of the few you could easily play without looking at the control layout instructions first). As expected, you scroll with the wheel to rotate your frog, and hit the center button to fire - simple as that!

Like Bejeweled, PopCap has done a great job of porting this web classic to a new platform, and the design has lots of polish and some very nice graphical touches. This game also features probably the best sound design of the bunch, sporting music that you might actually want to listen to once in a while.

Grade: A-

Part III: Closing Remarks

We chose some of the games that we thought would be most difficult to port to the iPod, and we’re happy to say that even some of the more cumbersome ports (e.g. Tetris) look great, run smoothly, and would offer a good diversion during your morning commute or your next layover. Given our experiences with the titles we downloaded, we can safely guess that the less action-oriented titles, like MahJong and Texas Holdem are just as good looking and not hampered by the iPod controls.

In the final analysis, the iGames collection fares quite well on the iPod and offers better value than a lot of other portable downloadable content (i.e games for cell phones, palm pilots,etc.). If this is the type of portable, casual gaming that Microsoft has in mind for Zune, then they may already be facing some stiff competition on the games front.

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