Sunday, May 24, 2009

Defending the not-so-friendly skies

It's review time again! One thing the iPhone/iPod Touch, with its touch controls and accelerometer, would seem to be the perfect platform for the classic vertical overhead scrolling shooters, such as the 19xx or Raiden series. Apparently developers feel the same way, and have come out with a multitude of these types of game. Today I'm going to focus on two, though an honorable mention goes to "Siberian Strike" ($0.99), which was highly reviewed over at the Touch of Gaming podcast. A horrible mention goes to Sky Thunder, which I'm not going to link to. It's too hard and not fun.

iFighter, $0.99
Anyway, first up today is iFighter. You pilot a WWII-style plane that has autofire enabled, so your job is simply to maneuver your plane to shoot enemies and avoid their fire. There is also a Bomb button to press to deal extra devastation to everything on the screen. Defeating certain enemies reveals medals and stars, which you collect to increase your score.

Some scrolling shooters are such that when you touch an enemy you immediately lose a life. iFighter is not such a game. With each life you have a certain amount of "health", which goes down by some number when you get hit. Take enough damage and you lose a life.

iFighter's creators provided three different control schemes to match your play style. First is "Joypad" mode, where a virtual joystick is superimposed on the screen and you "move" it around with your thumb. This is the control scheme being used in my screenshots. Since the joypad shown is very small, the smallest thumb movement can make your plane move farther than you wanted it to. It takes some getting used to in this regard. On the plus side, as opposed to Swipe mode (see below), Joypad mode doesn't cover up areas where your enemies might show up and surprise you.

The second control scheme is "Swipe." Here you keep your finger on the screen and your plane will go to where your finger is. Normally this would be my control scheme of choice, but the plane tends to lag behind the speed of your finger so it's a bit inaccurate to me. Still, this method is best for putting the plane exactly where you want it to be. The downside here, as mentioned above, is that putting your finger on the screen can cover up things that you'd want to see for survival's sake.

Finally the "Motion" scheme allows you to use the accelerometer to tilt your device to make the plane move. Motion is pretty responsive and probably my control scheme of choice, though the plane still doesn't move as fast as enemies do, even with sensitivity set all the way up. The other problem with Motion is that it doesn't work too well if you're playing the game in a moving vehicle.

All in all, if you like this genre of games, iFighter is good, but the controls can be a problem. Enemy planes move really fast and you start out with a pathetically weak weapon. The variety of control schemes is nice, but all have their upsides and downsides. At its current $0.99 price, it's hard not to recommend it.

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Sentry Alpha, $0.99
The other scrolling shooter I'm reviewing today is Sentry Alpha. Unlike iFighter, Sentry Alpha is set in a more futuristic setting, and your enemies are alien ships. You start out with a standard dual blaster, but you quickly earn lots of weapon upgrades just by defeating a bunch of early enemies at the beginning. You have unlimited homing missiles, of which you can shoot more at a time when you get them upgraded. Bombs in Alpha do not span the whole screen, but rather are designed to hit the otherwise-inaccessible ground-based targets.

Like iFighter, Sentry Alpha features a multiple lives + energy system, so getting hit once doesn't really kill you. The game does, however, count how many times you got hit in each level, along with the number of enemies killed and number of medals collected.

Sentry Alpha only features one control scheme, accelerometer controlled. This is definitely a problem if you're in a moving vehicle, but when you're not, it seems to work very well. Autofire for your blasters is enabled, but if you hold your finger down on the screen your ship will fire faster. Bombs are activated by a sideways shake, while missiles can be fired by an up-down shake. Alternatively, there is a missile button on the lower right and a bomb button on the lower left of the screen.

I found Sentry Alpha to be slower-paced and easier than iFighter. I keep waiting for it to get more challenging, but there's no lack of fun to be had here due to the ever-increasing number of weapon upgrades I keep getting. Enemies come at you slower and you normally have ample time to get into position to hit them or get out of the way. The heat seeking missiles sure help too.

At $0.99, it's bargain. Interestingly, the app description on the app store says Sentry Alpha is on sale for $0.99 'til May 1. Here it is, May 24, and it's still on sale. Get it while it lasts!

Heck, might as well get both iFighter and Sentry Alpha while you're at it.

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Stupid iPod Touch tricks

When you first get your iPod Touch you are blown away by the slick interface and all the neat features that you now can't do without. It's chock full of features, though some of them might not be very obvious. Some are in the instructions (which I rarely read, and I'm not sure that you do either) and others are not.

1) Music controls anywhere: a neat thing about the iPod Touch is that you can use other programs besides the music player while you are listening to your music. This is easily done by getting your music started and then pressing the Home button to return to the Home screen. From there you can choose whatever app you want to use - Mail, Safari, and even games that support you providing your own music. But what if you're using that app and you run into a song you don't feel like listening to? Double-tap the home button real fast. This'll bring up the music controls wherever you are, allowing you to pause, skip forward, or skip backwards. Tapping the Close button will dismiss the controls and return you to your regularly scheduled app, or touching the Music button will quit your current app and bring up the full fledged Music player app. The only downfall to this feature is that if you don't double click the Home button fast enough, or if you give it 3 clicks instead, it behaves as if you pressed it once, returning you to the Home screen.

1a) The double-tap feature also works if you're at the "Slide to unlock" screen.

1b) Sometimes apps (usually games) support you playing your own music but by default will silence your music upon startup and play its own music instead. To get around this, double tap the Home button while in the game and press Play. This will silence the in-game audio and resume your music instead in most (but not all) apps.

2) Screenshot: This is self-explanatory, but it's a real killer feature. Say you have something cool or hot on your screen and you want to save it for posterity (or at least to show your friends). You can save an exact picture of what you're seeing in your Photo library. Keep in mind that you have to be fairly quick about this. While holding the Sleep button, press and release the Home button, and then immediately release the Sleep button. The screen will flash white and you'll hear a camera sound. The iPod touch doesn't have a camera on it like its older sibling the iPhone, but you can still capture memories on it.

3) Auto-Pause: Say you're listening to something on your headphones and someone important walks up. You want to pause the audio because you don't want to miss the rest (as is often the case with audiobooks and podcasts) but you can't be bothered to quickly bring up the audio controls (either in the Music app or via the trick in #1). All you have to do is quickly unplug your headphones. You'll notice that the audio automagically pauses itself, because it knows you're not listening anymore. Sweet. When you plug your headphones back in, it doesn't resume automatically, which makes sense because while unplugged headphones = not listening, plugged-in headphones does not necessarily = you have the headphones on your ears. Bring the audio controls back up to resume listening.

4) Rearranging/deleting apps: tap and hold on any app's icon on the home screen until everything starts jiggling. Yes, that's right, jiggling. You'll notice that all the third-party apps will also now have "x" buttons on them, allowing you to delete them from your iDevice. Also in this mode you can tap-drag icons to arrange them to your heart's content. Remember that the bottommost row holds apps that are shown no matter what page you're on, so keep the most frequently used apps down there. Press the Home button to exit Jiggly Mode.

5) Quicker page changing: Once you get enough apps to fill several pages (believe me, this will happen pretty soon with all the free apps available), you may find yourself swiping your finger across the screen over and over to switch between pages. There is a little invisible area to the right and to the left of the "page indicators" at the bottom (the white and gray dots) where if you simply tap, it'll change the page. So if you tap just to the right of the page indicators, it'll go to the next page, and if you tap to the left of them, it'll go to the previous page. Also, if you're on any page other than page 1, pressing the Home button will return you to page 1. Handy if you have more than 2 pages of apps.

6) Battery saver: The killer feature of the iPod touch in my opinion is the wifi. Even when not connected to an access point, however, the wifi drains battery. If you go to your Settings app you can disable your wifi. I highly recommend doing this while not using wifi - for example, when you're driving somewhere, so it doesn't keep draining battery looking for access points. Turn it back on when you know you're going to use it.

6a) Auto-brightness: Along the same lines, you can find the Brightness setting in your Settings app. Nothing too fancy. You can adjust the brightness. Turn it down in dim lighting, and turn it all the way up in bright lighting. The interesting feature here is "Auto-Brightness" which uses the light sensor located near the top of the iPod's face. This feature can also help to save battery by sensing the light level in the room.

All of these tricks also work with the iPhone.

Tune in next time for some app recommendations and some more neat features.