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iOS Shooter Index

All the shmups, all the time

by Burkhart von Klitzing

A.C.E.: Air Combat Elite - iOS (2010)

I'm willing to bet that this Chinese game does not only cater to my taste, but to a lot of people's. At least on paper, that is. Where other shooters pit you against lots of minor or "popcorn" enemies and especially arena-based shooters tend to render enemies nearly defenseless, only allowing them to threaten you by their sheer numbers, in A.C.E. enemies don't spawn, they are all armed and none of them just stupidly homes in on you.

The 40+ stages merely serve as eye-candy, featuring no level-specific obstacles or anything in that way, so the action can fully focus on your plane and the about 5-17 enemy planes duking it out inside the confined playing field. A further attempt at streamlining the action is the complete lack of collectible powerups, so you can fully concentrate on the ever-present dogfights. No distractions, just you and the enemy, which not only is quite unique for a 2D shooter, but it even often feels like a 2D rendition of Star Fox 64's free-flying areas.

You don't have to focus on any specific goal besides killing all opposition and heading straight for enemies like in Geometry Wars and such would only get you killed. What you rather need to do is watch out for enemy movements, get behind a single opponent or a small group of them and blast away until they're either gone for good or until another enemy has managed to sneak up on you. In the latter case there even is a half-loop manouever (like in Star Fox 64) at your disposal, getting you out of tight situations and nearly instantly turning you around 180°, as opposed to standard turning, which takes a while, essentially giving you a true feel of weight. Another great aid comes in the form of a highly functional radar indicating both your position and enemy positions. Using this properly allows for a perfect overview of the battlefield and for setting up a route hopefully safely taking you right behind enemy lines. Keep your eyes tacked on the radar too much, though, and enemies might close in. The gameplay overall strikes a great balance between methodical thinking and pure action.

In addition, hitting enemies feels highly rewarding as your machine gun salvos steadily deplete the green life bar, encompanied by fitting sound effects and finally an explosion, making you immediately long for your next prey which usually isn't too far away. Kills earn you money used to upgrade your plane's speed, damage and health as well as to purchase up to four additional planes, differing in aspects like their range of fire or their secondary weapon. Said weapon automatically locks onto enemies and varies quite a bit from plane to plane. Some only lock on to targets right in front, assisting your standard guns, while others lock on by simply passing by on enemies. These weapons also differ a lot in terms of rate of fire and damage, adding another welcome dimension to the process of picking the right plane for the right mission/player. Enemy variation doesn't appear to be too high as everything in the skies except for a zeppelin boss are planes and they all use nothing but machine guns, but their behaviour makes the difference, with the first ones you'll encounter just minding their own business, whereas the later enemies go out of their way to mercilessly hunt you down.

So why doesn't A.C.E. rank up high as the best non-dual-stick arena shooter in this article, when it's both original AND a throwback to a beloved classic at the same time? Where does the quality-plane take a nosedive? The ridiculous attempt at telling a story is certainly a good starting point for complaining. The "story mode" tries to tell a "story"(I can't stress the quotation marks enough) and while the genre in general doesn't really need any "story", the one present here is not only riddled with cliches, it also does nothing to explain anything and it is ultimately just annoying (though still good for a few laughs). Before each mission some lady babbles something about enemy movements and such, but it is never explained who she is exactly, you are never given any explanation on the conflict you are an essential part of, all out of a sudden the name "Ross" is dropped, once again without any explanation as to who he is, you are often told to flee, to guard some supplies, to protect allies or other nonsense that doesn't seem to exist outside the girl's imagination. And when things apparently reach the climax (you can't tell from the actual gameplay), she even falls in love with you.

The story could still be easily ignored. The same cannot be said about the controls, however. No dual-sticks, no Asteroid-style rotating and thrusting...no touchscreen controls at all. Oh yes, this is another one of those accelerometer-only shooters. It is so incredibly sad to see such a promising game unnecessarily alienating players in such a way. Worst of all, the developers seem to be aware of not everybody liking their standard control scheme of rotating the screen (would ANYBODY seriously prefer this input method over any nother?) as can be seen in the measly help section, which does little more than telling you to switch over to tilt controls. Of course neither one grants you the control you'd need and it's all made worse by the fact that your plane has to be turned into the right direction the whole time, rather than instantly changing direction like in a dual-stick shooter. So you need to think about whether you need to turn left or right at any given moment AND sort out in your head how to actually do it. Needless to say you don't always end up doing what you intended to. Still, the game provides fun up until the final stage if you spend your money somewhat wisely and if you don't rush into enemy formations. Also, levels usually take less than a minute, so restarting isn't all that bad and the controls aren't quite as terrible as in other accelerometer-only shooters. Well, until you reach the final stage where either the boss or his disciplined underlings rarely leaving their formation will tear you apart.

A.C.E.: Air Combat Elite

A.C.E.: Air Combat Elite

A.C.E.: Air Combat Elite

A.C.E.: Air Combat Elite


Asteroid Dust - iOS (2011)

Silverline Arts has a rather impressive track record when it comes to shooters on iOS devices. Space Inversion is about as good as a pure Space Invaders clone can get, the two puzzle-crossovers can be quite addictive and now they have delivered yet another homage to an age-old classic: Asteroid, obviously.

Asteroid Dust plays it safe once again, bringing not a whole lot of new stuff to the gameplay table. Turn your ship, accelerate it and fire straight where your nose is aiming at to destroy all floating asteroids in a small confined stage. Shooting an asteroid causes it to shatter into pieces which subsequently keep floating around and keep you on your toes even more as more boulders also mean more paths for them to travel along that you need to calculate or else you will collide with them. And collide you will. The game is pretty demanding with lots of asteroids already in stage 2 and a rather large off-screen area, making shortcuts from one end of the screen to the other more dangerous than they should be.

Still, thoughtful blasting and especially the shield button allow for prolonged survival. Pressing said button emits an indestructible shield around your craft, which lasts for a couple of seconds and needs to replenish for a while afterwards. Another addition are alien space ships. One of these appears after a certain amount of time in each stage, immediately opening fire on you. Though they only take a single hit and they always enter the screen on the upper left, making them more of a small nuisance than a true danger.

While there are four different control schemes to tamper with, only two should seriously be considered for use. The ones mapping movement either fully to touching or to a single joystick only end up making you feel like having spasms while sliding down a hallway on a piece of soap. Stick to the more traditional layouts, though, and you shouldn't have any problems. See? Traditional game, traditional controls. Take a note, Nintendo.

The graphics stand out as the best part by far. The game takes you to all kinds of planets including earth and also to asteroid belts and space stations, all being gorgeous to look at and featuring multiple background layers. Levels are intertwined by your craft speeding past stars at high speed. The music, however, has been lazily ripped from Silverline Arts' very own Space Inversion. Asteroid Dust would easily be one of the best Asteroids-style games on the App Store, if it, well, still was on the App Store! Alas, it has been taken off within about half a year, probably due to the release of Retro Dust.

Asteroid Dust

Asteroid Dust


Retro Dust - iOS (2011)

Retro Dust is less of a sequel and more of an upgrade to Asteroid Dust. The way the games fundamentally play are nearly identical with the same large off-screen areas, aliens only appearing in the upper left corner, your ship flying to the next stage at the speed of light the same four control methods and the shield function all making a return. Most changes that have been made to the gameplay are rather minor, though still come appreciated, as they provide additional variety. An additional easy difficulty setting has been added as well as a choice of four spaceships with individual stats, and weapon power-ups like three-way fire.

Arguably the most interesting difference to Asteroid Dust would have to be the new modes, deviating from the standard Asteroids formula. Arcade mode is what Asteroid Dust used to be, while Invasion is a charming, if not too well-conceived mix of Asteroids and Space Invaders (using Silverline Arts' Space Inversion assets), where boulders float through space as always, and the classic lines of Space Invaders aliens sway left and right, moving down the screen row-by-row. Time Mode asks you to earn as many points as possible within 30 seconds of a standard game of Asteroids. Super-Chunk Mode throws bigger asteroids at the player and Survival Mode has you surviving for as long as possible (no surprise here).

The flip-side of this re-release of Asteroid Dust is the DLC available for $1. It doesn't sound like much, but when you consider that the game already costs money for the initial download and that none of the extras added through purchasing the DLC could possibly have required more development time than the infamous horse armor in Elder Scrolls IV, then you can't help but feel a little ripped-off. Super-Chunk and Survival both are initially locked, as are two of the four ships and - worst of all - also the modernized graphics mode, which really is the same look as in Asteroid Dust. So Silverline Arts deprives owners of Retro Dust of previously available content, instead forcing them to use the new (and admittedly not too shabby) retro-style visuals, unless they are willing to spend another buck. All of this aside, Retro Dust remains one of the best Asteroids-style games on the App Store even without shelling out any money for the DLC.

Retro Dust


AstroZapper - iOS (2009)

Should you decide to further follow this iOS shooter article, you'd better be prepared for heaps of Asteroids clones, though most of them have either since been pulled from the store for unknown reasons, or they suffer from terrible controls. AstroZapper, however, is an unambitious, yet perfectly reasonable recreation of the old classic.

As in most of these games, the best control scheme to choose is the one utilizing virtual buttons. One for activating the thruster, two for turning left or right and one for shooting. Unsurprisingly, these buttons are used to carefully maneuver your ship through asteroids silently floating through space in an arena spanning the whole screen, allowing for leaving the screen on any side, instantly reappearing at the other end. Damaged asteroids split up into smaller rocks and in AstroZapper sometimes into amoeba-aliens. While - going by user reviews - these aliens seem to annoy some people, they really shouldn't detract anyone from enjoying the action, since they only home in on your ship incredibly slowly and therefore fundamentally acting not all that different from the floating boulders.

The game is generally quite slow and also rather easy, which you might like or like not, but it can't be denied that it makes for a much better adaptation of the physics-centered flying mechanics to devices lacking real buttons and sticks than many other attempts do. Players looking for more than just Asteroids with amoebas can keep their eyes peeled for the occasional shield or weapon upgrade item, granting protection from a few hits, longer range for your laser or piercing lasers. Another charming idea is the option to switch between the surprisingly eye-pleasing modernized visuals and a retro style featuring the classic, simple vector graphics for items, asteroids, aliens and your ship. AstroZapper is well worth checking out for fans of the Asteroids formula and even the free lite version ought to be good enough for a quick play during commercials or waiting for the bus. Plus, both the lite and full version weigh in at a mere 3 MB.

AstroZapper

AstroZapper


Aerolite - ios (2008)

Aerolite is one of many iOS Asteroids clones and not only is it one of the earliest to be released, but it's also one of the better reps of this subgenre. The game lacks music, shooting sounds like somebody shouting "ooh ooh ooh" and the visuals are reduced to brightly colored asteroids on a bland, dark backdrop, yet none of this ever gets in the way of the well-executed classic gameplay, spearheaded by highly functional controls.

You shoot asteroids, they shatter into smaller asteroids and you repeat the procedure. It's the same as ever before, very, very slightly updated with the occasional three-way-shot upgrade and such. The biggest change meanwhile has to be the addition of an asteroid-breaking shield for your ship, that can be activated at any time unless it has already run out of energy. This shield is used by pressing one of five buttons, with another two being responsible for your thruster and weapon, respectively. Turning your craft is mapped to the remaining two buttons, making your ship spin either clock-wise or - who would've guessed - counterclock-wise. It's rather questionable why you have to lift your finger from one of these "turning buttons" first, before being able to use the other one, as a seamless swipe from one button to the other would allow for faster and smoother steering, but other than this, the controls work about as good as they ever could in an Asteroids-style game on i-devices. A great, yet simple, idea on the developer's behalf in this regard is to refrain from forced button locations, instead allowing for free re-allocation.

Anybody looking for a vanilla Asteroids game shouldn't hesitate downloading the free demo version, since that offers the same content as the full version ($2), just reserving the top of the screen for an ad bar.

Aerolite


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iOS Shooter Index

All the shmups, all the time

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