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The iPhone Game Review Conundrum

I was intending to write a simple review of three iPhone/iPod touch games from Ambrosia. Having played all the games quite a few times, I felt more than qualified to comment on their strengths and weaknesses at suitable length and make some sort of overall recommendation. However, in the process of working on the review, I realized I had a problem on my hands involving the number of competing games and the way the iTunes App Store works.

So I am going to tell you about the games in a moment. But first, I must say a few words about why I’m reviewing these particular games, and why reviewing iPhone software – and casual games in particular – is problematic.

Games for Non-Gamers — I should confess up front that I’m not much of a gamer, in the same way that Pluto is not much of a planet. The only game on my Mac is the one that came with it (Chess, which I’ve never played – that is, I’ve played chess but not Chess). In fact, I actively dislike and avoid most games of any kind, from board games to football. However, I do like solving problems, so certain kinds of puzzles appeal to me. In addition, I sometimes get into a work-avoidance mode where there’s some urgent project I want to put off at all costs (like finishing up a Take Control book that’s past its deadline), and at
times like that, I can certainly convince myself of the need to spend just one more hour unjumbling words or matching jewels or whatever.

So, on those relatively uncommon occasions when I play games, I favor the so-called casual games, which is to say simple, one-off, single-player puzzles that require no ongoing commitment. When I play them, I play obsessively for a few hours or a few days, and then I spontaneously lose all interest and don’t touch them again for months.

When it came time to equip my new iPhone with some casual games to help me through my hours of need, I downloaded a trio of offerings from the well-known and respected developer Ambrosia Software: Mr. Sudoku ($4.99), Aki Mahjong Mobile ($4.99), and mondo Solitaire ($9.99). (Ambrosia also sells mondo Top 5 Solitaire, which features just the five most popular solitaire games and costs $2.99; I didn’t try that version.)

In fact, I began reviewing early versions of the three games some time ago (one of which, Aki Mahjong, originally cost $9.99). All three have been updated at least once since I first played them, and it’s a good thing, too: I had some serious complaints about the initial versions of all three programs that were later remedied with free updates.

The Problem of Review Criteria — Ordinarily, a software review consists of describing a program’s features and interface, outlining its pros and cons, mentioning any problems encountered, and wrapping up with a bottom-line recommendation of some sort. That end result – yes, you should use this; no, you shouldn’t – depends a great deal on what your other options are. I might recommend a one-of-a-kind program despite significant flaws if there’s no other good way to get the job done. Conversely, if I’m reviewing a program with obvious competition (for instance, a Web browser), my recommendation can’t be isolated from the other programs; it must take into account what a user could choose instead, so it would
be irresponsible of me not to have at least a passing familiarity with that other software. Likewise, cost plays into a recommendation: I might recommend an average but cheap program over a fantastic but wildly expensive alternative because it’s a better value.

When I posted my latest table of Mac backup software (see “Monster List of Mac Backup Software Updated,” 2008-09-14) – which didn’t include actual ratings or recommendations, by the way – I bemoaned the fact that with around 100 choices, it’s difficult for anyone to compare their options and make an informed decision. But at least with backup software, the available programs differ widely in their range of features, so you could quickly narrow down your choices to (for example) only those that support Amazon S3 or offer encryption if those features are important to you.

You can probably see where I’m going with this: casual iPhone games of the sort I’m looking at have, essentially by definition, quite small feature sets, as well as a narrow range of prices. So the more choices there are, the more difficult it becomes to make a recommendation – or, indeed, even to determine reasonable review criteria.

Let’s consider Sudoku first, as the most extreme example. The game itself is about as simple as they get: based on a limited number of initial clues, fill in a 9-by-9 grid with the numbers 1 through 9 such that every column, every row, and all nine 3-by-3 subgrids use each digit exactly once. You can play the game with nothing more than a piece of paper and a pencil. Therefore, beyond a few basics, a computerized Sudoku game neither needs nor benefits from lots of features.

Back in July 2008, when Dan Frakes did a round-up of iPhone Sudoku apps for Macworld, he found a mere 18 to choose from (and ended up reviewing three in depth). Now, a couple of months later, I’ve counted 41 Sudoku games on the App Store, ranging in price from free to $5.99.

I thought it was silly that there are (at the moment) 11 “flashlight” apps for the iPhone, whose main function is to turn the screen completely white. But 41 Sudoku apps – that’s way beyond silly. As with backup software, having more choices is not necessarily a good thing.

It’s probably fair to say that no one – not an ordinary user, not a hard-core Sudoku addict, and not even a dedicated software reviewer – is going to download, play, and try to compare 41 different Sudoku programs. Although even an investment of $5.99 is not much, most people prefer to know what they’re getting before shelling out money. Unfortunately, the iTunes Store currently offers no way to try an app for free and then later pay to license it, as is common with Mac OS X software. As a result, a number of developers offer two (or more) versions of their programs – usually a free, limited version along with a full, paid version. In the case of Sudoku apps, all nine that are free are limited versions (generally meaning they have a
small, fixed number of puzzles to choose from) that serve as demos for their paid counterparts. Of course, downloading even nine Sudoku games is a stretch, and most of the competitors (including Ambrosia’s Mr. Sudoku) don’t come in free versions anyway.

My point is: in a tiny field so crowded with apps doing essentially the same thing, any reviewer is going to have a tough time making a good recommendation one way or another. The same goes, to a lesser extent, for solitaire (31 choices by my count) and mahjong (11 choices). I can’t really tell the world’s iPhone developers to un-develop their redundant games and make something more useful instead, but I do hope that in the future we see more genuine variety rather than innumerable variations of the same thing.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I can tell you a bit about these three games. If I may give away the punch line: I liked them all reasonably well on their own but, to the extent I could compare them with other games, I found them wanting, and can’t enthusiastically recommend that you buy them.

Mr. Sudoku — I must admit I kind of got off on the wrong foot with Mr. Sudoku. The first time I played the game, it introduced itself to me by saying, “Mr. Sudoku!” in a loud, excessively friendly voice, thus irritating me (and the people nearby) when I thought I was going to play a quiet, solitary game. I quickly found the setting to turn off the sound. Note to all Sudoku developers: sound doesn’t really help this game, and gratuitous sound hurts.

You can choose any of several predefined games in four difficulty levels. Once you’ve played all the games in the list, though, you have to tap the + button to add a new game (of whatever difficulty level), and then select it to play that game. (You can choose whether completed games remain in the list or are hidden.) This arrangement lets you keep track of multiple unfinished games at once (the app keeps track of your elapsed time and progress on each one), but seemed unnecessarily complicated to me. I’d have preferred simply tapping a single button to determine difficulty and working through a single game until I finished it. At the very least, it would be nice for the list to repopulate itself after you’ve completed each game –
perhaps by adding a new game at the same or next-higher difficulty level.

As with other iPhone Sudoku games, you can enter a number into a square by tapping the square to select it and then tapping a number (the numbers appear in a row when your device is held vertically, or in a 3-by-3 grid when it’s held horizontally). Oddly, the number buttons appear only when a square is selected and disappear after you’ve entered the number; I found this distracting. In addition to highlighting the selected square, Mr. Sudoku highlights the current row, column, and 3×3 block, which can be helpful aids to play.

Mr. Sudoku’s marquee feature appears to be the option to draw numbers on the screen with your finger rather than tapping a button, but this required much more effort and was far more error-prone. In my opinion, it detracted from the game rather than adding to it.

To jot a note to yourself of a number that might work in a given square, you can tap a pencil icon before tapping (or drawing) the number. There’s also a button to clear your entry in any square. In addition to being able to turn sound effects (and music) on and off, you can toggle real-time display of mistakes – a common feature in computerized Sudoku games.

And that’s about it. Game play itself was no better or worse than any other form of Sudoku I’ve tried. But I kept feeling as though the app was trying too hard, and that a simpler design would have been better. Just to give myself some basis of comparison, I downloaded a few of the free Sudoku apps. Most of them turned out to be significantly worse – surprising because this simple game should be as hard to mess up as boiling water – but one, Sudoku for iPhone from Mighty Mighty Good Games, was significantly better in my opinion (largely as a result of having fewer distracting gimmicks), so that’s what I ended up playing most of the time. (The paid version, which costs $2.99, has 360
puzzles and a variety of color schemes, whereas the free version has 20 games and three color schemes.)

Because I’ve only tried perhaps six or eight iPhone Sudoku games in all, I can’t tell you that the Mighty Mighty Good Games version is the best (or even the best value). I can say for sure that Mr. Sudoku is far from the worst (a left-handed compliment, I know) but also a poorer value than at least one of its competitors.

Aki Mahjong — Mahjong (or mah-jongg) is a simple yet challenging matching game. In mahjong solitaire, the form you typically find in computerized versions, you begin with tiles stacked up in any of numerous configurations. Then you have to select two tiles with the same design, neither of which is blocked by tiles on both left and right sides, to remove them from the stack. The trick is to figure out how to remove the tiles in the right order so that you don’t end up with one tile of a pair stacked on top of another one.

Aki Mahjong has 12 main layouts, or “levels,” and you must successfully complete each before unlocking the next (though you can revisit a completed layout, shuffled differently, at any time). Having chosen a level, you can also choose any of three difficulties (which impose time constraints) or an untimed version, and completing even the easiest variant unlocks the next level. So you don’t automatically progress to greater levels of difficulty. The game also includes 25 bonus levels, any of which you can freely choose at any time (again, with your choice of difficulty level). I never quite got why the game distinguished between “main” and “bonus” levels or why it insisted on unlocking a level before moving to another one if difficulty
wasn’t a consideration. I’d have preferred either a single large set of layouts, any of which can be freely chosen (along with the free choice of difficulty level), or progressive play in which you get expanded options only after demonstrating improved skills.

Once you’ve selected a game, you tap two matching tiles to remove them from the board and continue this process until you’ve matched them all, time runs out, or you lose due to having stacked tiles. Music optionally plays in the background, and you can turn sound effects on and off.

The graphics display is top-notch: the tiles, background, and animation are all lovely. For better or worse, Aki Mahjong dims tiles that are blocked – it’s an aid to gameplay but some might consider it a crutch that reduces the challenge. You can use the usual pinch and drag gestures to zoom in and out or pan the display. However, you can’t change the viewing angle, and most frustratingly, rotating the device doesn’t rotate the display – it’s always in landscape mode, even if the tile configuration is square or oriented vertically.

The game is (for my tastes, at least) too forgiving. For example, if you get to the point where no further matches are possible (that is, you lose), the game doesn’t end; you tap the screen to reshuffle the remaining tiles, but keeping the same configuration. (You can also shake your iPhone at any time to shuffle the tiles.) What you can’t do is restart the same game with all the tiles in their original positions so that you can try again to match them in the correct order; the emphasis seems to be on getting you through the game rather than on enjoying the mental challenge. Also, the timer (or timed variants of the game) is weirdly non-linear: you gain time by matching tiles and lose time by accepting hints or reshuffling, rather than
having a simple timer run out after a fixed amount of time. I didn’t see the point to that extra complexity.

I tried a few other mahjong games just to get a sense of how Aki Mahjong, you know, stacks up. Again, I found a range – some better, some worse. One free game, Moonlight Mahjong Lite from Midnight Martian, had many of the features I missed in Aki Mahjong. For example, it lets you change the viewing angle with a two-fingered drag or rotate the board with a two-fingered twist; the display also reorients automatically when you rotate the device. You can freely choose from any of four layouts (more are available in the full version, which costs $4.99, the same as Aki Mahjong), and can restart a lost game with its initial tile orientation to try again. On the
downside, Moonlight Mahjong’s graphics are less attractive than those in Aki Mahjong, with significant jagged edges at some combinations of zoom and angle. Even so, I found myself playing Moonlight Mahjong more often because it annoyed me less on the whole. Thus, once again, I’ve got to say that Ambrosia’s game – neither the best nor the worst of the bunch – would not be my pick.

mondo Solitaire — Finally we come to mondo Solitaire, which includes more than 100 different solitaire card games, including old standards like Klondike and Baker’s Dozen, plus about a zillion I’ve never heard of. Many of the games offer a variety of settings – for example, you can choose to play Klondike with anywhere from two to six suits and change how many cards are flipped at once. If it’s variety you’re looking for, this app certainly has it.

If you hold your device vertically while selecting games, you get a list; if you hold it horizontally, you get a Cover Flow-like series of thumbnails of the card layouts. As with Aki Mahjong, however, all actual game play is horizontal. This annoyed me to no end, especially since my old phone had a teensy screen but still offered several solitaire games in portrait orientation. Because of this limitation, you almost always need both hands to play effectively.

Like Aki Mahjong, mondo Solitaire has unimpeachable graphics. The app also supports one-swipe gestures to undo/redo, cheat, and play out all available cards. Game play is straightforward; if you’ve played any computerized solitaire game, you should find pretty much all the features you expect here.

However, two other things about mondo Solitaire seriously bugged me. First, the procedure for moving a stack of cards onto another tableau is odd: you have to tap a card, which puts a paperclip icon on all the cards from there to the bottom; then tap the bottom-most card and drag it to the new location. If you don’t tap in exactly the right spot to select the topmost card in a set (meaning the paperclip grabs too many or too few cards), you can adjust its position by holding your finger on the stack, displaying a magnified view of the surrounding area. The problem is, this magnified area tends to be right under your finger so you can’t see it – and it doesn’t show the paperclip itself, so it’s not always clear which cards will be
selected. All in all, this seemed too complex of a procedure to accomplish something so basic.

The other thing I didn’t like is mondo Solitaire’s game statistics. It doesn’t just show you wins and losses. If, at any point during a game, you use the undo gesture (even to correct a simple misplaced tap – in fact, even if you undo and then immediately redo) and you go on to win that game, mondo Solitaire calls that win “tainted.” So you’ll have a line on the Statistics screen that says, for example, “Won: 4 (2 tainted).” Are you kidding me? Tainted? This is solitaire, for crying out loud, something that’s just for wasting time. To be chided for, in effect, cheating simply by using a game’s undo feature blows my mind. Tainted! Bah!

Once again, I downloaded a small sampling of free solitaire games to see what the competition looked like. Once again, I randomly found a free program, Smallware’s Sol Free Solitaire, that I liked better. Sol Free supports portrait mode (only, but that’s my preference), has perfectly adequate if less-elegant graphics, and a selection of five games (a paid version with 30 games is also available). Game play requires a bit more tapping, but on the whole made me happier than using mondo Solitaire.

The Problem Remains — All three of these games, by themselves, are perfectly playable and will successfully enable you to avoid work for hours on end. I truly wish, therefore, that I could tell you to go out and buy them, but even though they’re inexpensive, I have a hard time recommending them when I know of free games that (in my opinion) are more fun.

Of course, having tried only a few of the competing programs in each category, I can’t tell you what the best Sudoku, mahjong, or solitaire game for the iPhone is. And free is great, but even the paid games in these categories are quite cheap, and it may well be the case that for a few dollars you can have the greatest Sudoku game of all time for just a smidge over nothing. Finding it is the trick.

I’d like to see more developers offer free trial versions of their iPhone software, but I’d like it even more if Apple made a way to try out full versions for a limited time and unlock them later. Until then, many of us will be playing the increasingly popular but fabulously expensive “Find the Best Game” game.

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