Jun 25, 2010


Review: Aqueduct
by Kieffer Bros.

Price: $2.99
Category: Games

Quickly now, off the top of your head, what are the games you instantly associate with plumbing? Chances are just two names came up. Everyone gets Super Mario Bros. straight away, and if you're a bit dirty-minded, you could have said Leisure Suit Larry for bonus points. But somewhere in the back of your mind a dreadful panic stirred, didn't it? You felt a leaky anxiety fill the pores of your palms, your lungs constricted; a hint of effluent terror surging from a memory long forgotten in the interests of self-preservation. When I say the names Pipe Mania and Pipe Dream, it all comes flooding back.

Younger readers will know this demon as the tiresome hacking minigame from Bioshock: water flows from a faucet on one end of a playing field littered with pipe pieces, and the player must construct a working viaduct to the drainage point on the other end before being overcome by the flow.

When the Kieffer Brothers sent word of their latest puzzle offering, Aqueduct, with screenshots that looked just like Pipe Mania, my own plumbing nearly evacuated. Thankfully, it turns out Aqueduct is meant to be a RELAXING game. A cross between box-pushing warehouse management classic, Sokoban, and a declawed Pipe Mania, Aqueduct has no time limits, only soothing music that gave me a lotioned back massage.

Each of its more than 140 stages is a carefully crafted puzzle, solved by putting all the pieces in exactly the right positions. This sounds tedious, but responsive touch controls make all the difference. This isn't your dad's Windows CE game. There's no poking about like with a sliding tile puzzle. There are no stone-against-stone grinding sound effects to accompany each move, and the blocks don't inch along, they slide as fast as your finger. Downside: modern additions like conveyor belt tiles, warp gates, and pressure-plate door switches will need explaining to aforementioned dad.

The Kieffers have a track record of producing beautifully designed games for the iPhone, in fact, I'd say they top the list of indie developers when it comes to eye candy. Take a look at their previous efforts, Abca, Orba, and Enso•Dot for examples of how a good amount of polish can turn simple puzzle concepts into compelling games. Aqueduct is no different, but they've traded in their usual slick, futuristic style for a bright hand-drawn look that I'd hate to call cute, but goshdarnit, it's adorable.

So far, I've spent quite a few visits to the bathroom playing Aqueduct, and I've never once as a consequence pictured the toilet disastrously backing up after a flush, which as any recovering Pipe Mania player can tell you, is quite an achievement.

Aqueduct comes out June 29, 2010 and will cost $2.99.


Positives: Beautiful graphics/sound, good controls, an enduring puzzle concept without the stress.
Unpositives: Finite number of levels (no random generator), but add-on packs might solve this problem.
Rating: 4.5 / 5

Buy Aqueduct in the iTunes App Store.


May 6, 2010


by NimbleBit

Category: Games
Price: $1.99

Even if you don't own a television, you've seen a frog jumping in slow motion from one lily pad to another, shot with a high-speed camera. I guarantee it. It's one of the basic building blocks of emotional manipulation.

Advertisers use it to induce a sense of carefree calm: "If only that were me, in my carefree frog life – I would buy a new computer and stop worrying about the rent." Documentary filmmakers use it to make a point: "Wow, the world is really beautiful and humans are real assholes for building factories." My girlfriend uses it to keep me in line: "If you don't put that phone down now, I'm leaving this gross frog picture in your bedroom."

Dizzypad is an ode to that image. It is a game that explores one simple premise with excruciating clarity of purpose: How well could a frog jump between lily pads if said pads were spinning continuously?

Only one finger is required to play. Once the frog seems to be facing another pad, a single tap sends him leaping either to his leafy destination or a watery grave. Skip one pad and land at the next, and an extra life is earned. At the heart of its peaceful setting – a still pond reflecting moonlight, graceful koi darting below the surface, dragonflies buzzing softly above it – is a recipe for murderous feelings. Like a poker player at full tilt, carelessly betting to erase recent losses, one often sends five more frogs into the abyss, involuntarily, after a single mistake. It's human nature, and therein lies Dizzypad's casual appeal. It's a matter of timing, judgment, and the human error you will not accept. Hence Retry, Retry, Retry.
Doodle Jump

Although its endless, play-forever design cleverly delivers scathing commentary on the shortcomings of modern narrative, and the futility of eternal life as the bedrock of religious promises, not to mention the naivety of those who invest for a comfortable retirement, Dizzypad is a lighthearted game. There is no alien invasion to outrun, as there is in Canabalt (a spiritual cousin), or in the case of the insanely-popular Doodle Jump, no endless platforms for an alien creature to ascend on his way to some metaphorical heaven against the backdrop of a faux-meta paper world. It's simply about one frog in a very large pond, steadily going from one pad to the next, and I think we can all agree there's something profound about life in there, even if I can't quite put my finger on it.

Positives: Easy to play, well made, remembers previous game state after restarting. Success is relaxing.
Unpositives: Potentially too simplistic, one-note gameplay, costs more than most 99c category competitors. Failure is infuriating.
Rating: 3 / 5

Buy Dizzypad in the iTunes App Store.

Mar 2, 2010


Attic ~ Music Controller for Forgotten Albums in Your iTunes Library
by Tapku/Taptivate

Category: Music
Price: $0.99 (introductory price)

One benefit of living in the age of the App Store is that creative people are constantly building tools to solve little problems most of us don't realize we have. Take Attic, for instance. It looks for the albums you've forgotten, presents them beautifully and lets you re-experience them in a suitably '70s lounge-like environment.

Start it up, and you're shown the kind of wooden shelf an audiophile might have in his listening room. On this shelf sits a selection of 15 LP sleeves, complete with cover art just like the real things. Hold your finger over any album, and out pops a vinyl record into your hand, just like the real thing. Below, a player console your grandfather would declare 'modern', complete with clunking mechanical buttons, waits patiently for you to slide the disc in. Trés realistique! And if you let go of the record anywhere except directly over the slot in the player, the disc vanishes in a puff of white cartoony smoke – in the style of the Mac OS X desktop – just like it would in real life! What. The. Fuck.

After you finally manage to get an album playing, that's when it all starts to go a bit Pete Tong, to borrow the parlance of disc jockeys, turntablists, and people with chemically-induced brain defects. Buying Attic is in fact like hiring a well-meaning but slightly senile butler to manage your music collection. For example, he might come up to you in the middle of the afternoon and say, "Would Sir care to listen to Prince's superlative new album, Lotusflow3r (yes, he really does speak the way Prince spells), which Sir has neglected for the last 265 days?", even though you were just listening to Lotusflow3r over lunch. Sometimes you catch him leaving your records in the refrigerator. This is the same impeccably-dressed man who claimed during his job interview that he would pull out such forgotten favorites like The Velvet Underground and Nico and Marvin Gaye's I Want You, then showed up on the first day dancing to Akon in his underwear.

But now and then he gets it right, and you'll be listening to a great old album in your armchair when he sidles up and discreetly whispers in your ear, "Would Sir like to select another album for me to put on as soon as this marvelous last track ends?", and you're all like, "Oh wow, how thoughtful of you! Please play this after I am done reminiscing about the first kiss I had while this song played at the prom", except the crazy old coot dashes off and STOPS YOUR FIRST KISS SONG, STARTS PLAYING THE NEXT RECORD, AND HAS THE NERVE TO GIVE YOU A "YOU'RE WELCOME" SMILE.

This seriously happens. The website claims you may "add multiple albums to the rotation to create on-the-fly playlists", so they obviously come from that universe where "on-the-fly" means "interrupted-at-every-opportunity".

You may ask why I haven't fired his ass yet, and why I continue to employ this puttering fool in my giant mansion of forgotten music. It's simple, really. He means well, looks good for his age, and someday after brain surgery will probably get the hang of the job. Also, through some contractual misunderstanding, he's working for a one-time payment of 99 cents.

Positives: Superb design and fun atmosphere for the most part, has one-touch "magic wand" option to automatically build playlists. More satisfying experience than simply building an iTunes Smart Playlist of neglected songs.
Unpositives: Says I haven't heard some albums recently when I know I have, has a few usage quirks to be ironed out.
Rating: 3 /  5

Buy Attic in the iTunes App Store.

Jan 26, 2010

JotNot Scanner

by MobiTech 3000

Category: Business
Price: $4.99

Sorry, I didn't see you behind that gargantuan wall of loose documents! Good lord, do you want me to call an ambulance? Oh, those paper cuts will heal on their own? Whatever you say, but it looks like you brought a legal pad to a knife fight, my friend. I do apologize for interrupting your bloodletting back there, but wouldn't it be nice if you didn't have to keep these bank statements, utility bills, and pizza delivery receipts stacked around anymore? No, I'm not talking about a filing cabinet, although I noticed you've got one of those already. Oh, that's your liquor closet? I see.

No, what I'm proposing is a scanning solution. Wait! Put that manila envelope down before you scalp somebody! I'm not here to sell you some overpriced Canon or Epson machine, complete with Windows-only drivers coded by the programming equivalent of a one-eyed plastic surgeon in a Bangalorean basement. I know all too well how those scanners can take five minutes to spit out an upside-down JPEG. The age of the flatbed scanner is coming to a close, with the iPhone ready to take its place, and never the TWAIN interfaces shall meet!

You see, it's always been possible to take photos of a sheet of a paper in lieu of a proper scan, but those results always prove fairly unusable. For one, you can't print them out again or put them through Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, because they're just photos of a sheet of paper, often shot from below or to the side to avoid shadows. In order to turn those photos into head-on shots with good contrast between text and paper, one requires a thousand-dollar Photoshop license and the services of an arrogant, know-it-all designer type who will preface all assistance with complaints about your computer's lack of proper fonts, and roll his eyes at your choice of desktop wallpaper.

Since the iPhone is adept at transforming itself into all manner of useful appliances with the help of apps, the folks at MobiTech 3000 have created JotNot – the world's first program designed to render obsolete both Wacom-wielding snobs and flatbed scanners alike. In a simple two-step process, it automatically performs a series of graphical operations far beyond the abilities of a paper-hoarding luddite such as yourself, outputting a cleaned-up PDF at the end. Simply take a photo of a page lying flat on a table top, from any angle you find comfortable, and JotNot corrects the skewed perspective while brightening and sharpening the hell out of that young boy. It also works with documents.

From there, the free services Evernote and Google Docs are your new virtual filing cabinets. Upload everything from directly within the app, and find anything again later with Evernote's intelligent OCR search, or transcribe them to plain text with Google Docs. Worthy competitors are few and far between: the closest, Scanner Pro by Readdle, is both more expensive and harder to navigate. JotNot is the only one to offer Google Docs integration, which anyone who understands the technical term "unlimited storage 4evaaaaa" will appreciate.

So you see, my scored and seeping student, with this system your business can run online, clutter free, and even the most challenged of employees can share a single iPhone instead of a bulky copier/scanner. But I recommend wrapping yours in a Ziploc bag – we found this out the hard way at my office when mine came back smelling like ass.

Positives: Intuitive UI makes this app the easiest of its kind. Supports local export via Wi-Fi as well as various online services including Google Docs. Multi-page PDF creation.
Unpositives: No support for landscape scans or Dropbox exports, which closest rival Scanner Pro has. Occasional "low memory" warnings even on 3GS.
Rating: 4 / 5

Buy JotNot Scanner in the iTunes App Store.

Jan 23, 2010

Voice Band

by WaveMachine Labs Inc.

Category: Music
Price: $2.99

We look up to musicians because what they do isn't easy. Let's not even consider the brutal cycle of self-promotion and working in basement bars, all to sign a deal far removed from their own interests. Put aside also the isolation that fame brings, surrounded at all times by fans and sycophants that sever their last ties to reality, all exacerbated by reckless drug abuse and liquor sponsorships. Just start with the fact that learning to play guitar is impossibly hard, and ruins one's hands beyond any moisturizing cream's ability to repair. It's like that French king's illegitimate brother forced to wear an iron mask for life, only with fingertips. At least HE could wipe his ass without getting a rude surprise whenever the paper's too thin.

Fortunately for us, we live in a time where one doesn't need a literary agent, or indeed any remarkable literary ability, to publish a multi-volume work of derivative vampire-themed young adult fiction which goes on to become a movie franchise of obscene proportions despite being directed by people who've apparently never seen another film before. Yes, these days one can become a director, actor, dreadlocked R&B vocalist, investment banker, or social media expert without the troublesome benefit of technical expertise.

Now, with this month's release of the Voice Band iPhone music app, that last bastion of artistic commitment has finally met its match.

Voice Band only requires one to hum in tune to master the guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, saxophone, and drums. Start it up, choose an instrument, hit record, and listen to the sound of session musicians all over the world hitting the sidewalk from the tallest skyscrapers they can find. Concentrate, and you'll even hear recording studio owners amidst the squelchy symphony. Because once you've laid down your first instrument, you can go over the recording as many times as you like, overdubbing a new instrument each time until tomorrow's nonsensical chart-topper is finished.

Don't have a tune in mind yet? Just load up a track made the old-fashioned way, anything in your iPod library, and proceed to make it sound even better by adding a dozen more guitars and two keyboard solos. It's just like attending a Broken Social Scene concert!

Positives: At long last, the democratization of guitar wankery.
Unpositives: Overdubbing only, no multitrack editor. Kick/snare drum combo a little tricky to control.
Rating: 4 / 5

Buy Voice Band in the iTunes App Store.

Jan 12, 2010


by Semi Secret Software

Category: Games
Price: $2.99

Running is primal, driven by our deepest-rooted instincts. It was in us before we even knew what we were. Foot to ground, one following the other, with the body in a heightened state of focus – all senses and conscious thought focused elsewhere, on the trail of wounded prey, an escape route from certain death, or the closest men's room after a taco. Even now, we run in the dark of our dreams, although our hairless animal bodies sleep in high thread-count pajamas and twitch at the remembered scent of caramel frappucinos.

We are so in love with running, we gave special privileges to its name. We make our computers run programming code, we ask co-workers to run ideas by us, we run red lights, we run for president, we have good runs while they last, and we let Jay-Z run this town tonight. But running is not an ungrateful god, and in exchange for such linguistic ambiguity, gave back to our language a loose, limber flow. One could say the human race went from parkour to poetry (if one were to ignore the small matters of chronology and free running's French origins). Anyway, there's no denying they both start with the letter 'P'.

Canabalt is that poetry, that flow, that primal urge, distilled into a gray, retro-styled game you play with a single button. Its name offends the ear upon first encounter. What is that word, Canabalt? Is it some poncy European way of saying cannonball? And then the techno soundtrack starts up, and you swear upon your parents' lives the Europeans are behind this. But patience, young orphan. Take control of the anonymous protagonist as he launches out of the first window and keeps on sprinting over the rooftops below, and you might be forgiven for holding your breath. His automatic rightward movement, one foot after the other, broken only by the heroic leaps of your command, mirrors that latent programming in your own DNA. You enter a state of complete focus that transcends the small screen of an iPhone; sailing over the edge of a building onto the arm of a construction crane, rolling, then bolting off again, feels like a real rush.

Alien silhouettes stalk the skyline behind you and large objects fall into your path from above, but who has time to think about them? You just keep going. The absence of explicit narrative – is he running to, or running from? – hacks your own innate primordial code. Somewhere inside your head, your caveman ancestor is both running to safety and running to close the distance between his spear and his evil dinosaur nemesis. To those boring science types who insist that humans and T-Rexes did not coexist, I have only this to say: grow up.

Positives: Addictive action that explains itself to anyone, online leaderboards
Unpositives: Failure stings and tastes salty.
Rating: 5 / 5

Buy Canabalt in the iTunes App Store.

Jan 4, 2010


by Joby Inc.

Category: Photography
Price: Free


You know what's holding citizen journalism back? The awful photos. Yes, it's really inspiring that the modern cameraphone turns every bystander into an activist, every cowed citizen into a wanted dissident, but who wants to live in a world of third-rate photography where the rules taught for decades by elite art colleges go unobserved? Not me.

Is that a photo of Saddam Hussein's statue being toppled? Why, with that skewed horizon line, he still looks fit and empowered! You say someone got shot on the streets of Tehran, but by whose hand? If only the shutter had closed a few seconds before, I would know with absolute certainty that 90-year-old man didn't commit suicide with his own assault rifle (immediately removed by friendly municipal cleaning services). And that tank about to run over a peaceful protester? It's a little poorly composed, wouldn't you agree? It's amazing how much drama the Rule of Thirds can bring to your wartime photography. It could mean the difference between a million dollars in aid, and a small column facing the Sports section.

Before the release of the free Gorillacam, iPhone owners in North Korea and the Middle East had few options to refine their craft, as all the good apps with built-in composition grids, level meters, and high-speed burst modes cost money. Their only recourse was to correspond with sympathetic Americans, asking for the use of their credit card numbers in association with a post office box address in Iran. I don't have to tell you which cell in Guantanamo those traitors spent Christmas in.

With self-timer and time-lapse modes, a burst capture option that keeps taking shots (1.6 a second) for as long as the button is held down, a spirit level indicator, and a full-screen shutter button for easy operation while pinned down behind sandbags, it's hard to believe Joby Inc. is giving so much away for free. It seems all they want is for you to buy their companion Gorillamobile flexible tripod case, which lets you stand or wrap your iPhone around a nearby pole for better photos. But if that's not your thing, the app's still free and infinitely useful. There aren't that many stripper poles in Tehran anyway.

Positives: Full featureset, fast and threaded background saving, creates new photo possibilities, free.
Unpositives: Ugly splash screen is an ad for the Gorillamobile, no tap-to-focus support (3GS).
Rating: 4 / 5

Get Gorillacam for free in the iTunes App Store.