The mission: To find a few phone games worthy of filling the Candy Crush- and Dots-sized holes in our hearts. Not an easy feat!
The methodology: We asked our readers and friends for their recommendations, and consulted with a few video game websites like Kotaku to assemble a rough list of worthy contenders beyond the usual suspects. (Angry Birds, Words With Friends, etc.)
Then, we divided up the workload, and had a few of The Week's staffers immerse themselves in a game of their choosing for seven days. Here is what happened:
Tripletown was pitched to me as a puzzle game in which you get to play an adorable bear. Sold. But the reality was oh so much darker.
Yes, there is an adorable anime bear who is the face of the app. But he is not your ally — he's your enemy. His round, wide eyes turn narrow and red, and he will often let out a roar that frightens the tiny townsfolk for whom you are trying to build a town.
At first, after the bears turned on me, the game seemed horribly complicated. It's all about placing, accumulating, and upgrading little patches of grass, bushes, and trees around a grid. And every so often a mean bear pops up. If you can corner three or more they will "die" and become a church. If you corner one or two they will die and become gravestones that get in your way. See? Dark.
But once you get past the facts that the bears are mean and you have to kill them, it's actually pretty fun. And you get addicted figuring out how to optimize your placement of greenery and structures to get the biggest town before the grid fills up. So, yeah, it's pretty awesome and it turns out I'm pretty good at it. Recommended for passing the time on your commute, your six-hour plane flight, or half of your Sunday.
10000000 is a fantastic game for anyone who's fine with not having a life anymore. It mashes together two of the most addictive genres available on the iPhone — the puzzle game (Candy Crush) and the infinite runner (Temple Run et al.) — to create something that's both perfectly balanced and compulsively playable.
In 10000000 you play as an adventurer who has been imprisoned and is tasked with earning 10,000,000 points to achieve his freedom. Points are earned by running through a dungeon, "fighting monsters," and opening treasure chests by playing a fast-paced puzzle game roughly comparable to Candy Crush or Bejeweled. When you "die," you take your accomplishments with you, and the process begins again. Each dungeon run, which typically lasts no more than a few minutes, also earns you more loot, which you can spend to improve your equipment and statistics (and ensure that your next run will be even better than the one before it).
It took me around three and a half hours (or about eight subway commutes) to earn the 10,000,000 points required to secure my 8-bit avatar's freedom — upon which I was told I had unlocked an "endless mode" that would allow me to keep playing far past the goal 10000000 originally set. I immediately deleted the game, out of fear that I'd lose the rest of my life in a haze of swords, keys, and treasure chests, but that first 10,000,000 was well worth the price of admission.
Having only played Pocket Planes for a week, I can't pretend to know every facet of a game whose intricacies are belied by its 16-bit-like interface.
But the basic idea is to build an international airline from the ground up, starting with a handful of small planes that transport goods and passengers short distances. I wake up every morning to find that the planes I dispatched the previous night have arrived at their destinations. Before even checking my email, I send a box of orchids to Montreal, a passel of socks to Quebec City, a fellow named Troy Jimenez to Cincinnati. I take a shower, drink coffee, ferry some bananas to Detroit. I respond to emails, mutter goodbye to my wife as she ducks out the door, buy an airport in Minneapolis.
Each flight costs me a few gold coins, presumably for gas and the pilot's labor, but the loss is more than offset every time a plane touches down, my stash of coins increasing by a number that rises and vanishes like smoke. I skim the news, make breakfast, purchase a Bearclaw-P plane in an effort to expand my fleet. I get on the subway, and even though I'm underground, sealed off from the economic life of the city, I'm content in the knowledge that my planes are in the air, my empire is spreading, and the profits are rolling in by the bushel. I enter the office and sit at my desk, no colleague the wiser about my hidden world, one in which the ebb and flow of commerce is determined by the tip of my finger, I rule the skies like God, and, most unbelievably, the planes run on time.
In other words, if the main measure of a video game is how far it takes us from reality, it's safe to say that Pocket Planes does a fine job.
Every other driver on Earth is already toast, and zombies lie in wait like so many undead highway patrolmen for the chance to hurl themselves at your SUV and harvest your brain. Luckily, there are a few ways to get rid of the zombies: Run them over before they latch on; scrape them off by sideswiping any number of abandoned cars strewn across the highway; or shoot them off using a series of increasingly high-powered weapons that are unlocked as your miles of successful zombie-free driving pile up. If you let too many zombies pile on, or ram into one of the many abandoned cars that turn the highway into an obstacle course, you're a goner.
There was something amusing about watching the zombies leap Jackie Joyner-Kersee style onto your car. Less amusing was the gyroscope-based steering function, which rendered the slightest inadvertent movement or subway rattle a potential "game over" situation. Basically, you can't move while you play this game, save for the wild gyrations needed to steer the car back and forth. There aren't a ton of variations to the road, the zombies, or the graphics involved in Zombie Highway, so visually the game can be a bit of a bore. That said, there isn't much more satisfying than sweeping a ream of murderous quasi-corpses off your car. My verdict: a great waiting room game, but no way can you get away with playing it in church. You'll look possessed.
An old fan of The Simpsons, I figured I would be sucked in by the opportunity to rebuild Springfield after Homer causes a meltdown at the nuclear plant, wiping out his hometown.
Homer's lines are funny, but weren't enough to keep me going. I'm no gamer, and felt like I was just clicking on a few narrow options to get things moving. I turned to my elementary school sons for help. The older one, a Minecraft fanatic, lost interest quickly, saying, "This is just one of those games where you win coins to buy stuff." He had a point — progress seemed frustratingly slow, because we weren't willing to make in-app purchases (of donuts, Homer's preferred currency) with REAL money. Then I handed the phone to my younger son — a Club Penguin aficionado — and he was hooked instantly. He promptly built the Simpsons a neighborhood, complete with Apu behind the counter of a new Kwik-E-Mart. He begged for the phone whenever it was out of his hands. This is a kid, however, who last weekend complained of being bored, and, when given the opportunity to head to the park, said, "I don't want to do anything in the REAL world." If you find yourself saying that sometimes, you might get addicted too.
Earlier this summer, a pair of 7-year-old twin boys reportedly spent $3,000 on in-game purchases while playing Clash of Clans on their mother's iPad. It's easy to see why. The game plays like a medieval fantasy version of FarmVille, with plenty of gold and other resources to collect as you build your virtual village. The goal is to wage war on other players with a Tolkien-esque arrangement of warriors, giants, goblins, and dragons.
The battles themselves — which mostly consist of placing soldiers and hoping they don't get killed by your opponent's static defenses — aren't too exciting. The fun is in building up your fortune and armies, which takes a long, long time to do (unless, of course, you are willing to spend some real-life greenbacks to speed the process along).
For the most part, it's a game of patience. Train some soldiers, start building new defenses, and then check back every couple of hours (and hope nobody attacks you while you're away). Beware: The more powerful you get, the more tempted you will be to spend your way to the top.
You know that "It's IN the computer?!" scene in Zoolander where Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are trying to find those incriminating files, and they devolve into animals, batting at the machine with their hands and feet because they can't turn it on? That is me with technology. Every. Single. Day.
#FOMO forced me to participate in this experiment, but my selected app — Wordament — proved a challenge from the start. The idea is you zip your finger around the screen, swiping up, down, or horizontally to highlight words hidden in the mix. Like Boggle, but smarter.
The first few times I played the game, I created "SAT" and "ATE," then tried to get the game to recognize softballs like "ON" and "AS," but Wordy wasn't having any of that.
About three days into this adventure, I discovered a pretty fascinating nugget while half-watching a rerun of How I Met Your Mother: You're not limited to just side-to-side or up-and-down in order to create the words! So long as you're not hop-scotching the letters, you can connect them in bizarre circles and pentagrams and however else you see fit.
From that point on, instead of getting three words per two-minute game, I was up to eight, sometimes creating pure art with finds such as "SOIREE". Score!
Then I offered the app up to some friends over drinks on Friday night. "You play," I directed, and, of course, those tech-savvy wizards did, figuring the whole thing out in under a minute and racking up some big points (my average was 10 or 11 points per game; they were hitting 25 or 30).
Each lab rat got really excited to play about three games, then handed the phone back to me and returned to his or her beer. Consensus: Wordament is a fun app... if you're directed to review one for work.
The central thesis of this super-stylish explosion fest is that animals are evil and will stop at nothing to destroy your property. Ergo, you must destroy them first.
This is accomplished by strategically constructing a "Bad Hotel" every single level, which you build upward to include all sorts of weird weaponized rooms. I guess you can say the game takes the classic Tower Defense model and flings everything skyward. Some rooms, for example, launch explosive projectiles into the air. Others come with cool freeze beams. Some heal the structural damage your buildings take from invaders. And some rooms exist for the sole purpose of earning you money to buy new gear.
In theory, such a scary armament should make the birds and other animals hell bent on attacking your property easy pickings. Only these aren't ordinary creatures. Nope. These are relentless, swarming manifestations of evil that just so happen to be drawn really cool. Birds are strapped with explosives, rats wear TNT backpacks, lightning clouds frown at you and make mean faces, and there is even a gigantic crab whose whole existence is dedicated to smashing all your expensive stuff.
Don't let the futuristic bleeps and bloops fool you. This is a very twitchy, very stressful universe to get sucked into. You will get frustrated. You will lose. And, if you're anything like me, you might even miss your subway stop.
I don't know why I'm writing this review when I could be playing Robot Unicorn Attack 2. I could be guiding my noble robo-steed as he jumps and dashes through a gorgeously apocalyptic land filled with fairies, stars, narwhals, and the occasional giant. The game's premise is fairly simple: Avoid the obstacles, collect some fairies and other goodies, and don't die (robot unicorns are unfortunately not immortal). While I could do with fewer ads and less sneaky attempts to get me to make in-app purchases, it feels plain wrong to have any qualms with a game that's so addictive and transporting.
Jelly Splash is great for people who like Candy Crush, but wish it were a little sillier and less challenging. The premise is similar, but instead of moving like-colored candies into lines, you connect strings of three or more googly-eyed jelly bubbles by dragging your finger across the screen.
The basic goal is to connect as many as possible from any angle — horizontal, vertical, diagonal. If you connect five or more in a row, a glowing ball of light zooms from that site to a random jelly, transforming it into a super jelly, which, if connected, can explode an entire row of regular jellies, racking up hundreds of points.
So, that covers "jelly." But what about the "splash"? Like Candy Crush, each level of Jelly Splash has a task — like exploding little mushrooms, or freeing jellies from dark slime — and only a certain number of turns. If you complete the task without using all the turns, the reward is a "splash" round, where, without any help from you, jelly bubbles drop from the sky and explode on other jellies in a sloppy, point-building bonanza.