Familiar names dominate our latest look at recent worthwhile iPad releases, as lead review Crimson: Steam Pirates comes from Halo developer Bungie – but while it's a slick (and free!) offering, it's not your standard in-house creation. Next up is the iPad 2-only version of PC adventure hit Machinarium, which shines on the touchscreen tablet, followed by GoatUp, the fourth iOS game from legendary dev Jeff Minter in the last nine months. Our last title, Flick Rocket, doesn't have any big-name ties, but the retro-stylized affair gleefully cribs from a handful of classic arcade favorites.
The first post-Halo release to bear the Bungie name isn't its multiplatform project for Activision, nor was it even developed in-house. It's Crimson: Steam Pirates – a free, turn-based strategy game exclusive to iPad. Created by Jordan Weisman, who previously unleashed beloved hits like Crimson Skies, MechWarrior, and Shadowrun on the gaming world, this slick, bite-sized offering is well-designed and has a strong core appeal. So what does any of this have to do with Bungie? Crimson is the first project to come from Bungie Aerospace, an initiative that lets the studio wield its considerable resources and influence to guide promising mobile and social concepts to fruition.
If Steam Pirates is any indication, iOS (and perhaps Android and Facebook) players have plenty to look forward to in the months and years ahead, especially since this debut project arrives without a price tag. Crimson reminds us in parts of a couple downloadable games from last year: it features the aquatic approach and Steampunk aesthetic of quickly-forgotten Xbox Live Arcade release, Aqua, while serving up controls much like those of SteamBirds, a Flash-based flight favorite that debuted strongly on iPad and iPhone. As in that latter release, you'll move your ships in each turn by setting a path and tapping a button to watch the events unfold, but while the boats automatically fire on nearby opponents, you'll also repair your ship, boost its speed, and increase firepower with special abilities.
Every bit of Crimson looks sharp, from the in-game visuals to the menu screens, which sport still images of real actors wearing all sorts of silly pirate accessories. And while the eight free included missions are a bit heavy handed with their instruction, making the set feel like one sizeable tutorial of sorts, an additional chapter (with eight more missions) builds out the experience more for the small fee of $1.99, with more content coming soon. A couple bucks for a couple more hours of polished and engaging tactical combat strikes us as a fair bargain, especially considering how much is offered for free from the outset.
The iPad 2 has enabled tablet gaming experiences to surpass those on the original iPad; Infinity Blade and Real Racing 2 HD both work well enough on the last model but pick up a noticeable boost on the more modern marvel. It's surprising Machinarium only works on the iPad 2, considering its hand-drawn artwork. Then again, it's one of the most stunning 2D adventure games ever produced, so whatever magic was missing in the original iPad must have been necessary to bring this lauded PC release to the touchscreen device.
We originally reviewed Machinarium on PC back in 2009, so be sure to read that glowing piece for a more detail synopsis of its contents – but at the time we called the game "so creatively offbeat and impeccably stylish that we’ll forgive the fact that it shakes the dusty book of antiquated adventure games long past in our face at every stretch of the way." Indeed, this grittily-stylized adventure arrives in stark contrast to the bright and cartoonish Telltale offerings that have dominated the genre of late, but it mines a lot of the same point-and-click elements that have frustrated and beguiled players over the years, forcing us to poke everything onscreen and devise curious blends of items to pass through inexplicably complex scenarios.
Machinarium can be tremendously tough at times, and that doesn't change on the iPad. The hint system – which takes the form of a side-scrolling shooter – is still present to challenge you even when you want relief. Despite the difficulty, Machinarium's appeal hasn't wilted in the last two years, as this tale of an abandoned robot in a world of danger and confusion hits hard thanks to a blend of aesthetic bliss and smart plot details that make it one of the top adventure offerings of the past several years. With this excellent indie offering arriving on iPad 2 for only $4.99, it'd be silly for anyone with even a passing interest to skip out on this touchscreen treat.