iPad reviews of the week: Groove Coaster, Allied Star Police, Ducati Challenge, Mooniacs

We're starting off strong this week with an awesome new rhythm game from the main man behind the beloved Space Invaders: Infinity Gene, followed by a new free release from PopCap sub-label 4th and Battery, which was co-designed by a nine-year-old thanks to the Make a Wish Foundation. And on the second page, you'll find our take on a solid motorbike simulation starring a handful of licensed two-wheeled wonders, as well as a colorful new creature-flinging game that lightly entertains despite some annoying sales tactics. Plus, everything but Ducati Challenge HD (a separate iPhone version is available) is a universal release this week, so iPhone and iPod touch users can get in on the action as well.

Game: Groove Coaster
Price: $0.99/£0.69
Size: 71.6MB
Buy it now from the iTunes store:US/UK

By now, we sincerely hope that all iPad and iPhone owners have experienced the sublime Space Invaders: Infinity Gene, the 2009 universal iOS release that tweaked the familiar franchise formula into something fresh and fantastic (it's also now on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network). Groove Coaster isn't a direct follow-up, but it is the next iOS release from Infinity Gene maestro Reisuke Ishida, and the rhythm game bears many of the hallmarks of the previous title, including alluring vector graphics and thumping electronic tunes. It's also perhaps the best original rhythm title released to date on the App Store.

A bold claim, no doubt – especially after we lobbed a bit of praise on Pulse: Volume One earlier this year – but after just a couple levels, we couldn't help but feel the same kind of glowing buzz as we did playing Elite Beat Agents and Gitaroo-Man years back. In fact, Groove Coaster does very much seem like a simplified homage to the former of those titles, in that you'll tap individual notes, hold others, and even knock out quick drum rolls elsewhere, but all the action takes place on a looping self-contained track – and you can tap anywhere instead of following the notes around the screen. As the songs become progressively more challenging, the on-screen routes become more animated and even throw in little tricks, like spinning wheels of notes and others that fly in at the last second.

The end result is a dizzying, heart-thumping rhythm affair that stands out as one of the better genre entries we've played in some time, plus the included songs are winners (by and large), with one particularly brilliant stage backed with the visuals and sound of a recent Arkanoid iteration. Better yet, Groove Coaster isn't a one-and-done experience. We counted 17 primary tracks (with a couple more available as add-on DLC), each of which offers multiple difficulty settings, along with a bonus track that actually changes based on how much you play and how many of your Game Center friends also own the game. Plus, you'll level up with continued play and can unlock new skins, items, and avatars that lightly affect the look and gameplay when activated. All that for a buck at present (it'll jump to $2.99 at some point), which makes Groove Coaster one of the best recent values on the App Store – but it's also one of the best iPad games we've played so far this year.

Allied Star Police
Price: Free
Size: 22.3MB
Buy it now from the iTunes store:US/UK

Even the most jaded hardcore gamers out there tend to have a soft spot for PopCap's weird and wonderful casual creations, but after hearing the story behind Allied Star Police, it's hard not to want to throw a bear-hug around anyone ever associated with the EA-owned developer. Allied Star Police is the third free iOS release from the company's 4th and Battery sub-label, but more notably than that, it was conceptualized by a nine-year-old leukemia patient named Owain Weinert, who had the opportunity to work with a PopCap team on his game thanks to the Make-a-Wish Foundation of Alaska and Washington. Originally, the game was designed simply as an amazing treat for this sick kid, but with a gratis release on the App Store, we can all finally play this curious little offering.

And honestly, the kid's got chops when it comes to casual game design! No, Allied Star Police isn't the most complex offering out there, but the core idea behind the game is surprisingly durable and the game serves up a pretty decent challenge on the highest difficulty setting. Allied Star Police feels in some ways like a take on the tower defense genre, but it's also easily described as an "inactive shooter." Sitting on one side of the screen, you'll use your available resources to spawn various vehicles that drive towards the enemy base along four paths, blasting any enemies in their way and earning you valuable coin to make the final push towards destroying the alien base. Everything is done with taps of virtual buttons at the bottom of the screen, and the three missions offer few surprises – you'll just need to figure out the best units and placements to knock out the oncoming foes.

The first two stages should be a breeze to most players, but the last mission – which introduces the "Insanified" difficulty setting – actually took us a few tries to figure out the best approach, as simply spawning waves of weaker vehicles is likely to get you stomped. Allied Star Police is more an amusing diversion than something that's likely to fill up hours of your time, but it's a charming little release that we honestly wouldn't mind seeing blown out to a full-fledged premium experience. And Owain's story is an amazing testament to the hearts of the PopCap team, so kudos to all involved for making this project happen and letting the world experience his unique vision.