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Posts tagged with "games"

Kitty Letter: A Silly, Challenging, and Addictive Word Game from Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal

It’s always a good sign when the hardest part of writing a game review is putting the game down. That has absolutely been the case with Kitty Letter, the new word game from Matthew Inman, the artist behind The Oatmeal webcomic. The core mechanic is familiar: make as many words as possible from a handful of jumbled letters. But as with many of my favorite iOS games, Kitty Letter takes a classic genre and adds a twist.

Inman’s twist reminds me of another classic iOS genre: tower defense games. As you create words by swiping across the letters that appear in a mysterious language vortex, armies of exploding cats are launched, countering other cats bent on destroying your home and attacking the crazy cat man who lives in a trailer across the street. Add collectible power-ups, a funny storyline, The Oatmeal’s signature humor and art, and multiple game modes, and Kitty Letter is completely absorbing. The game is perfect for one-handed mobile play and theoretically short sessions because no single level takes that long to play, but that’s only the case if you actually manage to peel yourself away from it.

Kitty Letter can be played in single or multiplayer modes, each of which has two ways to play. In single-player story mode, battles are interspersed with a storyline that I won’t spoil, but which includes elements like a fish you have to slap repeatedly to defrost and groaning deer. I’ve played through the first set of levels, and the story adds depth to single-player mode, which lacks the competitive dimension of multiplayer mode. The other single-player mode is an arcade mode, where the goal is to survive as long as you can, racking up points as you are relentlessly attacked by waves of exploding cats that come at you faster and faster as you play.

In multiplayer mode, you can play head-to-head against a friend or against a stranger. I played several matches against strangers and only won a couple of times. Kitty Letter has only been out a few days, but there are already some terrific players. What makes multiplayer mode difficult, absorbing, and incredibly fun is that, like Arcade mode, it’s critical to maintain a quick (but not too quick) pace and be good at coming up with lots of words. You can try to slow down a little to see what your opponent throws at you, but if you slow down too much, your letters reset. If you play fast, you may overwhelm your foe, but you also might run out of words too quickly and have to wait for new letters, helpless against an onslaught of cats.

In both modes, the game mechanics are roughly the same. Build words from the letters launching cats that counter incoming armies and hit back at your enemy to inflict damage (or win points in arcade mode) when your cats make it through your enemy’s defenses. The longer the words you put together, the bigger the cat armies you generate are. Timing counts, too, because incoming groups of cats can only be countered by making a word that starts with the letter that appears above the group of enemy felines. As you and your opponent are hit by incoming cats, your health meter tracks the damage you each take. Whoever’s health runs out first loses.

Kitty Letter is available on the iPhone, iPad, and M1 Macs, but it’s best on the iPhone, where you can quickly swipe across letters to make words one-handed with your thumb. The game includes a stats page that keeps track of your highest scoring word, wins and losses in multiplayer mode, and your highest arcade mode score. Kitty Litter is free and has no ads, other limitations, or gimmicks to entice you to spend money. Instead, there are a variety of avatars, cats, and houses that you can buy as In-App Purchases, but they are purely cosmetic and don’t affect the game.

It’s been a while since I found a casual iOS game that is this fun and distracting. Kitty Letter silly, challenging, and addicting, which is the perfect formula for fun.


Headland Review: Fight Your Way Through a World of Imagination

Headland is a new game for iOS and Android by the award winning game studio Northplay. The game revolves around a young boy exploring a world of his own imagination; fighting enemies and hunting down the missing shards of his robot friend’s “imagination core.” I played through Headland over the last few days and found it to be a well-made and overall quite enjoyable experience.

I really like that Headland plays in portrait orientation. Most games like it run in landscape, which is fine, but it’s nice to have a change. On my iPhone Mini I can actually play Headland entirely one-handed, which makes the game feel more light and casual even though its gameplay is engaging. Playing two-handed on my iPad Pro was still fun though since I could support the device with a single hand and play with the other.

The key to this is the game’s excellent controls, which are intuitive and only require a single finger at any given time. To move your character, you place your finger anywhere on the screen and then rotate it. This is essentially a joystick movement control, but it works so much better because the joystick will appear underneath your finger wherever you place it. My struggle with most touch-joystick games is that I end up placing my finger off-center from the stationary joystick and then I move in an unwanted direction. This never happens in Headland.

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Microsoft Says Xbox Game Pass Ultimate Will Add Browser-Based iOS Cloud Gaming in 2021

Microsoft originally planned to bring cloud-based Xbox gaming to iOS as a native app. The company got as far as a TestFlight beta, but that ended when it became clear that Apple would not allow Xbox games to be streamed unless they were available as App Store downloads that were subject to App Review.

When Microsoft pulled the plug on the Project xCloud beta, The Verge reported that its sources said the company would shift to a browser-based solution. Now, the company has confirmed that browser streaming is indeed planned for its Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscribers, announcing that the solution would be available in 2021.

According to Microsoft’s Jerret West:

In Spring 2021, we will take the next step in our journey to reach more players around the world by making cloud gaming as part of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate available on Windows PCs through the Xbox app and browser, and iOS devices through mobile web browser. By adding over a billion devices as a path to playing in the Xbox ecosystem, we envision a seamless experience for all types of players; whether it’s playing Minecraft Dungeons with your Xbox friends using touch controls on an iPhone, or jumping into a Destiny 2: Beyond Light strike on a Surface Pro when you have a break between meetings.

Microsoft isn’t the first to offer console videogame streaming via the browser. Nvidia’s GeForce NOW and Amazon’s Luna service are available on iOS and iPadOS via Safari, with Google’s Stadia service coming next year too.

It’s a testament to the importance of the iPhone and iPad as platforms for game streaming and the power of their hardware that Microsoft and others are willing to work around Apple’s App Store restrictions by developing progressive web apps. However, it’s also disappointing. There’s a place for console gaming on iOS and iPadOS, and Microsoft, Sony, Google, Amazon, Nvidia, and others should all be able to compete in the App Store on equal footing with other native apps and games. Perhaps we’ll get there someday, but for now, the gaming landscape on iOS and iPadOS remains fractured and likely confusing for many users.

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iOS 14.2, JIT, and Emulation at Full Performance

I meant to link this on MacStories last week: Apple lifted some of the limitations surrounding JIT (just-in-time compilation) for apps in the recently released iOS 14.2, which is enabling developers of emulation software, such as Delta and DolphiniOS, to run their apps at full performance on iPhone and iPad.

Filipe Espósito, writing for 9to5Mac, covered this a couple weeks ago and interviewed Riley Testut, the creator of AltStore (the non-jailbreak-based alternative App Store) and Delta, the popular emulator for old Nintendo consoles:

As described by Testut, Apple has added support for JIT compilation in iOS 14.2 beta 2 — but this has never been publicly mentioned by the company. The support was maintained throughout the betas and was kept in the final release. The developer believes this is an official implementation rather than a mistake by Apple, but there’s no way to confirm this for now.

And they quoted Testut saying:

For example, with JIT Delta could in theory emulate more powerful systems such as PS2, GameCube, and Wii; without JIT, we’d need to wait several more years before the hardware was capable of that. At first I was skeptical, but am now leaning more towards thinking this was an intentional change.

Hopefully, Apple will not revert this in a future update to iOS and iPadOS.

Viewtiful Joe and Metroid Prime running in DolphiniOS on my iPad Pro. Both games occasionally drop to 30fps, but playing them at 4K is amazing regardless.

Viewtiful Joe and Metroid Prime running in DolphiniOS on my iPad Pro. Both games occasionally drop to 30fps, but playing them at 4K is amazing regardless.

I’m an AltStore subscriber, and I’ve been playing old GameCube and Wii games on my iPad Pro with beta versions of AltStore and DophiniOS for the past week. Being able to play Viewtiful Joe and Metroid Prime1 at 4K60fps on an iPad Pro with a connected DualShock 4 controller is incredible, and something I never thought would be possible 17 years ago, when those games originally launched. What’s even more impressive is that, obviously, neither the GameCube nor Wii were capable of native 4K output at the time (as it simply didn’t exist), so not only can an iPad Pro emulate those consoles at full performance with JIT now, but it can even upscale them to 4K without any issues.


  1. I can’t believe Nintendo hasn’t remastered Metroid Prime: Trilogy for the Nintendo Switch yet. ↩︎
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Deeper Controller Support and a Revitalized Game Center: Exploring Apple’s 2020 Gaming Updates

I’m perpetually confounded by Apple’s approach to gaming. For every encouraging development like Apple Arcade last year and the controller and Game Center announcements at WWDC this year, there’s a story like the blocking of Microsoft’s xCloud service from the App Store and the ongoing legal dispute with Epic. As uneven as Apple’s recent and long-term history with gaming has been, though, it’s clear that the company understands that games are a lucrative part of the App Store as it continues to introduce new gaming enhancements to its OSes. This year’s updates center on deeper game controller support and a refreshed Game Center experience.

Last year saw the surprise introduction of support for Microsoft’s Bluetooth-enabled Xbox controllers and the Sony DualShock 4 controller on Apple devices. As I wrote at the time, the initial integration of the controllers was excellent, and a substantial improvement over most of the expensive MFi controller options previously available. As a result, it’s no surprise this year that Apple has extended its support for controllers, even further expanding coverage to new controllers and adding support for features like haptics, rumble, motion, lights, and special input options. Apple is also adding support for button and other input remapping on iOS, iPadOS, and tvOS, but curiously not macOS.

The other pillar of Apple’s gaming story is Game Center, which hasn’t seen much love in recent years. Game Center debuted alongside iOS 4 in 2010, but with iOS 10 the dedicated Game Center app was eliminated, relegating Game Center functionality like leaderboards and achievements to APIs that developers could incorporate directly into their apps. Game Center isn’t returning as a standalone app in 2020. Instead, it is receiving a significant makeover that raises its profile in games and on the App Store, creating the potential to make gaming on Apple devices more social than in the past.

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GameTrack Review: An Elegant Way to Discover, Track, and Share Videogames

There is far more media I’d like to try than I have time for. Between TV shows, movies, music, books and other reading, podcasts, and videogames, the supply of content far outstrips the time I have by an order of magnitude. As a result, I’m both picky and often slow to getting around to some media, especially games, which often require a substantial time commitment. The trouble is that it’s easy to lose track of games I’ve read about, that someone has recommended, and even those that I’m in the middle of playing if I can’t play regularly.

I’ve approached the problem in a lot of different ways. Text notes are a quick and portable solution but lack detail. Apps designed to track lots of different kinds of media have the benefit of consolidating everything in one place, but often don’t accommodate features specific to one kind of media. As a result, I’ve recently gravitated to apps that focus on just a single type of media. For videogames, that solution has been GameTrack, an app that we’ve covered in our Club MacStories newsletters in the past.

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Game Day: Good Sudoku

Zach Gage has a knack for giving classic games an interesting twist. Sometimes that means turning the rules upside down and inside out like Flipflop Solitaire or Really Bad Chess. Other times, it means removing the tedious and boring parts of games to breathe new life into them, which is precisely what he and Jack Schlesinger have accomplished with Good Sudoku.

I started with Good Sudoku as a novice. I’ve played sudoku before and knew the rules, but it’s not a game that has ever grabbed me and stuck. As a result, as much as I’ve enjoyed Gage’s other games, I approached Good Sudoku with a healthy dose of skepticism. However, after several days of playing the game, I’ve found that stripped of its tedious aspects, sudoku is engaging to the point of being addicting and a whole lot of fun.

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Epic Games Releases iPhone App That Captures Facial Expressions to Unreal Engine

Source: Epic Games.

Source: Epic Games.

Epic Games has released a new iPhone app for videogame developers that captures facial expressions, piping them into the company’s Unreal Engine in real-time. As explained on the Unreal Engine blog:

Live Link Face streams high-quality facial animation in real-time from your iPhone directly onto characters in Unreal Engine. The app’s tracking leverages Apple’s ARKit and the iPhone’s TrueDepth front-facing camera to interactively track a performer’s face, transmitting this data directly to Unreal Engine via Live Link over a network.

What I find most interesting about Live Link Face is that Epic says it scales from solo developers working at home to sophisticated stage productions involving actors in motion capture suits and multiple iPhones. If so, that will make the app a terrific example of the sort of democratization of complex tools that technologies like ARKit and hardware like the iPhone’s TrueDepth camera make possible when integrated into existing workflows.

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Game Day: Sketchfighter 4000 Alpha

Some tweet wishes do come true.

One of the first Mac games I ever played has made a comeback on the Mac App Store. Sketchfighter 4000 Alpha is a space-themed shooter that adds an exploratory twist on Asteroids-like controls. The game is a terrific riff on a classic arcade genre, but what holds the experience together and elevates it is the hand-drawn art and soundtrack.

Sketchfigher, by developer Lost Minds, was originally published in 2006 by Ambrosia Software, a Mac game publisher with roots in the early 90s that faded from the Mac gaming scene and finally went completely offline last year. That left fans with no way to download the app or activate existing licenses.

It’s been years since I played Sketchfighter, but as you can see from my tweet, I never forgot it. So, when I stumbled across a preview trailer for a reboot of the game, I was excited. As it turns out, Lost Minds was able to get the original source code for the game, update it for modern Macs, and release it on the Mac App Store.

If you played the original game as I did, part of the reboot’s fun is the nostalgia factor. Even if you’ve never played Sketchfighter, though, it’s a wonderful classic arcade experience. The game takes the sort of doodles so many students have scribbled in notebooks as teenagers and brings them to life on the same graph paper you’d find in backpacks.

Your goal is to maneuver a spaceship through a series of zones, avoiding obstacles and weaponry, collecting items, eliminating enemies, and fighting bosses. The controls are simple. The arrow keys control the direction your ship flies, and the space bar fires your weapons. That doesn’t mean your ship is easy to control, though. Both the flight physics and ship itself reminded me of Asteroids, which works well in this context. As you fly your ship, it drifts, carried by momentum towards walls, enemies, and other obstacles that can inflict damage, eventually leading to your demise. Along your route, there are also spots to refresh your health, which are a great place to visit before a big boss fight because once your health runs out, your ship explodes.

Sketchfighter features three save slots, so dying doesn’t mean starting over from scratch every time. Also, although I’ve only played in single-player mission mode, there are also two-player co-op and competitive modes.

There isn’t too much more I can say about Sketchfighter without giving away some of the surprises in later levels, but it’s worth emphasizing that the game’s relative simplicity is elevated above other straightforward arcade shooters by its nostalgia-evoking graphics and soundtrack. The music is a relatively short loop, but it’s incredibly catchy and the sort of tune that will stick in your head for days.

With so many games gone with the transition to 64-bit apps, I was happy to see Lost Minds take the time and effort to revitalize this small but fun corner of Mac gaming history. Updating older games isn’t trivial, which is why reboots like Sketchfighter are sadly the exception rather than the rule.

The Mac is lacking as a gaming platform in a lot of ways, but it’s perfect for quirky arcade-style fun like Sketchfighter. The game runs well on my 2018 Mac mini and has never sounded better than through my Harmon Kardon Soundsticks. What’s more, Sketchfighter is a terrific diversion when you’re sitting at your Mac and need a break. I hope it’s wildly successful and gets ported to the iPad eventually, too. It would be great fun to play with an iPad Pro attached to the Magic Keyboard with Trackpad.

Sketchfighter 4000 Alpha is available on the Mac App Store for $6.99.