Mini Metro: Sim City for the Stressed Out

 

Mini Metro – $4.99 on the App Store

There are a lot of apps on my iPad that stress me out sometimes. Managing email, keeping up with todo lists, organizing homework – life is busy! That’s why I really appreciate a good, calming iOS game. Gentle music, soft colors, and a moderate pace all make for an enjoyable experience when I’m feeling tense. Mini Metro has all of this. I’m even going to put it in the same category as Monument Valley and Alto’s Adventure. Yeah, it’s good.

Mini Metro is a real time strategy game in which you create subway lines to move passengers around a city. The map starts small, but more stations pop up quickly as time goes on. You can connect the stations any way you want, but you’re limited by the number of lines, trains, and tunnels at your disposal. You earn more of these resources as the game progresses, allowing you to create a larger network.

What really makes the game challenging for me is the different types of stations. At first, there are three: the triangle, the square, and the circle. Each “passenger” is represented by the shape of the station they’re trying to reach. As the game progresses, more obscure shapes start popping up. There might be only one star-shaped station on the entire map, which means a passenger will have to transfer lines. Uh-oh.

I love this game because the objective is simple, but the execution is difficult! One minute my subway is operating like a well oiled machine, and the next minute I’ve got three stations nearing capacity. I’m still learning what strategies work best, and I’m enjoying experimenting with different techniques. Mini Metro is a great game because there are a myriad of ways to approach it. When my mind feels cramped, letting it out of the box like this is a great way to relax. ••


Thanks for reading! Have comments or feedback? I’d love to hear from you! I respond to all messages I receive. Drop me a line on Twitter @NickFoster56 or email me at staringatphones@icloud.com. And be sure to subscribe to my blog and follow me on Medium!

Steam Controller Review

So for Christmas I got my brother a Steam Controller.  Of course, that also means got a Steam Controller for Christmas.  Sort of.  Anyway, we’ve both been really enjoying it, and it’s definitely far and away the best controller I’ve ever used.  That being said, I want to talk about why it’s so good.

steam controller transparency

The Hardware
First let’s talk about the controller itself.  The controller has a big Steam logo button in the center to bring up the Steam overlay, which is especially nice in Big Picture Mode (Big Picture is the view designed for TVs – everything is laid out so that you can navigate without a mouse.  The Steam Controller really is made for use in Big Picture.)  There are two more buttons in the middle as well as a standard A/B/X/Y.  Then there are the triggers.  There are two main triggers, and they’re beautiful.  They’re incredibly smooth and responsive, and also two-step.  There are two bumpers above the triggers (also standard) and then two “grips,” which you press with the three fingers you’ve got curled around the controller.  It’s different but actually quite nice.  The differences get bigger from there.  The Steam Controller only has one stick, instead of a conventional two.  Those two circular areas are touchpads.  Simply put, these are fantastic.  Even before you plug the controller into your computer, they’re almost awe-inspiring.  Moving your finger across the pads activates haptic feedback.  It feels like the pad is a moving trackball, and it sort of “clicks” as it rolls.  Flick your finger across it quickly, and it has inertial and keeps giving you feedback as the “ball” keeps spinning and then slows to a stop.  It’s pretty cool, and it only gets better in-game.  One of the things I hate most about playing a first person shooter with a controller is how the camera works.  You have to push the stick to move the camera, and then pull the stick back to stop moving it.  Compare this to a mouse, where you just push the mouse where you want to look and then just stop.  Stop moving the mouse and the camera stops moving.  It’s more intuitive really.  The touchpads recreate this experience beautifully.  Moving your character with the stick and moving the camera with the touchpad is a great experience.  And that’s not even the coolest part about camera control.  The Steam Controller also has a gyroscope, which means you can also aim simply by pointing the controller.  This sounds confusing, but trust me, it becomes natural quickly.  You use the touchpad to look around and the gyro to fine tune your aim.  Still not sold?  You can set it so the gyroscope is only activated when you’ve got your finger on the right pad (or the left pad, or the trigger, you decide), so you’ve can only activate the gyro when you’re all zoomed in and ready to snipe someone.

Untitled2

The Software
Talking about customization brings me to the software for the Steam Controller.  Steam wanted to make sure that you could use this controller for any game, which means the configuration is stunning.  Many games have controller support built in, meaning you can assign buttons to in-game actions, like “Attack” or “Jump.”  If your game doesn’t have support, you can emulate any button on the keyboard, mouse, or controller, like “Left Mouse” or “Space.”  Or you can configure a combination of controller and keyboard commands, to make sure you cover everything.  It takes a little bit of effort to set up, but then it’s amazing.  If you don’t feel like configuring it all yourself, you can browse configs that other Steam users have uploaded, and then customize from there.  It’s pretty awesome.  In addition to being able to customize each button, the triggers, touchpads, stick, and gyro are all unbelievably customizable.  Things like sensitivity and haptic feedback can be adjusted, and that’s only the beginning.  You can set the stick to automatically hold down the sprint button when you press it all the way forward.  Or you can set the touchpad to act as a stick when you’re in the game, but as a mouse when you press the other touchpad, for navigating menus.  You can set the trigger to activate walking (as opposed to running) when you pull it down halfway and crouching when you pull it all the way.  The possibilities are endless.

So long story short, the Steam Controller is an incredible piece of hardware, and the software behind it is just as good.  The good folks at Steam have clearly put an astonishing amount of thought into everything about this controller, from the hardware to the software, and it shows.  I’m thoroughly impressed, and I would recommend this controller to anyone.  ••

January App Review: Threes!

App: Threes!
Developer: Sirvo
Price: $1.99
Platforms: iOS, Android

Threes! is a game that came out earlier this year, and when it did I immediately began hearing about it.  I listen to a lot of tech podcasts, and it seemed everyone was raving about this game.  For whatever reason, I never actually looked into it until recently.  In fact, it took a T-Mobile store demo to get me hooked.  Once I had seen how unbelievably simple (and wonderfully challenging) the game was, I went ahead and bought it.  Let me just say that it was definitely worth downloading.


Threes! is an easy game to learn.  There are tiles on the screen; swiping in any direction moves all the tiles that aren’t up against one side.  When tiles slide into each other, they start to combine, but only in specific ways.  1 and 2 will add together to create a 3 (see image 2).  After that, numbers only add to their duplicates, 3+3=6, 6+6=12, and so on (see image 3).  (If I did as poor a job explaining that as I thought I did, check out this GIF.)  The challenge is to get ever higher numbers without filling up the board and running out of moves.  Sound easy enough?

Turns out, it gets difficult pretty quickly.  My biggest problem is that I end up having, say, two 12s that are separated, and no easy way to combine them.  The more moves you use to manipulate the card’s positions, the more cards come in, and the more the board fills up.  It’s the perfect mixture of difficult yet simple, vexing yet fun, annoying yet enjoyable.  Like any good puzzle game, Threes! can be frustrating – but only in the best way.

Aside from the actual gameplay, Threes! also has a certain charm to it.  This is accomplished through the little on-screen characters.  Each number is a character of its own, with a unique face and voice.  It’s subtle enough that you can ignore it if you don’t care, but delightful enough that I bet you will.  When you get a new card for the first time (for example, the first time you get a 96 card), the game pauses for a moment and shows you a short bio for the new character.  It’s just enough diversion to be amusing and fun without being distracting.  It’s really quite enjoyable.

Threes! also got some special attention from Apple this year, winning the iPhone Game of the Year award (alongside Monument Valley as iPad Game of the Year).  I think this is well-deserved, and I congratulate the developers on their accomplishment.  Other developers also noticed the popularity of Threes!, however.  There have been multiple knock-off apps, most notably 2048 (which is free).  I’m a big fan of free alternatives, but there is a difference between an alternative and a knock-off.  I was happy to pay $1.99 for Threes! in order to support the developers who had the original idea in all its brilliance, and I encourage you to do the same (I doubt you’ll regret it).

As you can see in the last screenshot above, my current high score is 7,392.  I’m interested in your best score, whether it’s higher or lower than mine.  Go ahead and post your scores in the comments below, or hit me up on Twitter @NickFoster56.  Have fun!

December App Review: Monument Valley

App: Monument Valley
Developer: ustwo
Price: $3.99
Platform: iOS, Android, Kindle Fire

I know Monument Valley came out last spring, but I hadn’t actually played it until a few weeks ago.  Monument Valley recently jumped back into the spotlight after they released an expansion pack, Forgotten Shores.  The extra press Monument Valley got was enough to convince me to buy the game, and I must say that it’s the best $4 I’ve spent on the App Store in a very long time.


Monument Valley is a puzzle game that involves moving the environment around you, the buildings and bridges, to reach your goal.  Monument Valley isn’t particularly hard, but it’s delightful.  That’s not a word I use often, but in this case, it’s not one I use lightly either.  The graphics are beautiful, and the soundtrack is just as good.  Most importantly, Monument Valley has this M.C. Escher thing going on with it (see images 2-4).  I’m constantly thrilled and amazed when two objects that shouldn’t line up somehow do.  It’s really neat.

The original game includes 10 chapters for $3.99.  Forgotten Shores, an expansion pack, was recently released as an in-app purchase for an additional $1.99.  When this happened, some people got rather angry.  They felt that, having purchased the game, they should get the additional levels for free.  ustwo, however, put a ton of time, effort, and money into Monument Valley, as well as into Forgotten Shores.  I think it’s perfectly fair for them to charge for new levels; I for one happily paid another $2 to get more levels of a game I had already greatly enjoyed.  Unfortunately, the way app store pricing currently works, it sometimes seems you have to make your app free in order for anyone to download it.  Free apps are great, but I also support people like ustwo who make quality apps and aren’t afraid to charge for them.  Monument Valley has met with huge success; a testament to the fact that other people share this appreciation for quality.  (If you’re interested in hearing an excellent interview with one of Monument Valley’s developers, including conversations about Forgotten Shores pricing, listen to this episode of the Inquisitive Podcast.)

There is also one final chapter of Monument Valley, Ida’s Red Dream, which is a part of the (PRODUCT)RED campaign.  (PRODUCT)RED is a charity working to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa.  Apple has participated in (PRODUCT)RED for a long time, offering special red iPods and other products.  A portion of the proceeds from these products, available only in Apple Stores and on Apple.com, go to (PRODUCT)RED’s charity.  For several weeks, many apps on the App Store have released (PRODUCT)RED versions.  These apps feature special red app icons, and most include special in-app purchases.  Proceeds from these purchases go to (PRODUCT)RED.  If you purchase Monument Valley during the (PRODUCT)RED promotion (November 24-December 7), you’ll get Ida’s Red Dream for free, otherwise, it’s an additional $0.99.  It will not be available after December 7.

Overall, Monument Valley is a really fun game.  It is short, but it’s so beautiful and enchanting that it’s definitely worth playing.  Now if I could just pull some M.C. Escher folding trick on the roads around here to make my commute to school shorter…  ••

September App Review: Swing Copters

App: Swing Copters
Developer: Dong Nguyen
Price: Free
Platforms: iOS and Android

Last winter, the mobile gaming scene was taken by storm with the breakout hit Flappy Bird.  The unbelievably frustrating game featured a bird flying through a series of gates made of Super-Mario style pipes.  The controls were simple: tap anywhere on the screen to make the bird flap his wings once, counteracting gravity just a bit.  By keeping the flaps and gravity perfectly balanced, steering the bird became possible.  But only just.  The game was incredible simple, yet incredibly difficult, which of course equals incredibly addicting.  One wrong move and you lost.  After every crushing defeat, you’d promise yourself to play “just one more game,” but somehow you’d end up playing another.  And another.  However frustrating, the game was actually really fun, and it was possible to get the hang of it.  However, at the peak of its glory, the creator, Dong Nguyen, pulled the plug.  The game was removed from app stores (which remained flooded with counterfeits), supposedly because the creator felt bad that he had caused so much global frustration and addiction.

However, Dong Nguyen has done it again.  With his new vertical game, Swing Copters, you navigate a player upward, this time controlling his movements left and right.  The same style applies: move through a series of gates and don’t crash.  However, the addition of swinging hammers and the upward direction actually make Swing Copters more difficult than Flappy Bird ever was.

Starting the game is confusing.  You tap the screen to start, and your character immediately flies to the right and crashes.  What on earth happened?  You try again, with the same result.  After 5-10 times, you realize that you’re supposed tap the screen to reverse the character’s horizontal direction.  No, you don’t have to tap a certain half of the screen, and no, you don’t have to tilt the device.  The lack of gravity really makes Swing Copters more difficult.  Even though you’re still only controlling one dimension, you are now controlling both directions in that dimension.  It’s a subtle difference, but now instead of only having to think about up, you have to think about left and right.  The game is also hard because of your character’s sideways momentum.  The longer you travel in one direction, the faster you go.  This means you have to constantly switch directions in order to stay in control.

When Swing Copters was first released, the space between the ground and the first gate was about the same as the space between the first gate and the second.  Since the app’s release, there has been an update, giving you way more space before the first gate (see image 4).  This makes the game easier, because it gives you time to “stabilize” your motion before encountering the first gate.  Before the update, my high score was 2; within a few minutes of getting the update, my high score was 10.  However, don’t think the game is easy now.  It’s still really, really difficult.

Overall, Swing Copters is a fun game.  I’m going to try not to play it too much though, since it is very addictive.  I really hope Dong Nguyen can come to grips with his app this time, and understand that sometimes we as humans like to be frustrated.  After all, what would life be like without challenges?  Imagine Edison with no light bulb to invent.  Henry Ford with no automobile.  Okay, so maybe those aren’t fair comparisons.  Still, I hope Swing Copters is here to stay.  ••

Special Note:  You may have heard about the now-confirmed Apple event coming up on Tuesday, September 9.  Rest assured, Staring at Phones will have full coverage of the event.  Be sure to check back here next week to see all my predictions, then again the day of the event for a special follow-up.  Hope to see you then!