Spinballs Special Edition
This week's review is a little special. Spinballs marks the first game reviewed on Bytten available for the iPhone, a format we've only been able to explore relatively recently. I want to say up front that this has caused an unusual problem for us - like many iPhone games, the display is vertical (portrait) rather than the traditional PC's horizontal (landscape), and our standard sized screenshot template has posed a real problem for us. I have endeavoured to edit these images into something vaguely indicative of gameplay, but a better image is visible on their website - http://spinballs.com/screenshots/spinballs_640x960.jpg
Right, down to business. Spinballs is an iPhone game in which you are faced with a series of dials. Each dial contains six coloured balls, and your aim is to rotate these dials so that the colours match those of neighbouring balls on other dials. A suitable match of three or more adjacent balls will then flash, and you can "collect" them to score points by tapping the button at the base of the screen. New balls replace those matched, you set up another match and so on. Whilst all this is going on, a timer is rapidly diminishing. Keep making matches to replenish it before the time runs out.
There are four "power-ups" to assist you, and these need to be charged up by making matches adjacent to them. These include the humble 2x multiplier for double scores, the shuffling option that rearranges the balls (and might help find a better match), a freeze option for the timer and my favourite, a nuke that clears the entire screen. New balls, please! Each of these powerups has a limited period of operation, so make the most of them while they last.
Controls are very simple. Tap on the left side of a dial to rotate it one ball anticlockwise, and the right side to rotate it one ball clockwise. When you have a suitable match (the game automatically highlights the best match available, though not always the one you'd expect) you press the execute button at the bottom of the screen to confirm it. The timer gets a boost, your score increases and eventually you'll level up - the game getting faster and harder as you continue to do so. My record thus far is level 9, at which point the timer can completely empty in under ten seconds.
The graphics are bright and colourful, with plenty of movement - balls don't just disappear when matched but burst away from their dials and fall off the screen. The premise of Spinballs is fairly simple, but what game mechanics it has are polished until they shine. Sound is also high quality, though understandably limited by both the number of effects and the platform. There's a single background track for the game itself and a wind effect for the menu - since a typical game is not necessarily that long, it doesn't usually have chance to grate, but volume for both sound effects and music can be individually set.
Spinballs is very easy to play. That said, I did lose three games in rapid succession before I figured out that I had to tap a button to make the matches - the tutorial is just three screens of brief instructions. Much of the game is fairly automatic - you can often make a string of matches without even turning the dials, though they won't be as good and will often leave you with few openings after all the obvious ones are gone. The four powerups are a nice touch, needing you to "charge" them rather than having them limited by number of uses or timer. Matching against a power-up already in use will boost its duration slightly, which is a neat touch.
A game of Spinballs doesn't last long (unless you're one of the freakishly talented people who seem to have scored over 600,000 points on the global leaderboard), but this makes it an ideal iPhone game - something you can play for short bursts while on the bus or in your lunch break, that sort of thing. If you're after a more peaceful game, then Zen mode is for you - playing the same as the classic game, but with no timer. Spend as long as you like setting up those matches. In Zen mode, the timer freezing power-up is replaced by something else that looks rather like a battery, but I've been unable to figure out what it does (if anything).
I was a little disappointed, however. While it's a polished and professional game, it's also a rather simple one - line up dials, make matches, repeat. There's nothing different between level 1 and 10, or beyond, besides the speed of the timer. Zen mode removes even that difference, making scores and levels fundamentally meaningless, though I'm not entirely sure what the appeal of these endless game modes is in any puzzler. This lack of development impacts heavily on repeat play. Matches are almost automatic, and at times I just felt I was pressing the execute button. But mostly I'm disappointed by the lack of documentation - it's not a complicated game, but those powerups are apparently not explained anywhere. The names I've given them in this review are my own.
Like many iPhone apps, Spinballs is very inexpensive. You can also try out the Special Edition for free, with the option to buy the full version with an in-app payment; you've got nothing to lose by trying it out. I don't think many of you will spend hours at a time on it, but you might find it good for filling up the odd spot of waiting around. Spinballs is well polished, simple to learn and quite easy to get into. I just feel it would benefit from a little more depth.
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