Virtua Tennis Challenge Review

Virtua Tennis Challenge Review

Apr 30, 2012

The Dreamcast (may it rest in peace) had some brilliant games, and the majority of the classics have found loving homes on modern consoles, from Power Stone on the PSP to Crazy Taxi on Xbox Live Arcade. Virtua Tennis has had more success than either of these though, and has kept tennis enthusiasts happy for years on PC, Xbox, Playstation, Wii, Gameboy, even the N-Gage and now: Android.

Better still, this version - Virtua Tennis Challenge – is optimized for Xperia Play, meaning that the gameplay that once cost $50 on console can now be bought for a fraction of the price, without needing to sacrifice ‘real’ controls in the process, to the distinctly mixed bag of touch screen tactility.

This means that the player is controlled with the d-pad, and different shots are performed with the face buttons, allowing players to lob, smash and backhand their way from game to game pretty seamlessly. The only slight letdown here is that SEGA have decided not to let players use the touchpad for movement, meaning that the tennis stars move in more stilted ways than a true analogue input should allow.

As with most Xperia Play games, the touch screen controls are still present, and pushing closed the control pad element instantly changes it to the vanilla Android version. The truth is though, for Xperia Play owners, there’s absolutely no reason to do this other than misplaced curiosity. While the swiping and dragging along the touchscreen can mostly be mastered with a little practice (and forgiving a few missteps when the game gets confused), it’s absolutely no game, set and match for the d-pad and face buttons.

It’s this control system that makes this a true part of the Virtua Tennis series, a game that has been the go-to arcade tennis game for over a decade. It doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the best presented Android sports titles around. While the graphics are colorful, sharp and detailed, it’s the animation that’s the real winner here, with players celebrating winning moments, and tossing their racquet in frustration when things don’t go to plan.

Players of the Dreamcast original would have struggled to contain their excitement seeing such a polished version playing out on the small screen, without any sacrifices to the gameplay. It plays impressively well, with players having to judge the tempo of the match, and draw out their opponents on the harder levels by picking the correct shot.

The AI can be set to three difficulty levels, which can be worked through through either in straightforward exhibition matches or the simple but addictive career mode which sees players working their way up the world rankings by entering tournaments and earning sponsorship money. Once World Number One, or bored of the AI, there’s also bluetooth multiplayer with other local Android players, but sadly no online play as yet.

It’s not as fully featured as its big brother, Virtua Tennis 4 on console, but for a fraction of the price Challenge is a no-brainer for Xperia Play owning tennis fans. Regular Android players will have to consider how much they feel they’ll miss out by having to make do with the imperfect touch screen, but this is one of those games that can make Xperia Players happy they took the plunge on Sony’s hybrid handset.

The Hills Are Greener: Maybe?

The Hills Are Greener: Maybe?

Apr 30, 2012

When talking about the competition for mobile operating systems, it seems as if the discussion has focused around iOS versus Android. Sure, Microsoft is tilling around with Windows Phone, and Blackberry’s still making phones, but the two contenders in the ring are definitely iOS and Android.

That may be the status quo at the moment, but does anyone believe that it will be this way forever? Of course not. Technology changes too much for it to stay this way forever. Short of the entirely unexpected happening, there are a few plausible scenarios out there that could reshape the mobile market as we know it.

Maybe Apple refuses to take up larger device sizes, and users begin to flock to Android in droves as they become more useful?

Maybe Google, through diplomacy or by force, shrinks the number of devices on the market, drastically shrinking the number of current issues that the OS has, making it more on par with iOS, and it starts to even overtake iOS in more than just user numbers? What if it’s regarded in the mainstream as a superior product?

Maybe Windows Phone 8 will give Microsoft a real contender. Perhaps by offering the kind of top-down OS integration that Apple has played with, they can fill a need with interoperable phones, tablets, and computers that will spearhead Microsoft’s mobile push.

Maybe the new Lumia 900 and its marketing campaign along with low 2-year contract price will get people using WP and anticipating the aforementioned WP8.

Maybe developers will get tired of trying to deal with the thousands of Android devices out there, and just abandon the platform, setting it back for a while.

Maybe that rumored Facebook phone, especially if it comes with access to their vast library of apps and games that run on their web platform, will become a key contender.

Maybe Amazon decides to stop forking Android and go with their own OS, and developers start to abandon Android for the possibly more-profitable platform. They could start selling Kindle phones, and suddenly Google might find Android far gone.

Maybe those Google Glasses replace the phone as we know it, as we all walk around in an augmented reality world, and actual phones become a thing of the past.

Maybe the Mayans were right.

It’s hard to picture a world in the near future where iOS and Android aren’t duking it out as the top 2 operating systems, but what were we saying three years ago, when BlackBerry was still strong and the iPhone was popular, and the iPad was still a rumor?

Maybe something unexpected will happen.

KickStarter Spotlight: Compude

KickStarter Spotlight: Compude

Apr 27, 2012

Scouring through the depths of KickStarter brings up some incredibly ambitious projects trying to get their shot at the sun. One such project is a very intriguing idea that has been attempted before with varying degrees of success, but few have as much flair as Compude. Compude is the brainchild of Lance Parker and his start-up, and it is a thumb drive that allows subscribers of its paid service quick and almost instant access of their desktops at home. I am aware that a lot of companies offer services that allow a user to access their computers from a remote location, but none have made it as simple and streamlined as the demo that Lance Parker shows on the video on his KickStarter page. Almost instantly after plugging in the device onto a borrowed laptop Lance’s desktop appeared on the screen and he was instantly able to access any and all files at his disposal.

Assuming that this project works as displayed here, and hoping that everyone knows that recorded and controlled demos should be taken with a grain of salt, this represents an insanely large leap in the computing world. Instead of having to deal with web browsers, usernames, passwords, and insecurity, Compude is as simple as plugging in a USB drive and swiping a finger across the world’s smallest finger print reader. Everything, and I mean everything, is encrypted and the video makes it clear that security is of foremost concern for Lance and his team.

Taking a step back, there are a few concerns that are immediately apparent. First up is the matter of lag; as streaming video game service OnLive has shown it is possible to offer virtually lag free streaming interaction on networks only over 3.5 Mb/s; can Compude do the same? The speed shown in the video is so fast it is hard to believe, and keeping my expectations in check I fully expect to see the actual field performance to be much slower. Part of the processing will be done by the device which has tiny 400 mhz processor, 256 mb RAM, and 32 gig of internal storage; which will aide in deciphering the 256-bit AES encryption. Smartphone and tablet support is of course included if an adapter is used to bridge the USB with micro-USB or Apple’s proprietary connection port.

All speculation aside, the sheer idea of being able to pull a desktop computer up on a smartphone or tablet is too tantalizing to ignore. There still remains a lot of unknowns as the project description is not exactly a comprehensive explanation, but it is still worth checking out the project’s KickStarter page and determine whether Compude is tech’s latest Icarus.

Multiponk for Android Review

Multiponk for Android Review

Apr 26, 2012

There aren’t too many games for mobile devices that allow 2 players to play at the same time. Multiponk is such a game. For fans of Pong, Multiponk is a huge leap forward but follows the same kind of gameplay. Let me explain.

Multiponk uses the back and forth sliding action like Pong does. There are 4 positions for potential players. For ease of explanation, we will call them North, South, East and West. For a single player game, player 1 is in the Southern spot and starts out with the generated opponent will start in the Northern location. The ball can bounce off of any surface except on the walls where the player’s paddles are.

Initially there are four corners where there are accelerators, similar to a pinball table. These accelerators are essentially launching pads to accelerate the ball. As the levels progress, bumpers are added, again like on a pinball table. These bumpers come in different sizes and are placed in different locations to make it harder to get a straight shot into the opponent’s goal area.

Another part of the game geared toward making it more difficult is, in single player mode, the opponent is not always directly across. The opponent can be in any of the other 3 locations and is sometimes in more than one location.

There is a multiplayer version of the game as well. In the multiplayer version there are 5 different games to play, all of which offer a little different challenge. In Baby, for example, the ball will split into smaller balls as the game progresses. The multiplayer games are best played on a phone with a larger screen or a tablet. Also, because of the speed of the game, it would be beneficial to play Multiponk on a faster device.

At first I thought Multiponk was going to be a fancied up remake of Pong but I was really wrong. With all of the variables added to each new level, Multiponk gets quite difficult as the game progresses.

Theme Thursday: Z Fish

Theme Thursday: Z Fish

Apr 26, 2012

It occurred to me that after doing so many of these Theme Thursday blogs that sometimes more attention is paid to more serious, usually darker themes. It is good to reach out and look at a great theme that is more likely to be found in a local coffee shop as opposed to a board room. This week is a beautiful Asian-inspired theme from Zero Designs called Z Fish. As the name implies, the main wallpaper is an authentic looking Japanese ink painting of a bright red fish leaping out of the water. The entire theme carries out the inky black on tan parchment color scheme and is sure to give an incredibly unique feel to any Android device. Unfortunately, for some reason the wallpaper has a ton of pixel noise that can be very distracting and really ruins the whole feel. And, like other themes that specifically dwell in the monochromatic realm – including apps that have icons that do not come with the theme – this is a problem. There is no option to simply turn the icons to grayscale, and even though they are encompassed in a inky black halo the bright colors seem very out of place against the muted, natural tones of the rest of the theme.

All the icons look great, and give a wonderful feeling of being truly handmade. Again, this feeling is tempered by the unsupported app icons but that is to be expected. The app does not come with an amazing number of icons but the necessary ones are included. In order to take this app to the next level, the developers need to take the time to really put out some quality icons for common apps like many other themes that I have reviewed in the past.

For anyone who uses GO Launcher’s weather app, GO Weather there is a skin for the weather widget that is a skin available on the Play Store that makes the time and weather appear to be a classic Asian watercolor painting. I had used this theme before and it never worked with any other theme until I started using Z Fish. The Widget skin works beautifully with the Launcher theme and it would be a mistake not to install the two side by side.

Google Drive Finally Announced; Why Its Terms of Service Are Really Not That Bad

Google Drive Finally Announced; Why Its Terms of Service Are Really Not That Bad

Apr 25, 2012

The worst-kept secret in technology, that Google would launch a Dropbox-esque cloud storage service, is finally a reality. Google Drive is coming soon, bringing 5 GB of free storage to users.

On the Android side of things, the Google Docs app has been replaced with Google Drive. As of now, it still has identical features to Google Docs, until the user’s account is approved, so don’t just download the update expecting to get instant access that way. Google’s smarter than that. We’ll have more on Google Drive and how it stacks up to the competition.

Some hysteria over Google Drive has come from concern over the Google terms of service and how it impacts users. Here’s a sampling of it, with the bolded part being the one most frequently referenced in tweets and articles seen about this.

Some of our Services allow you to submit content. You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.

When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones.

The bolded part is harrowing out of context, but the context of the sentences before and after it are what is truly important. While I am not a lawyer, many of these issues were raised when Dropbox had their kerfuffle over what their TOS gave them the right to do. Essentially, Google – or any service where user data is uploaded to the cloud – needs the right to store and move the data across their servers without needing explicit user permission. By claiming broad rights but narrow permissions as to what they will do with it, this means that they can do actions for the users without need permission for each individual action, optimistically to only benefit the user or through improvements to the service.

The stereotypical fear is that Google could take people’s photos or the things they write and store on Google Drive and then Google could sell them, as if there’s any evidence of them or any cloud storage service doing so on a widespread basis. The more grounded fear is that Google, being a company that makes its money off of data, is now trying to find a way to get its hands on more data from users, and they’re just going to hand it over. Analyzing and using that data to deliver more efficient advertisements may be the ultimate goal of Google here.

The thing about these concerns is that if they are rooted in a fear of Google indexing everything, it seems as if the time to start worrying about that would have been a long time ago, around when they actually started to, well, try and index everything. It’s hardly been a secret goal of theirs. Never mind that this is all really based off of the same terms of service that Google introduced earlier this year. It’s only now popping up because they announced a new service, and apparently the rights of cloud-based storage companies is a hot-button issue.

So I call on readers to respond in the comments: will the TOS keep you from using Google Drive? Do you agree that this is largely hysteria? Or is this a valid issue being raised? Or both?

Neon Blaster Review

Neon Blaster Review

Apr 25, 2012

Despite the hype on fast, high-definition graphics in games, there are a select few who prefer simple, minimalist interfaces when killing time with their smart phones. With too many games in Google Play, it’s hard to find that one game that suits a minimalist gamer. Enter Neon Blaster – a futuristic arcade game inspired by the 80′s Atari creation, Arkanoid. With its Tron-esque graphics and retro appeal, this game is a gem among a huge pile of stones.

The objective of the game is to prevent the ball from falling by catching it with the paddle and hitting the bricks. When a brick or group of bricks get hit, they disappear. When all bricks are cleared, the player moves on to the next round.

The game has two modes: Campaign and Arcade. Campaign is a series of levels with different brick patterns – when bricks are cleared in one level, the player moves on to the next. Arcade mode allows for endless game play, with new bricks added as other bricks disappear. In any mode, special balls appear from the bricks that, when catched, changes the abilities of the paddle. A fire ball transforms the ball into fire and hits more bricks than usual; a shooter ball installs a rifle-like structure in both sides of the paddle, enabling it to shoot the bricks above. There are also a few balls that should not be catched, such as the skull ball that “kills” the paddle and ends the game, or the shrink ball that makes the paddle smaller.

The game force-closed a few times when I first tried it, but killing some apps and disconnecting from the Internet seemed to fix that problem. This may not be an issue with the game, but with my device. When I got the game working again, it worked absolutely fine. The game controls only compose of sliding the paddle left and right using a blank space below. It works responsively enough, but a player might sometimes hit the Menu key accidentally if he slides too far down the screen. This causes the game to pause, which can be really annoying.

The graphics, on the other hand, are a delight to play in. Clutter-free and sleek with its glowing edges, the elements seem to hypnotize and stimulate at the same time – if that makes sense at all. Given the simplicity of the interface, the player can focus more on keeping the paddle in the right position at the right time and avoiding any unwanted killer balls while keeping the main ball afloat.

The sound effects are also very subtle and does not really distract from the game, in fact it does a great job of highlighting the action on screen and translating it to sound effects. However, if one finds the sounds abrasive, it can be turned off on the game’s Settings page.

Another thing I liked about this game is that it’s ad-free. No annoying ads popping up anywhere on the screen. There’s also no option to share one’s scores on social networks so that’s one unnecessary and often unused feature off the list.

To sum it up, Neon Blaster is a minimalist, retro arcade game with nice graphics and a fairly smooth interface. It may not be for everyone, but for people who were fans of the original Arkanoid game, this game is a great way to relive that experience.

500px Launches Android Version of Their Tablet App

500px Launches Android Version of Their Tablet App

Apr 25, 2012

500px has launched a version of their app for Android devices. The app is essentially a port of their iPad app, just now on Android. This is a viewer of the 500px service, which serves as a photo sharing repository for high-quality photography. Photos can be viewed by popular images, editor’s choice, those upcoming in popularity, newest uploads, via searching for keywords, and viewing one’s own 500px images by logging in to the app. Photos can be shared directly to Twitter or Facebook from directly in the app. While the app doesn’t let users save photographs directly in the app, opening up the photo in a web browser is available – make sure to respect artists’ copyrights. The app does come with nude photography, which is filtered out by default, but can be re-enabled in the settings of the app.

Unlike the iOS version of the app, this is actually installable on phones, though the interface is clearly optimized for higher-resolution screens. The app is available now for free from Google Play.

Google Now Selling the Unlocked GSM Galaxy Nexus Through Google Play

Google Now Selling the Unlocked GSM Galaxy Nexus Through Google Play

Apr 25, 2012

The Nexus line of phones began with Google selling the Nexus One online. Now Google is taking another stab at selling a phone directly to consumers, by selling an unlocked GSM version of the Galaxy Nexus on Google Play. While the phone is available on contract from Verizon and Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile in the US have not carried it. However, this phone will work with those carriers, and while it will not support LTE, it does support what is marketed as 4G, HSPA+. As well, the phone is available at a relative bargain price, $399 plus tax and shipping. This is only $100 or $200 more than similar Galaxy models on contract.

While this is a win for consumers, what this really means is that Google is setting up an architecture to potentially sell their much-rumored-but-never-seen Nexus Tablet on the web. Rumors of this plan been floating around the web. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and this definitely smells like smoke.

Sleep Diary Review

Sleep Diary Review

Apr 24, 2012

People suck at sleeping these days (Editor’s Note: this review was edited at 4:04 am). I know I have a hard time taking a nap in the middle of the day even when I am exhausted. The hard part is there isn’t a really good way to tell why. For starters, tossing and turning will keep anyone awake. Does this sound familiar? Well, Sleep Diary is a good start down the path of a good night sleep.

The way Sleep Diary works it, at bed time, lay the phone in bed too. If the bed is pretty big, make sure it is close to the person in need of monitoring. As the person sleeps, Sleep Diary will monitor the movements as the person sleeps. The main screen is gives access to everything in the app. The alarm, forms, statistics, tracking and the settings menu. When it is time for bed, this is the screen used to initiate the sleep tracking.

In the menu, accessed by pressing the gear icon, there are several different options. The alarms can be created or adjusted, the rating forms created and managed, tracking settings managed and access to the statistics.

There are built in user adjustable alarm clocks. These alarms will override other alarms set for the same time. What I mean is, if the alarm in Sleep Diary is set for 8AM and so is the Android alarm, the phone will think both are going off but only the Sleep Diary alarm will ring.

The rating forms are the window into the specifics of the day prior to sleeping. When there is exercise or medication or another person in bed or any other factor that could affect sleep. There are only 3 forms by default, but more can be added in the paid version.

Tracking settings are are adjustments to the ideal amount of sleep needed, calibration of the sensors used to measure movement, muting sounds and other adjustments.

Statistics are where the information starts to make sense. The sleep duration chart shows ideal sleep versus actual sleep times, sleep deficit, average hours slept, and an overview among other statistics.

I found it really interesting how the days when I woke up and was tired were the same days I tossed and turned all night. The days I exercised and didn’t drink any caffeine late in the day or have any alcohol were the days I tossed and turned less and felt more rested. Who would have figured people sleep better when they get exercise and don’t pump their body full of need-nots.

Justin Smith’s Realistic Summer Sports Simulator Review

Justin Smith’s Realistic Summer Sports Simulator Review

Apr 24, 2012

Justin Smith’s Realistic Summer Sports Simulator is an accurate representation of those classic Olympics-style events games that were all the rage in the 80′s and 90′s. That is to say that this game is horrifically counter-intuitive and almost unplayable – on purpose. There are 15 events, which all have the basic premise of actual Olympic-style events, that then all go horribly awry. All the graphics look like they were plucked from the Atari 2600, and the controls use swipe gestures. They’re accurate, but everything is just kind of unwieldy. The horse in the equestrian event just kind of tumbles through the air. The javelin launch is kind of just flung from the body of the ‘athlete’.

Taken at face value, as a game where everything controls horribly and some events are basically impossible, this should mean that I hate it, right? Nope, because it’s just so stupid that it feels like that’s the point. When there are country names like Jakraine and Kazakhstingapore, I’m not quite sure things are meant to be taken seriously. Watching a guy flail through the air after a javelin toss, or shimmy while racewalking, or a swimmer rapidly turn his tiny pixelated arms in the air as he tries to get back in the water, that’s the fun. Hey, at least the game lets the player in on the joke that these events are practically impossible. That old NES summer sports game played its difficulty straight.

For those looking for a bit more balance, events can be removed from the main competition. I am convinced that I will never get higher than a 2.4 on the Rings competition, or that I will ever not DNQ in Weightlifting. I am Lord of Archery, though. I set a world record in swimming! I do well in the hammer toss from time to time! I watched this video on how to do the pole vault and I do pretty well in it now! I managed to not hit anything once in equestrian!

Some of the events are actually shockingly playable, and while they’re still goofy, they aren’t as funny. This may be the point, of being the few events in those compilations that actually are fun.

Still, it’s silly to complain that a game’s drawback is that it’s occasionally playable. It may be well-designed in the sense that it isn’t well-designed, but Justin Smith’s Realistic Summer Sports Simulator is still incredibly fun. Gather a friend or 3, laugh at all the faults that will inevitably occur and represent the proud nation of Monganda!

The Hills Are Greener: If Google Can’t Beat Them, Join Them

The Hills Are Greener: If Google Can’t Beat Them, Join Them

Apr 23, 2012

A lot is made of the fact that Amazon is using Android to power their own device, and their own app store is making more money per user than Google Play. The separation is interesting. But why does it continue to exist? Why haven’t Google teamed up with Amazon?

Now, the two companies are competing, particularly in that both are trying to sell music, movies, books, and apps to consumers. It might make such a relationship thorny because of that competition, but it’s no more competitive than Apple and Google, is it? Steve Jobs was famously no fan of Android, but Google still finds ways to make money off of iOS – and possibly even more than they do with Android, as was widely and possibly falsely reported.

The Kindle Fire

So what if Amazon wants to skin Android to look the way they want? Google would be remiss to not try and get their services on there. Get Gmail, their web browser (particularly Google Chrome), and their other services on the Kindle Fire.

They need to treat devices that use Android like they do Gmail. Users will sometimes use their own email client with Gmail. However, the ultimate goal is to keep them coming back to Gmail, and to Google services. They need to get on the Kindle Fire and keep people using Google services while they use their OS. Will it be possible to merge the Amazon Appstore with Google Play somehow? Unlikely, but the point of Android’s openness is that it was possible for this to happen. Even a possibility of merging purchases, like the way that some computer games offer Steam codes without actually selling the game on Steam, would help get people back on the Google ecosystem.

Of course, Amazon may be weary of relying on Google in the way that Apple may regret having Google services so tied in to their system. But Google is such an institution that it’s difficult to make a competent mobile device without integrating with Google services in some way. It would materially benefit the Kindle Fire and future Kindle tablets, if not Amazon. That’s where Google could come in from a position of strength.

As we’ve seen with the BlackBerry Playbook, it could be possible for Amazon to make their own OS while maintaining Android compatibility. Over time, that Android compatibility could be unnecessary, given how attractive the Kindle Fire ecosystem is. So Google needs to make sure they’re still a part of it, or they’ll be left behind.

If Google can’t beat Amazon, they need to join them if they still want to have some semblance of control over Android.