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SPB AirIslands review

By Jem Matzan

Pocket PC Games have a strong tendency to be simple and repetitive. That doesn't mean they aren't fun, but isn't it nice to be engrossed in a good strategy game once in a while? Pair that with three great arcade games and you have a spectacular little entertainment package for your Windows Mobile handheld device.

Gameplay

AirIslands is a "development sim" like SimCity, with one major restriction: space. The only real estate available to you is a floating island, and it's your job to figure out how to develop your little parcel of floating land so that you can make the most money in the shortest period of time. The object of AirIslands is to rebuild your island's Gravitator -- a ruined tower that, according to the story, has something to do with the reason why your island is floating in the sky -- in five stages. Each stage requires a great deal of money, plus a certain level of population happiness; once each stage is built, your population's happiness increases and the tower dumps a quantity of pollution onto your island. In order to raise money, you have to erect buildings and landscape the remaining space to cut down on pollution.

There are three factors that determine your island's ability to produce money: population, pollution, happiness, and economy. Population is determined by the number of houses you have. The higher the economy, the more potential money the island can produce. The higher the happiness, the more your people will work. The more pollution there is, the faster your buildings deteriorate (and repairs are expensive!); this also will generally lower your happiness level. Each building or natural element (trees and ponds) affects some or all of these three factors. Different types of buildings are specialized to different tasks, and since your building space is limited, you have to plan your island's development carefully. Each stage brings with it new building types and more pollution, so your strategy must adapt to the changing conditions. With time, your buildings, trees, and ponds will start to lose efficiency due to everyday wear and tear. You can repair them to keep them running at peak efficiency -- perhaps as often as twice per game day. If you don't repair things, eventually they collapse and fade away.

SPB AirIslands
SPB AirIslands (click for more screen shots)

If you're playing on a PDA phone, you can set AirIslands to terminate when calls come in -- if you don't, the calls will be ignored. If you want to leave AirIslands running for a long period of time, you can configure an in-game screen saver to protect against screen burn-in.

The sidegames: Arkaball, Xonix, and Bubbles

Money is earned by your population, but all of the other necessary resources -- brick, wood, and water -- must be earned by playing the three included arcade sidegames.

Arkaball is an Arkanoid clone, and I thought was the most fun to play of the three. I also found that it was much easier to earn bricks through Arkaball than it was the other resources in the other two games. Often, by the time I was done playing Arkaball, I had a gigantic stockpile of bricks. Like all other Arkanoid-like games, there are annoying levels where you have to get just the right ricochet to get past a certain level, but if you get frustrated, all three sidegames allow you to take your earned resources and leave the game; you can return later to resume that game, or start a new one.

Bubbles is a Frozen Bubble clone with a few more features. It's reasonably entertaining, but you earn water resources at a very slow pace.

Lastly, there's Xonix. I've played games like it in the past, but I can't think of their names right now. Basically, you have to divide and conquer the screen with a laser. There are various objects -- like ball bearings, nails, and wrenches -- that bounce around the screen, inadvertently trying to stop your progress. Playing this game with the stylus is an exercise in anger management -- I recommend the keypad or arrow keys if you have them.

Graphics and sound

The graphics are impressive considering the limitations imposed by a qVGA display. Slower PDAs may exhibit some choppiness in animation; to counter this problem, AirIslands has a detail slider. I had it turned to the highest setting on a Symbol MC50, and never had one problem.

The music is cute but uninspired, and it gets annoying quickly, especially considering the extended periods of gameplay necessary to completely rebuild the Gravitator. I ended up turning the music level down (or off), and left the sound effects at their default value.

Arkaball is the best-looking Arkanoid clone I've ever seen, although it's not like I go around searching for them. The sound is decent. Xonix features some really neat graphics, especially in the interaction between the laser and the wood background. Again, the sound is okay, but it's nothing special. Lastly, Bubbles looks good and sounds good, but it still seems to rank below its GNU/Linux cousin, Frozen Bubble.

Summary

SPB AirIslands is unlike any other game I've played, and though it is limited in scope, the replayability is high. After you've finished the game, you'll want to restart and try to complete the Gravitator in a shorter amount of time. If you can complete AirIslands within 25 game days (each game day lasts for about 5 minutes), SPB Software House will give you a free copy of SPB FreeCell. 25 days is a real challenge when you're first starting out, but after three or four complete games, your strategy will improve markedly. Some have even completed AirIslands in as few as 8 game days, though that is well beyond my skill level at this point.

Purpose Game
Manufacturer SPB Software House
Device and OS support Supports both VGA and qVGA displays. Microsoft Windows Mobile 2002, 2003, 2005 (5.0)
License Proprietary, restrictive in all the usual ways
Market Pocket PC users
Price (retail) U.S. $20
Previous version N/A
Product Web site Click here