Portable Zoo’s Letter Bug differs from most highly addictive drugs in that the first one’s not free; it costs $1.99 up front. But if you’re anything like us, that’ll prove to be a good investment. Letter Bug has its frustrating bits, but it’s going to be on our iPhone for a long, long time.
In Letter Bug, you spell words out of a jumble of letters to earn points–just like every other iPhone word game in existence. However, Letter Bug has lots of clever gimmicks to freshen things up and provide challenge. The letters are stacked up on top of one another, and as you eliminate one layer of letters by spelling out words, new ones will drift into the foreground; thus, there is some strategy to picking letters to unearth the ones you need next.
You will also encounter colored bonus letters that help you out in various ways. For instance, if you include a green letter in a word, you’ll get time put back on the clock. Yellow letters grant you an extra shuffle, allowing you to shake your iPhone to get a new set of letters. Plus, the more different colors you include in a word, the higher your score multiplier for that word. Finally, each stage of Letter Bug has a theme, ranging from stormy weather, to outer space, to a circus. If you spell words relating to that theme (like “rain” on the storm level), you get an immediate 50-point bonus.
Using these tricks is absolutely necessary, considering how quickly the game turns the screws on you. Each successive round of the Playthrough mode raises the score goal while also cutting down your time. We hit a wall at the very end of the first stage, and it took us a good half-hour to move on. Since the distribution of letters is basically random, you may need to play again and again until the game feeds you some miracle words (instead of a big mess of vowels, or four “Ts” right next to each other). You can use your shuffles to get new letters, but they’re worth 15 bonus points at the end of the round, which can mean the difference between advancing and losing.
We were also bummed when Letter Bug rejected some of our less common words, such as “noir” and “meme,” for no apparent reason. We’re not sure what dictionary this game’s using, but it’s not the usual Scrabble gold standard, that’s for sure.
Letter Bug’s a pretty good-looking game. Although some of the text in the UI is strangely off-center, the important thing is that you can see what letter you’re picking during play. The sound’s fine, but we wish we could play our own music.
The bottom line on Letter Bug is that it’s not quite polished enough to get a 4, but we still highly recommend it to word game fans. Even though we got stuck a few times, we wound up playing it a lot longer than we expected to. The game’s really cleverly designed, and it’s fast enough to play that hitting that replay button doesn’t seem like a big time sink (even though it is).