If Pokémon has taught us anything, it's that kids' love for collecting stuff may only be rivaled by their love for fighting and winning. Pokémon isn't likely to venture far beyond Nintendo's own gaming devices anytime soon, of course, but the model it establishes - tiny monsters, short battles, and collector impulses gone wild--seems a perfect fit for the iOS gaming scene. Enter Monster Life by Gameloft, a game for iPhone and iPad, Android phone or Android tablet, which combines Pokémon-style beastie battles with FarmVille-style upkeep of your own little monster ranch. See also: Best iPhone and Android apps.
Monster Life is technically "free to play," but probably better understood as "pay to win." You start out with a pretty sizable pile of coins, crystals, and friend stones--your three currencies for the game. You'll find, however, that certain currencies run out extremely quickly while prices escalate dramatically. Playing for more than a few seconds at a time can be an endlessly expensive pursuit. Crystals are especially important to keep in stock: Use them to keep your monster in a fight after an inevitable knockout, to play lotteries that award exclusive items, and to speed up various countdown clocks indicating when you can next fight or tend to your monsters' needs. Not coincidentally, crystals are tough to acquire without spending real-world cash. See also: iPad app reviews and iPhone app reviews.
As for the fights themselves, you don't actually have much room for input besides the option to buy victory. You choose who fights whom, hoping to maximize your damage; you keep an eye out for the "critical hit" button; and you have the option to spend crystals and friend stones anytime to revive your monsters and trigger attack and defense bonuses.
There's nothing wrong with a game that demands no real skill from a player, of course. Games like Tiny Tower, for instance, offer plenty of fun without ever expecting much more from you than tapping on stores to restock them. It feels a bit disingenuous, though, when this kind of revenue model is grafted onto a game that purports to be about competition. The characters in Monster Life speak constantly about being the "best" monster trainer, but really all that's required is deep pockets or endless patience, a few seconds at a time. It's also potentially troubling that the game is so clearly styled for children to play, given the rather overt emphasis on gambling and the strong encouragement to rapidly burn through currency. You get decent bang for your buck early on in the game, but stick with it long enough, and two dollars for a hundred or so crystals won't get you quite as far as it used to.
Nevertheless, Monster Life does pretty effectively pile on the charm. Between wacky music, adorable papercraft-style monster dolls, and occasionally bizarre touches of humor (like entertaining your monster with a disco dance party), this game has genuine personality.