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Sally's Spa: When chainsawing aliens isn't enough

A funny thing happened to me last weekend on my way to save the galaxy, chainsaw aliens to death and beat the living snot out of the top martial artists in the world. I started my own spa.

Sliced cucumbers on the eyes are all in a day's work for this spa owner. Eric Franklin/CNET

A funny thing happened to me last weekend on my way to save the galaxy, chainsaw aliens to death, and beat the living snot out of the world's top martial artists. I painted a stranger's toenails purple--and helped her shape her eyebrows.

That's right. Instead of logging countless hours on Xbox Live, I was taken in by the unstoppable force that is Game Cafe's iPhone game, Sally's Spa. Not only is this the best iPhone game I've played (not saying a lot, since I don't play many, but still), it's one of the most addictive handheld games I've ever played.

If this is your first time hearing about Sally and her addictive qualities, here's the deal in a nutshell. In the game, you play a young entrepreneur (Sally) who starts her own spa business.

Although you'll eventually hire others to help, you take a very hands-on approach to running your business. When patrons enter the shop, an icon over their head hints at their current need. So, if a patron enters with a yellow-chair symbol, it's up to you to drag that customer to the big yellow masking chair. Once a patron is situated, you'll usually have to interact with them in some way, whether it's plucking eyebrows, applying facials, or giving the occasional mani-pedi.

This is all completely addicting thanks to simple mechanics (dragging and tapping), gameplay that keeps you constantly busy, and an upgrade system that gives you long-term goals.

Upgrading your spa equipment directly impacts your customers' comfort level, which makes them less likely to leave before you've served them, thus making them happier (and the happier they are when the check out, the higher your tips). The more money you make, the more you'll have to spend on upgrades.

Also, the side mini-game game of selling supplementary items like shampoo and skin creams earns you promotions if you sell enough. The promotions grant you access to even more expensive ancillary items that make more money when sold.

If this seems like the most capitalistic game ever, you're not far off. Although I guess Mercenaries 2 would give it a run for its money.

As for replay value, Games Cafe has taken the Sega NiGHTS model and allows you to play all the old stages over and over to get the highest score you can can as well as upload your score.

Now, as much as I enjoyed the 99 cent adventure, here are a few things I feel would justify a higher price for the next iPhone version of the game (if there is one). Other versions of the game may already have some of these features.

A little harder please
While the game keeps you busy throughout, I was able to get an expert rating on nearly all stages. When I did lose a customer or two, I was still able to meet my sales goals. Multiple difficulty levels would be nice.

Customer variety
Aside from the couples--who have to be moved together at all times--all the patrons in the game are basically the same, differing only in how much they tip and how patient they are. More idiosyncrasies would spice things up.

More mini-games
Upgrading your equipment and buying ancillary items is great, but tackling other aspects of running a spa business--bills, firing under-performing employees, paying off the local crime boss or police--would add some much needed depth to the gameplay.

More control
When the facial or manicure window pops up, you're forced to do only that for a couple of seconds, even if you were in the middle of dragging a customer to a station. A way to see behind the window and control the action behind would be lovely. You should at least be able to queue some tasks up.

Speaking of queuing, sometimes I have like eight or nine tasks lines up. However, as new patrons enter the shop or current ones get antsy, it would be useful, as priorities change, to re-prioritize tasks. Currently, this can't be done in the iPhone version.

Boss battles
These would have you deal, one on one, with a very demanding customer and introduce different ways of implementing the gameplay mechanics. Maybe a mini-game on perfecting the art of politely cutting patrons off mid-sentence so they don't waste too much of your time.

Since finishing all the levels, I probably won't be playing as much now, but will instead be anxiously awaiting whatever followup the developers come up with. Yes, that's right. A guy who usually delivers virtual genocide on a nightly basis is now eagerly anticipating a new shampoo bowl. What changes/improvements would you guys like to see for the next version?

Sally's Spa
Wait. A game where I get to constantly touch strangers' feet? Where do I sign?! Eric Franklin/CNET