Personally, gaming on a mobile phone still induces horrible, vivid flashbacks. Even now, I’m instantly transported back to the time when the Finnish giants, Nokia, decided it was time to storm the video game handheld market with their abomination that was the Nokia N-Gage. Urgh, the very thought of it still gives me cold chills.
In fairness, the Finnish engineer who must have muttered the idea in the Nokia boardroom was probably thoroughly congratulated on his bright and practically sensible idea. After all, mobile technology had come along way since the days of the popular, rudimentary built-in-game that was Snake. And that was an absolute hit, right? Yes, the idea of combining the connectivity and popularity of the mobile phone with a dedicated gaming engine was almost a eureka moment. You could literally smell the potential profit windfall.
Sadly, for Nokia, the idea was only sensible to those who were shortsighted enough to completely disregard the presence of the handheld gaming giant, Nintendo — a company who had written the rule book for the handheld market and could re-write it when forced to do so. Furthermore, the Nokia N-Gage was tasked with usurping the exponentially popular sequel to Nintendo’s Gameboy Color, the Gameboy Advance. Predictably, the chances of accomplishing this remarkable feat was near on impossible.
The Nokia N-Gage was a behemoth for a mobile, shoe-horning in one feature at the expense of the accessibility of another. Do you remember how you had to talk into it? Yeah, you could expect a lot of looks walking down the street with that gargantuan device plastered to the side of your head. Nonetheless, consumers who shared the same train of thought as Nokia decided to take the plunge.
While grinding through the never-ending popularity contest that was High School, an acquaintance who resided in my English class actually owned Nokia’s fabled device. It should be noted that this individual’s prior interest in gaming was absolutely zero until said acquisition, yet strangely, perhaps to soften the feeling of extreme resentment that he must have felt, he continually tried to convince me that the Nokia N-Gage was actually the future of handheld gaming. As he awkwardly removed the battery to insert the game cart, and proceeded to fumble on the keypad controls, I watched in perpetual agony as he gleefully bragged about the hardware’s graphical capabilities and multifunctional prowess such as the ability to text, make phone calls and play games all from the one device. Needless to say, as the proud owner of the Gameboy Advance and its tantalizing selection of titles such as Mario Super Circuit, Wario World and Golden Sun; I admittedly pitied the fool.
Like the good Samaritan, I graciously attempted to educate and rehabilitate his warped view on what a gaming handheld should be. With the purple pocket rocket in hand, I showcased what a dedicated gaming handheld could do and the sheer wonderment that it could and should provide. The comfortable control system, the quality of the games, the portability, and ease of use was telling when compared to its Finnish rival. However, I was repeatedly shocked that the N-Gage owner continued to dismiss the GBA simply because he couldn’t fathom the idea of having to carry around his phone and a dedicated gaming device. The idea almost seemed preposterous to him, and let’s not forget this was all the way back in 2003.
Eventually, the contract that bound him to Nokia’s gaming Frankenstein drew to an end, and soon enough, he was happy with a shinier, smaller and less capable gaming device offered by his next mobile upgrade. Once again I found myself perplexed. Wasn’t the Nokia N-Gage the future of handheld gaming? And then it hit me. He was happy to sacrifice the relative level of gaming power for increased connectivity and compatibility, a thought which would probably induce a dedicated gamer into a fit of angry tears. The pseudo, almost fully-fledged, N-Gage titles were no more; instead, shallow, yet addictive gameplay experiences occupied most of his time. Little did I know then, that this predicament was a futuristic foresight into the present day.
Speaking of the present day, the mobile gaming industry is currently booming, mostly due to the creation of the iPhone and the iOS platform. Capturing a completely new market akin to the Wii, mobile games can be made cheaply and offered to a market of millions. A cheap price point encourages impulse buys with many titles free-to-play, capitalizing on micro-transactions aimed at the impatient or consumer who demands more. Accessible controls brought down the barrier of entry for those who were previously put off by the complexities of a controller. However, even in this glorious age, I still can’t fully embrace mobile gaming as a viable alternative to a dedicated handheld.
For every addictive title such as Angry Birds, there’s a mobile monstrosity such as Battlefield 3 Aftershock. The levels of quality control is debatable, with rip-offs and questionable games flooding the market on a continual basis. Having to wade through the trash just to find a half decent time-waster is as frustrating as it is disappointing. And then there’s the longevity of each title, not to mention the controls.
Simplicity is the aim of the game. Flick a football, shoot a bird, pinch a picture or tilt a table — there’s yet to be a truly captivating and engrossing game for the hardcore fans. Yes, there’s definitely enjoyable romps to be had, perfect for passing the time during the commute. Still, I’ve yet to find myself rushing back to my phone, eager to play through a particular title again or desperate to download the latest release (ok, I was addicted to Temple Run for a little while). Scoreboards and in-game achievements are about as deep as the majority of titles get. And then there’s the controls. The power of touch has opened up endless possible control schemes for developers. Some work brilliantly — intuitive, engaging and accessible. Others hinder, restrict and frustrate. Buttons and sticks — these simple objects mean so much for a game (do you hear me Microsoft?)
But what of the handhelds we have now? Are they really the prehistoric dinosaurs outsiders claim them to be? The Nintendo 3DS offers full, glasses-free 3D, accelerometers and cameras. The PSVita has astonishing, console-rivaling visuals, a rear touchpad, and practically as much connectivity as any mobile phone. Not too shabby. However, the penultimate factor is the games. Quality over quantity. And the gulf in quality is paramount.
Maybe One Day
Perhaps I'm ignorant, but I just can’t comprehend that I’ll ever experience the same entertainment and splendor that games such as Super Mario 3D Land or Uncharted: Golden Abyss can provide on a mobile phone. In fact, unless I'm sitting on a porcelain throne, there’s absolutely no possibility of choosing my phone over any of my other gaming devices. Therefore, in my humble opinion, mobile gaming is nothing more than a needs-must endeavor at best, helping pass the time when you’re waiting for a train or if you’re in desperate need of a quick dose of portable gaming. Nothing more, nothing less. That being said, with the rapid advancements in mobile technology — the next Snapdragon processor will apparently produce visuals that equal the Xbox 360 — there’s nothing to suggest that in six months to a year’s time, gaming on a mobile phone may be my new favorite past time. Hell, I’m fickle like that.