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Going mobile | The rise of quality smartphone gaming

Going mobile | The rise of quality smartphone gaming
Carl 'Malkaurai' Phillips

I’ve done my best to keep my distance from the mobile gaming market for a number of years. After all, with handhelds like the Nintendo 3DS and the PlayStation Vita in my possession I didn’t need to think about smaller and mechanically simpler games, right? Persona 4 Golden and Fire Emblem were all I needed, not to mention the fact I still get annoyed by the battery life of smartphones (but that’s a different discussion altogether.) There has been the odd foray, of course, such as getting the stylish endless runner Canabalt when I first got a smartphone, or the time a friend & I got overly competitive trying to get the highest score possible on Flappy Bird.

It got incredibly heated, I assure you.

All that changed for me last year, though. It began with the surprise release of Fallout Shelter, riding high on the hype of Fallout 4’s E3 showcase. In truth, the gameplay wasn’t anything we hadn’t seen before – Sim-Tower-like micromanagement with time sinks that could be avoided through chance and real-world money – but what really made it stand out was the quality of its production. Similar to how Hearthstone breathed new life into the TCG scene with its accessible gameplay and eye-catching visuals, Fallout Shelter gave mobile management sims a level of polish beyond anything that had come before.

mobile-gaming-Fallout-Shelter

It’s important to note that there have been mobile games that have garnered praise from players and critics alike. The ports of Plants Vs Zombies and Bejeweled comes to mind, while The Room (not to be confused with the disaster-piece film of the same name) and its sequel helped reinvigorate the puzzle genre. Then there are the console ports of yesteryear titles from the Final Fantasy and Grand Theft Auto franchises for nostalgia fixes on the go, or classic adventure titles like The Longest Journey and The Curse of Monkey Island finding a brand new audience.

The thing is, the real reason mobile games are as popular as they are is because of their quick-fire nature. Sometimes people only have a few minutes to kill and mobile gaming can fill that gap. It’s the same reason why the system suspend feature of the 3DS and Vita allows for similar quick bursts of gaming, breaking down larger experiences that would otherwise only be possible on a home console or PC to be much more accessible (Uncharted: Golden Abyss being a prime example.)

mobile-gaming-miitomo

However, despite its popularity and huge potential to make lots of money, the reason I have scoffed at smartphones being a platform to pay attention to was the lack of new and unique experiences instead of re-releases. Why on earth would I play an RPG on the phone when I can save my battery and play on another more powerful device? Well, that trend began to change thanks to a few titles, and it all began with the most unlikely of places – Miitomo.

Yes, the app from Nintendo full of ridiculous questions, random mini-games and questionable fashion sense took the world by storm a few months ago. My friends and I were on it daily, answering away and watching as each other’s Miis would barge into our virtual homes. It was an oddity that proved entertaining and fitting for the mobile arena, but it ultimately lacked the longevity to keep me around. One thing it did highlight was that people were scrambling for Nintendo to release more substantial games for smartphones. More to the point, it had the same high production value as Fallout Shelter, which for me bodes well for future mobile games from Nintendo.

mobile-gaming-ffbe

However, the game that really made me rethink my perception of mobile games is Final Fantasy Brave Exvius. Despite the ridiculous title, the blend of turned-based combat, varied level sizes, and charming if clichéd storyline has had me logging in daily since its release. Then there are the subtle social features that have players loaning their main avatar to others, or the way recognisable faces from the franchise can join your team. Perhaps most importantly, the production value is seriously impressive. While it sticks to 2D sprite-inspired visuals, the audio design is beyond anything I’ve heard from a mobile game before, especially the soundtrack.

As I type this, I and most of the UK are awaiting the release of Pokemon Go, the AR experience that brings the need to catch ‘em all to the real world. Some have found ways around it (especially Android users), touting their social experiences all over the internet while the rest of us look on with jealousy, but it’s evident that Nintendo have really struck gold this time. Pokemon has always been a series that retained players well beyond a platform’s life cycle, and bringing a free, lighter version to everyone will only ensure the series remains relevant.

Although, I do wonder how soon it will be before we see a news article about the parent who unexpectedly found a bill for £1000 worth of PokeCoins.

mobile-gaming-Pokemon-Go

The point is that I found a place for mobile games. Yes, I play them when I’m travelling just like everyone else, but I’m also playing them while waiting in a queue for a multiplayer game at home. Do I think that smartphones will replace handheld devices or even consoles as the main gaming platform? Absolutely not (at least in their current form, anyway) but over the last twelve months the games that have emerged have proven, to me at least, that they can sit alongside our PlayStations and 3DS’ as an entertainment device.

Now, if anybody needs me, I’ll be staring at the App Store screen, refreshing it until Pokemon Go god damn appears.