Point / Counterpoint: Handhelds Vs Smart Devices (The Counterpoint)

Since Steve mentioned Flappy Bird, that’s what I’m going to lead off with, as Flappy Bird is a great example of everything that is still wrong with mobile gaming. This is an editorial so I don’t need to be diplomatic or objective here, I can just say it: Flappy Bird is absolutely awful. It’s not even good in that dumb fun mobile game kind of way. It’s just a bad game, pure and simple. It copied the gameplay from dozens of other mobile games – all of which do it far better – not to mention completely ripped off assets from Nintendo. It added absolutely nothing significant to the gaming world. So why does that matter? Plenty of games are pointless and forgettable. BECAUSE IT WAS A HUGE HIT! At its peak, the developer was raking in $50 grand A DAY from it. And it wasn’t just one of those games that the Farmville and Candy Crush crowd flocked to – a lot of “real gamers” were all over my Twitter feed sharing their Flappy Bird high scores, pretending to be all embarrassed to admit it while announcing scores that indicated a LOT of time spent playing the game.

That is exactly why I don’t have the highest of hopes for the future of mobile gaming.  Let me be clear: I know that’s where things are headed. I know that the days of dedicated handheld gaming devices are numbered. I’m still optimistic it isn’t as soon as a lot of people are suggesting, but realistically, the 3DS is probably Nintendo’s – and gaming in general’s – last traditional gaming handheld, and if they make another, it’s not going to be the way we know them today. Although I hate to imagine a world where Nintendo stops making handhelds, it wouldn’t be the most unfathomable future to have all of my gaming on the go to come from the phone I’m already carrying anyway if the games weren’t, by and large, so abysmal.

Yes, Year Walk is a great example of a mobile game that is a deeper, richer experience and isn’t just designed to play for 3 minutes while you’re in line at Starbucks or sitting on the toilet. And there are plenty more that I don’t need to list. But like Steve admitted, there are far more bad games than good ones. Sure, an argument can be made that video games in general don’t have a significantly greater concentration of masterpieces to not so great games. Comparing to handheld gaming specifically, the original DS had more than its share of shovelware, possibly along the highest amount of shovelware among any video game hardware in history. The difference was, those games didn’t typically sell that well. Most people didn’t play them, and certainly weren’t talking about them and sharing their high scores. The DS equivalent of Flappy Bird would’ve been thoroughly mocked, and then quickly forgotten. It’s far too easy and tempting for people to check out the latest free or cheap mobile game everyone is talking about, and then people just go ahead and keep playing it, while ignoring the Year Walks out there. I think that issue is unique to mobile games, and it’s not getting any better.

There’s also the issue of the playability of mobile games. The best mobile games are the ones that use a phone’s touch screen and tilting capabilities and don’t try to shoehorn traditional gameplay controls into a game via virtal d-pads and things of that nature. My question is, how deep can a game truly get that only lets you poke a screen and tilt your device? When you look at a game like Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, there is absolutely no way that game would’ve been as good if the controls were streamlined into “mobile game controls”. The two DS Zelda games experimented a big with touchscreen controls, and while they worked fairly well, it was still in tandem with the hard buttons. A mobile Mario game wouldn’t work unless it was dumbed down into being an endless runner – and the best recent Mario games have been the 3D ones. Beyond all that, let’s look at the recent game systems that were launched under the premise of a unique and different control scheme – the Wii and the DS. Think about the absolute best games for both of those systems…for the most part, they are the ones that largely ignored the motion control or the touch screen, or only used them very sparingly, while largely relying on traditional game controls.

There is a reason why we keep going back to that: That is what works, that is what has always worked, and that is what will always work best. That is simply the best overall way to play games. Sure, sometimes a game comes along that just wouldn’t have worked as well or been as creative without their unique motion or touchscreen controls. Just like there are the occasional mobile games that come out that wouldn’t have been as interesting or creative on any other platform. But it has yet to be proven to me that that is anywhere CLOSE to being the norm rather the exception. To have a platform that can fully support ALL genres, and ALL types of gaming experiences, you need to be able to do more than poke, swipe, pinch, and tilt, plain and simple. For me, it’s not a matter of whether or not that IS the future – it’s whether or not we should look at that future as an evolution or a step back. And I am firmly in the latter camp.