It’s human nature that after one comes to a conclusion about a topic that one holds on to that belief. That sounds like a rational thing to do, until you remember that time moves forward and that things change. Opinions on mobile games, like that they are somehow lesser than “real” games, are still as prevalent as they were a few years ago. This opinion has always been nonsense, of course, but one can see where such opinions come from. Such games are primarily time wasters, something you play in a few seconds and then shut off without thinking much about the experience. Frequently such games come jam packed with levels and updates, and they devalue everything released on mobile platforms since most of them are available for 99 cents—if the developers charge anything at all.
Like most opinions, this one is one that is seen in retrospect, seen from a time when Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and Temple Run were new and represented the standard for what appeared on mobile devices. Times change, and the idea that mobile is only the province of time wasters or dubiously ethical free-to-play games is an out-of-date notion to anyone who is even only casually paying attention.Here at PopMatters, we recently recorded podcasts on two mobile games, Device 6 and Year Walk, both games by Simogo, that came out last year and challenge the notion of what a mobile game is. Here’s a few more great mobile games from this year that I’ve played.
For all the flack that short time wasting games get, there is still something immediately satisfying about a well implemented minimalist score chasing game. The mobile arena is the true inheritor of the arcade, except that the games found there don’t gouge you every single time that you want to play. Circle Stop is one such game. A dark circle moves in a circle around the screen. You have to tap just as it overlaps colored circles that appear in its path. Blue circles are worth some points, but the pink circle that they flank is worth even more. Occasionally an orange circle will appear by itself to grant even more points. Miss three times and your run is over.
The game features a simple design set against a pure white background, granting it an appearance that matches its simple efficiency. None of the cuteness harnessed by other mobile games through the use of mascots and cartoon backgrounds is represented in the game. This is a straight forward rhythm challenge. I can’t end up playing this game for too long at a stretch, though. The necessity for efficient timing frustrates me when my phone buzzes for that third time, ending a scoring run early, and I have no one to blame but myself.
Threes! is a game that I don’t have such trouble with. It too is another score chasing game, but it is a puzzle game, not an arcade game. Matching numbered cards and seeing the board clear as a result of a few well planned swipes is so satisfying. It tickles the analytical side of my brain, but doesn’t strain it. It’s more like a massage. I want to continue marching 3s together to makes 6s into 12s and 24s and so on.
Earlier in the year, Threes! was cloned and made available for free online. Soon others took that clone and made their own version, harming sales of the original. The developers have tried to push back against this race to the bottom. They created a great game and charged money for it without providing a free version to demo or running ads on it. Instead, they went with the classic monetization model. You give me two dollars, and I give you a game. No tricks and no marketing speak. It bit them in the ass, unfortunately, but I’m seeing a lot of other developers joining this fray. They won’t win against monoliths like Rovio and King LLC, but hopefully they can carve out their own little niche market.
Both Circle Stop and Threes! are straight forward, simple mobile games. On the one hand, they fit the early stereotypes of mobile games to the tee. On the other hand, you have Desert Golfing.
Mechanically, Desert Golfing is the exactly the same as Angry Birds. It features a 2D perspective from which to view the game, and you can draw your finger across the screen to act as an instrument to let an object fly, like Angry Birds. Also, you can adjust the angle of an object’s flight and power until you let go, just like Angry Birds. However, instead of trying to topple a structure, you are trying to get a golf ball into a hole. It sounds like another straight forward mobile game, it looks like another mobile game, but the desert keeps going. Each hole closes after completing a challenge, and the ball reappears in a new location in preparation to try for the next hole and the next. In other words, you don’t tee off for a mere 18 holes. I’m coming up on 1,000 holes, and there’s no sign of an ending. Each stroke is kept track of and added to the player’s ever growing total.
Sometimes the desert is flat and only requires you to hit a ball sideways in order to roll into the next hole or sometimes there is a downward incline all the way to the next hole, requiring only a tap to complete. Most of the time what stands in your way are the most ridiculous dune formations, however, which serve as obstacles between your ball and the next hole. Very, very rarely a water trap will show up or a cactus or a rock. These singular oddities set against the mono-colored sands are surprising and arresting, despite only serving as something to look at. They are something different, something new, and that can be enough. Desert Golfing is beautiful in its two colored portrayal of the desert. The ever extending desert is a work of art that one can never see the whole of.
Monument Valley is also a beautiful game but in a way that is very different from Desert Golf. Monument Valley wears the term “art game” as a badge of honor. In the game, you guide a being around a fantastical structure, altering it’s Escher-like designs to get to an exit as you bend, twist, and rotate pillars to allow passage. These buildings are gorgeous and detailed, a feast for the eyes.
Sometimes not enough credit is given to the image in a visual medium. Because movies and video games can move, we focus on the through line of the image, the plot, the narrative, the story. In doing so, we don’t take in what details or majesty that the image itself presents to us. Monument Valley‘s strength is the presentation of the puzzle-box-like monuments of the title. Playing it is simple, but it wouldn’t be nearly as worthwhile as it is without the visuals.
There is also a story being told, but most of it is hidden behind a veil of secrecy and metaphor. I don’t know what Monument Valley is about, nor do I much care. It tries for something and certainly fails to communicate it, but these reality bending worlds make up for that. Its beauty is not in its simplicity, but in a complexity that it represents that cannot exist in the real world. Like the dream logic of Inception, the places in Monument Valley are only governed by what you can make the mind see, not what actually is.
Most of the mobile games that I’ve played this year were very good, some of them were very weird, and a few were complete and utter wastes of time. However, the best game that I played on this platform by far was 80 Days, a game that reimagines Jules Verne’s classic novel in an alternate steampunk universe and challenges the player to explore the world and try and make the titular deadline.
Exploration in games has become somewhat devalued as a concept. Often in video games, exploration simply means finding a new dungeon or treasure chest in the world or sometimes it results in beholding a beautiful vista. However, frequently exploring a world in a game never feels like we are traveling through a living place. Games like these are called sandbox games for a reason. They are static until the player acts upon them. They do nothing on their own. 80 Days feels like a living world. You meet people, but you get that that these encounters are only a single event in their day. Wars are being fought, discoveries are being made, and a hundred different stories are going on, and you are just passing through them. Your story is a cobbled together version of pieces of all of these stories that you’ve passed through on your own journey.
I get annoyed when I fail to meet that 80 days deadline, but I don’t really care. Each time that I play, I know that I’ve seen something new, met someone new, done something new. I’ve instigated a mutiny, gone to the Chinese opera, tussled with Jesse James, met an artificer who has a device that can see into the ancient past, and played tourist as revolution tore a city apart. That’s really what you are: a tourist. It’s a refreshing new identity in a video game, one that actually lets me explore the world more deeply than taking on the role of yet another “chosen one”.
// Notes from the Road
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