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30 years after the Game Boy, can Apple Arcade make handheld games great again?

Happy 30th to the Game Boy!  Do not use for advertising.
Happy 30th to the Game Boy! - 123RF Stock Photo

What developer is going to invest the necessary budget to produce a great mobile game, when freemium games are a licence to print cash?

The introduction of the Game Boy by Nintendo in 1989, 30 years ago this fall, was not received rapturously by the industry or by fans. Faithfully scaling a Nintendo game down to pocket dimensions was considerably more difficult than the technology at the time was capable of doing. Simply compare Super Mario Land , the handheld’s flagship launch title, to Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo Entertainment System, to see the immediate, impossible-to-ignore differences. I remember my disappointment when I first switched on the Game Boy I’d so eagerly anticipated opening on Christmas morning in the early 1990s: The tepid green screen and dull grey action seemed a far cry from the video games I was accustomed to enjoying at home.

Of course, Nintendo stuck with the Game Boy, and was rewarded by industry-surprising success. Its successors, the Game Boy Colour and the Game Boy Pocket, greatly improved the hardware, and soon a number of essential handheld games followed. Over its lifetime the Game Boy sold more than 100 million units; in the end, it is remembered as a sturdy, influential device, and its best games, including The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, the original Pokemon titles and, Tetris, of course, are plainly canonical. Crucially, the Game Boy set a precedent: Handheld games could be just as serious, substantial and entertaining as games played at home. The instant classics later released on the Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS only further confirmed it.

Given the Game Boy anniversary, it seems appropriate that one of the best games I’ve played this year is available on my iPad. It’s also available on my iPhone and on my Apple TV. It’s called Bleak Sword , and it’s a slick, satisfying action-adventure title in the spirit of Dark Souls or Bloodborne , rendered in a stark, 8-bit monochrome aesthetic. It controls beautifully and is deceptively demanding. I’ve had as much fun trudging through it, dying often, as I’ve had playing this year’s Sekiro: Shadows Never Die on my PlayStation 4. What’s astonishing is that Bleak Sword is a mobile game — one of the launch titles of Apple’s new subscription service Apple Arcade. It and several other games in the library are redefining what it means to be a mobile game in 2019.

Who was going to buy a portable gaming device, given that we carry our own portable gaming devices in our pockets already all the time?

When Apple launched the iOS App Store in the summer of 2008, it radically changed our relationship to our mobile devices and, in many ways, the world itself around us. I think the possibilities it offered were best represented, for most people, by the mere explanation of the Shazam app. Being able to identify the name of a song heard in passing seemed like such a simple, appealing idea that it instantly justified smartphone applications, which until then, still felt like unnecessarily complex means to check email or surf the web on the go. Nobody had really imagined the extent of what the iPhone might provide, in the realm of the essential and trivial. We all realized how badly we needed one only when a lot of new needs were invented for us to have.

Yet it was always easy to imagine the iPhone as a platform for video games. I had been carrying a video game console on my person at the time already: A Nintendo DS, which often sat in my jeans pocket uncomfortably next to my Motorola flip phone and a set of house keys. The Nintendo DS, though pretty rudimentary by the standard of then-current consoles such as Microsoft’s Xbox 36o or Sony’s PlayStation 3, enjoyed some of the best games of its era, games as innovative, engaging and original as anything one could find on the more powerful home platforms. The prospect of such games being available on a phone was, needless to say, enormously attractive.

By the time of the iPhone’s release in the United States, a new video game on a handheld platform was priced only marginally lower than home console games — as much as $39.99, typically, compared to $59.99 for a game on the Xbox or PS3. The quality of the titles reflected the price. Great games cost a lot of money to produce, whether they’re played on a 50” high-definition TV screen or in the palm of your hand; gamers understood that New Super Mario Bros and Pokemon Diamond were as valuable, from the vantage of enjoyment, as Mass Effect or Halo 3 , and they were willing to pay what seemed then a reasonable price of admission. The very fact that handheld games were smaller may have had some impact on the perception of their worth. But the calibre of the entertainment was an iron-clad defence.

Something changed around the turn of the decade, however. Though efforts had been made by Apple to populate the App Store, in its early days, with a number of high-quality titles, including ports of popular PC and console titles like Sonic the Hedgehog and The Secret of Monkey Island , they couldn’t do enough to keep out the kind of detritus that soon became the App Store’s most popular form of entertainment: Cheap, hastily made games, were often ripped off from more substantive ones, offering at most an hour or two of low-level diversion — and usually much less. These titles were priced at 99 cents, or were sometimes even free, and in a matter of months they instantly devalued mobile gaming. No one could sell a serious game at $19.99 when you could download 20 others for the same price — quantity became the obvious choice over quality.

It was the dawn of the era of Candy Crush and Angry Birds — and the dawn of the era of Flappy Bird , the legendarily addictive, unambiguously crummy side-scroller whose creator pulled it from the App Store at the height of its popularity in a bid to atone for its rise to undeserved fame. These games ranged in pleasure and legitimacy; some were straightforward novelty items, whipped together by aspiring designers practically overnight as a matter of amusement, while others were hastily manufactured products of rapacious developers, conceived from the ground up to maximize downloads with flash and sizzle. Very few could be accurately described as good games. The substance and artistry — the depth expected even of titles on handheld consoles — was not there, on the whole and almost without exception.

The business model that soon emerged — in which the games themselves are free but tantalizing in-game extras are available at a premium — soon became the mobile standard, generating hundreds of millions of dollars. Of course, the “freemium” model paved the way for everything from Clash of Clans to Fortnite , and is a major part of the industry, now. It also effectively killed the traditional handheld market.

Who was going to buy a portable gaming device, given that we carry our own portable gaming devices in our pockets already all the time? Who is going to spend money on a real game when thousands and thousands of semi-real games are downloadable for free? And most importantly, what developer is going to invest the necessary budget to produce a great mobile game, when freemium games are a license to print cash?

I think Apple is aware of the problem. I think they are aware, too, of the demand for a more serious gaming experience in the handheld market: There is a demand from gamers, who are tired of the wafer thin titles overwhelming the market, and a demand from developers, who yearn as much as any artists to produce really serious work. The premise of the Arcade is that developers are no longer labouring under the pressure of downloads and in-app extras or bonuses. Under a subscription model, all of the games are free to play equally, in the way that you can watch movies at leisure on Netflix. There are, as a blanket rule, no extras available to be purchased within the games. If it works, it will liberate developers from the system that iOS imposed on them. If it works, modern mobile games stand a chance to be as good as the handheld games that came before them.

The Arcade’s launch titles are at the very least encouraging. It has been Bleak Sword that’s made the strongest impression on me so far, but I’ve also been dazzled by Sayonara Wild Hearts , from Annapurna Interactive, and Super Impossible Road , a sequel to a well-liked game on the PlayStation 4. There’s a very rigorous skateboarding simulator, Skate City , and a surprisingly hearty traditional platformer, Rayman Mini .

The effect so far has been a slow but comprehensive readjustment of expectations: What I find myself thinking, after a few minutes with most of these titles, is that it’s remarkably good for a mobile game . And what I actually want from this experience, at heart, is just that — not any one great game, but the sense that, for almost the first time since the genre was created, great mobile games are truly possible.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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