Mobile Gaming – The New Arcade?

Arcades are all but dead. Because home gaming is both satisfying and advanced – and usually quite a bit deeper – I don’t find myself lamenting its demise. Plus, you can always go to Japan, where arcades are still prevalent. Even still, after reading Ready Player One, I got a little nostalgic shiver when I saw the words “Aladdin’s Castle.” As a kid in the 80s and 90s, nothing beat going into an arcade with a pocketful of quarters. The universe was yours, if only for a few minutes at a time. And you were welcome to watch other people explore their worlds of choice from a slight angle.

But when you think about it, mobile games aren’t that different from arcades. There’s usually a small buy-in which will get you a bite-sized amount of entertainment. $0.99 is the new quarter. The experience is usually like cotton-candy, in that the sweetness dissolves away harmlessly. You have fun, but when it’s done you’re happy to move on to the next arcade cabinet or app.

My phone is a 16GB iPhone 5. I keep 50 games on it at a time, give or take. That is the arcade in my pocket. Of course, some app are upwards of 1.5GB in size; we can consider them the deluxe cabinets – your F355 Challenge or 6-player X-Men. It’s a different kind of economy, but in a way can still be tied to what I have in my pocket. But instead of needing to hit up the mall or the bowling alley to get my fix, I simply need a couple free minutes in which to immerse myself.

Since I already own the hardware and don’t need to rent out a strip-mall to house them, I get to “own” these games instead of “renting” them like arcade games. These differences open up possibilities that weren’t present 25 years ago. For example, when Capcom wanted to add more fighters to Street Fighter II, it made a new cabinet (Street Fighter II: Champion Edition). Of course, you had to plop more quarters into the newer version. Conversely, when Capcom added Heihachi and Rolento to Street Fighter x Tekken for iOS, it was done through a downloadable update. If you already bought the game, you got this for free! And if you didn’t own it, the buy-in hadn’t changed to get your chance to play.

The social aspects between cell phone and arcade have obviously been muted. While there are multiplayer aspects in a lot of mobile games, it’s not the same as elbowing the guy next to you for stealing the sewer pizza while you only have a sliver of health left. One vast improvement is the passive competition of the leaderboard. GameCenter makes it possible to compare your skills with everyone else who has ever played Robot Unicorn Attack – not just those who played it at your arcade.

Let’s look at a few of the most popular iOS games right now, and how they compare to arcade games.

Nimble Quest – NimbleBit LLC
This is my current favorite game. You start with one hero, and weave your way around an environment as you defeat enemies and find more allies. Smashing into a wall or an enemy is almost certain death. I enjoy starting with different characters and using in-game coins to level up the powerups like an enemy freeze or health potions.

To me, Nimble Quest’s arcade equivalent is Pac-Man. Take away the maze, and the movement is almost identical. Both titles also rely heavily on player skill; a game can last 10 seconds or 10 minutes, depending on how good you are. In one game, you’ll have moments of vulnerability and empowerment. A line of 7 allies tailing you, lobbing fireballs and arrows at anything in their path, is every bit as exhilarating as gulping down a power pellet and watching the ghosts scurry for their (un)lives.

Ridiculous Fishing – A Tale of Redemption – Vlambeer
This is the indie darling right now, created by an all-star team of app developers. It’s quirky and cool. You try to get your lure as deep as possible before snaring your first fish. As it comes back up, you attempt to capture all the fish you avoided on the way down. Once the lure is out of the water, you shoot all your catches with your firearm of choice. It’s as fun as it sounds.

If I was going to compare Ridiculous Fishing to an arcade game, it would be the claw machine. It’s an obvious comparison because, in both games, you’re trying to hook prizes on your line. But additionally, games take very little time from start to finish. You pay your money to the claw machine, set it to plunge, and when it comes up your game is done. The same applies for Ridiculous Fishing. While there are power-ups and new fish that definitely entice you to play over and over (and over) again, the experience isn’t inherently different from game to game.

Angry Birds Space – Rovio
Just about everyone who owns a cell phone has at least one copy of Angry Birds; it’s an institution. Peel away the commercialism and the seeming randomness of how to beat levels and you have a very satisfying game – especially Angry Birds Space, which added a cool gravity mechanic to the already unique physics.

That reliance on physics is why I would compare Angry Birds to pinball. You line up your ball/bird properly, and let it fly, and soak in the result. But try as you might, it’s almost impossible to duplicate a shot. There are just too many variables going on. Plus, with the introduction of Angry Birds Star Wars, we may see other licenses crop up with their own Angry Birds games, much like licensed pinball tables were huge in their heyday.

A very underappreciated aspect of both Angry Birds and pinball is the pause factor. There are ample opportunities in both to kind of ignore the game and focus on the real world – whether it’s before hurling your next bird or launching your next ball, or even putting up your flipper to trap the silver sphere indefinitely. These games are played on your time, which is one of the reasons they’re great.

Real Racing 3 – Electronic Arts
Real Racing 3 is quite polarizing. It took a well-respected, premium mobile racing franchise and turned it free-to-play. With that shift, some concessions have been made. You’ll encounter a lot of tollbooths during play, which require you to either wait or pay in order to continue your game. In this way Real Racing 3 is very much an arcade game, because it feels like you have to toss it a few quarters every couple of minutes to keep rolling on. Some may frown on that, but others find it a small price to pay for a beautiful racing experience on their phones.

My favorite Star Wars games

I assume you know about Disney buying LucasFilm. I could talk about how Walt Disney is controlling the global economy, its superheroes, and Tom Hanks’s facial hair from the grave on his way to a monolithic monopoly; but I’m keeping MYOB about games.
More specifically, I want to talk about Star Wars games. The brand’s games, much like its films, have run the gamut from game-of-the-year shoo-ins to insta-coaster. I want to talk about my five favorite games with Star Wars in their title. And spoiler alert: I never played any of the X-Wing games. There are multiple X-Wing games, right?

5. Episode I: Phantom Menace (PSone)
I know this is a controversial pick. However, let me explain: I moved from Richmond VA and my job with GWAR to Minneapolis MN and a gig with Game Informer magazine. I may not have had anywhere to live – and, in fact, I spent several nights in a hotel and one awkward (showerless) night at a fellow editor’s – but I did have a sweet stack of games that served as a welcoming gift. They were Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Final Fantasy Anthology, and Episode I. The first two are all-time favorites. But Episode I surprised me with its action/adventure retelling of the (awful, in hindsight) film. I remember lying on my inflatable mattress, talking to the impoverished NPCs of Tatooine. It was not a bad game (though it was ugly), and was a friend while I was a stranger in a strange land. So cut me some slack!

4. Dark Forces (PC)
I’m a sucker for DOOM style games. I feel like limiting things to branching corridors kept the gameplay tight and the level design honest. While I completed Quake and played my share of Duke, I feel like going 3D kind of messed with a good thing. It became more of a slog than a fast-past puzzle game with guns. Admittedly, I didn’t play a ton of Dark Forces, but I remember it being about as good as one could hope for a Star Wars DOOM.

3. LEGO Star Wars (every system ever)
Traveller’s Tales struck gold, melding two things that everyone loves. It was quirky, it was faithful to the franchise, and most importantly it was fun. I hope whoever came up with this became set for life. It’s up there for the best multiplayer series in video-game history. Remember how Eidos published the first one? Now, you can buy the whole Star Wars saga in one package for about $20. Steal!

1. Knights of the Old Republic (Xbox/PC)
If you notice, I went from #3 to #1. That’s because if you’d seen #2 first, you’d have known this was coming anyway. KOTOR is one of my favorite RPGs of all time. It expanded the Star Wars universe. The gameplay was amazing, finally making RPG battles worth watching. And the story? The stuff of legends! When this came out, my Xbox was on the fritz. Every time a load screen came up, there was a 50/50 chance the system would crash. I still played through the whole thing and didn’t once complain. The game was worth the wait. I’m pretty pissed they went the MMO route for the pseudo third installment. In hindsight, I bet Bioware is, too. Those meatbags.

2. KOTOR II (Xbox/PC)
Anyone who expected this to be better than the first KOTOR is ignorant. It was done by a totally different studio, in much less time. All things considered, it turned out pretty awesome. Sure, it didn’t have the twist its predecessor did, but I did not regret my time spent with it. I should probably play it again sometime.

Honorable Mention: Star Wars Rebel Command
I have yet to play this, but it’s supposed to be pretty dope. I’m sure the teammate AI has long become inferior, but my shrinkwrapped Xbox version has sung me its siren song several times since I procured it.