“A pleasant metaphor usefully extrapolated into the production of toys for healthy children. That's what science is good for” - Terrance McKenna
“For the first time in my life, I own a smartphone” is a phrase that started being true for me late December 2012, and started losing its lustre around early January 2013. Still feels new to me though, after six years with a phone that had the weight and texture of a laser gun it takes a dusty old prick like me a little bit of trying to ease myself into a carrying around a constantly-bleeping, constantly-failing monstrosity that runs out of battery every time I think about calling anyone.
It has, however, brought me unceremoniously back into the world of portable gaming. Back when I was like six or seven, I got an original Game Boy for my birthday. Upon powering it up I realised there was a continuous black bar across the entire screen in the most disruptive place possible. I was consumed by fear that it was somehow my fault and wept silently most of my birthday. When I finally told my parents about it I panicked so much about letting go of Six Golden Coins that they couldn't take it off me and it ended up never getting fixed.
That black bar infected all of the few games I played. I'd no friends to swap with, mocking every second of fun I tried to have. I grew more and more troubled by the Game Boy. I loved Pogs so much that when the virus of Pokémon torpedoed their popularity, it didn't surprise me it used the Game Boy as its evil vector.
This black bar felt like a message from portable gaming to me. That message was “get the fuck out of here forever and if you see a dick on your way out, suck it”.
When you're seven, you basically do as you're told and so that's basically what I did.
1.5 decades later it was time to make amends and take a semester in portable gaming. It's coming to the end of term now, let's talk about what I've learned.
“Betrayal of trust carries a heavy taboo” - Aldrich Ames
Angry Birds Star Wars
In the first month of 2013 I was struggling with a particularly unsubtle period in my depression. I dealt with this by playing Star Wars Angry Birds and watching hundreds of True Crime and Serial Killer documentaries. I wrote a thing about how the two melded into one after a while, it still wasn't done at 7,000 words and now the only bit I didn't delete can be found here.
This works though, this Angry Birds Star Wars. I have no affection for the series whatsoever, fairly certain I've seen each entry once, so it provided me good perspective when it came to fandom and the function of licensed properties in these mobile games.
I was acutely aware of all these “little touches”, for which I had no frame of reference, and their complete meaninglessness to me made me realise how nothing quibbles about getting fan-service correct really are.
Looking at inoffensive figures floating around and realising somewhere, millions of people are caring about them in both angry and happy ways gives the game the kind of floaty, ethereal feeling rock gigs have when they're held in a church. I liked this and I liked how it linked up with the mechanics which are pretty satisfying.
Another thing is that the fan-service detail in a mobile game, rather than a full-size one, will always be more noticeable simply because that screen is small. Your shout outs count for more.
A lot of these mobile games, the good ones, work hard to make you feel like you're getting better so you come back to get better still. How Angry Birds Star Wars accomplishes this is by constantly making you feel as though you're cheating. Every correct move you make with the weird specific bird powers and factoring in the gravity fields comes across more like an elaborate gimping of the system rather than you succeeding at a given task, especially when you finish a level with a couple of birds still in the cut.
Like the pattern the property it honours set for Popular Sci-fi, it manipulates the audience into feeling they are experiencing a “scrappy” piece of “big dumb fun” in a self-aware manner thus validating their enjoyment of a children's film while still being a lightbox any child has the facilities to appreciate every aspect of. Not only does it honour the aesthetics of Star Wars, but the mechanics behind it.
It is an entirely successful adaptation. Drink it in.
“I just don't wanna be an ostrich. That's all.” - William T. Vollmann
I feel like I finished 10,000,000 without ever understanding what I was really supposed to do, how I could get better at the game or if that was even a possible option. I didn't like the overtly Commander Keen aesthetic and I thought not having the graphics change when you equip different items was a massive cop-out.
The ostensible depth added by the combat mechanic at the top is more of an idea than an actual meaningful addition. Though the time running out by staying off the screen is a nice touch, the real meat of this is in how it keeps you coming back. Despite not having much of a personality and never changing, you are given a man and this is enough to want to make him kill his way to the end of the game.
Where 10,000,000 succeeds completely is the title. Earning 10,000,000 points is where the game ends. Alternately, it is where you start to get good at it. Both the casual and the hardcore have a built-in yardstick to work to or off.
The actual ending you get, if you choose to get it, is so elegant and pretty it must be completely enraging to have an “endless runner”-esque mobile game and have not thought of it.
One pretty screen feels completely enough for what you've done, especially as you can visit the end whenever you want. I didn't really enjoy actually playing 10,000,000 so much but I look at that screen often. It's a safe place.
“Man, your head is haunted; you have wheels in your head!” - Max Stirner
I have no idea how to explain Drop7 to people. I am trying right now to figure out a way to describe to you how to play it but I can't. No hyperbole, I've played maybe 50 hours of this and I can't really verbalise it.
I think it's maths? But I'm not great at maths and I got okay at Drop7. It's a puzzle game but I hate puzzle games and I got okay at Drop7.
Drop7 is pure mechanics. I can't even really describe what it looks like, it's just boring. But I couldn't stop. Over and over. Dropping 7 or whatever it is I was doing when I was playing it.
There's nothing to learn from Drop7 'cause Drop7 is like Tetris. A scary person figured it out, built it out of clay and jettisoned it into our imperfect society. It is one of those games you move your head to whenever you make stuff go away.
There's no design, no hook, nothing but the game. But I played it twice while I wrote its entry. Drop7 is too much. I don't even know if I like it. There's enough Drop7s, make no more.
“You're suffering from a hardening of Orthodoxies” - Zen Without Zen Masters
I played the old games on the Sega Mega Drive. I know what they felt like, I can remember the sticky button. It was good but it was like carving every moment out of a block of solid wood.
Touch screen games shouldn't feel like that. But my sadly vast nostalgia for weird platformers and the perfect meld of visual styles of new and old weirdness should pull me into Gunman Clive.
But the game feels like I'm trying to cave in a dead horse's chest. Over and over. With my fat fingers. That's not the project, my friends, shit like this flies even less well on something as primed for immediacy as the phone.
Pretty as your game is and weird as it gets in the later levels, if it makes me feel like I am playing it underwater then I'll want to dip your head underwater 'til I can use you as a raft to float into Hell on.
It is also the only game on this list with a visible control pad on the screen.
“Survival is triumph enough.” - Harry Crews
Excellent Japanese art-punk band Melt Banana have a song called Lost Parts Stinging Me So Cold. The song starts out as a basic manic punk song. A great basic manic punk song. The kind of basic manic punk song that a lot of people try to make and a lot of people fuck up worse than you can imagine. Trust me, I was one of them.
Melt Banana are scarily accomplished musicians and this is the kind of simple music it takes a lot of skill to do well. But as the song progresses, it becomes clear they've not just written the ideal basic manic punk song: they've mastered it. They've broken it open and are up to their elbows in its mechanics.
As the song goes on, without ever breaking momentum, feedback scientist Ichirou Agata rips and tears at the simple core riff using effects and techniques for initially subtle and eventually incredibly wild variations. It is a brutally high-level way to make a simple crazy thing even more primal and even more crazy. It verges on experimental in the exact opposite way most music does. It feels like tearing a tank apart and rebuilding a better, faster tank and reducing the controls to a “be excellent tank” button, all while it's still running and blowing your enemies in half.
That's Ziggurat. Look, sound and feel, it's barely there but everything that is barely there is impossible to iterate on. It is smooth marble to smash your face into.
The best headline in in tabloid history is probably The Sun's “Gotcha.” Divorced from its crass, repulsive context it is a perfect distillation of an ethos, style and message into one simple word, a genuine triumph of a particular art form that SEO has deleted from possibility. That is also Ziggurat.
Ziggurat is such a videogame I can't really play it in terms of videogame, especially most other mobile games. It would be like describing a swimming pool by showing you a cup of water.
But that swimming pool has less water in it than the cup and yet somehow does its job so well everyone is drowning with beatific smiles.
And the swimming pool isn't available on Android and you have to play it on your girlfriend's phone.
The water in that pool is a hug and a glasshouse to feel brisk in.
And the dying sound. My god, I've never known I was dead with such certainty.