Many iconic games can be grasped in just a few seconds, yet can fascinate players for years, either because of their novelty (Super Mario Bros., Ocarina of Time), their difficulty (Ghosts n’ Goblins, Castlevania), or their seemingly endless skill curve (Tetris, Dr. Mario). Flappy Bird hits those last two categories hard. Some redditors have scoffed at Flappy Bird’s difficulties, referencing one of the very games I mentioned above as evidence of a truly hard, bygone era in gaming, but they’re wrong – this is a tough game for the ages, in large part because it’s imprecise. You never quite get a good feel for how high your bird is going to flap, and as such you bump into a pipe lip and it’s all over.
All games used to be hard – because of hardware
Before the advent of precise controllers – which relay took off with the analog stick of the N64 – games were super hard not just because of how they were designed, but because the hardware was working against you. Picking up an NES/SNES controller now is quaint – the buttons are stiff, and I’m all the more impressed that games such as FF3/6 could pull off things like Sabin’s Bum Rush requiring a 360 rotation (you HAD to hit those diagonal directions!).
But once controllers became great big dual joysticked bear claws for Xbox 360-playing bros, games went soft. Unless the game was just sadistic, the precision of having tons of trigger buttons (for hairpin reactions to enemies) and analog sticks would let you just grind through until you finally cleared the area/completed the task. Elaborate save systems gave each game its own de facto save state/cheat mechanism (a la an emulator), but in a way, all these software changes were a result of fundamental hardware changes.
It’s odd then, that it’s taken this long for a mobile game to reprise the truly rage-inducing difficulty of the early home console era. After all, nothing could be more seemingly primitive than having no buttons at all – just a touchscreen. But rather than force you to do tons of difficult tasks with just your free hand (something akin to Ryu Hayabusa’s wall jumps), mobile games have been content to let you fling birds or clear away saccharine sweets.
Flappy Bird is a revelation is in this respect. It makes you jump, so often in vain, to clear lots of pipe pairs. There’s nothing to the control scheme other than tapping anywhere to jump, and letting go to fall at a surprisingly rapid rate. And yet the control scheme, like the ones in those old NES/SNES games, is clearly struggling to keep up with what the game needs you to do.
The arcade effect
Flappy Bird is a lot like an arcade game, and not just because of its side-scrolling Gradius-like action and old school graphics. Arcade games were understandably hard as hell – how else could they get you to keep spending quarters? – and their legacy exacerbated the insane difficulty of early console titles such as Ninja Gaiden. Flappy Bird is like something from 1989.
The only thing that makes it seem like it came from 2014 instead is the presence of an ad network. It’s a free game, but has to make money somehow – mercifully from ads, then, and not increasingly annoying in-app purchases.
There’s been a bit of debate about the effect of IAP on games recently, with some saying it’s destroying the industry and others quipping that arcades were the original IAP and kids these days don’t appreciate that. I think the latter article misses the point by focusing too much on economics rather than quality of gameplay (plus it trots out the old falsehood that Nintendo requires brick-and-mortar offices for indie developers).
Moreover, many arcade titles gave great value for only a small upfront investment, and their successors such as Flappy Bird let you skate by with only handing over your details to an ad network. Today’s IAP games will barely let you breathe without nagging you to buy more donuts, gems, or gold.
Fortunately, gaming is still a young industry, and with more consoles likely on the way from Amazon and Apple, business models are sure to change. I just hope it’s more like Flappy Bird – both in gameplay and economics – than Clash of Clans.
After being outed earlier by Best Buy, Nintendo’s Wii Mini (which I keep dyslexically wanting to call the Mii, naturally) has now been confirmed by the Big N itself. With a flashy red Wii Remote and Nunchuk to accompany a matte build quality that recalls the original NES, the Wii Mini is a funny marriage of old and new school – almost like one of those revamped Sega Geneses sold by Urban Outfitters.
No, it doesn’t play DVDs. No, it doesn’t play GameCube games. And no, it does not connect to the Internet. Welcome to 1994. To be fair, the Wii Mini is intended as a redesign of the original Wii, packaged for an affordable $99, starting Dec. 7, 2012 (at least in Canada – no word on a stateside release yet). Nintendo has consistently embraced casual gamers with moves like this one, which simplify the gaming experience while exploiting Nintendo’s unique retro legacy, rich IP library and distinctive approach to hardware.
But even a fanboy like me may have to scratch his head at this device. It’s less feature-rich than even the original Wii, much less the Wii U. Its only key advantages are price and simplicity – for $99, you can open the lid and start up Wii Sports right away with your stylish scarlet controller. I can only surmise that the target demographic here is children (or, more accurately, their cost-conscious parents), who may not care about the lack of connectivity, Nintendo TVii, Netflix, and the like. Although, iOS devices occupy an outsized space within young imaginations, so even that demographic may not be as solid as it seems on first glance. Also, you can get a lot for $99 – a Nexus 7 or a Nokia Lumia 920, for example (ok, the second one is a stretch, I admit – I wouldn’t buy it, either).
Still, Wii (non Wii U) sales were surprisingly strong over Black Friday week, indicating robust interest in the console’s signature remote-based input and non-HD graphics. Nintendo could have stood pat and just ridden the vitality of their older devices (the 8-year old DS line sold well last week, too), so why redesign and strip down the Wii into this “Mini” variant? One possibility is that Nintendo thought it needed to do more to combat the ongoing popularity of ancient platforms like the Xbox 360 and PS3, by refreshing its own legacy line. But Nintendo doesn’t seem like the type of company that does things defensively – the Wii Mini is no iPad Mini, in that it doesn’t respond to any major trends (legacy popularity of old consoles is the product of a lack of change or forward momentum on the parts of Sony and Microsoft more than anything) and it won’t usurp the Wii U or 3DS as the company’s flagship product.
A media player Wii Mini (i.e., a simple gaming device that could also playback DVDs and Netflix at the bare minimum) could have become something akin to Nintendo’s version of the iPod Touch (its product tag is “Big Fun,” not far off the iPod Touch’s “Engineered For Maximum Funness”). As it currently stands, however, the Wii Mini is a missed opportunity that may be an impulse gift buy, but won’t be at the heart of Nintendo’s finances or product vision moving forward.
-The ScreenGrab Team