2011 has been a flagship year for mobile gaming, one where the wider industry, gamers and critics has been forced to take it much more seriously. Indeed, so dominant have smartphones been in the portable space, that Nintendo’s 3DS – thought to be as sure-fire a hit as they come – struggled at launch, only beginning to recover in the later stages of the year after a hefty price cut.
The first mobile classic of the year arrived in February. Andreas Illiger’s Tiny Wings (right) was one of a number of titles dubbed ‘the new Angry Birds’, with its simple yet challenging one-finger mechanics wooing well over 3.5 million fans. Naturally, a sea of clones followed with Android copycat Dillo Hills probably the most successful of its imitators. Such brazen mimicry was perhaps understandable on the rival format - the original still hasn’t made it over to Android.
After a strong launch with several excellent games, including the gorgeous ilomilo, Windows Phone 7 struggled through to June with a slow drip-feed of worthwhile downloads, before bursting back into life with six weeks of ‘must have games’. Sadly, half of the titles (Angry Birds, Plants vs. Zombies and Doodle Jump) were already available on other formats, which left the splendid arcade racer Hydro Thunder Go! to pick up the slack. Later in the year, the likes of Kinectimals and the bouncy Orbital showed WP7 could compete with its mobile rivals in the quality stakes, while its Xbox LIVE support gives it an interesting USP, but if you wanted quantity as well, there was only one place to look…
Inevitably, it was iOS that again dominated the agenda. The breadth of software was and is remarkable – bedroom coders and huge publishers alike were finding the App Store to be a happy home. Expensively-produced blockbusters like Infinity Blade II (right) rubbed shoulders with breakout hits from one-man teams: legendary British developer Jeff Minter rediscovered his mojo with four releases throughout the year, from the hectic Minotaur Rescue in January to October’s bucolic platformer GoatUp, a game that resembled Doodle Jump on hallucinogens.
If there was a gaming trend this year, it was for physics-based puzzle games with up to
three stars on offer for completing a conundrum quickly, accurately, or by amassing a certain number of points -again, the Angry Birds influence at work. The beautiful Contre Jour was almost comically derivative, referencing around five games at once, and by the end of the year, the concept was getting tired. Still, Firemint’s excellent SpyMouse managed to make stealth fun, while Disney Mobile’s Where’s My Water was a highly polished, charming and substantial puzzler which asked you to guide a stream of H2O to the showerhead of a cleanly crocodile.
Some games sought to recreate the console experience on a portable device. Epic’s Infinity Blade II offered a deeper and even more technically impressive take on the first game’s visceral swordfights, while the Gears of War-aping Shadowgun dazzled on iOS, but even more so on Tegra-powered Android devices. Sheer horsepower seems to be Android’s secret weapon against the all-conquering might of Apple, though it’s hard to see too many publishers investing in games that only a certain number of high-end mobile users can play.
Other games savvily bolted on console mechanics, like Halfbrick’s fabulous Jetpack Joyride. A simplistic endless-runner (or endless-hoverer), it offered longevity far beyond that of its peers with a series of challenges that fed into a levelling system, even allowing players to ‘prestige’, as in the Call of Duty games.
The iPad had its fair share of essentials, too. RedLynx’s DrawRace 2 HD was also available on smaller screens, but benefitted enormously from the extra screen space of a tablet. Meanwhile, SpaceChem Mobile, a challenging and even semi-educational game about creating chemical compounds, was perhaps the most ferociously intelligent game of the year, making a smooth transition from PC to iPad thanks to a sublime, intuitive interface.
Word games were also big in 2011. Ayopa Games’ W.E.L.D.E.R. is the current App Store darling, though for our money, Zach Gage’s elegant and oddly beautiful SpellTower trumps it. Genki’s wonderful Quarrel Deluxe – a supremely-balanced and fiercely compelling mixture of Risk and Scrabble – didn’t sell nearly as well as it should have, though its lack of a competitive multiplayer option may have been its undoing. Elsewhere, the rise of Adult Swim as a mobile publisher was one of the most welcome surprises, its games – including Monsters Ate My Condo and Bring Me Sandwiches!! – riffing on established ideas with genuine charm and humour.
But the biggest and most significant movement in mobile gaming this year has been the rise inessen of ‘freemium’ titles, perhaps exemplified by the dangerously addictive Tiny Tower (right), as players continued to build their own virtual high-rise, spending real-world money to help expand their property. Other games relied on in-app purchases to speed player progress – titles like Zombie Gunship got it right, its tial unlockables merely there to help the strugglers, while Hills of Glory: WWII felt more cynical, a single one-off purchase turning a repetitive challenge into a cakewalk. The freemium boom hasn’t gone down well with everyone, however, and Matt Mills from Whale Trail developer Ustwo bemoaned the ‘death of the 69p game’. It will be interesting to see whether this trend continues into 2012.
With quality releases each week across all three major marketplaces, it’s been tough picking just ten that we feel represent the very best of 2011. But after much deliberation, here’s our list:
Magnetic Billiards: Blueprint (right)
Robust, unique and surprisingly deep, this curious blend of ball sport and puzzle game was a stirring comeback from British designers The Pickford Bros.
It’s absurdly simplistic, but dodging missiles and electric gates at breakneck speed for as long as you can is a challenge that’s hard to pass up.
Your finger manipulates the terrain for an old couple out for a drive in this lovely, whimsical and oddly moving game from Scandinavian developer Simogo.
By turns relaxing, thoughtful and knuckle-whiteningly tense, this uncommonly attractive word game is an immaculately constructed gem.
DrawRace 2 HD
Perhaps the most-improved iOS sequel we’ve ever seen, this took the original draw-your-racing-line idea and applied several layers of polish. The excellent Friend Challenge was the icing on the cake.
SpaceChem Mobile (right)
Setting up flow charts to construct chemical compounds may sound boring, but solving the increasingly convoluted conundrums delivers a rush of satisfaction few games come close to.
Feed Me Oil
It ostensibly owed a large debt to World of Goo, but Chillingo’s fluid puzzler was very much its own beast, with an unusual art style that set it apart from its inspiration.
Denki’s strategic word game overcame its single-player-only limitations by providing a host of characterful AI opponents to play against. Colourful and clever, it deserved greater success.
Challenging and different, the latest game from Reisuke Ishida, creator of Space Invaders Infinity Gene, was a winning blend of music game and reaction test.
Whale Trail (right)
Ustwo’s game is breezier and more forgiving than Tiny Wings, and its new challenge mode adds extra substance to its simplistic central conceit. Lovely Gruff Rhys theme tune, too.