Mobile gaming, as any expert in the medium will tell you, is the biggest growth market in the industry. It’s a thriving hub of activity, a place where big publishers rub shoulders with small independent developers, where everyone competes on an even footing, and where any game, no matter how big or small, can be a hit.
But which is the best way to play games on the move? It’s a tough choice, so we’ve taken the time to examine the pros and cons of the three main operating systems, and offer our pick of the handsets in each category.
With well over half a million apps on the App Store – a healthy percentage of them games – iOS is easily the most popular mobile platform to develop for. This busy marketplace offers a bewildering array of content, with a wide selection of games of just about every genre you’d care to mention. Many cost just 69p, while an increasing number of titles are free to download, with extra content provided via in-app purchases.
The store itself is clean and well-designed, and it’s fairly easy to find the kind of game you’re after. Each week, Apple picks out a selection of top titles to tempt you, while you can search by title or browse a variety of categories. It is a little annoying to have to input your iTunes password repeatedly to confirm every separate purchase, though that’s a minor complaint.
It has more platform exclusive titles than any other service, and though a lot of its games end up on Android, they usually begin their shelf life on the App Store, with just a few exceptions.
You will need to cope with the caprices of iTunes from time to time when updates and backups are required, but from Angry Birds to Age of Zombies you’ll find hundreds – nay, thousands - of titles to satisfy your gaming needs. Arguably, there’s more good stuff released each week on the App Store than any other format.
Best handset: iPhone 4S
Obviously there’s not an awful lot of competition here. In Apple’s case you’re always best going for the most recent model, so the iPhone 4S it is. In truth, there aren’t too many games that make use of the latest phone’s capabilities – you’ll find more titles that are iPad 2-exclusive, for example – so if you’ve already got a fourth-generation phone, you needn’t worry too much about upgrading for games. After all, a 4S-exclusive title would immediately reduce a publisher’s potential audience, so most games will be developed to be compatible with earlier models, with perhaps a few enhancements for those who’ve upgraded. All iOS devices are button-free, so the 4S can’t compete with the Xperia Play in the precision stakes, but then so many games are developed with touch controls in mind that it hardly matters. Simplicity, accessibility, playability – you can’t really go wrong whichever Apple product you own.
The Android Marketplace isn’t nearly as attractive as the App Store, but it’s easy to use, and perhaps a little quicker to load. What certainly is swifter is the purchasing process – once you’ve set up a credit or debit card, you can simply tap the screen to accept and buy, then your game will immediately start downloading. You could, perhaps, argue that it’s not as safe as iOS if your kids manage to get hold of your phone.
Android game sales can’t compare to iOS, and so there are fewer available titles, though admittedly most of the biggest games are released on both services, and a few appear on Android sooner – Minecraft: Pocket Edition and Kairosoft’s addictive management games (including Grand Prix Story) have notably debuted on the Marketplace before making their App Store bows. Prices are broadly similar, though sometimes a little cheaper on Android, even though it’s usually just a few pence difference.
Overall, there’s a decent selection of titles – bolstered by some technical powerhouses for Tegra-enabled devices – but it can’t quite match up to the App Store for quantity or quality.
Best handset: Sony Ericsson Xperia Play
Some of the more powerful devices offer Tegra-powered games that technically beat anything Apple can offer, but for the best possible Android gaming experience, it has to be the Xperia Play. It comes pre-loaded with games that make use of its slide-out PlayStation button controls, and there’s a healthy selection of titles optimised for this gamepad. The familiar button layout – it feels very much like a PSPgo to hold – makes for the kind of satisfyingly tactile, precise controls that iOS simply can’t match. There are a few caveats. Some of the PlayStation titles available have Digital Rights Management (DRM) issues which requires the phone to be connected to the internet, meaning you won’t always have access to your full collection should your connection drop. The flat analogue touch joysticks don’t work as well as they should, either. Still, with the ability to play Android titles as well as enhanced PlayStation games, a comfortable feel, and solid battery life, the XPeria Play is an easy choice if you want the best Android games device.
Windows Phone 7
The new format on the block is Microsoft’s entry into the portable gaming space, and while it can’t compete with iOS or Android in terms of sheer numbers, it does have one particular ace up its sleeve in the form of Xbox LIVE integration. With high-score leaderboards for most key games, and Achievements – those addictive little virtual rewards that hardcore gamers love so much – the platform suddenly becomes that much more difficult to resist. Its OS is beautifully designed (some would even argue it’s prettier and more readable than Apple’s) and its store is every bit as accessible as its rivals. Games are obviously less plentiful than on rival platforms, but the quality is high – the gorgeous puzzler Ilomilo and cute animal care simulation Kinectimals are exclusive to Windows Phone 7 and offer something more substantial than many iOS and Android games.
Best handset: Samsung Omnia 7
Just edging out the Nokia Lumia 800 is Samsung’s delightful device: the Omnia 7 a terrific phone for gaming that handles even the more graphically-intensive titles (like the fast-paced aquatic racer Hydro Thunder GO!) without any trouble. The very best Windows Phone 7 games look resplendent on the superb AMOLED screen, and the battery life is marginally superior to Nokia’s equivalent.
Overall winner: Apple iPhone 4S
Simply by virtue of the selection of games available, the iPhone 4S has to take the gold. Apple has crafted a platform that is accessible to developers and gamers alike, and its prices are firmly in the impulse-buy range – you’ll soon find your phone filling up with games, particularly as you can get fifty for the price of a single home console title. That said, things could change in the near future. As Android devices grow more and more powerful and the library of Windows Phone 7 title builds, the competition for Apple’s crown is growing stronger. Either way, it’s going to be an exciting battle for smartphone supremacy, one where the real winner is the consumer.