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The evolution of Snake: Mobile gaming’s backbone

As a schoolkid in the late 80s, Snake was the only game we could access on my school’s wheezing suite of BBC microcomputers. We had no idea it would end up as the world’s most popular mobile phone game — admittedly because we had no idea what a mobile phone was.

Snake was there at the birth of mobile gaming – 1997 since you ask – when a Nokia engineer called Taneli Armanto coded a new version of the game to embed on the Nokia 6110 handset. By the time he received a special recognition award from industry body the Mobile Entertainment Forum in June 2005, Nokia reckoned the game had been installed on around 350 million handsets.

But the interesting thing about Snake is the way it’s evolved alongside mobile gaming itself, largely due to Nokia running with the idea, and making a succession of sequels to take advantage of new phones’ capabilities. Its most recent version, Snakes Subsonic, was released last year for N-Gage phones.

Yet it’s tempting to ask what happens now, in 2009 and the era of touchscreens, accelerometers, GPS and, yes, iPhones. Will Snake be marginalised, or can it come back with a new and even slinkier incarnation? Click on the next page to find out more about evolution of Snake.

Step 1: Snake

The original Snake was released in the 1970s but when Armanto coded his new version, he didn’t have much to work with. A monochrome screen, pixelly graphics, rudimentary controls — exactly the conditions that spawned the original, in fact. But at a time when everybody (or so it seemed) owned a Nokia phone, millions of people who’d never have described themselves as gamers swiftly got addicted.

Step 2: Snake 2

Most closely identified with the Nokia 3310, Snake II was Nokia’s first chance to refine the formula, including the ability for players’ snakes to disappear off one side of the screen and reappear on the other. It also introduced the idea of levels, with obstacles (pixel squares, obviously) to provide extra gameplay challenge.

Step 3: Snake EX

If the two previous Snake games typified the era of games embedded on handsets, the second age of mobile gaming came with Java handsets, colour screens and downloadable games. Yet Snake, too, was updated for this period with Snake EX. The gameplay wasn’t particularly different, but the addition of colour meant it didn’t look out of place. And while the companies selling downloadable games didn’t like to say it, millions of people stuck with Nokia’s preloaded game.

N.B. The above image is not of Snake EX but we couldn’t find a decent screenshot.

Step 4: Snakes

Remember the original N-Gage phones? They may have been high-profile flops, but they did get their own version of the game – Snakes. It looked cutting-edge for the time, with 3D graphics and a futuristic look, not to mention Bluetooth multiplayer. It was also offered to N-Gage owners as a free download in the devices’ dying days – which came too late to save N-Gage, but showed the game’s ability to mutate and thrive along with mobile technology.

Step 5: Snakes Subsonic

When N-Gage reappeared as a gaming service spanning lots of Nokia phones, so too did Snake. Snakes Subsonic kept the whizzy visuals of the previous N-Gage version while adding a price tag – but also introduced evolutionary power-ups (no, not legs, but rockets and shields), music that warped alongside the gameplay, and multiplayer. Oh, and the ability to go up and down slopes.

Step 6: Enter the iPhone clones

Nokia, unsurprisingly, hasn’t released a version of Snake for Apple’s iPhone. But there are dozens of developers rushing to fill the space. So OmNomNom is classic Snake, complete with a virtual phone-like interface on-screen. Snake Duel has you taking on an evil iPhone-controlled snake, Python offers massive playing arenas, TiltSnake majors on the accelerometer controls, Snake XT offers a global leaderboard, and SnakeGalaxy wraps your snake around a 3D planet. The best examples (the latter two, since you ask) show that Snake can mix it with the best modern mobile games.

Step 7: The future

There are many directions Snake could evolve in now, whether through Nokia or developers on other mobile platforms. Massively multiplayer Snake with 100 players at once on the same map? A location-enabled game that pulls your local street map in to act as the playing field? A Facebook Connect-toting Snake where you run high-score tables of all your friends? A game using the iPhone 3GS compass so you physically spin to change direction? All of these are possible, even if the last isn’t advisable. Long may Snake slither on.

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