You're sitting on a bus. It's not a long ride, but it is long enough for you to wish you were doing something else. Absently, your hand moves to your pocket and pulls out your cell phone. In times past, you might have called or texted someone to pass the time, but not today. Today you have a shiny new smartphone, and Doodle Jump is calling for you. You may not realize it as you guide your doodle higher and higher, but cell phone gaming has come a long way in a short period of time; in fact, just a few years ago, a game like Doodle Jump would have been impossible on a mobile phone.
The mobile gaming revolution began in 1997, when Nokia launched the 6110, the first phone to feature a video game. That game, Snake, was as simple as guiding a thick black line around the screen, collecting dots. The more dots you ate, the longer the snake got, and the more difficult it became to maneuver. Guiding the snake into another part of itself would result in death. The game was in black and white, and only featured one sound.
For a long time, similar simple games were all that phones could handle. As phones were rapidly produced with more features, powerful processors, and color screens, people craved for more complex games. Companies like Jamdat (later bought by video game giant Electronic Arts) and Gameloft (started by the founders of game developer and publiser Ubisoft) were founded to tap into a new market, creating new games and adaptations of old games specifically for mobile phones.
But, it seemed, there was a limit to how far a cell phone game could be taken. Traditionally, mobile gaming was done on gaming consoles specifically designed for the purpose: the Nintendo Gameboy or the Sony PSP. In 2003, however, Nokia again stepped up to the plate, attempting to further the concept of cell phone gaming with the N-Gage. On paper, it seemed like a marvelous idea; games were stored on cartridges like Gameboy games, meaning games could be larger and more complex than those on traditional mobile phones. The N-Gage was even powerful enough to display 3-D graphics. And best of all, it was still a phone, so you only had to carry around one device.
It rapidly became apparent, however, that the N-Gage was plagued with problems. The screen was taller than it was wide, which often led to wasted screen space. The cartridges could not be removed without first removing the battery, the interface was navigable only by trial and error, and the buttons felt too cheap for a phone that cost $299. The N-Gage was doomed to a life of skeptical glances and ridicule.
All was not lost in the world of cell phone gaming, however. Fast forward to today, and we see smartphones getting even smarter. Microsoft is releasing a new version of Windows Mobile, featuring a mobile version of Xbox LIVE. Android-powered phones are sweeping across multiple cell phone carriers, bringing their gaming apps along with them. And Apple, current king of the smartphone market, recently announced that the iPhone is currently the largest mobile gaming platform in the world — ahead of even the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, machines built for the purpose of mobile gaming. Even better is that the hardware is maturing, with smartphones now capable of complex, fully-featured games.
So the next time you see someone pull up Bejeweled on their phone, remember how long it’s taken us to get here, and how rapidly we’re moving towards the future.