iPhone: The New NES

Regardless of age, the path to becoming a gamer is oftentimes a carbon copy of those who came before you. Some may have started with the Atari 2600 and Space Invaders, while others can cite Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis titles as their gateway into gaming, but all have one thing in common: They started with titles that anyone could play, regardless of skill level or the amount of free time that was available.


Now, the games that introduced many players to the hobby seem exceedingly simple, and most have long abandoned the titles that became the foundation for their pastime. It was impossible to fathom that videogames would become as complex as they are today, and up until fairly recently, gaming was kind to the uninitiated. But in a world of Call of Duty and Skyrim, newcomers young and old have a much harder time being welcomed into the fold.

However, just 3 years ago, a device hit the market that has now become the prime entry point for new players to dip their toes in the gaming waters with next to zero commitment. That device is Apple’s iPhone, and as unassuming as the launch of the best-selling device was, millions of people quickly found themselves owning not just a capable communications device, but one of the most popular gaming gadgets of all time.

Despite debuting the iPhone in 2007, it wasn’t until 2008 that Apple opened up its development policy to allow third parties to create apps and games for the now-iconic smartphone. And, much like the early days of mainstream gaming that made the hobby what it is today, things started off rather slowly. The first games to appear for Apple’s smartphone were rough and sometimes buggy, but despite that, they were fun to play. And yes, there was a lot of disposable garbage mixed in, but slowly some gems began to surface.

Games like 2008’s Moto Chaser were about as simple as games get, requiring only that you keep your finger on the touchscreen gas pedal and your eye on the road. It’s a game that, if released for the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP, would have been universally panned by both critics and customers alike. And yet, on a device that targets consumers who may have no interest in a game console, it flourished. In fact, it’s still one of the system’s all-time most popular games, and at a 99-cent price point, has likely made millions for its developers.

2008 also saw the release of iShoot, a bare-bones tank warfare game in the vein of early 90’s turn-based artillery titles like Scorched Earth and Tank Wars. According to its developer – a man who taught himself how to develop for the iPhone during evenings home from his day job – it score more than 500,000 99-cent sales in less than a year. Remember, we’re talking about a game nearly identical to many that seasoned gamers know can be played online for absolutely free, or even downloaded as no-cost freeware. It soon became clear to amateur and professional developers alike that the iPhone had found a nearly untouched gold mine of would-be fans.

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And what better way to entertain the masses who had never touched a PC or console game than by bringing classic titles to the device they already owned? 2009 saw that become a reality with the re-release of landmark games Doom and even a revamped version of The Oregon Trail. These titles instantly rocketed to the top of the App Store charts, finding new life and giving untold numbers of virgin gamers a history lesson on what makes the hobby so enjoyable.


At the same time, original titles like Flight Control continued to hit the marketplace. For those of you who have somehow avoided the gravitational pull of this particular game, allow me to enlighten you: Flight Control tasks you with plotting the landing paths of various planes as they fly onto the screen. You use your finger to draw a path that will allow the plane to land without crashing into its airborne brethren. Within a year of its 2009 release it racked up 1.5 million sales at 99 cents each.

In late 2009, a cute physics puzzle game called Angry Birds quietly made a nest on the App Store. Created by little-known Finnish developer Rovio, the game began to rack up some impressive hype, and eventually hit the top spot on the marketplace. From there, the franchise took on a life of its own. Countless bonus levels, a Super Bowl commercial, and a licensed deal with the animated film Rio later, the various iterations of Angry Birds have been downloaded over half a billion times.

The franchise has become the poster child for the new gaming revolution, and you probably know at least one person whose first brush with gaming obsession has come at the hands – er, wings – of the fliers from Finland. Men, women, and children from every corner of the globe have jumped on the Angry Birds bandwagon, and it has made a huge positive influence on how others see gaming as a whole.

The iPhone – and increasingly its Android counterparts – are truly the best devices on the planet when it comes to luring in new gamers and allowing them to find what types of games they most enjoy. The titles are plentiful, and while there is plenty of white noise on the virtual store shelves, the extremely low cost of the games means that you can take chances on new genres without breaking the bank.

Retro-styled RPG titles like the Zenonia series present a massive world, but allow new players to approach the task of conquering it without the intimidation factor of a modern Final Fantasy console release. Even role-playing fans would have to agree that diving head-first into any recent triple-A RPG is probably a daunting for a newcomer to gaming. But after saving the world multiple times on your smartphone, taking that challenge via PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 doesn’t seem all that intimidating.

And how else are new fans going to experience titles like these? Sure, there are plenty of casual-friendly games on the Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Store, but without a reason to buy the consoles in the first place, there is next to zero chance that someone new to gaming would ever consider the pricey purchase needed to enjoy them. But by creating a vibrant marketplace for its top-selling smartphone line, Apple has become what Nintendo was for so many of us.


The company took this commitment to gaming a step further in 2010 with the launch of Game Center – a built-in pseudo social network that lets users add friends, send invites to each other, and compare scores. It also lets you browse global and regional leaderboards to see how you stack up against the rest of the gaming populous. It’s what old-school arcade fanatics always dreamed of having after besting all their friends high scores on games like Space Invaders – which, by the way, you can also play multiple flavors of on your iPhone.

And as Apple continually releases more powerful versions of the handset, new, more visually impressive titles have also appeared. Infinity Blade has both high production values and HD graphics, providing iPhone owners with a taste of what a console-level game can offer. Developer id took this idea to the next level by releasing Rage, an on-rails first-person-shooter with a full-fledged consoler counterpart. Mobile players can dispatch grotesque enemies on the go for just a couple of dollars, but if they get hooked they may soon find themselves in the checkout line of a local electronics store with an Xbox 360 in hand.

The best part of the iPhone and the marketplace around which this new gaming culture has been birthed: the games don’t go away. You can still buy the iPhone versions of Moto Chaser, Doom, Flight Control, Zenonia, and Rage, in a matter of seconds. And with ridiculous hardware sales figures piling up – millions of iPhones have been sold in 2011 alone – there is no shortage of new would-be gamers to try them out.

So while many diehards may credit Tetris or Sonic the Hedgehog with steering them down the path to gamerdom, new gamers young and old can instead point to Fruit Ninja and Doodle Jump as their entry point. Angry Birds is the new Super Mario Bros. , Game Center is the new arcade leaderboard, and the iPhone is the new game console of choice.

Mike has been a gamer since the Atari 2600 days, and holds a somewhat unhealthy adoration for Mega Man. He is the Senior News Editor for Tecca, which specializes in consumer technology.

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