If 2011 has proven anything, it’s that the portable landscape is in the midst of change. Nintendo, the once-uncontested king of handheld gaming, has had some well-publicized difficulties in selling its new 3DS console, which many have attributed, at least in part, to the increasing prominence of smartphones. Their effect on the gaming industry is certainly debatable, but given their ever-improving functionality and expanding game libraries, it would be foolhardy not to mark them as a viable threat. Indeed, more and more developers have begun devoting resources to mobile development in the hopes of capitalizing on this burgeoning shift in the marketplace, and it seems the industry at large is putting less stock in traditional platforms.
At the forefront of this mobile explosion is Angry Birds, a title that has, for better or worse, largely changed the perception of portable gaming in the eyes of the average consumer. Its low cost (with many variations of the game even available for free) and simple gameplay have turned it into a minor cultural phenomenon, to the point where investors have (shortsightedly) begun goading Nintendo to develop software for mobile platforms. Notwithstanding the fact that such an act would dilute the strength of the company’s own hardware, what investors fail to realize is that Nintendo has likely already created a similar blockbuster-in-waiting without knowing it, one that, with a little more public exposure, could very well achieve a comparable level of success for the company and its handhelds.
In fact, it is not at all a stretch to surmise that Face Raiders was intended to have this effect on 3DS– the game did, after all, come pre-installed on each unit, giving early adopters something fun to play even if the rest of the console’s launch lineup did not seem particularly compelling to them. More importantly, the game also functioned as something of a Trojan Horse, luring in prospective buyers with its emphasis on sharing. This is most apparent in the social aspects that were integrated into its design– certain levels could only be unlocked by showing the game off to other people, and you could even save pictures taken in the midst of play and upload them to Facebook for all of your friends to see. The sheer absurdity of the game was undeniably arresting, and once experienced it was almost impossible to resist its quirky charms. Had it been the title chosen for display at retail stores instead of something like Super Street Fighter IV, 3DS may very well have had better luck in attracting a wider audience.
Despite the game’s quality, however, Face Raiders does stumble in a few important areas. Most notably, the title’s reliance on gyroscopic controls prevents it from becoming a true mobile experience. Angry Birds is popular in part because it lends itself well to quick play sessions, the kind of game one can pick up whenever a spare moment presents itself. Waving the console around in the air as one must to play Face Raiders is certainly not feasible in most settings, which keeps it from reaching the same level of accessibility as Rovio’s title. There is also the little matter of social appearance– twisting one’s body about wildly to shoot a stray adversary before it disappears would be the quickest way to get stigmatized as a lunatic, and the physical space required to perform these motions would make it nigh impossible to play the game on any form of public transportation. These factors ultimately combine to limit Face Raiders’ appeal, and as good as the game may be, it can only be enjoyed to its fullest in the comfort of one’s own home, where it would be competing with home consoles and other forms of entertainment for attention.
While Face Raiders may have fallen short of being Nintendo’s answer to Angry Birds, there may yet be another hiding within its own distribution platform. The eShop for 3DS is far and away superior to any of the company’s previous attempts at creating a download service (both in terms of content and interface) and the vast selection of titles it contains (thanks to the inclusion of nearly the entire DSiWare catalog) may already house an Angry Birds-killer, so to speak, in its midst. A number of games could certainly make a valid candidate for the position, but to truly compete with the popular app, the title in question must at once be accessible and addictive (with a distinctive visual style for good measure).
Given these criteria, the most viable contender, in my mind, comes in one of DSiWare’s earliest releases, Bird & Beans. While not an original concept (the game was ripped straight from the first WarioWare title), it perhaps best exemplifies the spirit of mobile gaming. Its gameplay is predictably simple but irresistibly addictive– catching beans at an increasing rate while avoiding those that may have escaped the grasp of your tongue is more fun than it may initially sound, and the brevity of each session means the game can be enjoyed in just about any setting. Its biggest advantage, however, is that it sits comfortably on the lower end of the eShop’s pricing spectrum at $1.99, a cost not far removed from the typical price of a game on the App Store. This places the title firmly in the realm of impulse purchases, and most consumers would not think twice about downloading it once they see how much fun it can be. Couple these with a little more mainstream awareness and the game could very well become a respectable success for Nintendo.
Still, for all its apparent strengths, there are a number of factors working against the title. As insignificant as it may sound to those of us who regularly purchase gaming goods, two variations of the same concept may not quite justify the game’s price in the eyes of those who have already become accustomed to downloading free software from the App Store. Pyoro’s uncanny resemblance to the mascot of Angry Birds may also be something of a deterrent: their similar appearance (not to mention both games’ simplistic titles) could give uninformed consumers the impression that Bird & Beans is a mere clone of Angry Birds, created in an attempt to capitalize on the more popular app’s runaway success. Those of us who actively follow gaming would be quite aware that Bird & Beans predates Rovio’s title by some seven years, but the average consumer would be entirely ignorant of this fact, basing their first impressions on mere surface appearances. These similarities, small as they may seem, may be enough to dissuade people from purchasing the game, especially when they can get the more popular app for free on a platform they likely already own.
That said, I still believe the game’s strengths far outweigh any of its potential weaknesses, and it could very well become a mainstream success if Nintendo chose to market it. Even if this particular title falls short of the lofty goal I set before it, there are countless other possibilities I have not even begun to touch upon. My experience with DSiWare is admittedly limited, but I am sure there are a number of other titles available on the service that could achieve this level of success– the Art Style series, for example, has become renowned for its visual flair and simple, addictive gameplay, and Photo Dojo is one of the most fun and unique concepts available on the console. The latter title in particular could be taken as something of a precursor to Face Raiders— like the 3DS app, Photo Dojo was, at least initially, offered for free to anyone who had the appropriate hardware, and the appeal of the title stemmed from photographing your friends and inserting them into the (outlandish) gameplay. While its time as a free download has long since expired, the game is still very much in the average consumer’s price range, occupying the same virtual shelf space as Bird & Beans at $1.99. Any of these games, with the appropriate amount of publicity, could potentially become a system seller to consumers looking for quick, addictive experiences. They just need to hear about them.
Have your own thoughts on which eShop game could be Nintendo’s answer to Angry Birds? Share them below in the comments section!