Enough with the Android powered game consoles already!

shield - for some reason we don't have an alt tag hereThe last year has been an important year for mobile gaming, but not in the way I had hoped. I wrote a guide for game controllers on Android back in May of last year, so you’d think I’d be all for new controllers and even Android game consoles to come out, but that is very far from being the case.

2012 saw a ton of game controllers hit the market. Many of them from strictly hardware companies, a couple from companies that also make games to go with them. Then you had the Ouya Android console, followed by the Gamestick, and now NVIDIA is showing off its Project Shield. On top of that, the Playstation Vita came out, being more of a hybrid device than previous portable game consoles.

Despite all of this happening since I wrote my game controller guide in May, there’s not really any need for me to update my article, because what’s described there is still the best way to do things. Connecting existing console controllers to Android will give you a better experience than anything you can buy that’s made for Android, for two reasons:

  1. Console controllers are made to be the best. Millions have been sold over the last decade, and it’s a proven design. The fact that (almost) none of the third party game controllers are direct copies of console controllers is not just a legal issue, it’s also an issue, period. If you try to avoid copying a previous design, you end up with square wheels. Even in hands on videos of the NVIDIA Shield, comparisons to the Xbox 360 controller are made, proving this point.
  2. Third party controllers go the non-root way. Which is garbage. Having a rooted device enables you to map controller buttons to parts of the touch screen, giving you support for any game with on-screen controls, including analog stick support. It works, right away, with anything. The best thing would obviously be to have that sort of support out of the box without root, but the problem is that you have 15 products each trying to introduce the “standard” that makes that happen, resulting in it not happening at all.

These two points are still as true today as they were in May, and having a few consoles and a truckload of new game controllers doesn’t change that a bit.

Then you have the other problem: Game quality. These days, you have two types of mobile games: Casual 2D games, and console copies. Games like Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and others, don’t need a controller. They were born into a touch screen world, and do very well there. It’s the console copy games that need a controller, games like Modern Combat or Shadowgun. The only problem is that adding a controller to these games don’t make them console games.

Mobile graphics are getting better, and the term “console quality” is being thrown around. But what is “console quality”? 15 years ago, games like Super Mario 64, Mario Kart 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Final Fantasy, Crash Bandicoot, Metal Gear Solid, and a ton of others were what everyone was playing. These games were far inferior to today’s mobile games in terms of graphics, but they were- and still are- superior games in terms of gameplay, story, concept, and so on. Hour after hour of low resolution fun, in other words. People still talk about these games as some of the best games ever made, but who do you think are going to talk about Modern Combat 4, 15 years from now? No one, because it’s so generic it’s frankly sad.

In my opinion, the big names in mobile games are still pointless little weirdos compared to the true game companies. Gameloft is, if you ask me, a joke,. An epically silly joke. It doesn’t do anything but copy game franchises, but it’s still the top dog in the mobile game industry, because the companies whose games are being copied are nowhere to be found. CoD: Modern Warfare isn’t on iOS or Android, so Modern Combat is. No World of Warcraft, but Order & Chaos is doing well. No Halo, but lots of N.O.V.A. Microsoft is certainly not putting Gears of War on Android, so there’s no reason why Shadowgun can’t do it for them. Gameloft, and other companies, are winning the mobile game war on walkover, and by essentially copying existing franchises!

If the big companies had actually tried, this would not have been the case. Right now, even a 2-3 year old Android phone is capable of running Nintendo 64 and Playstation 1 games via emulators. In some cases with a higher actual resolution than the original, and with custom textures, making a Nintendo 64 game comparable to a Gamecube game in some cases. This is through emulation, running the original game files, without any sort of optimization on the part of the original game developer. That optimization is instead reserved for releases on consoles, like the re-release of Ocarina of Time on the 3DS. I don’t know exactly what would be possible if the big game companies tried, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Playstation 2 titles on iOS and Android if Sony had put some effort into properly porting the games. After all, there was quite a bit of overlap between the PSP and PS2, and that was many GPU cores ago. Emulation actually requires a lot more power than running a ported version of a game, so there are lots of possibilities. I can however not speak to how easy it is to port a game from a console to a mobile platform, but hey, Rockstar and Square Enix don’t seem to have any problems doing so.

Instead of becoming mobile games though, these games are doomed to live a life of occasional internal re-releases and digital downloads via the latest iteration of Nintendo’s pointless online system. Sometimes I wonder what on Earth these companies are doing. If you look at the PS Vita, you see a game selection that won’t exactly make anyone run for the nearest store to get one, all the while titles that have proven themselves over the years are collecting dust in some archive  If the original series of Ratchet & Clank games had come out on the Vita, I would have gotten one the same day I heard about it. Unfortunately, the Vita is being sold as a miniature PS3, not a portable PS2, with “unique” games coming out at such a slow rate that you can actually keep up with each release on a normal salary.

There are a couple of exceptions, but even those aren’t exactly at the top of my list of favorite companies. Square Enix is actually doing a fairly decent job at releasing some of its titles for mobile, though it’s pretty set in its pricing ways. $16 for a title would have been considered cheap on a portable console like the Nintendo DS, where the remakes of Final Fantasy III and IV first came out, but it’s not cheap on a mobile platform. Final Fantasy IV is currently 85th on the list of top grossing iOS games (Note: Norwegian list), despite being new and having an advantage (the list is based on recent sales, not all time sales). Ignoring the freemium games that sell virtual currency to kids, there are still tons of older, cheaper games higher up on the list, proving that when you sell digital games, a lower price might still net you a higher profit. GTA: Vice City is number 34 on the list, despite costing less than a third of what Final Fantasy IV does, and it’s just as much of a “real” game gone mobile as what Square Enix is pumping out.

Speaking of GTA, I’ve bought both the two (3D) iterations that have come out so far, and hated them. It’s nice to see a company like Rockstar release old classics on a new platform, and kudos to them for understanding the pricing scheme and selling the games for a very decent $5, but I fear that the choice of which version of the game to publish was not well thought out. In my opinion, the PSP versions of each game would have been better choices, as they had some updates that were rather crucial. Things like water not meaning instant death is something you expect from a game these days, which is why it was added to Vice City Stories despite being absent from the original Vice City. Playing Vice City on a mobile device therefore feels like a step back, which is why I essentially stopped playing it after about 10 minutes. I think Rockstar has failed on making the game ready for this era in other ways than just adding touch controls, and that to me is a pretty big let down.

My point here is that the entire game industry is all over the place these days. The few big name companies that are in the market are struggling to understand the mechanics of mobile games, and the new contenders that do understand these mechanics spit out games at such speeds that story and gameplay seem close to irrelevant as long as they can boost about “console quality graphics”. In my opinion, only the unique 2D games designed specifically for the new platforms do things right, as they’re not trying to compete with console gaming equipped with inferior hardware. As such, I don’t feel there’s any need for any Android based gaming consoles on the market, let alone three.

What we need first and foremost is a universal standard for game controllers. This is something you have been able to do through root for a couple of years now, and yet it’s something that the combined power of a couple of dozen accessory and software manufacturers have failed to do. Once that’s in place, we need better games. From real developers, not generic copycat machines like Gameloft. Then, once that’s in place, we can start looking at game consoles. Right now, however, an Android game console is doomed to mediocrity.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.

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