The real problem with mobile games


Is that fancy smartphone your mobile gaming device? That’s too bad. There are a lot of great mobile games out there but let’s not forget that people still play games on consoles.

Dodonpachi for the iPhone

Even well made games like Dodonpachi suffer on a phone.

Give me buttons or give me death

I loved my Nintendo DS. It got a lot of use and there were a lot of great games, everything from point-n-click puzzlers to good old fashioned arcade games. Then my DS kicked the bucket. I tried to repair it but that didn’t work out so well. I debated whether or not to get another one but then I got my smartphone and that was the last time I saw my DS. I declared the phone as my new gaming handheld and waited for game makers to catch up. They did but it’s still not the same and I’m having some serious mobile gamer withdrawl.

Mobile gaming is the hot space right now and we’re seeing lots of developers put out some big games. There are many titles from my favorites genres are out there, like Dodonpachi from Cave, but despite the pedigree going into these titles, one thing kills them all: bad controls. I have yet to find a single game that has decent touch controls. I’m not talking about the Angry Birds or Plants vs Zombies as they are point-n-click games that lend themselves to touch behavior. I’m talking about games that are meant to be played with buttons.

Super Crate Box

Super Crate Box is a great game but fails on the phone.

Super Crate Box

The great indie game Super Crate Box was recently released on the iPhone and I was excited to see it in the app store. I have Super Crate Box on the PC and have played it for hours on end with much delight. It’s a simple retro-style arcade game that asks you to collect boxes while trying to stay alive. Inside each box is a different gun that you can use to make things a little easier. Some guns are great, some are less than optimal, but therein lies the fun and challenge.

Super Crate Box requires only four buttons…left, right, jump and shoot…pretty simple, but when you put even those basic controls on a touchscreen they suck. The lack of tactile feedback in the way of buttons is a killer for any game that requires quick movements, and most games do. But you have to make do with what you’ve got, so touchscreen buttons it is…except for one bigger problem: their location on the screen. The game fills the screen, which means your buttons sit on top of the game board and that doesn’t bode well for you when your big thumbs are pressing them. This is especially troublesome in a game that randomly drops boxes for you to seek out, often behind your thumb where you can’t see it.

It’s a huge bummer that such a fun game suffers from a seemingly simple flaw, yet it’s one that is hard to fix and plagues many games. But without buttons, what’s a developer to do? The logical option would be to reduce the size of the game screen so there is some sort of button bar, but at the same time you really don’t want to make an already small screen even smaller. It’s a tough spot to be in but there’s a simple solution. I know mobile gaming is crazy popular right now. Everyone has a phone and people are throwing one dollar bills left and right to buy apps, and stories like Angry Birds is hard to ignore. I get all that, but just because mobile gaming is the hot spot right now is not an excuse to neglect other platforms, particularly the console.

Don’t stop making console games

Super Crate Box started as a PC title, so if I want to play it without technical frustration, I can, but I’m still on my PC. I’d rather be on my couch in front of my Xbox. Some games lend themselves to a PC, some don’t…most don’t. Super Crate Box is one of those games that is so well designed that it can work anywhere (assuming you have buttons to press). Great games like these need to get over whatever hang-ups they have about consoles and just do it. You can cite all the Xbox indie game woes you want, but as easy as it is now to get a game on the console marketplaces there is little excuse not to do so.

Super Crossfire on the iPhone

Super Crossfire is a great game...on the Xbox, not on a phone.

Will you make more money in the app store or on Steam? The data says yes, so go ahead and put your game there…but put them on consoles too. Put your game everywhere you can. When you have a good product, the game will speak for itself and do the job for you. A good game is a good game. Good games rise up passed all the crap avatar games. It might be a smaller audience in places like the Xbox marketplace but the crowd that is there is far more likely to buy games and recommend them to their friends. It’s really frustrating seeing a lot of great games get released exclusively on the iPhone or on Steam. I’m a console gamer and I’m always starved for more great arcade games.

Games like Super Crate Box are just begging to be on Xbox arcade…or at least as an indie spotlight. Despite my love for the game, I feel like I wasted my dollar buying Super Crate Box for the iPhone. Not because it’s not a great game but because I can’t play the game I wanted. We can only hope that they’ll release an update that repositions the buttons or something. But what I really hope for is to see these games on my big screen television.


About Author

Brian is a staff writer at TMA. He races Hot Wheels at while watching cartoons with his kid. You can follow @morningtoast on Twitter.


  1. Im going to have to say I completely disagree with this article. I have both a psp and a ds, and as soon as I got my iPhone, they fell by the wayside. I really have no issues personally with touch screen controls (though I admittedly never played super crate box, which seems to be your only real frame of refference) but honestly, there are plenty of amazing games that I love playing on my phone. I love gta 3, infinity blade, gameloft game clones, etc. now, I’m not saying the iPhone is the best thing to happen to gaming ever, but I feel it’s far more competent than you make it sound.

    Now, as far as steam goes, I’m a pc gamer. I love steam. Consoles already get plenty of exclusive titles, and many game companies let the pc fall by the wayside in that regard. So when steam gets an exclusive title like audiosurf for example, it makes me glad that there is still a company that gives a crap for pc games. Just my two cents.

  2. What frustrates me more than anything with mobile gaming is my gigantic, fat thumbs getting in the way, also am I the only one who found the aiming control method in GTA3 mobile frustrating as hell? I’ve got quite far using only melee attacks and road-kill so far mind.

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