Then and Now – Snake

16 Feb

Then:

I first owned a mobile phone in 1999, a Nokia 5110. It was fairly big by today’s standards, but it took the dropping, throwing and general abuse that something portable should, more than I can say for the delicate creature that lives in my pocket now. I’m not sure what made me want a mobile phone, I rarely used it for calls or texts, and buying credit remains something that permanently eludes me. There was one thing I liked about the phone though, and I liked it a lot – Snake. The game was perfect for a quick game on the bus, during lunch at school or any moment of downtime that didn’t allow access to something a little more advanced. Snake was ferociously addictive, a throwback to classic arcade high-score chasing, and having the high-score in Snake became a source of schoolyard pride. I played Snake a huge amount, and have never given another mobile phone based game more than a minute or two. The platform is simply awful for gaming. Controlling most things with a number pad is akin to trying to do calligraphy with a paint roller. Snake had it right though, it was simple and addictive, fun and challenging in equal measure, and made many journeys pass a lot quicker.

Brilliantly simple

Now:

Snake is a strange game to look back on. It seems a long time ago since I played it, despite it appearing towards the end of the PS1 era, a mere 11 years ago. The game was an update of a well-known formula, and had appeared in various forms on consoles and in arcades. Probably best known was the BBC Micro edition, also titled ‘Snake’. The mobile version was released to the public on Nokia phones in 1998 and was an instant hit. Nokia dominated the mobile phone market at the time, and their inclusion of Snake on their phones helped kick-start mobile gaming. Unfortunately this led to the ill-fated N-Gage for the Finnish firm, but with the iPhone growing in popularity, mobile gaming has reached new heights of success. This may never have happened, were it not for Snake. The game had most mobile phone users hooked and further versions were released on later Nokia models.

Success is one thing, but quality is quite another. Snake is an early example of what is a selection of games that were almost always awful. Mobile phone gaming was incredibly poorly implemented until touchscreen technology became the norm. How can a game which is one of the first of an utterly horrible genre still be good? Snake was only playable with the number pad of the phones it graced, and that system made almost every game absolutely impossible to control effectively. Add to that the tendency of mobile games to be slow and suffer from massive frame-rate issues (anyone who’s played scaled down conversions of PS2 games will attest to this) and you have a platform which simply cannot function as a gaming device. How on earth did Snake ever become so popular? It’s just a line moving around, trying not to crash into itself.

Proof positive that graphics aren't everything

The answer is simplicity. While other mobile games tried to emulate platform titles or other console staples, Snake stuck to the template of classic arcade games. Fun to try, simple to play and tough to master, it suited quick playing on the go. It also suited high-score attempts which went on for long periods. Mastery of Snake meant missed bus stops, appointments, classes and anything else on a schedule. It remains very, very difficult to put down. Like Centipede or others of their ilk, Snake seems easy. It should be reasonably possible to achieve a very high score, yet it isn’t at all. It’s easy to score in the region of 500, and then it becomes a challenge to even move, let alone collect the ‘food’ which appears on screen. The difficulty of getting further meant that it had a compulsive nature, and the exactness of scoring meant that getting a few more points was always a possibility. Like all classic simple games, Snake is astonishingly addictive. Coupled with the lack of options for other mobile games at the time, and the novelty of gaming without owning a portable console, Snake was the perfect model for success.

It remains the most enjoyable mobile game I’ve ever encountered, and is still extremely playable. It may be simple, and the controls are far from perfect, but they are fine for the task at hand. In fact, they’re better than fine, they work well. Snake is purpose-built and it shows in ways other mobile games never could. Adding a game like Snake to their mobile phones was an incredibly astute move by Nokia, and they deserve a lot of credit for supporting mobile gaming, despite their many subsequent mistakes. Snake remains the pinnacle of mobile gaming for me, it suits the platform, the controls are implemented well, the game is simple and addictive and most importantly, fun. It’s a thrill to play, to the point that I know someone who has held onto his dated Nokia and continued to play Snake on an almost daily basis. There is great longevity in simplicity, and Snake is a shining example of what can be achieved when all the facets of a system are taken into account, and a game built around that. A lot like the amazing 2D games of the Saturn, or the inventive puzzlers of the DS, Snake was chosen with the limitations of its system in mind, and so they never show. This, unfortunately, did not become the template for future gaming on mobile phones until the iPhone, and so mobile phone users were left without a decent replacement for Snake as technology advanced.

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