Horror

‘Resident Evil Village’ Wins “Game of the Year” From 2021 Steam Awards

Love it or hate it, the mobile phone is one of the most important inventions in all of human history, allowing our species to communicate at any given moment with the simple touch of a button. Of course, it didn’t take long for software developers to realize that these devices could do so much more than just make calls, so mobile games would eventually take over the industry as one of the largest and most lucrative businesses in all of gaming.

While horror isn’t exactly the first genre that springs to mind when one thinks of these games, there’s never really been a shortage of mobile scares, and that’s why I’d like to discuss the rise of Mobile Horror Games. From Nokia’s classic Snake to Halfbrick Studios’ legendary Fruit Ninja, mobile gaming has carved out its own respectable niche over the years, but few ever talk about how these titles have contributed to the horror genre.

The technical limitations of early devices meant that games had to be light on memory and simple to use, with these pioneer titles almost always being a fixed part of the phone’s primitive firmware. Since most of these games attempted to emulate the high-score-based thrills of arcade titles, there weren’t many horror experiences to go around when mobile phones first came on the scene.

It was only with the eventual addition of Wireless Application Protocols (WAP) and extremely limited internal memory systems that mobile gaming really took off, opening the door for rudimentary horror titles in the process. The ability to download software meant that developers could now offer a real selection of diverse titles built specifically for these devices, creating a market for retro-styled games during a time when advanced 3D gameplay was overtaking the industry.

Talk about lo-fi thrills!

Of course, programming a mobile horror experience came with its own particular challenges, as phone games generally worked better as brief, quickly-paced experiences with no room for a creepy atmosphere or unsettling narratives. Luckily, this didn’t stop developers from trying, and we’d actually see a surprising amount of lo-fi adaptations of famous horror franchises like Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and even a turn-based RPG version of Doom on cellular phones.

While titles like Silent Hill: Orphan and Silent Hill: The Escape were mostly text-heavy point-and-click adventure games, telling spooky yarns set within the labyrinthian streets of the titular town, others like Resident Evil: Uprising and Resident Evil: Degeneration attempted to bring the series’ iconic puzzle-solving and third-person zombie shooting to the palm of players’ hands.

And speaking of Resident Evil, licensed movie games were also becoming all the rage as phone hardware evolved, with rudimentary shooters and platformers accompanying nearly every popular blockbuster, including Paul W. S. Anderson’s action-packed adaptations of Capcom’s iconic franchise. Hell, we even got tie-in games for films like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake and 2005’s infamous Stay Alive, not to mention other Java-based horror adaptations like The Wolfman or even… Twilight!

None of these titles were really anything to write home about, mostly copying and pasting copyrighted sprites onto the same handful of familiar game templates, but they provided a relatively inexpensive way to connect with our favorite franchises while on the go. They were also especially fun for those of us who couldn’t or didn’t want to shell out the cash for a dedicated handheld gaming console. Hell, I remember spending hours on free trials of these games, realizing that you could see most of what the experience had to offer long before the trial period was over.

Even so, there were a couple of honest attempts at truly unifying phones and game consoles, with examples like Nokia’s ill-fated N-Gage, which had its own poorly marketed line of proprietary cartridges, and Sony’s quickly forgotten Xperia Play, which was basically a more streamlined version of the PSP. Naturally, none of these hybrids were particularly successful, but a few memorable horror games like Requiem of Hell and Ashen attempted to take advantage of the more advanced hardware.

There were better things to come.

The eventual rise of touch screens and more advanced graphical capabilities helped to reduce the divide between phones and gaming devices even further, with mobile titles becoming more elaborate as the years went by. However, it was online platforms like the iPhone’s App Store and Google’s Play Store that really changed the portable gaming landscape. Offering cheap horror classics like Five Nights at Freddy and free-to-play titles like Army of Darkness Defense (or even weird little gems like the endless runner Chucky: Slash and Dash), mobile gaming reached a new and unprecedented high as sales dominated (and arguably killed) portable consoles.

While online stores mean that there’s an unlimited variety of creative developers from around the globe being given the opportunity to publish their own original ideas, these platforms have also become an online equivalent to the wild west. Players have to wade through an ocean of quickly assembled asset flips and cheap knock-offs in order to find quality horror titles, and algorithms seem to only prioritize the same few zombie titles.

Nevertheless, it appears that asymmetrical horror games like Among Us and the mobile version of Dead by Daylight (not to mention its plethora of knock-offs) have recently become the most popular form of phone-based scares. While we’ve seen the occasional horror-related single-player game like Friday the 13th: Killer Puzzle and even insanely detailed endless runners like Bendy in Nightmare Run, multiplayer scares are undeniably big right now.

With the Nintendo Switch and Valve’s upcoming Steam Deck suggesting the return of dedicated portable gaming consoles, it’s clear that phone-based games will have to evolve in order to keep up with the competition. While it doesn’t look like our smartphones will be going the way of the dinosaur any time soon, there’s a clear discussion to be had about the merits of quality versus convenience when it comes to gaming on the go. Either way, there’s nothing like a fun scare to distract you from the real-world terror of taking the bus to work every morning, so I personally can’t wait to see what the future of mobile horror has in store for us.

Equally cute and brutal.

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