The Golden Age of phone games is over

Remembering the greatest mobile games and their place in pop culture


Ben Hitchcock is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. 

Ben Hitchcock | Cavalier Daily

When I was in 11th grade, I got very, very good at an iPhone game called Four Letters. The game was simple — four jumbled letters appeared on screen, and the player had to connect them into a word as fast as possible. Speed was key — connecting words quickly earned streaks and bonus points. I got hooked and racked up countless hours playing the game, mostly during high school band class. I essentially had all the puzzles memorized. At my peak, I was in the top 1 percent of 1 percent of all players. (It’s sobering to realize that I will probably never again be in the top 1 percent of 1 percent of anything else ever again. I peaked early in life.)

My period of Four Letters supremacy came at the tail end of a now bygone era — the Golden Age of Phone Games. The Golden Age began on April 6, 2009, the day the first great mobile game — Doodle Jump — hit the App Store, a little less than two years after the iPhone was introduced. After a slow decline, the era officially ended on Sept. 23, 2015, when the Angry Birds movie trailer was released, causing everyone to notice that they hadn’t played or cared about Angry Birds in years. 

In late middle school and early high school, around 2010 to 2013, my friends and I played phone games constantly — on the bus to school, at lunch, in between classes and during classes. We swapped high scores. We stayed up to date on the latest new games. Now, a few years later, that enthusiasm is completely gone.

I’m not 14 years old anymore, and I don’t often hang out with 14-year-olds, which is certainly part of why the games don’t seem as relevant as they used to. But there’s more to it than just me growing up. The mobile game as a genre has stagnated. Based on some combination of influence, popularity, longevity, cultural relevance, inventiveness and entertainment value, there’s a definite top tier of app games. It’s impossible to sort games by actual download numbers, since Apple doesn’t release download figures on the App Store and the increasing amount of people with iPhones would make year-to-year comparison useless. 

Still, there are a few clear classics. These are the mobile games that matter the most — Angry Birds, Doodle Jump, Fruit Ninja, Words with Friends, Clash of Clans, Cut the Rope, Candy Crush, Minecraft and Pokémon GO. With the exception of Pokémon GO, none of these upper-echelon games was released after August of 2012. New players are still downloading old games —  Minecraft, Candy Crush, Subway Surfers, Temple Run 2 and Bike Race — all classics — currently rank among the most downloaded games in the App Store years after they were released. The Golden Age is over.

Some might say it’s no great tragedy that mobile games are becoming less relevant. That’s certainly how my high school band director feels. The games aren’t particularly artistically cutting-edge. They’re not educational. They impart no skill. They waste tons of time. Yet their legacy isn’t meaningless. They represent a specific moment in time, and they will be an important part of how the early 2010s are remembered down the road.

These apps are reflective of the era they were created. The beginning of this decade was characterized by the sudden arrival of a magical new technology — the smartphone — and the subsequent scramble to figure out exactly what to do with it. The iPhone was released in 2007. Doodle Jump was released in early 2009, a full year and a half before Instagram. Uber and Snapchat debuted nationwide in 2011. Facebook didn’t release a mobile app until 2010, then had to completely overhaul the app’s coding in 2012. Tinder didn’t come out until 2012. Reddit released its first official app in 2016. 

There was a period when, with the world at our fingertips, all we could come up with was a little green monster jumping up an endless stream of platforms. Almost everything in the average person’s iPhone in 2018 has a definite purpose. Doodle Jump was different because it had no purpose. These games and their popularity are emblematic of that very specific moment — the discovery, the confusion, the joy.  

There has yet to be an uprising of nostalgia towards any part of the iPhone era. Phones, at this moment, most often feel like an obligation and an irritant. Nostalgia, however, is as inevitable as death and taxes. When the iPod classic was discontinued in 2014, its price on eBay quadrupled. In due time, hipsters will be swapping their vinyl record players for iPhone 1s, and instead of The Smiths, they’ll be playing Cut the Rope. Audiences went wild when the kids in “Stranger Things” played Pac-Man, and in 20 years, they’ll go wild when Angry Birds appears on a phone screen in a similarly nostalgia-hocking show. 

For me and my friends, fringe millennials who came of age in step with the iPhone, these games are a symbol of growing up, just like Space Invaders was to the kids in the ‘80s or Snapchat will be to the children of the 2000s. These mobile games will be the first part of the smartphone era to be re-appraised with rose-colored glasses.

There’s nothing simple about smartphones. There’s nothing simple about what technology means for the future. But there is something wonderfully simple about slingshotting a disgruntled bird into a tower of green pigs. Nostalgia is overrated. Remembrance almost always morphs reality. Still, with technology invading modern life more and more each day, it feels worthwhile pausing for a moment every now and then to remember that once upon a time, the pinnacle of human achievement was a game where you swiped your finger-sword at pieces of flying cartoon fruit. 

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