In the beginning of the App Store, mobile games were exciting and fresh. Super Brothers S&S was atmospheric, innovative, and had some great usage of portrait mode. Tilt to Live used a new input method, the accelerometer. Rolando had charm and good volume for this new platform. Edge was cool, atmospheric and had innovative controls. Even something like Doodle Jump, though not very well made, worked because it felt right for the platform. Other titles that come to mind are Fieldrunners, Helsing’s Fire, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, Cut the Rope, Beat Sneak Bandit, Waking Mars, and, of course, Super Hexagon.
All of these titles, while not necessarily great, were interesting because they investigated what this new platform could do, and were honest, curious titles. Although some of them were mini games, they did not feel like ones because they were not designed for attention spans of two minutes. They were not monetized, worth their price, and understood themselves as worthy of your full attention. They established your phone as a mobile console that is worth playing with even when you’re not waiting for the bus.
Newer titles, while often better technically, often feel more like traditional console titles that also come out on mobile. They often play worse than their brethren because they aren’t adapted to the touch screen very thoughtfully. A good mobile title either takes advantage of the specifics of mobile phones (swiping, portrait mode, gyro) or has well designed, simple input controls even if it is a multi-platform title. Some newer examples could be Monument Valley, Super Mario Run, Reigns, Snakebird, Lara Croft: Go, or Device 6.
Portrait mode in particular is an aspect that differentiates a mobile title from classic console and PC titles. The invention of cinemascope by Hollywood (followed by 16:9 in the HDTV era) once established the wide screen format as what we call „cinematic“ today and games naturally followed that. However, with the ubiquitousness of mobile screens the portrait mode has become so popular that even Hollywood directors become interested.
Among the aforementioned technical aspects of mobile phones as gaming devices, portrait mode is the most interesting one to me. When done right, it is able to bring the austere beauty of the visual arts to the screen in your hand.