For almost as long as people have been interested in video games, they’ve been interested in mobile gaming — and in some cases even longer. Before Pac-Man, before Asteroids, before Donkey Kong, there was Auto Race.
The 1976 handheld game, developed by toymaker Mattel, consisted of navigating your “car” — a blinking light — into one of three lanes of traffic, avoiding the other blinking lights. You had four gears to play with, too. It was a good start, although the company’s follow-up is perhaps better remembered. Released in 1977, it was simply called Football, and consisted of navigating your ball carrier – again, a blinking light – downfield while trying to avoid being “tackled” by another blinking light. Both games’ controls were simple and there were no graphics, so to speak — but damn it, you could play anywhere as long as the 9-volt battery held out.
Nintendo upped the ante a bit starting in 1980 with its Game & Watch series of handheld, tabletop and dual-screen portables. The collection produced such gems as Balloon Fight, Donkey Kong Jr., Mario Bros., Pinball and Zelda. Each machine superfluously doubled as a clock with alarm features (hence the “Watch” part of Game & Watch) and the series enjoyed about a decade of popularity until Nintendo moved to popularize an even newer era of handheld gaming.
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Nintendo’s 1989 release of the Game Boy is arguably one of the most important moments in mobile gaming history. Similar to how the Nintendo Entertainment System — which hit the U.S. in 1985 — connected to your TV to bring an arcade-like experience into your home, the Game Boy aimed to shrink the home console experience so that it fit in your hands. The screen was black and white, it had no backlight and there were never enough AA batteries around when you needed them. But from day one, Super Mario Bros. addicts could mainline Super Mario Land to tide them over. And everyone had Tetris. Who hasn’t played Tetris? Mobile gaming had hit the big time.
Today, the line between home consoles and dedicated gaming handhelds is blurrier than it’s ever been. Current generations of mobile gaming systems from Nintendo and Sony attempt to stuff as much technology and intricate, plot-filled, richly-detailed gaming experiences into consumers’ hands as possible. Mobile gaming has come a long way since the early days.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the next feature-filled, technology-stuffed, epic game-playing handheld: People started buying smartphones instead.
The rise of smartphones has spawned simple, cheap games that remind us of the carefree days of our youth when we didn’t need to follow tutorials or read manuals in order to have fun. We remember that Football, with its dots blinking their way towards each other, took no time at all to master. We remember that sometimes you only need one or two controller buttons. Or in the case of Angry Birds, a single finger.
Smartphone-based mobile gaming provides for a quick pick-up-and-play experience. It’s uncomplicated. Some games like Tiny Tower, 8bit Ninja, Lemonade Tycoon and others purposely feature retro-looking graphics intended to tug at our heart strings. We’re drawn to them, awash with nostalgia as we remember the days when little blocky characters repeatedly informed us that our princess was in another castle.
So we seem to be on two different mobile gaming paths right now. There are those who crave realism and horsepower. They’ll plunk down $170 for Nintendo’s 3DS or $250 for a Sony PlayStation Vita and then spend upwards of $40 for each finely crafted, graphics-rich game. Then there are the smartphone owners, who are okay with the idea of spending a buck or two on each title – maybe even $10 if they’re really serious – and play games mainly while waiting for something else to happen.
Some gamers walk both paths. Some dig their heels staunchly into one or the other. Some have wondered when smartphone gaming will finally drive the nail into Sony’s and Nintendo’s handheld gaming coffins. It’ll be a while before that happens, if it happens at all. These paths may never merge; one may not ever kill the other off. And that’s okay.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is trying to bridge the gap, which is perhaps most interesting to watch. You want a portable Xbox? Buy a Windows Phone. The achievements you unlock in certain Windows Phone games will be reflected in your Gamerscore on the Xbox 360; it’s all tied together.
While the other players may not be shooting for integration in the same way Microsoft is, smartphone gaming and handheld gaming are busy taking cues from one another: Apple and Android phones tout their mobile processors as being strong enough for advanced gaming, while advanced handheld devices have been steadily embracing connected, social gaming – something that’s been baked into smartphone gaming since the beginning. The same types of touch- and motion-based controls found in smartphone games are working their way further into advanced portable consoles, while accessories that give your smartphone physical control buttons, like the iCade Mobile, are appearing at the same time.
The slow-but-steady spread of next-generation wireless networks is set to catapult gaming to the next level in the coming years. We can already see it happening as location-based, scavenger hunt-type apps like Foursquare dovetail with augmented reality technology. Smartphone games such as Zombies, Run!, Turf Geography Club and the aptly-named Parallel Kingdom virtually shift your neighborhood into another dimension full of treasure, sections of town to conquer and rival factions to battle. All it takes is your phone’s GPS chip, camera and mapping software.
Handhelds haven’t been left behind, either. Nintendo’s 3DS comes with built-in augmented reality games and there’s an augmented reality version of the wildly-popular Pokémon series on the way this year. Sony PlayStation Vita has a few free augmented reality titles already available as well.
In the next wave of mobile gaming, you’ll be the main character in your own games, battling against neighbors you may or may not ever meet in real life. You’ll know they’re out there, though. A quick glance at your in-game map and you’ll see them encroaching on your virtual turf. As quickly as video games provided an escape from reality over the years, we’ll soon find reality to be a big selling point in mobile gaming’s not-too-distant future.
MORE: Read TIME’s special report on how your phone is changing the world (and your life) here.