A Hardcore ‘Droid Primer
The Armpit of the Gaming Industry
Between the sea of crap that constitutes the freemium wing of Android gaming and the many broken, unfinished and half-assed copy-cat titles that spew from the ranks of Android’s countless indie developers, it’s not hard to imagine how an outside observer might refer to Android as the armpit of the gaming industry. And they do.
And yet while all of the above is true, Android offers a wealth of superb gaming experiences to the dedicated gamer, even, dare I say, the hardcore gamer, some of which can be found nowhere else. The open marketplace that spawned Android’s many failures has also created a wealth of talented microdev craftsman, and among that number a small cache of master craftsman, developers like Sarah Northway, Little Killerz and The Trese Brothers, all of whom have consistently developed unique core Android titles, some of which can be found nowhere else but on the Android OS. What’s more, ‘Droid sports a ton of core ports, everything from core classics like HOMM (Heroes of Might & Magic) and Baldur’s Gate to contemporary classics like Xcom and Civilization Revolution.
Which leads to the matter at hand: Let’s say, you got your eye on a sweet, sweet G6 or were just gifted a Nexus 10 for your Birthday or—gasp!—a Shield Tablet and you consider yourself a gamer, maybe even a hardcore gamer, and you’re wondering as you fire it up for the first time: how do I go about this Android gaming thing?—By all reports it’s a platform awash in crap apps, and even if there were gems among all the garbage, who has the time to sift through all of those crappy titles to find some solid video games that are worth playing?
Enter Hardcore Droid.
Having served as proprietor and editor in chief of Hardcore Droid (a website dedicated to core gaming on the Android OS) for the 3 years since its inception, I have personally sampled every Android game worth talking about, and am going to use this bountiful experiences to do for you budding Android gamers what you clearly cannot do for yourselves: In essence, I am going to, in as short a space as possible, lay out for you in clear and certain terms the finest Android gaming experiences to be had by man at this point in time. Having broken this brief list into categories, I will for each genre, impart onto you for each, at least one console or PC port, one strictly for mobile title, and either a microdev indie or better yet a title that can be found on no other platform, creating in essence a primer for Hardcore ‘Droid gaming.
From ports to emulators to pseudo-retro games of various stripes, Android is rife with retro gaming experiences. Space Invaders Infinity Gene, a reimagining of the ancient classic that evolves into a modern ‘shmup’ (shoot’em-up) is a great place for retro-purists to start. For those more adventure-minded, DotEmu’s excellent 2015 port of the seminal action adventure game, Another World or Flat Black Films’ superb early-Ultima clone, Lowlander are not to be missed.
Emulators (programs that clone gaming consoles) that emulate everything from SNES to NeoGeo and from TurboGrafix to the good ole Nintendo GameBoy Advance are available on Google’s Play Store in droves. Unfortunately, that is part of the problem for Android gaming newbs. It’s a vast community, and a subject that can be a rather packed can of worms. Here too, Hardcore Droid’s got your back. Frequent Hardcore Droid contributor and former IGN writer, Travis Fahs, put together the quintessential guide to Android emulators some time back. Even laid out as it is below in a best of list, the sheer number of home gaming and arcade consoles emulators that can be had on Android is pretty stunning. You can read it in all its glory here.
Android does core-level action and does it well. Perhaps the platform’s greatest made-for-mobile action title is 2012’s Super Monkey Ball. You play a monkey rolling around in a large transparent sphere, and if that’s somehow not enough action for you, it’s also an incredibly exciting, generous and fun game. For an equally superb action port, see shmup, Dodonpachi Resurrection, the absolute overlord of bullet-hell shoot ‘em ups.
If you crave heavy metal thunder, racing with the wind and the feeling that you’re under, finding a good racing game can pose a problem on Android, seeing as a new racing title pops up about every three seconds on The Play Store. To make matter worse, freemium rip-offs like EA’s Real Racing, a title that asks for about 160 dollars a car, abound. For Android’s best racing port see Need for Speed Most Wanted. For a commensurately sublime made-for mobile racer see the superb Asphalt 7, which is a beautiful and fun racer that’s not nearly as bogged down with IAPs (in-app purchases) as is its sequel, Asphalt 8. For a made for mobile Indie racer that ranks among the finest mobile experiences to be had. Period. See jet ski racer, Riptide GP and Riptide GP 2. Matter of fact, you’d do well downloading either one of them first thing. We’ve ranked both of these off-kilter racers, according to a host of criteria, as among the top five best Android games of all time. Get them.
Unfortunately, we’ve lumped action together here, in the interest of giving you a quick injection of all that’s hardcore about Android, but in a more perfect world, FPSs, like racing games, would constitute a section of their own. To bring yourself closer to the FPS-purist ideal that such a list would engender, download Dead Trigger. Three years old now, it remains one of mobile’s gaming’s best first-person shooters as it does one of Android’s finest games. While the sequel Dead Trigger 2 is superb in many respects, DT2, in our opinion, spends far too much time putting you in situations where you have to make in-app purchases to keep playing. We call this paying to win or ripping players off for their hard-earned money, depending on the game and the severity of the IAP gimmicks it employs.
While I’m on the subject of the best mobile FPSs I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend the Modern Combat series in general and Modern Combat 5 in particular. While MC5 is a shameless Modern Warfare clone, it is also a rather well done Modern Warfare clone. We found it an absolute blast. Lastly, even among FPSs, there is a made-for-mobile indie title to be enjoyed. While visually somewhat less beautiful than the Modern Combat games and the popular N.O.V.A. series (another first-person shooter series that FPS fans will undoubtedly enjoy,) Neon Shadow, provides a single and multi-player, sci-fi-themed FPS experience, minus IAPs, that in terms of sheer gameplay, places it among the best mobile first-person shooters available.
The vast majority of mobile game developers are indie in the sense that they are small development teams with small budgets, yet only a portion of these could be called indie developers with any measure of accuracy because more often than not indie means that the game or its developers employ a unique and innovative approach to game development or have developed a functional yet off-kilter aesthetic. Thankfully, there’s a heathy sized pool of genuinely talented indie developers building for or porting their wares over to ‘Droid. For a prime example that is purely about demonically hard gameplay, nothing comes close to 2013’s Super Hexagon. On the other end of the production value spectrum, indie cross-platform title, The Banner Saga sports visuals so pretty that it might hardly seem like an indie when held up against your average Android indie. In myriad respects, however, The Banner Saga is as indie as they come. Boasting stunning hand-painted graphics and a sumptuous sound track, The Banner Saga is at once a fantasy-themed, tactical strategy game and a rich interactive narrative. The combination works wonders here, as the narrative and the gameplay are unique, smart and thoroughly engaging. Lastly, we recommend you try the multi-award winning Monument Valley. A puzzler in which players manipulate a plethora of Escher-like structures, MV constitutes one of the sharpest, most elegant indies available on Android or any other platform for that matter.
More so than any other genre, strategy is a mixed bag on Android, and mobile in general for that matter. The imprecision of touch controls and relative smallness of mobile screens means that sprawling maps with hundreds of units is out, as is lightening quick RTS gameplay involving skirmishes between various unit types. The exception is Touch Dimension’s Autumn Dynasty, a game that simplifies conventional RTS gameplay by abstracting units and maps into the trappings of traditional Chinese paintings, which sounds kind of nuts, but it works, and if you want to play a functional RTS on a mobile device, Autumn Dynasty is the just about the only way to go.
While mobile RTS titles usually hit a wall, tower defense games with their comparatively limited movement and field of view, are a perfect fit for mobile devices. And the best tower defense games on Android are the Kingdom Rush and Myth Defense games. Both series amount to some of the slickest and most finely balanced strategy gameplay available for ‘Droid . The absolute best mobile strategy game, however, are the mobile ports of Xcom: Enemy Unknown and Xcom Enemy Within. Technologically, visually, narratively and in terms of just sheer gameplay, nothing comes close. If your device can handle them. Get them.
RPGs have been both ported and developed for Android in great abundance and sometimes with famously wonderful results. For JRPG lovers, the first quarter of the Final Fantasy library is available on The Play Store, and when you finish with that be sure to pick up the seminal JRPG, Chrono Trigger. What’s more, some of the finest Western-RPG mobile experiences are found via ports of classic PC titles. Baldur’s Gates I, II and Icewind Dale have each been translated to mobile and are both utterly playable via touch screen controls, but the crème de la crème has to be Aspyr Media’s 2014 port of Knights of the Old Republic, arguably one of the most satisfying role-playing experiences to be had on any platform.
As much as we enjoy tossing around such blanket statements, in this case, doing so discounts two vital entities, namely, a couple of those brilliant Android-specific microdevs I made reference to at the beginning of this article. One of our favorites, the Trese Brothers cobbled together a wonderfully smart and deep turn-based RPG called Heroes of Steel, which is as core as hardcore gets and is only available on Android. Android also boasts microdev Litlle Killerz, whose magnificent RPG Tales of Illyria: Tales of the Fallen Knight and Tales Illyria: Beyond the Iron Wall make for some of the most engrossing RPG gameplay to be found in mobile gaming. While the Illyria games’ production values are a step down from current AAA console titles, the games’ hand drawn images are well done and where it matters most—gameplay—Illyria delivers in spades, offering up a deep nuanced RPG that combines real time tactical combat with a storied Oregon Trail mechanic, which we’d say is pretty innovative.
Both developers and both series point to the strain of magic running through Android’s open marketplace. While a platform where anyone can post an app or a game does inevitably lend itself to copyright infringement and a wealth of poorly made apps, it also has made Android a mobile platform with peerless potential for innovation. And as game development continues to become less the province of the few, said potential will only grow on open platforms like the PC and Android. To see the evidence of this phenomenon all we have to do is step back and look at all that’s presently available on the Android market today. On no other mobile platform could you sit down to game and at once choose between a dozen console and arcade emulators, a handful of cross-platform indies, a score of AAA ports and a bunch of microdev titles. Only the PC is in the same league when it comes to both the scale of potential developer innovation and the scope of player choice. As for getting past ‘Droid’s considerable obstacles and right to said goodness, one simply has to invest some time into sorting through the chaff, unless, of course, some incredibly kind soul has taken the time to show you where to begin looking.
About the Author
Al Jackson is the founder and editor of the Android gaming site Hardcore Droid, Al has been an editor, writer, aspiring graphic artist, a heavy metal singer, and a secondary and trade school teacher. His articles, reviews and short stories have appeared in a variety of websites, online magazines, anthologies and literary journals.