The Original Mobile Games (Review)

Yesterday, my journey into gaming’s past took an unexpected turn. During my daily browsing of the Nintendo Switch marketplace, I found an interesting title. The Original Mobile Games by Second Avenue Learning is made in collaboration with the Strong Museum. For those that don’t know, The Strong is basically a giant museum that also is the defacto host of both the National Toy Hall of Fame and the World Video Game Hall of Fame. They also have a history of electronic games wing. In short, they have a massive collection of play things. Working with them, Second Avenue Learning has scanned/photographed vintage handheld games and tried to recreate them using the Nintendo Switch’s gyroscopic abilities. How vintage? The oldest game is nearly 150 years old and was reputed to have been played by Benjamin Harrison when he was the 23rd President of the United States. Now that one has to be bullshit. Harrison was notoriously boring. His nickname was “The White House Iceberg.” He wouldn’t be caught dead having fun. He did become the first President who attended a baseball game in person and.. well.. I rest my case.

These are just supposed to be colored cardboard discs. But the gravity for these, no matter how many times you restart the calibration, feel like you’re manipulating them under the pressure of the planet’s core.

And yeah, I’m sure these were crazy fun 150 years ago. Today? Well, I mean come on, that’s not really fair. These were never meant to be fun 150 years later. Which hypothetically would make this a tough set to review. Do I judge it on the merits of the gameplay or on what Original Mobile Games means as a museum piece or preservation effort? Well, thankfully the collection gave me an out for that conundrum. Because the physics for Original Mobile Games are so amateurish, so bad, so downright broken that I can’t even say “well at least it supports preservation.” This is a horrible release. It’s easily one of 2019’s worst Switch games.

When it works (and by works I mean the physics are not-crap-enough to be playable), and that’s rare in this collection but it does happen, you’re free to genuinely feel sorry for what people who are currently skeletons had to do for fun at the turn of the 20th century. All the games are based on tilting a rectangular cardboard/plastic case so that balls or other tokens fall into the appropriate slots. These type of games are still made today. Sometimes they’re sold in bulk to be used as party favors, or maybe found in dollar stores to be used as cheap stocking-stuffer type of deals for Christmas. All the games in Original Mobile are based on much older releases. The collection is broken up into six different sets. The Starter Pack runs you $1.99 and gets you six games. One of them, Pigs in Clover, was patented in 1889 (exactly one-hundred years before I was born! That’s sort of nifty!) and was the most popular game of its era. Behold: the height of portable individual entertainment achievement in the 1880s:


Though it is impressive that we went from that to Game Boy in a single century. I mean, how many millennia did it take for us to get from cave paintings to Netflix? Anyway, you can buy five other sets that contain four games each (except the Meltdown Pack, which has five) for $0.99 each. Not the way I would have recommended selling them, but then again, I would have recommended this stayed in development for another year or so.

Most of the games that controlled particularly badly require you the hold the Switch upright. These were almost always the worst offenders of the bad physics. And here the lack of proper physics unquestionably ruins this particular game, where I could hold the Switch at a nearly straight up and down angle, recaliberate the tilt mechanics over and over, and still have balls get stuck on the lips of 1mm of digital cardboard.

Keeping it real: The Original Mobile Games had absolutely no chance of winning me over on the merits of its gameplay. BUT, I’m a fan of preservation and a student of gaming history, and I could have forgiven.. even gotten excited.. over the primitive gameplay if it was presented accurately and contained appropriate history lessons. I’m singing the praises of SNK 40th Anniversary Collection to this day despite disliking the vast majority of games it has. Original Mobile Games does the museum stuff right. Each game contains historical information and even box scans when available. Awesome. That’s the good stuff a collection like this needed. So all they had to do was not totally shit the bed with the games and this would be an easy recommend. Hell, I might have dumped this review and did a comical IGC Retro Bowl pitting this against Atari Flashback Classics for Switch or something.

But those damn physics. They’re all wrong. Using the Switch’s gyroscopes, you’re supposed to tilt the console around to manipulate the balls or wooden tokens. It’s never perfect, or, upon reflection, ever that life-like. And even when the balls move smoothly, there’s a creepy uncanny valley feel where all the balls on the screen move in 100% perfect sync. You can recalibrate the neutral point of the tilt features on the fly, but it never makes the physics better. It just makes it easier for you to shuffle the objects around and get them to their goals.

Ironically, a game that’s a political attack on a South African figure involving teeth has no teeth. Here I beat the game in one second. ONE SECOND! This is one of four games in the “Political Pack” that cost me $0.99. Also there’s no online leaderboards so I have no idea of knowing how many people I am the current world champion over. Because clearly I am the world champion of “Oom Paul Gets His Teeth Drawn.”

The biggest problem is that each ball might roll realistically, but they don’t seem to interact with each-other correctly. Or at all. If you get a ball into a goal, in the virtual reality of the simulation, the ball is simply resting on a divot in the cardboard, right? So if another ball strikes it with sufficient force, it should be able to easily dislodge it, adding challenge. In Original Mobile Games, the balls apparently have no weight or inertia to transfer to other objects. The same goes for the wooden blocks. The objects feel like they have gravity but no weight. It’s like each moving object exists in an entirely different plane of existence. It completely breaks the illusion of playing a real cardboard ball-in-maze game. Well, the horrible physics do that too. Basically there’s no authenticity to the actual gameplay of these games, which sort of defeats the point of preservation, does it not? Look, it’s swell that these are based on real games and not made-up ones, but if they don’t play realistically, you really aren’t preserving anything besides photographs, are you?

I swear to God I went into this with an open mind. I wanted to enjoy my time with Original Mobile Games. Even after playing multiple busted games, I got excited by the premise for this one. And it let me down again. Having said that, I might start collecting vintage games like this for real now. They look neat. I like neat. I found this one for $6.99 with a Buy It Now on Ebay.

And the balls, which vary in size from game to game, are never consistent in their physics. It almost feels like the developers just took scans of the vintage games, mapped the relevant components, and then plugged in an existing marble physics engine without making the relevant adjustments. Because all the movement of the balls feels like a very unfinished tech demo. Like how everyone in 2011 with a dev kit could make a really bad version of 3D Marble Madness or Monkey Ball, where the physics were off but you could move a sphere in a 3D space and that was neat. It’s like that. It’s first-game-with-a-physics-engine quality. It’s actually embarrassing this was released in this state at the price it’s at. This is newbie level shit. It’s entirely possible these WERE made by newbies. I don’t know what to say if that’s the case, besides “try harder before releasing stuff like this.” Cold, but, yeah, this is a crap, guys. Someone had to say it.

By the way, since the “they just took scans” part sounded harsh, let me clarify something: there’s nothing wrong with just scanning/photographing the real game and drawing the moving parts yourself. It’s what the pros do. That’s what Pinball Arcade and Zen Pinball do to recreate real-life pinball machines. Now granted, those probably had a bigger budget, but 1980s/90s pinballs machines are a lot more complex than a tiny handheld cardboard game with some holes cut in the surface and BBs to roll around. Really, they just needed to refine the movement physics and keep polishing them to perfection. Maybe they tried to. I don’t know. But just playing it, it feels like they laid a generic physics engine over pictures of old games. And hell, even if it was no-budget, that’s no excuse. Even my fake, free-to-download PinMAME/Visual Pinball stuff I have on my arcade cabinet have more life-like physics than this paid game.

This screenshot from Zen Studio’s PinballFX3 isn’t all that different from what they were trying with The Original Mobile Games. Because really, the tables are just very high-resolution scans or photographs of authentic pinball machines, with moving parts like the ball and flippers being animated in the game’s engine. Recreations do not have to be primitive or broken. Original Mobile Games is both. I’d love to see someone with more experience or talent take a stab at recreating these kind of games. There’s no reason why a collection like this can’t better represent the era it’s museuming. Yes, I said museuming. That’s a word. As of right now.

And then you get to the games that replace moving balls with moving cardboard slabs or logs or other tokens and the physics become complete garbage. No matter how many times I would try to recalibrate the neutral point, these games never felt like the way I was tilting my Switch was accurately measured in the way the pieces moved. One of the most shameful examples is Golden Rod, part of the $0.99 “Meltdown Pack.” So named because they’re supposed to be the most difficult games, though I’m not sure if that’s on the grounds of the authentic games being difficult or on the recreated versions in Original Mobile Games being so busted that they’re almost unplayable. A little from column A, a little from column B perhaps. The game features a series of progressively bigger yellow logs that roll around on a playfield. You’re supposed to situate them so they line up from smallest to biggest in a basket. But it doesn’t work. They don’t rotate right. The gravity is too heavy. What should have been one of the most interesting, original games in the collection instead ends up being the poster child for everything wrong with Original Mobile Games.

My family is all-in on my Indie Gamer Chick existence and, in moments where I’m drowning in frustration, push me to keep playing to “keep me fair.” For Original Mobile Games, they determined that fair meant “beat a game or spend at least fifteen minutes trying.” Then I handed my father this. He tried recalibrating the neutral point several times and told me that, indeed, the physics were off and I was free from any time commitment for games in this collection. That’s how bad this set sucks.

Other times, the challenge of the original cardboard/plastic games is lost in the digital translation. There’s a game where you have to rest five balls in holes, but there’s bigger holes that they can fall through. If you’re playing the real game and one of the balls falls through those, the only way to restart is to tip the game upside down and start over. But the auto-reset button used for these type of games in Original Mobile Games only respawns the balls that have fallen off the play field. The ones that are already in their slots stay put. Well, that sort of defeats the entire purpose of the original game, does it not? It’s such a half-assed effort. I wish I had something nice to say besides “hooray for preservation” but I can’t even say that. The concept is fine. The execution feels very lazy and disinterested. Trust me, I feel like a bitch for saying all this and coming across like a gigantic meany head, but it’s true. Did these guys even test these games? Did anyone involved say “logically speaking, if a player needs to respawn, ALL the balls should restart. Otherwise the point of the game is lost”? If not, someone should have. Maybe The Strong could have found a developer who cared more about the source material. For the best collections of vintage games, be it old video games or stuff like this, it feels like the people care a lot about the games they’re recreating. You don’t get that vibe at all here. The gameplay is so low-effort that it feels more like everyone who worked on this couldn’t wait to be finished.

This is the game I put the most time into at just over twelve minutes. I did complete it, and that felt good. It and the bowling game were probably the best in the collection. Of course, both those games are in separate DLCs, go figure. There’s six games in the starter pack (Pigs in Clover is the best of those), five in the Meltdown pack (Rainbow Puzzle being the best), four in the Politics pack (none of them worth the digital cardboard they’re printed on), four in the Hobby pack (Bowling being the best there), four in the Critters pack (one of which is a knock-off of Pigs in Clover), and four in the All-Balls pack (Speech Day being the most interesting of them) for twenty-seven total games. Some of them SOUNDED interesting but were completely ruined in execution, like the dice game and Golden Rod.

I suppose maybe the real games felt this way. I can’t believe that would be true, but maybe? Though I would suggest that if they did, it’s probably because the originals at The Strong Museum had warped with age. I mean.. cheap plastic/wooden logs from a handheld game during the Great Depression sure don’t seem like they’d move like that. One game with dice that caught my attention in the $0.99 Hobby Pack involves trying to get two dice into pockets facing a certain way. But even the slightest, slowest attempt at dropping them into these presumably very shallow cardboard slots would cause them to roll over. That’s not how physics work! It’s just not! The Original Mobile Games is complete amateur hour as far as moving parts physics or tilt-mechanics go. It’s actually embarrassing how bad this release is. Hell, sometimes stuff would happen like I would be credited with a victory in a game that I, by all logic, had failed at. In the Slippery Slabs game, where you must shuffle four colored cardboard pieces into the correct zones, the game declared me victorious even though the top two pieces had slid almost entirely out of their zones. Nobody in their right mind would call this a win. Unless you mean “now you don’t ever have to play that game with it’s terrible physics ever again! THAT’S A WIN!”

I get no pleasure at all in slamming any project to this degree. It especially hurts my heart to call a well-meaning preservation-based project like The Original Mobile Games one of 2019’s worst games. I write this knowing that feelings will almost certainly be hurt. But it is that bad. It’s not even a good value in terms of how they set it up. Really, these games are so simplistic that they should have shitcanned the DLC model (a hold-over from the collection’s introduction as a mobile game) and just included all 27 games in one $2.99 release. Putting games as simple as these in packs of four for $0.99 feels icky to me, but I could deal with it if the games played fine. They don’t. Even the playable games don’t ever feel authentic. And we know from projects like Pinball Arcade that you can rebuild vintage games in a virtual space and come very close to the real thing. When I bought The Original Mobile Games, I was so excited for what this represented. I was even hoping they’d continue to do other vintage-game-based recreations. Maybe older pinball machines or even Bagatelle (the forerunner to modern pinball). Now I want these developers to stay far away from anything like that until they’re willing to put in more effort. Wanting to preserve games is great. Heart in the right place and all that. But if you’re going to preserve, for fuck’s sake, DO BETTER THAN THIS! Because if this is the best you can do towards preservation, the games are better off staying in their original cardboard, being gawked at in a museum or found exclusively at a garage sale near you.

The Original Mobile Games was developed by Second Avenue Learning
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch

$6.94 ($1.99 Starter Pack, $0.99 for all five DLC packs) finished the review without making a dick joke out of Golden Rod in the making of this review. You’re welcome.

About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

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