There's nothing new under the sun, it's often said. Nowhere is this more evident than in the explosion in the smartphones apps explosion. Here's ten signs that history is repeating itself, right here, right now.
1 Cheap as chips price points
The best triple A console games can now cost the best part of £60. That seems extortionate to anyone who grew up in the 1980s, when the likes of Codemasters consistently put out smart titles (CF: BMX Simulator, the Dizzy series) for the pocket money price of £1.99. Trust me, that was cheap as chips even then.
Fast forward 30-odd years and cheap games are back, back, back and bigger than ever. Provided you know what you’re doing, knockout games can be had for just 59p. Or free if you’re lucky. That's even more wallet-friendly than back in the day.
2 Cover art that massively over promises
Many’s the time the young me was suckered into parting with cash for substandard games by lurid intergalactic battles on the cover. This game is going to rock the spot, I’d think. That lasted until I loaded it up on my Spectrum 48k to be greeted with basic block sprites that bore no resemblance to the exciting scenes I’d been sold on. Each time, I’d be crushed with disappointment.
I certainly don’t fall for those tricks any more. But the Android Market and App Store are still packed with games with dramatic titles and knockout art that don’t deliver. So someone definitely does.
3 Clone games
A hit game in the '80s would spawn a slew of imitators, so close to the original that even the creators probably couldn’t tell them apart. So for every Pac Man, you’d get the likes of Hangly Man, K.C Munchkin and Jelly Monsters, wherein the only difference between them from Namco’s classic was a sprite or two and the fact that they’d slapped a different name over the top.
Now take a look at the wares on offer at app stores and the slew of Angry Birds wannabes that deviate barely a jot from Rovio’s successful template. Not least BlackBerry rip-off Angry Farm or close cousins Cannon Cadets, Bullistic and, erm, Angry Turds. Spot the difference? We sure can’t.
4 Cottage industry types turned millionaires
Back in the '80s, ZX Spectrum and C64 games creator Jeff Minter went from schoolboy zero to high-rolling hero in the space of a months. He wasn’t the only massive success story either. Everywhere you looked teens were turning their hobby into a massive money-spinner.
Low overheads and small teams needed to make a hit game for a smartphone means that young devs are once again becoming stars. And stars with bank balances to match their profile.
Trism developer Steve Demeter, for instance, went from scribing software for a bank to turning over millions of dollars in no time. And it looks like it’s going the same way for Tiny Wings dev Andreas Illiger, who at the time of writing was sitting pretty in the number-one position in the App Store. The only downside is that the one-man band just hasn’t got the time to port his iOS hit over to Android to capitalise on the swell of interest. In the meantime, his lack of resources and a team to take the work off his hands means he must be missing out on hundreds of thousands of pounds.
5 Simple games that are accessible to all
In the mid-90s a whole bunch of people who’d loved the likes of Space Invaders, Pac Man, Super Mario Brothers and the like in the previous decade were turned off gaming when the first 3D titles arrived. Or at least that’s the received wisdom. I’m not sure it was the shift to three dimensions that proved so off-putting to this lost generation. I think it was the advent of difficult to grasp control methods and multi-input joypads that did for them.
Smartphone touchscreens, however, don’t allow for overly complex controls. In fact, it’s the titles with the most elementary gameplay that are easy to pick up and play that work best – that is, those that in their very simplicity most resemble those of the 1980s.
What’s more, judging by the sales of Cut the Rope, Angry Birds and Tiny Wings et al, they’re what the public wants too.
6 Android Market is the Wild West
The UK '80s computer games boom probably remains the largest growth period in the sector ever. The landscape grew and changed at such a pace that regulators and the government just couldn’t keep up. That meant it often felt totally lawless. It wasn’t until right at the end of the decade, for instance, that the BBFC even started applying movie-style age ratings.
There’s a similar feel of anarchy about the Android Market. Google’s anything-goes attitude to admitting apps means there’s some truly horrible stuff on sale that anyone can get hold of no matter what age they are. And it’s lawless in other more harmful ways too – as proven by the recent malware scare.
7 Exploitative and tasteless software
No marketing stunt was too cheap or lurid for software publishers in the '80s. Sometimes that’d involve roping in Page 3 lovely Maria Whittaker to promote the similarly lurid Barbarian. That was fairly harmless.
Other times, though, things got a lot darker, with publishers securing sales for their rudimentary games by going all out to offend as many people as possible. Take, for instance, Beat 'Em and Eat Em (basically crude pornography) or Custer’s Revenge – in which you play the titular US general and are charged with raping a native American woman.
Three decades down the track those kind of cheap and nasty titles are prevalent once more. Only in the form of Baby Shaker, which to our eyes endorsed infanticide, the incredibly prurient iBoobs and iMussolini, which compiled the fascist dictator’s “greatest” speeches, they're now probably even more offensive.
8 Rehashes of classic titles
Remixes of '80s classics are everywhere on Android Market and the iPhone App Store. Choose from Pac Man, Space Invaders or Frogger on the iPhone. Or if you’re a Fandroid, just nab yourself one of the many Atari VCS or C64 simulators and you really could be in an arcade in soggy Margate in 1983.
9 1980s Clock
This iPhone app features a 1980s neon clock which displays a new, random memory from the decade every minute based on toys, TV and news of the time. If you’re into trapping yourself perpetually in the past and never quite getting over the era, we’re sure there’s nothing better.
Remember when the term 'Walkman' was the generic name for any personal music player? The devs behind Stereolizer do.
Their app turns your swanky kit into a 1980s stereo, complete with all the fixtures and fittings you’d expect – tape deck and a vast volume control – albeit in virtual form. The nicest touch, though, is that when you listen to radio stream, you actually get fake static interference. Shut your eyes, tune into some chilly synth pop station and let the intervening decades slip away.