There has rarely been as much excitement in the phone world as over news that the iconic Nokia 3310 is making a comeback. Launched way back in 2000, a naïve age when people bought mobile phones in order to talk to each other, the handset is still famed for its lengthy battery life, structural solidity and Snake II.
Seventeen years later, modern smartphones are crammed with high-tech features, but you have to charge them constantly and their demands on our attention -- via endless social media alerts, updates and notifications -- are becoming tiresome. Some people yearn for a simpler age when the phone just did what it was primarily designed for and most of your text messages were from confused relatives saying ‘AM I USING THIS CORRECTLY’.
This kind of industrial technology nostalgia is usually just that -- nostalgia. Very rarely do people actually really want to go back to primitive formats. You can yearn whimsically for the warm-toned glory days of the VHS player, but just remember when you had to program one to record Match of the Day. That’s right, they called it programming -- because it was complicated and it often didn’t work. But the Nokia 3310 [pictured above] was also easy to use. It provided a service that is still relevant and valid today.
So, is there a Nokia 3310 of gaming? Has there ever been a games machine that has truly outlived its technological zenith? An argument could definitely be made for the Nintendo Entertainment System (Nes), the box-like console from 1983 that brought Nintendo into the home console sector and became so ubiquitous that people all over the world started referring to “playing video games” as “playing Nintendo”.
That machine, with its rugged build, large game cartridges and simple flat joypads (designed specifically to withstand being stood on if left on the living room floor) was certainly intended to last. There was no operating system to update, no online infrastructure to be hacked, you put a cartridge in, switched the machine on, and played the game. And what games they were: Super Mario, Castlevania, Bubble Bobble, Metroid -- though visually dated these titles are still compelling and exciting -- they function, just like Snake II does, as pure electronic entertainment.
Nintendo was so sure of the console’s appeal that it released a new, miniaturized version at the end of 2016 -- which promptly sold out globally. It’s not the only old games machine to be repackaged like this -- there are lots of third-party machines that emulate the Nes, its successor, the Snes, and Sega’s Master System and Mega Drive, so you can play old games -- but the Mini Nes gets closest to the appeal of the Nokia 3310, in that it’s not just about having a laugh with old stuff and stirring memories -- the Mini Nes is a completely functional modern product, providing a valid service that goes beyond pure whimsy.
Are there others? There’s definitely a case for the original Game Boy. Launched in 1989, this now rather chunky handheld gaming device features an ancient 8bit processor, green-tinged monochrome visuals and a 160 -- 144 pixel screen -- it’s basically the zoetrope of portable gaming. However, the undemanding tech specs and tiny screen meant for excellent battery life, while the solid construction ensured it could survive the rigors of the daily commute.
It’s also hard to imagine how classic titles like Tetris, Zelda: Link’s Awakening or Super Mario Land could be improved with better visuals -- they exploit and explore the graphical boundaries set by the Game Boy with incredible elegance. If that’s too retro though, the later beautifully compact Game Boy Micro would all fulfill the Nokia 3310’s remit of being hardy, focused and pleasurable.
There could also be a useful afterlife for Sony’s original PlayStation. Designed as a slab of grey plastic with a build in CD drive, the machine’s 32-bit Risc processor and custom GTE (geometry transformation engine) graphics hardware made it the first piece of home games hardware specifically created for 3D polygonal visuals, ushering a new era of video game aesthetics. It had two buttons, it had funny prong-shaped controllers and it stored game saves on memory cards the size of match boxes.
However, like the NES, it booted up straightaway, it felt rugged and capable, and it enjoyed the complete support of the development community for many, many years. It also boasted a very, very good CD player that, for a time, audiophiles considered one of the best mass produced CD options out there. And once again, there were a lot of games -- hundreds of them -- that would not be significantly improved by modern graphics. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Vagrant Story, Ridge Racer 4 and Pa Rappa the Rappa all still look and feel stylish and interesting. Sony could absolutely rerelease this machine, with 50 built-in games and its original form factor (not the cheap horrible PSone re-design) and it would have a function.
Elsewhere, there have been a few attempts to bring back the Tamagotchi virtual pets that obsessed the world in the mid- to late 90s. But if Bandai re-engineered its original devices with their colorful surrounds and abstracted gameplay, perhaps adding Bluetooth or GPS capabilities to cash in on the Pokémon Go craze, there is potential there. There is also something very hygge about the 1970s consoles -- the Atari 2600 and Mattel Intellivision -- with their wooden fascias and comforting retro-futuristic lines. They could enjoy a serviceable new life as decorative objects that also happened to play Space Invaders.
The important thing is games hardware, like smartphone hardware, has passed a tipping point at which the perceived functionality has been surpassed by auxiliary features. We used to think we wanted mobile phones so that we could communicate with people easily, just like we thought we had games consoles so we could play Pac-Man in our living rooms. Now, broadband communication infrastructures, digital distribution, astonishingly powerful processors and a culture that has accepted de-personalized social communication as a norm, have all out-raced and outgrown the primary purposes of our gadgets.
These days, if you don’t play on your Xbox or PlayStation or PC for a few days, there will be firmware updates to contend with (not just on the system, but on the games too), and then you have the fear of system hack and the constant notifications. The Nokia 3310 isn’t just about a reliable technology -- and neither would be, say, a rereleased GameBoy -- it harks back to an era when we could concentrate on one thing, and enjoy that experience, unimpeded by myriad other apps, services and notifications competing for our headspace. Also, Snake II was a really good game.
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