We're a long, long way from Snake on the Nokia 3310. Today's smartphones feature chipsets that comfortably outperform dedicated handheld gaming devices and are getting closer to matching home consoles. With Nvidia's Tegra K1 processor on the way, promising state-of-the-art performance that compares favourably with PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 – even approaching desktop standard - it's an exciting time to be a mobile gamer.
Nvidia's next-gen chip is still a little way from making it into your new phone, but its predecessors can be found in phones like the HTC One X, while rival Qualcomm's Snapdragon processors power the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S5, the LG G3, and Amazon's forthcoming Fire phone. And while it's neither a phone nor especially portable, Nvidia's Shield is the most powerful Android hardware currently available – even if we're still awaiting an official UK launch.
It's worth examining the Shield, in fact, because it gives us a glimpse at the future of mobile gaming. Essentially, it's a near neighbour of the Xbox 360 controller in terms of ergonomics (which is high praise indeed) with a five-inch 720p display attached, and a Tegra 4 chip with a quad-core processor running at 1.9GHz. To translate: it's got plenty of grunt under the hood.
Of course, you need the games to utilise that power, and while relatively few have taken advantage of the higher-end chips so far, the numbers are growing. Madfinger Games has zombie shooter Dead Trigger and its sequel and third-person blaster Shadowgun, while the PhysX-enhanced action-RPG Blood Sword: Sword of Ruin features several improvements on Tegra 4 devices.
While all of these titles are technically dazzling, they're not without their issues – the developers keenest to push the hardware from a visual standpoint aren't always quite so competent when it comes to game mechanics. But bigger and better games are coming. Nvidia recently sanctioned ports of Valve's Portal and Half-Life 2, and while both suffer from inconsistent performance and weaker visuals than their home console counterparts, it's still quite something to witness them running on portable hardware, in something startlingly close to their original form.
Technical issues like these may be problematic, particularly when they affect the really popular titles like EA Mobile's Real Racing 3, but that's an intractable problem with the current generation of mobile handsets: it's hard to effectively optimise Android games when there are so many different hardware configurations to cater to. All of which makes the arrival of the Tegra K1 processor even more crucial: it should be able to run the latest games without breaking a sweat, as well as handling games specifically optimised for it, games which could yet come close to matching those we're currently playing on eighth-generation consoles.
"Nvidia claims that in benchmark tests, K1 outperforms both the Xbox 360 and the PS3"
Nvidia claims that in benchmark tests, K1 outperforms both the Xbox 360 and the PS3, while consuming much less energy. Until we see it running in the wild, however, those claims have to be taken with a small pinch of salt, though demos of the chip running the Unreal Engine 3 on Android suggest Nvidia's boasts have some substance to them. The sheer size of the chip suggests it will hit tablets before smartphones, though it is likely that the manufacturer is working on a smaller form factor.
The reason the K1 in particular seems capable of heralding a revolution in mobile gaming is that it is said to support the kind of graphics APIs used to develop today's PC games. In other words, it should potentially be more receptive to ports of the biggest multi-platform titles. Indeed, it's entirely likely that, as take-up of these high-powered devices increases, developers will be more willing and able to bring their games across to smartphones.
Of course, no mobile hardware can compete with the physical controls of the home console or PC versions of these titles – many offer controller support, though only a tiny percentage of smartphone owners will use one - but a generation of players that has grown accustomed to playing games on a touchscreen will hardly care, and it seems likely that publishers will begin to build games with these devices in mind. Even quick and dirty ports should theoretically be possible; certainly so when it comes to last generation console games. You can expect publishers to begin looking through their back catalogues for games to port should enough devices make use of the K1, or even Qualcomm's next Snapdragon chip. And that's even before we consider the next iteration of the iPhone, which will naturally have a big role to play in mobile gaming's future.
Whether or not there's a big enough audience for high-end gaming on the go to make this an appealingly profitable proposition for the industry's biggest publishers remains to be seen. Yet it seems unlikely that the likes of EA and Activision et al would turn their noses up at the chance of adding another platform to the list for multi-format releases. And with the rise of second-screen gaming, cross-platform play and cloud saves, it's increasingly looking like we're reaching a point of convergence - where triple-A gaming doesn't just mean eighth generation consoles and PCs, but also includes the devices you use to text your friends or call your partner.
Imagine, for example, playing Watch_Dogs on your PS4, and then continuing your game on your daily commute? It sounds unlikely, but as smartphone tech begins to rival that of the hardware under your TV or on your desktop, it's a future that seems tantalisingly close.
In other words, it really is an exciting time to be a mobile gamer.