Flappy Bird is in danger of melting the internet. This minimalist (some say poorly designed) and addictive (some say brainless) smartphone game has shot to the top of the ‘Most Popular’ download charts for both Android and iPhone, and left trailing in its wake a small flotilla of articles asking everything from whether its creator faked the game's popularity to - 'is Flappy Bird art?'
The app was created by lone developer Dong Nguyen back in May 2013 and lingered in relative obscurity until January this year. From the beginning of 2014 the game’s downloads of the game exploded (it now gets millions each day), indicating perhaps that smartphone owners had collectively decided that the best way to ring in the New Year was with a stress-induced aneurism.
This is because Flappy Bird is obnoxiously difficult. Not difficult like learning to play Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu but difficult like threading a needle after a bottle of wine. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wonder what you're doing with your life in the first place.
You play as a cartoonishly cute bird, navigating your way through a never-ending stream of pipes, each with a single gap for you to pass through. The game’s ‘instructions’ give some idea of its simplicity, offering only three pieces of sage advice: “Tap to flap your wings to fly. Avoid pipes. Try to get 4 medals.”
In loving memory of Flappy Bird: 10 of the hardest games to break your thumbs on
In loving memory of Flappy Bird: 10 of the hardest games to break your thumbs on
Released: 2008. Created by developer Bennett Foddy, this 2D running game has some inexplicably awkward controls. While the location of the keys used to operate the athlete are close together to work the calves and thigh muscles, you'll soon find yourself pressing the keys to no avail as the athlete simply flops onto the ground. Nevertheless, despite its difficulty, the game helped Foddy's website reach 30 million hits, showing the vast reach the game has had.
2/10 Super Hexagon
Released: 2012. Created by Terry Cavanagh, Super Hexagon is a game that requires you to rotate a small triangle absorbed on the top of the hexagon without 'crashing'. At first, it may be difficult to discover what you actually have to do, with the game simply consisting of rotating hexagons. The game has six difficulties, a set of "normal" modes - Hexagon, Hexagoner, and Hexagonest - and a set of "Hyper" versions of those levels which are unlocked upon surviving for 60 seconds or more. As the difficulty increases, so does the likelihood that your iPhone will smash against the wall.
3/10 The Impossible Game
Released: 2009. Originally released on Xbox 360, The Impossible Game has just one control, tapping the screen to jump. The gameplay really is quite simple: you can control a fast moving square through a level, tapping to jump over objects at just the right time. However, even the most experienced gamer will struggle to cope with the number of 'fail' attempts at trying to move through the levels.
Released: 2009. One of the first of the infinite-running type games where players navigate a series of oncoming obstacles Canabalt induces the kind of self-destroying sinking feeling you get when you're running into a series of obstacles yourself. Created by Adam Saltsman in 2009 and available on iOS, Playstation Portable and Android, the endless nature of this game means that the tradition of highest scores dominate the purpose of the game, with leaderboards allowing users to compare with the rest of the world.
Released: 1991. Created by Tim and Chris Stamper, Battletoads presents itself as a one-player game but is widely remarked to be impossible to play alone. Bizarrely, you can play in co-op mode but instead of helping one another, players can damage their friends, making it nearly impossible to go through the level when players are close together.
6/10 Ninja Gaiden
Released: 1988. The Ninja Gaiden series is regarded as one of the most difficult of all time in the industry of gaming. The storyline provides many twists and turns, with a cliffhanger being presented at the end of one game. As the PS4 was released in 2013, developers have opted to release a new title in the near future. With catchy music and an exciting story, the original NES title is one of the most celebrated, but has maintained the same level of complexity throughout.
7/10 Dark Souls
Released: 2008. Across all platforms such as PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Microsoft Windows, Dark Souls is a game that rewards a gamer's bravery and courage, while also penalising for costly mistakes, losing your progress if you die twice. One of the most difficult games ever made, it literally throws you into the deep end. Those who like some instructions before you start a game, forget it. Working out how it works is also part of the deal, and only expert gamers are expected to conquer this near-impossible game.
Released: 2013. Following Flappy Bird's removal from the App Store, Ironpants has taken over as the most downloaded game on iTunes. Although it was created by a different developer, it's essentially a clone of Flappy Bird. However, rather than simply dropping, the Ironpants chracter floats for slightly longer but, if anything, it looks to be tougher than Flappy Bird.
9/10 I Wanna Be the Guy
Released: 2007. Created by Michael O'Reilly, I Wanna Be the Guy is a 2D platform indie freeware game and represents everything that was good about early gaming, constructed as a difficult platform adventure. Starting off as 'The Kid', the player then finds themselves on a journey to becoming 'The Guy.' The ever-fragile Kid explodes in a shower of red pixels at the slightest brush from the game's many obstacles, from traditional spikes and bottomless pits, making it enjoyable while also infuriatingly frustrating.
10/10 ARMA II
Released: 2009. Only available on PC, many have criticised the ARMA series from Bohemia Interactive as far too realistic for it to be a game, which is inevitably a positive comment towards the graphics produced. Those expecting a game similar to the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield will receive a nasty surprise, as ARMA II represents more of a military simulation that is bound to baffle the average gamer, with extensive manuals and life-like workouts.
The first time you play the game you will get a score of zero. The second time you play you’ll get a score of zero. The third time? Well, you can guess where this is going. Although seasoned players may boast of scores well into the hundreds, you’ll be lucky if you elbow your way past 5 after even an hour of play.
This has triggered an outpouring of online anguish (see the obligatory Buzzfeed article ‘12 Times "Flappy Bird" Drove Human Beings Into A Black Maw Of Existential Despair’) but it’s this difficulty that’s the key to the title's success. Each ‘game’ is over in seconds, and with the barrier to getting a ‘good’ score set so low it’s easy to convince yourself to have another go. Combine this with the social-media amplification of public schadenfreude and boom, viral gold. The Gangnam Style of the app store.
With anything that achieves this much success this quickly there’s always a desire to explain the appeal, and although this sort pop-culture opinionating can be fairly brainless, the masochistic, brain-numbing allure of a game like Flappy Bird is an interesting phenomenon – even if you don’t care to play it yourself.
“Playing Flappy Bird is like fixing an unfixable drawer pull, one that will never reattach correctly, one that you know will never do, but persisting in the face of such torpor nevertheless,” writes game theorist Ian Bogost for The Atlantic. “Because the game cares so little for your experience of it, you find yourself ever more devoted to it.”
Bogost reminds us that although we are beginning to think of games as an entertainment medium that might one day match the artistic depth of movies or literature, they also have a deeper appeal that is both primal and stupid, reminding us of some of the idiocy of daily life and perhaps ‘teaching us humility’.
All of this attention has perhaps been too much for the game’s creator, the 29-year old Nguyen. On his Twitter account he responds to comments from angry or confused gamers with gentle advice: “Take it easy and it should be easier. Don't push it too hard and too fast”; “Have a good night :-) Give my games a break too.”
Recently, as one app developer speculated that the game’s popularity might be down to bots, Nguyen said that he’d had enough, tweeting "Press people are overrating the success of my games. It is something I never want. Please give me peace."
Speaking to The Independent Nguyen clarified that he did not want to talk about his success simply because he did not feel that his English was up to the job. He denied that his success was artificial, saying that he makes games out of passion, not for profit, and agreed to answer the question of why his games are so popular:
"I think the most important reason that my games are so popular is the competition between players and the simplicity," said Nguyen over email. "They're designed for offline competition - something people forget these days."
"Also, each of my games has only one setting, one activity and one gameplay mechanism. They're dead simple, easy to learn and require only skill. People want real competition not 'pay to win'!"
For all its faults, with Flappy Bird, 'real competition' is certainly what you get.