As of this moment, the top free download on the app store isn't Instagram, or Facebook, or Snapchat, or even the brand new streaming service Beats Music. It's a skeletal, crummy-looking, ad-saturated game called Flappy Bird. Yes, Flappy Bird.
You can only do one thing in Flappy Bird. The thing you can do is tap the screen to make the bird ... beat ... its wings, and in so doing, attempt to fly through a series of narrow, same-sized gaps.
Flappy Bird is comically hard. The wave intervals in which your dumb little bird rises and falls are so large that it takes perfect timing to pass through a gap. Add to that the fact that the pipes are placed close together and that their collision borders seem to extend more than a few pixels beyond their color borders, and you have a supremely frustrating little time-waster. I played for three minutes before I cleared my first pipe, and after ten minutes my best score was 7 (pipes passed).
So why, exactly, is this ugly, spare, hard, unoriginal game so crazily popular? (And it is popular: its 63,100 user reviews average four stars.) Scrolling through the reviews yields a few answers.
The first reason, and the most surprising, seems to be that people actually enjoy the challenge and frustration provided by the game.
These reviews are typical:
The second reason, possibly problematic, is that aspects of its art —the pipes and the bird, so really everything, lol—closely resemble the original Super Mario Bros.. Even though the game is brand new, it feels aesthetically as if it has been around for years.
The third reason, which is why I love the game, is that, purposefully or not, it scans as a parody of the bird games, Angry Birds and Tiny Wings, that dominated, and continue to dominate, the paid section of the app store. Everything from the inane name to the single, simple mechanic feels like a piss-take. Though the game is made by an apparently sincere developer from Hanoi, it could just as easily be the work of an indie mischief-maker.
That may be why the game is ultimately so brilliant: It's terrible and crappy and soulless, but also wonderful and addictive and funny. It is hideous and pixelated but nostalgic and beautiful. It's incredibly hard but it also exacts no cost for losing. It is a question and an answer, a problem and a solution, and perhaps the alpha and omega of mobile gaming.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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