Is 2017 too early to be nostalgic for the early days of smartphone games? I’m talking about the late 2000s, post Snake and Solitaire, but before in-app purchases, free-to-play consultancy firms, and app-to-movie adaptations. A decade ago, there was no established method for designing touchscreen games — let alone reliable controls — so visiting the App Store felt like reaching into a grab bag of oddball experiments. There was a surgeon simulator, reactive abstract art, and a puzzle game about binding wooden trinkets with rope.
Dragon Hills, released in 2015 and updated regularly, is a throwback to that era. A young princess, robbed by a would-be knight in shining armor, mounts a dragon and flies eastward on an endless quest to kill every last soldier on the planet. The beast is a mishmash of a Game of Thrones dragon and Tremors graboid, soaring through the air and diving into the earth in a sine wave of destruction.
Like holding a buoy underwater, you press the dragon into the Earth’s crust with your thumb; release and the girl and her steed launches upward. A game for people who like knocking over the Lego set more than constructing it, Dragon Hills has become my little stress-release valve. And for that reason, I am sharing it with you. Boss asked you to stay late? Your friends invited you to a brunch place with a two-hour wait? Your team has been knocked out of March Madness by an 11 seed? These minor inconveniences of the world are soothed by launching up from beneath a castle, and sending its guards and rubble into the sky.
Unlike so many mobile games, Dragon Hills doesn’t make life more stressful by finding ways to fleece your wallet or your time. That I reflexively assumed I could purchase new weapons and abilities, rather than earn them in-game, speaks to just how far mobile games have drifted toward the shrewd free-to-play model. Dragon Hills has none of that. Pay up front, then unlock items the old-fashioned way: by playing more of the game. And the game doesn’t demand you check in each day for bonus items and mindless busy work. It takes confidence to build a game that people want to play because it’s fun, not because it creates an artificial feedback loop that pleases some primitive corner of our noggin.
I’d largely stepped away from mobile games in the past couple years, but Dragon Hills has me reconsidering the App Store. I’ve downloaded Dots and Co., Typeshift, and Fire Emblem Heroes. I wonder if 2017 could be the year free-to-play’s unsavory design catches up with it, and in place of cookie-cutter mobile games — or at least alongside them — we see a renewed push for experimentation. Not just the half-dozen excellent art games that hit mobile each year, but many more games like Dragon Hills, that are mainstream entertainment executed with skill and respect for their players.