Semi-Automagic: The Angry Birds Legacy
Rovio’s mobile gaming success story, one the world needed
A silly premise. An even sillier host of characters. But it worked.
Back in seventh grade, I had to work on a computer science project in HTML. The usual task of designing a website, complete with tacky scrolling text and images sticking out like picturesque weeds. By then I had accrued an immense amount of experience in playing videogames of all kinds on several platforms. Games that I still relish today. And yet I chose to develop a poor man’s website based on a game my mind couldn’t stop thinking about: Angry Birds.
11 years and billions of downloads later, Rovio’s entry into the mobile gaming space has evolved into a cultural phenomenon, a juggernaut of a franchise that has produced comics, TV series, merchandise, and even a film. But it all started with one deranged bird. A mascot that brought out gameplay mechanics that were simple to learn and hard to master. After 51 games that failed to spark the world on fire as a struggling startup, Rovio found success. A new beginning. One that changed the landscape of mobile gaming as we know it.
The year is 2009. Bankruptcy stared Rovio in the face. In desperation, they went back to the drawing board. Pitches failed to incite intrigue. Game designer Jaakko Iisalo showed the board a sketch of a bird, one without feet but with a nasty disposition. And the rest was history.
When Shigeru Miyamoto, the designer behind Super Mario Bros was asked what game he wished he had made, his answer was Angry Birds. Such was its indelible impact.
Every part of the user experience was given a great deal of care and attention. While influences from Armor Games’ Crush The Castle are evident, Rovio iterated upon the game to great effect. Blocks of unique materials and birds of different strengths added a sense of character in an industry that was just beginning to find its feet. Its quick levels meant that it was perfect for those wanting to sneak in a minute or two on the go. Several methods were devised for lobbing the birds into the towers, but the slingshot clicked with users instantly. Even the space between the birds and the pigs was deliberated upon to build up anticipation.
Owing to the raging swine flu epidemic at the time, the green-faced pigs that are now a mainstay of the franchise were born. It’s not a stretch to imagine how they’d have looked like had the game been designed in 2020.
The reaction it has elicited from gamers both young and old is astounding. Even neuroscientists looked into the matter, surprised by how its intuitive system and compelling rewards hooked billions. It quickly shot up the charts, having been featured by Apple in the App Store three months after its release. It is still a franchise whose memories evoke a sense of success and satisfaction. The question of whether it has aged like fine wine or is a relic of the past is one that doesn’t have a straight answer. The effect it has had on gaming as a whole cannot be measured by sales or other metrics. But for now, let’s head back to 2009. Where it all began.
Angry Birds — Dec 2009
The foundation upon which Rovio’s fortunes were built. The first Angry Birds game only had a couple of birds in its arsenal, but it expanded over time. Be it the default Red, speedy Chuck, fragmenting Blues or the lethal Bomb, each bird had its strengths. The white Matilda could drop an explosive egg, massive Terence mowed through structures as though they were grass and Hal the toucan was basically a boomerang. Levels grew in complexity. So did the satisfaction of beating them.
Angry Birds Seasons — Oct 2010
The next game in the series, Seasons reeled users in with constant updates that added plenty of new elements into the mix. It started off as Angry Birds Halloween, but soon expanded in scope. Be it the “one level a day” reveals of Christmas or the scenes enacted at in Hoggywood studios, it was a fitting sequel.
Angry Birds Rio — Mar 2011
Released to complement the anticipated Rio and Rio 2 films, the game cleverly switched pigs for monkeys and trapped birds. Every chapter had a unique hidden fruit collectible to find, adding to an already compelling game. Powerups were brought to the table in consequent updates. Unfortunately, the endangered blue macaw parrots that the movies were based on, are no more.
Angry Birds Friends — Feb 2012
As Facebook was rising in prominence, Angry Birds Friends launched originally as a Facebook exclusive before arriving on other platforms. Its power-ups and social components made weekly tournaments and challenges a race between friends. Its partnership with Green Day is one that no fan can forget.
Angry Birds Space — Mar 2012
At a time when Rovio’s tried-and-tested mechanics were becoming long in the tooth (or beak), they whipped up yet another game that kept fans on their toes. Space introduced meaningful changes to the birds we love, complete with innovative gravity-pulling planets and alien pigs. The world was no longer flat. An aiming system helped new players grapple with birds floating through multiple gravitational fields.
Bad Piggies — Sep 2012
The first spin-off to Rovio’s all-conquering empire, it assigned players the task of building contraptions that could traverse the elements to collect pieces of a map that would lead them to the Angry Birds’ eggs. It soared to the top of the App Store in three hours. With new collectibles and a fresh perspective, it further cemented Rovio’s position in the hotly-contested mobile gaming space.
Angry Birds Star Wars and Star Wars II — Nov 2012 and Sep 2013
For fans who couldn’t get enough of Angry Birds Space’s gravity-bending action, Star Wars and Star Wars II were dreams come true. While the first game focused on the original Star Wars trilogy, the second one shifted its sights to the prequels. They remained faithful to the Star Wars universe that people adored while expanding upon the slingshot formula. It was the first game that supported Hasbro’s Telepods, miniature figures that could be summoned into the game. And yes, you could summon the Millenium Falcon.
Angry Birds Go! — Dec 2013
3D-rendered Piggy Island. Birds in upgradeable go-karts.
Angry Birds Go! strayed from its slingshot formula with a unique take on the arena owned by Mario Kart. Multiplayer was added in at a later date, granting players the ability to duke it out on the streets. With multiple game modes and karts to unlock, it enjoyed success not unlike its predecessors.
Angry Birds Epic — Jun 2014
That’s right. A turn-based role-playing game. Birds against pigs.
Angry Birds dove into uncharted territory with Epic, complete with a storyline and an equipment-crafting system to boot. While it did add a much-needed dose of creativity into the mix, the in-app purchases and the slow delivery of items was a tell-tale sign of the route Rovio was taking: one towards cash-grabs.
Angry Birds Stella — Sep 2014
While Stella plays by the rules of the original, it adds a band of new characters. Each of them possessed abilities that hadn’t been seen before in the aging franchise, injecting some much-needed freshness into Angry Birds. The spin-off featured a new story component, one that pitted violet-backed starling Gale against Stella and her comrades.
Angry Birds Transformers — Oct 2014
This was the point my dwindling interest in Rovio’s fatigued franchise dropped altogether. The picture says it all.
The run-and-gun side-scrolling shooter tied into the Transformers franchise, but its lengthy timers just to upgrade a character was proof that Rovio had strayed from its roots.
Angry Birds POP! — Mar 2015
The first bubble-shooter from the franchise and the second entry into the Stella series, Stella POP was renamed to Angry Birds POP! It drew inspiration from the rising stars of the time, especially Bubble Witch Saga 2.
A slingshot lets players fling bubbles towards those of the same color to pop them. While the idea was far from original, it received a lukewarm response, a sign that the juggernaut’s rampage had its days numbered.
Angry Birds Fight! — Jun 2015
Developed in collaboration with Kiteritsu Inc., Fight! was Rovio’s first foray into the East with a Match-3 game that incorporated role-playing elements. One could either face off against human opponents in real-time or fight AI-powered foes. It launched to a mixed reception, another nail in Rovio’s eventual fall from fame.
Angry Birds 2 — July 2015
This was the point when Rovio decided they needed to take a step back and assess their portfolio. They needed something to connect with players the way the original had. Six years and three billion downloads later, Angry Birds 2 did just that, and then some. With multi-stage levels and the ability to pick which bird goes first, it had promise. But an energy level that halted players after they failed a level a couple of times was a mechanic that irked its fanbase. Another sign of the change in Rovio’s vision.
Angry Birds Action! — Apr 2016
Angry Birds meets Pinball.
The first game to use the film versions of the beloved characters, Angry Birds Action! sees the birds in a top-down perspective dashing through an area, akin to a game of pinball. It’s got bumpers and TNT hazards to keep things interesting. Again, the energy system is in full effect here as Rovio enters a downward spiral, that of embracing micro-transactions.
Angry Birds Blast — Dec 2016
Developed by Bandai Namco Games and published by Rovio, Angry Birds Blast is yet another Match-3 game. They don’t even look angry at this point. Clear balloons in this spin-off to proceed from level to level. The stinging micro-transactions are here to stay. It doesn’t really add any meaningful differences to the genre, Rovio’s magic has waned.
Angry Birds Evolution — Jun 2017
Angry Birds Epic meets Angry Birds Action!
Evolution pits you against pigs in a fresh turn-based role-playing format. Deal maximum damage by using birds as pinball to rebound off surfaces and reach their targets. A shared health bar is at play here, a mechanic that sets it apart from other turn-based games. While it may seem like a breath of fresh air, it only lasts until the problems that plague free-to-play games pop up: micro-transactions. The pop culture references fall flat as well. Have they milked the franchise out of its charm?
Angry Birds Match — Aug 2017
I didn’t know this existed until I looked it up. They’ve mauled it beyond recognition. Yep, another Match-3 game. With some cutesy decorating duties thrown into the pot. Another game whose life is sucked out by micro-transactions. The trend is clear at this point.
Angry Birds Champions — Feb 2018
Finally, familiar faces. Thank goodness.
4 billion downloads strong, Rovio doesn’t grow at the pace it used to. Champions lets skilled players duke it out to win real money. It could be played on the WorldWinner app, letting players take part in several tournament formats. While it isn’t gambling, I’d still be wary.
The game leans on the aesthetic and mechanics that helped catapult Rovio to fame in the first place.
Angry Birds for Messenger — May 2018
Developed by Cool Games, it does exactly what it says on the tin. It lets people fling their favorite birds within Facebook’s messenger app. It doesn’t really change anything, but it’s a release nonetheless.
Angry Birds Dream Blast — Jan 2019
Rovio could use up an App Store all by itself at this point. The cuddly birds are back. A sequel to Angry Birds Blast, this Match-3 game doesn’t really reinvent the wheel. Dream Blast modifies the dynamic slightly; you now have a limited number of moves to clear the board. Matching four or more balls drops a bird onto the field, one that becomes bigger as you clear the board. You can activate them to further clean the board. Only the mascots keep the game from fading from relevance.
Angry Birds VR/AR: Isle of Pigs — Feb 2019
Angry Birds heads into the VR/AR space with Isle of Pigs. Familiar physics-based puzzles overlayed on your environment offer a new way to toss your birds. While it’s nothing revolutionary, it is still a new perspective on the aging franchise. One past its prime.
Angry Birds POP Blast — May 2019
The sequel to 2015’s POP!, POP Blast doesn’t flip the status quo, it merely builds on its predecessor. This 2019 release lets you team up with the Pigs. Yep, we’ve come a long way.
Your newfound green allies offer abilities that support those of your feathery friends as they descend into bubble-popping mayhem. Angry Birds is more than showing its age at this point: its grey stubble is far from subtle.
Angry Birds Explore — Jun 2019
Angry Birds Explore builds on the AR platform kickstarted by Isle of Pigs. It challenges players to unlock new content from hidden codes in the real world. As shoppers navigate the aisles at their favorite toy stores, they’ll be able to spot interactive AR stickers near Angry Birds merchandise. They really are going all-in on this one.
Buoyed by booming merch sales, game launches, and the films’ success, Rovio managed to weave through periods of inactivity and losses with updates that iterated rather than evolved. There’s only so much you can expand upon with such a simple yet compelling formula. The spinoffs and subsequent entries retained the original’s charm, but their mechanics didn’t connect with users the way Angry Birds did. In an age where streaming is all the rage and Fortnite makes billions every year ($3 billion in 2018), Rovio’s future is uncertain.
But back in their prime, the birds were unstoppable.