The history of Snake: How the Nokia game defined a new era for the mobile industry
After launching in 1997 on the Nokia 6110, Snake quickly became a phenomenon. The game’s developer Taneli Armanto discusses its origin and digital legacy.
There are a couple of moments from my childhood that I’m sure many others can relate to. The first takes me back to an afternoon on the school bus, eagerly waiting for my Bluetooth polyphonic ringtone of Akon’s Beautiful to download from a friend a few seats away. I’d set the song up on my Nokia phone, and so did everyone else. The following week, it would be another teenage classic from the early 2000s.
But this wasn’t all your Nokia had to offer. Before receiving my own (the one that had a blue-ish cover and the flashy lights on the side), I remember tirelessly asking my dad to let me play Snake on his old 6110 “brick”. He’d oblige, and in doing so, his phone was given a new use other than its usual work-related SMS texting and phone calls.
I can recall the frustration and enjoyment experienced while gaming with this humble, yet utterly addictive creation. Snake was my first real introduction to tech and the world of mobile phones, and it’s one of those ubiquitous games that brings back a flood of nostalgic memories. Like pressing the chunky buttons – “beep beep beep” – as the Nokia would unleash its recognisable chime, while steering the speedy trail of pixels to collect bits of cellular food. The snake would grow and grow, before bumping into itself and bringing you right back to the start. This was the dawn of a new use for the mobile phone, and a game that would instantly turn into a phenomenon.
Snake’s story begins long before it found a mass audience with Nokia. It was first created as a concept in 1976 under the name of Blockage, and was a monochromatic two-player arcade game developed by video games company, Gremlin Interactive. Similar to what would soon become Snake, it involved pressing arrow keys to move each character, wherein players would leave a solid trail behind them wherever they turned. To win, the player had to last the longest without hitting anything else. This game inspired numerous iterations, such as the arcade game Bigfoot Bonkers that year; more similar concepts in 1977 by the then-leading video games company Atari; a computer-based version called Worm, programmed in 1978; and a single-player arcade game named Nibbler in 1982.
In 1997 came the landmark addition of Snake – first published by Finnish company Nokia for monochrome 6110 phones, and programmed by the company’s Taneli Armanto. It was on the off-chance that Taneli came to develop this iconic game, but he was the perfect suitor no less.
Born in 1965, growing up there weren’t too many computers, let alone mobile device-based games, for Taneli to play with. “We needed to, and did, play IRL board games,” he tells us. “Actually, even today, playing board games is still my hobby.” It was during his teenage years that Taneli first experienced the inner workings of a computer when his school received one (yes, one). Those who were keen or “eager enough” joined a members-only IT group, where each person could learn to programme the computer. Taneli was one hopeful member. “A bit later, home computers – like Commodore64 – arrived, and I decided that computer programming could be my future job.”
Subsequently, Taneli went on to have a flourishing career in computer programming and games design, involving 15 years spent at Nokia. After studying computer science and mathematics at undergraduate level, Taneli left university, serendipitously, as Nokia was expanding its user interface developing group, near his hometown in Finland. He jumped into the application process, got in, and worked on developing the user interfaces of its first handsets. As Taneli had some previous experience in the music industry, he was interested in how the ringtones were created. “So I got to programme the tones in some of the handsets,” he recalls of these first few months. These ringtones might send you back a few years, as I’m sure many can remember scrolling to find the perfect musical accompaniment, opting for the jazzy beeps of Groovy Blue, the high-tempo vibe of Kick, the jumpy energy of Caprice, or the stress-inducing Critter. They’re the types of tunes that stick in your mind for days (with numerous reminders now currently up on YouTube).
At the time, a colleague was exploring the possibilities of gaming applications on mobiles, and had just played a computer game credited to one T. Armanto. A rare name in Finland, the colleague assumed it was Taneli behind the game; it was in fact his nephew. “He thought I would be the best choice to think of what these ‘nice little games’ could be, as the team were looking to expand the capabilities of the Nokia mobile.” Taneli was hired and began working first on the code for the phone’s calculator, followed by its calendar and, most importantly, its games.
“I miss Nokia times. It was inspiring and fun to be part of that ‘family’,” says Taneli, who now holds a role at a small Turku-based IT and data company, Into oy. One of the key moments of his time at the mobile company was, of course, the development of Snake, which was conceived off the back of the product marketing team wanting a game to take advantage of the infrared link that was about to be included in its product. Were you aware that Snake was two-player? No, me neither. “Most players just preferred the one-player option or didn’t even know about the two-player possibility,” says Taneli.
While developing Snake, Taneli and the team had some limitations. This included the number of keys to control the game (i.e. the phone’s keypad), a limited display that meant they could use no more than 48 x 84 black and white pixels, and a small amount of memory to use on the device. “We needed a very simple (to control) two-player game to put in, one that fitted the display,” recalls Taneli. “Luckily, I had played such a game on a Macintosh computer earlier, and could see it fit perfectly to our purposes. It was a game with two snakes, controlled by two players both on their own side of the keyboard. So I suggested we test whether we can implement that between two handsets, both of course controlling their snake with their own handset.” Tetris was another game considered for transformation into the mobile sphere, yet there were inevitably some issues with copyright. Snake, on the other hand, was a simple game – one that didn’t take up much space, which displayed nicely and was fully controllable with minimal keys. It also had no issues in terms of copyright and was ready to be built from scratch. “So we decided to go for it.”
Snake was conceived in programming language C, just like many other parts of the software in handsets of the generation. The game was “hand-written” line-by-line, and no specific tools or code generators were needed (or available) to do so. While in the testing phase and working out how best the snake would move on the display, Taneli started to notice that it was difficult to go towards the edge of the screen and make a 90-degree turn without crashing. This got him thinking: “Why wouldn’t we help the players a little and thus lessen their possible frustration? Maybe they’ll like the game more that way.” Therefore, he added a “tiny tiny” little delay to the crash so that the player has a few more milliseconds to react and save the snake. “So it’s easier now to continue playing even with the faster speed; I don’t know if this has had any consequences but I’d like to think so.”
This was in the 90s and it’s been nearly 30 years since the release of Snake. It’s left an incredible legacy, with now over 420 Snake-like games available on iOS alone, all of which can be tapped into with the press of a finger on a silky glass screen, devoid of any chunky buttons. Nokia, at its peak in 2007, had 51 per cent of the global market share (Apple currently has roughly 25 per cent), and it was the leading manufacturer for 14 years. This was until the release of Apple’s iPhone, described as a “magic phone with a giant screen” that even five-year-olds knew how to use. Nokia was baffled by the demand for less battery life and fragile screens, as it was something that the company purposefully avoided. But it was what the people wanted; the iPhone’s release resulted in Nokia’s decline and, in 2014, Microsoft ended up buying its mobile phone business.
There are now countless games available to play on your phone and the landscape has changed entirely. Ashleigh Starmer-Lee is a lead artist at Hipster Whale, an Australian studio working on games like Crossy Road Castle, Disney Crossy Road, Pac-Man 256 and Piffle. She remembers playing Snake when she was younger; it was one of the few games she had on her first phone. “I don’t think I thought much of it at the time, as mobile gaming hadn’t really kicked off yet,” she says, noting how she was drawn in by its simple input. “Developing for a mobile game has its own set of limitations to be considered. I guess phones had more buttons back then, but a lot still carries through to modern design.”
Hipster Whale: Crossy Road Castle (Copyright © Hipster Whale, 2021)
Hipster Whale: Crossy Road Castle (Copyright © Hipster Whale, 2021)
Similarly, Robyn Bremner, lead producer at ustwo games – the company responsible for interactive games like Alba: A wildlife adventure, Assemble with Care, Monument Valley and Whale Trail – recalls a past consumed by Snake. “I’ve played Snake on so many devices! Even my kettle can play a version of Snake now,” she says, detailing the game’s never-ending impact on the world. “It’s one of those games that has existed for so long that in my mind it always has been.”
Just like Snake, games are constantly evolving to fit the needs of the consumer and, thanks to smartphones, you can quite literally do just about anything you want with a touch of a screen. “It feels like we’re at another turning point with mobile gaming,” continues Ashleigh, stating how the pandemic has provoked an increase in small-screen entertainment. “I’m really not sure which direction it will take in the end, but I think this industry will carry on and keep transforming regardless.”
Still, to this very day, people of all ages will have heard of Snake – they might have even played the original, or know an older person who has. And when people find out that Taneli was the developer behind it, they tend to respond in a certain manner. “More often it’s like ‘Oh, you created Snake?! Respect, man! I’ve played it so much,’” he says. Or if they’re young: “‘My mother/father/uncle has played it so much!’” His children, too, have continued to keep the legacy alive and like to mention to their friends, “by the way, my dad created Snake.” I too would be proud if that were me.
Snake was a milestone moment for the mobile gaming industry, and much of what we see today can be linked back to the dawn of the cellular serpent navigating the small, black-and-white screen. It brought smiles, happiness, brain stimulation, and it was just something to do now and then – or better yet fill the time on a drab afternoon bus ride back from school. It also showed us what can be done on a phone, perhaps making us a little bit more demanding for future years to come. “The tiny details that were added in to make the players’ life easier, the lack of programming errors, the beauty of the source code; it was perfect,” says Taneli on a lasting note about the game’s iconic impact. “And sometimes, every now and then, I still play it myself.”
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About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.