Apple’s next iPad Mini could make the 3DS and Vita look like toys

Swipe, swipe, tap. Tap, swipe, tap, tap. Fumble! D-oh!! And now you’ve got a busted iPad. Thanks Infinity Blade III! Thanks stupid hands!

The audience that games like Infinity Blade III go after has to make concessions. The iPad and iPhone both are expensive multi-purpose devices, with a big up-front cost for the former and a long-term contractual investment for the latter. Neither is an ideal platform for gaming. It’s like Goldilocks’ Three Little Bears. This one’s too big. This one’s too small. The iPad Mini though? That one’s just right. It’s lightweight, the screen is small enough that your fingers can comfortably reach across it, but it’s not so small that you lose all the details of a lush graphical presentation. All that’s missing is the internal horsepower to keep up with the other two. The iPad Mini shouldn’t be looked at as a budget tablet; it’s hardware for a different audience.

And who is that audience? They’re the players who propelled Grand Theft Auto V to more than $1 billion in sales in its first week of release and the ones who will line up at midnight next month to ride the latest Call of Duty roller-coaster. They’re excited to play top-shelf mobile ports like XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but they’ve always been confined to hardware that doesn’t fit the bill. They’re the so-called “hardcore” gamers, and the second-gen iPad Mini could be exactly what they’ve been waiting for.

This one’s too big. This one’s too small. The iPad Mini though? That one’s just right.

An A7-powered iPad Mini with Retina Display is Apple’s latest chance to make a bigger impact in the gaming space. There are a lot of good reasons to bring the iPad Mini’s specs in line with the iPhone 5S and upcoming iPad 5, but appealing more directly to the video gamers should rank near the top. Angry Birds and Candy Crush do a great job of giving Apple customers additional reasons to use their device, but for gamers, the first concern is always: What can I play? 

I talk to a lot of people who make video games in my capacity here as an editor for Digital Trends’ Gaming section. And there’s been a common theme in all of the conversations I’ve had with devs over the past six or so months: they’re all excited by the promise of a second-gen iPad Mini. Every one of them sees Apple’s next micro-tablet as the company’s first true gaming machine. It’s the right size, the right heft, and – assuming the rumors are true – it may soon have the right hardware to deliver games that are fundamentally different than what you can find on the Nintendo 3DS or PlayStation Vita.

Apple A7 ChipInfinity Blade III is a prime example. Chair Entertainment’s latest Unreal Engine-powered beat ’em up is an entirely touch-based fighting game that employs a unique swipe-and-tap control scheme. It’s got enough depth to chew through double-digit hours of your life and it takes a refreshingly original approach to play mechanics. The 3DS and Vita both support touchscreen games (moreso the latter), but the Infinity Blade games are built specifically for the sort of interface that isn’t crowded with buttons and joysticks. It’s also gorgeous; even on the small iPhone 5S screen, IB3 is the best-looking game on iOS, thanks to the 64-bit processing power of Apple’s A7 CPU. Just imagine that same setup on an iPad Mini’s larger screen.

Developers are excited to create content for a newly gaming-friendly Apple platform. Not just the Rovios of the world, but also the big, AAA blockbuster-producing teams. A game like Call of Duty: Strike Team is a great first step; it’s built on the ideas and basic style of the top-selling shooter franchise, but it uses a distinctly touchscreen friendly control scheme and approach to gameplay. A more gamer-friendly Apple tablet could bring new levels of success for a title like Strike Team, which would in turn spur even more platform-specific development efforts. Stuff like Lego Star Wars, which may or may not be ported to mobile platforms by spring/summer 2014.

With the new iPad Mini, Apple has a real opportunity to bring in a crowd that traditionally sees gaming split between three primary colors: Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony. In an already-crowded year in which expensive new console hardware is set to arrive, an A7 Mini with Retina threatens to be a literal game-changer.

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