Handheld Gaming – The Rise & Fall Of The Pocket Pleasure

Handheld gaming has been around for longer than most people think, with Mattel releasing the first electronic palm pleaser way back in 1976. Over 30 years on and almost everyone has a gaming device of significant power in their pocket in the form of their mobile phone. Casual gaming at its zenith, mobile apps give short sharp experiences particularly suitable for killing time on the daily commute or for the instant gratification required by this time-poor nation of ours. Strangely, it is against this backdrop that Sony has decided to launch a new dedicated handheld gaming device, the PS Vita; but why did they choose this moment? And is the console that nobody needs actually any good?

Before I write about that, maybe it’s time to look back at how the handheld gaming industry has evolved. My first experience of handheld gaming (other than a Speak & Spell) probably came with the Nintendo Game & Watch series. My brother owned Snoopy Tennis and Donkey Kong (on two screens!) and I had a copy of Mario’s Cement Factory and Donkey Kong Jr. I still remember us spending long summers competing for top scores whilst staying at our grandparents, the speed at which Snoopy Tennis could ramp up to was incredible and challenged even the most nimble of childhood fingers.

Whilst they were simple LCD delights, these games absorbed hours of our lives, but after dabbling in TV-based console gaming it was time to call in the big guns and invest in a Game Boy. The monochrome device is still a classic today, combining simplistic gaming and a massive range of A-quality titles from launch in late 1990. Car journeys became far more interesting, especially when my Dad also got one so we could cable them together and duel at Tetris. I probably completed Super Mario Land about 100 times and never tired of handing out cans of whoop-ass at Tennis with Mario himself as my umpire.

The colour wonders of the Sega Game Gear and Atari Lynx may have been more visually impressive, but they never caught on as much as the Game Boy, mainly due to their crippling battery sucking prowess, and the Game Boy sold over 25 million units in its first two or three years. The success of the original Game Boy was such that Nintendo didn’t bother updating the device until nearly a decade after its initial Japanese launch with the release of the Game Boy Colour in 1998, followed swiftly by the Game Boy Advance in 2001 and Game Boy Advance SP in 2003. With the latter two consoles, Nintendo continued to do what they did best, creating brilliantly accessible gaming experiences that were loved by old and young alike. I for one loved my SP and again spent long journeys trying to beat my foes around a Mario Kart track or two.

By this time though, there was a new player in home videogaming; Sony. It wasn’t long before the Japanese electronics giant saw a new market to tap into and were soon announcing a more ‘grown up’ handheld, the Sony PSP. Combining PlayStation 2 levels of processor power and a beautiful widescreen display, the new handheld offered a very tempting proposition for the hardcore gamer.

Of course Nintendo weren’t going to take this challenge lying down, but rather than rival the PSP for power, they did what they always do best and got to work on innovation and accessibility. Launching the Nintendo DS shortly before the PSP, the console used an interesting dual screen concept, one of which featured relatively untested touch screen technology. The DS offered the staple Nintendo delights of Mario but also tapped into the growing casual gamer market with short gimmicky games that offered players the ability to play around with what they saw on screen with a stylus or their finger. The machine was a good device that again trumped its rival on battery life, but it couldn’t handle portable equivalents of some of the big home console titles like the PSP could. Aesthetically it also failed to hit the mark and I was surprised by how big, bulky and toy-like it felt when I first got hold of my hot of the press machine.

Sony’s PSP on the other hand, went for a different focus. Using a new format of media, the UMD, Sony tried to make the machine fit for both high-end gaming as well as movies on the move. Unfortunately, Sony hadn’t learned their lesson after the failure of the MiniDisc and UMD films were soon available at stupidly cheap prices when their popularity failed to catch on. The PSP also suffered somewhat with its controls, the single analogue ‘nub’ being no substitute for twin sticks on its console big brother, and the machine’s ergonomics (or lack thereof) gave some severe hand cramps after prolonged sessions on Wipeout Pure or Ridge Racer.

I was still pretty pleased with mine, but the launch titles weren’t anything to really write home about. In fact, Sony probably never had a true killer app on the PSP throughout the machine’s lifetime as it never really decided what sort of gaming device it wanted to be; unable to handle First Person Shooters with its limited controls, but also too good to just throw simple mini games your way.

Combined with a poor battery life, the console never really hit its potential despite numerous redesigns and an eventual shift to non-UMD download-only gaming with the PSP Go.

Nintendo were also busy at refining their DS concept and the hugely popular DS Lite with its Brain Training software suddenly collared a whole new older demographic. Mums, Dads and Grandparents were all putting the device on their Christmas lists and Nintendo even responded to growing demand with a fogey-friendly DSi XL featuring a much larger screen and pre-installed software.

Now here we are in the 8th Generation of handheld gaming and the two competitors aren’t actually fighting each other anymore. Instead, it’s almost as if they have chosen to both go up against their mobile nemesis the smartphone, trying to prove that a dedicated gaming device is still relevant in the 21st Century.

Having led from the front in the touch screen world before smartphones had barely even tried, Nintendo took a further gamble by dipping into the juvenile 3D market with its 3DS handheld. Souped up processing power and goggle-free 3D visuals were promised and despite some concern over the quality of the 3D effect and the impact on infant eyes, the 3DS still offered a brand new concept and a new spin on the classic Mario Kart and Mario World titles.

Not to be outdone, Sony swung even further towards their own bread and butter; hardcore gaming. The PS Vita was announced as an almost PS3-powered machine with an overhauled operating system, front and rear touch screens, dual analogue sticks and a new memory card format for their games to boot.

It was almost as if they had suddenly realised what they wanted the PSP to do all along (in fact the Vita is far more comparable to original PSP concepts designs than the PSP itself ever was). But the fact remains that we’re in a world of smartphone dominance where many fail to even get time to play triple-A rated games on their home consoles, let alone crowbar a slot into their day to rattle through yet more titles on the move.

I’ve only just got my Vita and my 3DS has yet to have that full a workout, but shortly, you’re going to find out whether it’s Sony or Nintendo who have really found handheld heaven.

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