So I never thought I would have to write an article like this as I thought the idea of handheld gaming and the reasoning for it was pretty clear. Throughout its history companies have tried to imitate the experience at home on the go. If you truly know the history of gaming then you would know this. If you truly lived it you would know this. Trying to catch up in technology with consoles and pc gaming has always been one of the focuses of portable gaming. Unfortunately costs, technical inefficiencies, and the fast pace at which consoles advanced would hinder this.
One of the very first handhelds the Microvision was essentially the portable atari. Engineered by Jay Smith for Miltion Bradley Company. The system would feature games like Block Breaker and Connect 4. This system lasted about a year and would be a failure as it had many technical issues, lack of games, and small screen. So why do I mention this console? This was the very first handheld console and goes to show what the idea of handheld gaming was. Being able to take your home experience on the go. Not only did it do that it took a traditional game turned it into a videogame that you could play anywhere. That game being Connect 4.
The Game N Watch made by Gunpei Yokoi for Nintendo would be the first handheld not to actually imitate a console. Despite not imitating a console Yokoi would later after the release of the NES realize his device was lacking compared to that system. I WANT YOU TO PAY ATTENTION BECAUSE AT THIS TIME IN HISTORY WILL EXPLAIN MY POINT. Gunpei Yokoi felt that he needed to make a handheld console that would be comparable to the NES. Creating this next conole he would not use the latest and greatest of tech. Why? He wanted to have mass market appeal and he knew the cost of the latest greatest tech. Little did he understand how impactful his next creation would be to the gaming industry.
The Game Boy took the gaming world by storm and would become a critical success for Nintendo. Interestingly because he didn’t use the cutting edge tech that was available at the time he saved on production costs, and energy use. At the time his colleagues would urge him to use color but his choice of components would later be understood when its competitors with higher spec systems and color screens would be their downfall. On the flip side because of the lack of specs games had to be made different on the system. Not just in color but in size of artifacts, static backgrounds, and amount of content on screen. This would mean not a lot of games offered on the NES would be able to be ported to the GameBoy. Thus we had new iterations of similar games on the NES.
The Atari Lynx would release in the same year as Nintendo’s Game Boy and be the first handheld with a color screen. Not being able to compete with Game Boy’s critical success they discontinued the system and left it in the wind.
Sega Game Gear would be the next closest thing to actually taking home experiences on the go. The game gear had damn near all the latest games that were available on the home console the Genesis with slight variations to accommodate the portable limitations at the time. The Game Gear would find huge success but not quite to the scale of Nintendo with its Game Boy. The reason being the system was too bulky, and took too many batteries that didn’t last very long. This made the system less ideal to take with you on the go.
Next up is the actual moment in history where handheld gaming and console gaming were exactly the same. The Sega Nomad was a portable Sega Genesis to the T taking the actual Genesis carts. This is the point you would think well if that’s what handheld gaming was for why didn’t this become a success. Like I have said in previous articles, videos, and podcasts the tech was not there. Yes it had the same graphics, yes it played the exact same games, but that power comes with a need for energy and at the time the tech was not their to support that kind of power. I feel the NEO GEO Pocket Color would have been the perfect device at this time but it never released in the US.
Since 1989-1998 Nintendo ruled the handheld world with its Game Boy. The only other iteration was a slim down version. 1998 Nintendo would release its first color system the Game Boy Color. This would also be the first backwards compatible gaming device. (For some reason people think Sony was first but this is not the case.) Although it was a upgrade to their previous device it was lacking behind the company’s latest home console the SNES. Game boy color was essentially a portable NES. The next Iteration of their handheld device was the Game Boy Advance which was essentially a portable SNES. This would release in 2001 by now there have been 2 Nintendo home console releases and Nintendo’s handhelds fell behind in the tech because of the success of its previous handhelds. You know the motto if its not broke don’t fix it. I don’t blame Nintendo in this because its competitors who had the power failed to either reach mass appeal or just wasn’t portable enough.
Now Nintendo wanted to go against the grain and do something truly different in the handheld department also creating a new way to play. Thus the Nintendo DS was released. This system did 2 things that changed the game
dual screen play,(some Game N Watches had 2 screens) and touch screen. This wouldn’t resemble any of their consoles but had similar games to the N64 and Gamecube with new play styles.
Towards the end of the PS2 life cycle Newcomer to the handheld market Sony decided to make the PSP. PLAYSTATION PORTABLE. Essentially a portable PS2. The graphics came very close to its home console counterpart and introduced new things like being able to unlock certain things in the home console game and the portable game when you linked your game saves. Sony was on to something and probably would have been more successful if it wasn’t for its choice of media in UMD’s a failed storage medium. Lack of a second analog stick to go with traditional home console games would also hinder it as well as the hacking that took place on the device making it the home brew and bootleg machine.
Sony would come back with the PlayStation Vita. When announced this was thought to be the holy grail of portable gaming. It had the power to be on par or just under par with the PlayStation 3. It fixed the second analog stick issue, added touchscreens, had cross play, and cross buy games this was it the accumulation of all these years of trying they finally got a handheld to be on par with home console systems and not have to worry about portability, power, and marketability. The launch games were great you had uncharted, rayman , Unit 13, wipeout, marvel vs capcom, mortal kombat(little later), MLB The Show, and the list goes on. That first year was a good year. But what happened? To understand the Vita failure you have to rewind a few years.
The anomaly that is cell phone gaming. Cell phone gaming took the whole industry by storm. Here you have games that either you could make solo or with a small team, low budget, quick development time, and making millions more than higher budget games on home and handheld consoles. Take the fact that you already have this device on you, don’t have to purchase another device, the games are essentially free with some advertisements, full games can be had for under 10 bucks. This is where the greed of the industry started to take place and you would see some sick practices in gaming all across the board. But people ate it up and companies made millions so it spread like wildfire. This is where people started to change perspective of what mobile gaming was. Now you had a new breed of consumers who didn’t want a home console exp they wanted a quick pick up and play exp. Now everything has to sell a certain amount or its deemed a failure. So fast forward back to the Vita and Sony. Sony had everything it needed to be successful but made a poor decision in pricing of the system. They price one skew at $250.000 and the other at $200.00 right after they just dropped the price on their PlayStation 3 to $299.00. Then because of the success of the mobile phone gaming industry they asked some of those devs to make ports to their system. Cool right but it wouldn’t be because games you could get for $.99 on the Apple app store they charged 15 or 20 bucks for on the Vita. Then add the fact that they decided to go with proprietary storage media and charged half the vita for storage. So to take full advantage of the Vita you had to pay more than it would cost for the home console. Thus not enough people purchased and Sony abandoned it. Third parties and indi companies still make games for it.
Fast forward and Nintendo has just come off a failed home console in the Wii U, Had success with the 3DS after a relaunch and new price point. Whats next? They decide to make a hybrid. They have now come full circle with the tech that is available to where they can bring their home console and portable console exp and put them into one device. People like to say it solved a problem that wasn’t there but that’s not the case. It has finally answered the question why have 2 different devices to essentially do the same thing just in different places?
If you stayed with me this long then by now you should see the correlation of each one of these companies has tried to take their home console exp and provide a portable exp to its consumers. This has cost some more than others and some have been more successful than others. But the point is if there wasn’t a market, a need, or a want to do this then why has this been a sought after process for over 38 years? The start of handheld gaming was to be a portable version of its console counterpart. Now Nintendo has just made the process easier by combining the 2. So to say Nintendo is trying to solve a problem that wasn’t there is insane as the problem was there and sought after from the start. So if Nintendo can find market success with this device it will essentially be the evolution of gaming whether you like it or not as other companies will follow if its successful and thus as time goes on the tech will get better and make it even easier. Hybrid portable devices are the future like it or not. Started with cell phones, then went to computers, and now video games.