Whenever the conversation about traditional handheld game systems comes up these days you seem to either have a lifestyle that suits handhelds or you don’t. It’s driven a rift between people who miss the days of the Game Boy Advance or the original DS and those who could care less about them and would always rather play on a console or PC. The funny thing with me is, I’m probably in the latter camp right now but used to spend much more time with handheld games. Just what is it that makes (or made) traditional handhelds appealing anyway?
The easy answer is portability, and for a lot of people it’s probably the best answer. Some people might commute a lot (in vehicles they themselves don’t drive) or spend a lot of free time away from a console or PC. However, looking back makes me think games that were exclusive to handhelds were just as important as their defining portability.
Back in the day even when I had a Super NES, you couldn’t get Super Mario Land 2 on the SNES, or The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening — which many consider the best overall Zelda game, or Tetris (at least until the Super Game Boy happened anyway). Later in the 90’s you couldn’t get Pokemon on a Nintendo 64 or the original PlayStation. Later still you couldn’t get Mega Man Zero or Golden Sun on a Gamecube or (until the Game Boy Player), you couldn’t get Brain Age on the Wii. Handhelds weren’t just portable, they were a completely unique experience from consoles.
A similar point has been made in nearly every discussion about Sony’s handhelds — Sony wants to replicate the console experience on portable machines whereas Nintendo understands that people want a completely different experience on portable machines. Nintendo also has its first party development teams putting the same effort into unique handheld games they put into console games. Think about this: why couldn’t Link’s Awakening have been a Super NES game if so many people think it’s better than the SNES A Link to the Past? Nintendo made a lot of unique games for handhelds for no other reason than to make those handhelds seem more valuable.
I’ll add here that another big reason I spent so much time with the Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance, and original DS back in the day is because they continued to get the support from third party developers Nintendo consoles had lost. The GBC and GBA were the second most dominant game platforms of their respective times behind the first two PlayStations, and the original DS was pretty much the most dominant machine of its time, so developers still made games for them. I filled in a lot of time between meaningful N64 or Gamecube software releases with Game Boy games. This started to change when I started buying PlayStation consoles and capable gaming PCs, which opened up a lot more console and PC software to me.
I say handhelds “were” a unique experience because that’s no longer completely the case, and I think it’s what’s killing traditional handhelds for a lot of console players, not just the people who ran off with mobile games.
In the late 90’s and early 2000’s there was a very clear 2D-to-3D rift between handhelds and consoles that kept the production values and gameplay of each side vastly different from the other. Handhelds couldn’t do proper 3D games and it didn’t make sense to release a game like The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap on the Gamecube. All that has changed.
Since handhelds crested the 3D transition with the Vita and 3DS, the experience became more like a console, and it stopped making sense to only release games for a handheld. The first party games Nintendo releases for the 3DS and Wii U are a lot more similar to each other than its DS and Wii games were or its GBA and Gamecube games respectively, diminishing the need for many to own more than one of them. Another factor has been digital distribution which gave the smaller kinds of games that would have been GBA games in the past an economical path onto consoles.
The PSP was sort of an early stage of this, but was different enough from the PS3 that it eventually got a robust library of exclusive games like Monster Hunter. Still, a lot of its game did eventually get ported to consoles. By this point people started to lament how much the Japanese and western game markets had started to diverge: one being taken over by handhelds and the other sticking more and more with consoles. It’s when the lifestyles of consumers were starting to define what platforms they preferred. I’ll admit I got a lot of use out of the PSP and original DS when I was in college. The only time I ever eagerly chose the handheld version of a game over the console version was when I played the crap out of the PSP version of Virtua Tennis 3. The PSP was actually my de-facto general-purpose portable media device for a while.
The current multiplatform environment is pretty much the sole reason I could never get on board with the Vita. It’s a great piece of hardware, but just about every game on it I care about is also available on a console or even on PC. We’re in an age where the idea of the third party exclusive is disappearing and every game is multiplatform. Now people can just stick to the one platform of their choice for the most part.
In the last several years, very few handheld exclusives have been able to pull me away from all my console and PC games. The last really major one was Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, which now that I think about it was an excellent translation of a traditionally console game to the handheld experience barring the lack of a second analog stick… until it was ported to the PS3 with a save file transfer and everything. Another case was the Zero Escape series. I stuck with Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors and Virtue’s Last Reward on the DS and 3DS respectively, but got Zero Time Dilemma on PC. I actually wavered on the last one. The week it came out I was away from my main PC and would have benefited from getting the 3DS version in that particular situation, but alas, my laptop proved powerful enough to run the PC version.
If you’re a fan of Japanese RPGs the 3DS probably still has plenty of exclusive content to make it valuable, I just haven’t been paying much attention to it. The main reason for that is the gargantuan backlog of RPGs I’ve already amassed across multiple generations of handheld game systems. I’ve decided to stop buying them full-stop until I prove to myself I can actually finish some, but that’s a subject for a whole other post.
In any case, I’ve already explained in previous posts that the NX, if it is indeed simultaneously a handheld and a console, is the end result of the convergence of traditional handheld and console gaming.
- Speaking of handheld-exclusive games, that new adventure game from some of the people who made Hotel Dusk is coming out in English in October: http://www.nintendoworldreport.com/news/43452/chase-cold-case-investigations-launching-on-october-13
- Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is out today (also on Steam): https://tinybuild.itch.io/diaries-of-a-spaceport-janitor
- Some gameplay for Aer (German commentary): https://t.co/P317zBTmw7
- This new FPS called Minimized popped up on the Steam Discovery Que: http://store.steampowered.com/app/521930
- This is all the stuff you’ll be able to do in Yakuza 6: https://youtu.be/xzMyFzlWJO8
- An appreciation of the pacing and scripting in Resident Evil 4: https://t.co/qWjjpZqS7h
- “Why We Still Practice Superstitious Rituals With Our Technology”: http://motherboard.vice.com/read/why-we-still-practice-superstitious-rituals-with-our-technology