Confessions of a Wannabe Gamer: Have Handheld Consoles Lost Their Touch?

I loved my Game Boy like a brother.

Throughout the latter part of my childhood, that thing was my constant companion and confidant on my family’s frequently lengthy day trips in the minivan. I played Tetris as though the game would explode in my hands.

From an informal poll I put out on Twitter not too long ago, the Game Boy or some version thereof was the most-loved handheld console out there for all of you on-the-go gamers. That console reigned supreme for those who wanted to take their 8-bit fun on the road.

Those days have passed.

Handheld console gaming, for good or ill, seems to be going the way of the dodo, making way for newer platforms.


The “Good Ol’ Days”

The Game Boy, released in 1989, started it all. Roughly the size and shape of a thick paperback novel, with a yellow dot-matrix 8-bit screen, the unit would go on to sell more than 118 million pieces worldwide, not counting games. I recall getting mine, along with Tetris, F-1 Racing, and Super Mario Land 2. Heaven.

The Game Boy kept moving and, despite short-lived competition from Sega’s all-color Game Gear, Nintendo continued to grow and expand the line. The Game Boy changed with the changing habits of gamers. It’s initial size was too bulky, so it soon became smaller, slimmer, lighter, and more compact. It came in designer colors and could be easily slipped into a pocket.

The Game Boy Color – first as an add-on for the Super Nintendo, then as a console in its own right – was the next innovation, then the Game Boy Advance, which allowed for the playing of not only old-school Game Boy games, but also ports of popular SNES and (gasp!) Sega games, once that company had stopped producing consoles of its own.

Sony stepped into the marker in the early 2000s with the PSP (Playstation Portable), right about the time Nintendo created their flip-open portables, DS and later, DSi. These consoles, playing more sophisticated games, could almost be termed “Lifestyle Systems”. Not only for games, they had wi-fi internet access and could take photos, allow Skype calls, and download games as well as play cartridges. You could even watch movies on them, in some respects.

While the PSP marketed itself to hard-core action gamers, the DSi was touted as the family handheld, something that grandpa could use to help strengthen his mind (via games like Brain Age), junior could use to playing Mario, and mom or dad could use to learn a new skill (Art Academy) or mess around with numerous all-ages “apps”.

The multi-functionality of these systems was in part spurred by the increase of smart phones in the U.S. And it is this multi-functionality that could prove to be their undoing…


The Young Guns

Cell phones have had games programmed into them almost ever since they became popularly available and cost-effective – mostly in the form of Pong and other dot-matrix offerings.

That all changed with the advent of the smart phone. Taking a cue from Facebook’s mega-popular – and usually free – games like Farmville, the iPhone and Android began offering games as well – often for free, supported by advertising. The most famous is, of course, Angry Birds, but others like Mine Craft and Words With Friends have hit and hit hard.

Soon, with the coming of the tablet – the iPad and the Kindle Fire being the two most high-profile examples – gaming altered yet again. Here we have units with large amounts of memory, fast processors, and sizable, high-quality touch screens. Ports of console games – or games that rivaled the consoles in quality – soon emerged. Soul Calibur, Zenonia, Assassin’s Creed, Dead Space, X-Men, Dungeon Hunter, Eternity Warriors, and many others arrived, supported by small fees to play the game, ads, or even purchasing in-game items with real money.

The winter of discontent for the hand-held console had come.

And it was no surprise when Nintendo, chastened by the falling market as well as the difficulties it had had with its latest handheld, the 3DS, reported its first annual revenue loss since the 1980s. And when the new Sony Vita, a version of the PSP with further enhancements to make it more and more like a tablet (including TWO touch screens) came out, tongues began to wag – “Has the handheld – indeed, has the gaming console as a whole – come to the end of its days?”


The Future

The mobile gaming platform is growing. Fast.

By one estimate, global demand for tablet computers is expected to hit 130 million by next year. The new iPad 3, expected this fall, is predicted to take a major chunk out of handheld revenue for both Sony and Nintendo. It is thought that mobile gaming will become a $16 billion industry globally by 2016, and mobile gamers in the U.S. have increased from 75 million to more than 100 million – meaning that nearly one out of every three people in the U.S. use either a tablet or, most likely, a phone to get their gaming fix. And more and more of them are paying money for the privilege.

It’s not hard to see why the tablet/phone model is working. The games can be created quickly and marketed just as fast – and cheaply: make the game, put it up on Google Play or the App Store and purchase a few ads, and you’re likely to have a winner. The tablet games can also be funded easily. Players can get sucked in by a “free” game, only to make money for the company by clicking an ad, or buying some in-game equipment for their character. Small fees – for instance, just $6.99 for the Kindle Fire version of Dead Space – are also attractive, and the games can be downloaded nearly anywhere.

Another issue – phones and tablets are already available. Owners don’t have to go out and purchase another console for $200 to play the latest game – it’s already compatible with their mobile device.

Despite owning a PSP, DSi, and a Kindle Fire (with a 3DS on the way…) I still play my old Game Boy Advance (my original Game Boy pooped out on me 12 years ago). I still play the old games, still get a kick out of them. And I know in my head that until my Advance breathes its last, the original handheld console and the dreams of the old days will stick around for me.

Gaming has continually evolved and changed over the last 30 years. Atari rose and fell, Sega waxed and waned, and the Neo-Geo, TurboGrafix 16, and even, yes the Virtual Boy, held the stage for a moment before dying. We’re now in a new moment in gaming – once upon a time, video games were just for kids, and usually boys at that. Now boys and girls, men and women of all ages are getting into gaming through their mobile devices. Some might say that’s changing the face of gaming, and not for the better. Gamers like their privileged spot in Geekdom, and why not?

But we’re all playing games now. And it’s only going to keep growing.

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