Why Handheld Game Consoles Still Matter

The 80s were a fantastic era that birthed an explosive industry where games would become a new mainstream entertainment medium. 1983 was a big year when the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) was brought to North America for the first time. It went on to revolutionize and change the entire world. First consoles came and then later Nintendo and other companies like Sega and Sony tried their hand at the handheld portable gaming market.

Nintendo and Sony’s predicament

Turning the clock forward to 2013, many people have been questioning the viability of products such as Nintendo’s portfolio of 3DS devices, as well as Sony’s PS Vita. There’s good reason for concern, as Nintendo’s and Sony’s profits have been in decline. There are those who are uncertain about the future. How much innovation is left at Nintendo or Sony? These are questions I, nor anyone else, can know for certain. What I’d like to do is focus mainly on what the current concerns are, and offer my rebuttal to some of them.

Nintendo has been continuing to push the 3DS line of products, and in an effort to help foster sales, they have released a new 2DS model. I’ve seen a lot of debate on the Internet about how this will be a failed product. There are those that don’t quite “get” why the company had to release a product like it, which eschews the 3D capability in exchange for a much lower price point. The 2DS strikes me as a very appealing product to many people who simply can’t afford the much more expensive models. I posit that many parents come this holiday shopping season will opt for the 2DS. Remember, companies like Apple have the iPod, which comes in many different configurations starting at $49. I don’t think anyone should think of the 2DS as a “dumbing down” of the product, but more like a simplification that is more palatable to a majority who want access to Nintendo’s ecosystem of games. Not only does expanding their portfolio makes sense, but it’s a smart move.

There’s been talk going around how Nintendo should expand into other platforms, such as porting over beloved franchises such as Mario and Zelda to iOS. At first blush, it seems like a great idea. Why not make an already well established and lauded series available to a larger audience? Though they would probably sell a lot of copies, it doesn’t, however mean that this is the correct choice for the company. As a Nintendo fan, I would not want these titles ported over. There’s a very compelling experience when playing these games with a physical controller. The advantage Nintendo has as a business, is like Apple, they control both the hardware and software. This level of control affords them the ability to tightly integrate the two into a single, cohesive, and consistent experience. Bringing many titles available today to iOS or Android, means they are beholden to a third party. I don’t believe Nintendo should cede control to anyone else. Sure, their hardware may not be the most well made, but they know how to make an excellent D-pad.

Nintendo needs to buckle down and continue to focus on making better hardware. I’m not sure the DS can go another generation with the current low resolution display that currently plague them. I’m not saying Nintendo has to use the latest cutting edge display technology, but even something on par with the current PS Vita would be a huge step up. Nintendo users have always focused on story and characters first and foremost, rather than worry about having the best GPU in their hardware. Whilst those attributes are more important, I bet everyone would notice and appreciate a much higher quality display in the DS.

I believe most of the points I made about Nintendo echo for Sony as well. Sony is also another great example of a company who controls the entire end-to-end experience of their platform. Even though sales have declined and the Vita hasn’t done as well as they would have liked, continuing to innovate on new hardware and software will help keep them relevant. I think Sony is starting to show good signs of being open to change, as they have been making good progress on supporting indie developers. There are more and more indie games landing on the Playstation network all the time. Just recently games like Spelunky became available on Vita, which is an all around fantastic game. Sony has a serious chance of attracting more indie developers to their platform over the next year or so.

iOS and Android’s impact on mobile

Since the inception of iOS and Android, Apple and Google have an overwhelming share of the mobile gaming marketshare now. The devices have excellent development platforms that have allowed third party companies, both small and large to bring amazing titles to consumer’s hands. An overwhelming majority of people walking around today will have a smartphone in their pocket. Regardless if it’s a casual game like Angry Birds or a port of big time successful console game like Grand Theft Auto, the point is that most people carry just one device with them at all times. Certainly it’s appealing to only have to carry one device for everything you need to do. Want to take a picture? Pull out your phone. Make a call? Pull out your phone. Play a game? Again, you reach for your phone. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that sales have slowed for Nintendo and Sony. Apple and Google will likely continue to take the largest slice of the mobile gaming pie, which is completely fine. The reason why I feel fine with this scenario, is because serious gamers for the foreseeable future will still prefer a bespoke, purpose-built device that does one thing well. Gamers are still very much a large enough niche market that you can build a profitable business from.

Growing up through the 80s and 90s, I played games on consoles and PCs. It wasn’t only until recent when iOS became robust and large enough as a platform that gaming on a smartphone became a typical thing to do. In the 2000s, I took a sabbatical from gaming, but later picked it up again as my iPhone became the primary device that was always around. The last couple of years have been troubling though. We’ve seen an ever increasing share of free-to-play games that nag you with in-app purchases, just so you can do anything worthwhile.

For consumers, the attractive part about iOS and Android is that the two platforms have fostered an ecosystem where charging less than $5 for an app is the norm. Spoiled by low prices, we see entitlement minded imbeciles write one star reviews in the App Store, because the game they bought was shorter than expected, therefore, clearly it was a rip-off at $1.99. We as consumers are demanding more and more out of our devices and apps, all while expecting prices to go down. This is creating an almost impossible standard to uphold. Independent developers simply can’t make a living by charging $1.99 for their apps, unless they strike gold and sell millions of copies — something that is extremely rare. Imagine game developers who spend six to twelve months, pouring their heart and soul into a game, only having to release it to a market that won’t bear more than $0.99 for it (or worse, make it free). The situation feels very grim to me and I don’t see it getting better any time soon.

The cost of games on the Nintendo DS or PS Vita range from $15 to $45. Sure, I’m out of pocket more in comparison to iOS, but I don’t have to worry about ads or gameplay being castrated because I need to buy in-app purchases in order to get anywhere. I don’t know about you, but I would rather pay more up front for a superior, uninterrupted, and immersive experience.

Why I prefer gaming on the PS Vita

Last month I purchased a PS Vita. It seems crazy right? Why would I go back to carrying more than one device, when my iPhone plays games just fine? Why would I fork out more money for games, some of which are also available on iOS for much less money? I ruminated on these points for a while and then decided to pull the trigger. After living with my Vita for only a short period of time, I can tell you I haven’t dedicated myself to playing games like this in years. The answer is rather simple. On my iPhone, I would always be distracted by text messages, email, and push notifications from a vast swath of social media apps. All of these notifications took me out of what should have been an immersive gaming experience. Beyond the distractions, there were many games, including ports of console games that had substandard touch controls. For example, trying to play a game that was built for a console with virtual analog sticks is just terrible. With on-screen controls that require constant interaction, you end up taking precious screen real estate. Not to mention the fact that no tactile feedback from the controls is an awful thing. After years of gaming on iOS, I completely forgot how wonderful it was to have analog controls under my thumbs.

I’ve been playing a lot more money for games, many of which range from $15 to $45. Sure, I’m out of pocket more in comparison to iOS, but I don’t have to worry about ads or gameplay being castrated because I need to buy in-app purchases in order to get anywhere. I don’t know about you, but I would rather pay more up front for a superior, uninterrupted, and immersive experience.

The PS Vita has a fantastic large 5 inch screen (220 PPI), which to me is a great size, both for playing games, and watching video. The multi touch screen works as well as I expected, and the rear touch panel comes in handy as well. At first I thought it seemed like a strange idea to have touch controls on the back side of the device, but then I realized it means you don’t have to have your fingers blocking elements on the screen in certain scenarios, which is pretty brilliant. The dual analog controllers feel fantastic, and not only work well for any type of game, but they excel in first person shooters (of which I’m fond of playing). Combining touch controls, a gyroscope, accelerometer, and tactile controls speaks to me as the perfect blend of old and new technology that compliments each other.

There are many other fantastic things I love about the Vita, including the ability to buy cross-play games that work on it and the PS3, as well as remote play support. With the release of the PS4 later this year, integration between the two consoles is only going to get better. More games will support the remote play function, so you can use your Vita as a second screen (this is something AirPlay does well). As for the library of games available, I’m finding an endless of amount top notch titles, including older ones ported from PSone. Sony does a great job of making a lot of older titles available for purchase on their store. You can relive some of your favourite titles from 90s for less than $10. The expanse of great quality content is increasing and shows no signs of slowing down. This year has been the most influential for the Vita, and what was announced at Gamescom promises an even brighter future.

I suspect that the PS4 may spark a sales boost for the Vita, considering the extra functionality and cross-play game titles that are coming to it. One of my biggest grips with the software, which Sony really needs to work on, is the user interface. At this point, it looks antiquated and is no where near as crisp, modern, or intuitive as iOS. I’m confident Sony will bring some of the UI enhancements they’ve been working on for the PS4 to the Vita in time.


I don’t regret switching back to a dedicated handheld console for playing games. The overall experience has been far more enjoyable to me, and clearly that’s the case for thousands of other people as well. Is purchasing a handheld console the right choice for everyone? Absolutely not. iOS and Android will continue to be good platforms for many different kinds of gamers.