by Ollie Green, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 23rd May, 2018
When Gunpei Yokoi, a notable game designer at Nintendo saw a bored businessman playing with his calculator back in 1979 he came up with a neat little idea that will change the world of gaming forever. You see, back then you could only play on a couple of home consoles. There weren't smartphones, and Nintendo Switches or 3DSs, there were no portable MP3 players, and Walkman was just launched and was still a niche product. So, Yokoi thought about making a device that can act as a classic digital clock, but also can be used to play games. A year later, Game & Watch was born, a granddaddy of all portable gaming systems and the first handheld console ever.
The thing had one or two games that came preinstalled and was a smashing hit. Even though video games were still an underground form of entertainment at the time Game & Watch managed to sell almost 44 million units over the course of a little more than a decade. There were 59 games in total and among them were first versions of Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong. Just imagine gamers of the time realizing they can play games on the move while getting bored at school! Game & Watch was a proper revolution and it paved the way for the most successful handheld console of all times, the Nintendo Game Boy.
Released in 1989, the Game Boy is the most popular handheld console of all times. It managed to sell almost 120 million units during its lifecycle (including Game Boy Color edition) and the console was available during the golden age of gaming, where almost every game was worth playing and when kids cherished every title they owned. But, the peak of handheld console popularity came a year after Nintendo decided to discontinue Game Boy Color. In 2004 both Nintendo and Sony launched a new generation of handheld consoles, the Nintendo DS and the PlayStation Portable. Both consoles become massive hits and show the world that gamers love playing when on the move.
In fact, many game studios and publishers raced to release exclusive games for the PSP. The system features some legendary games like Monster Hunter Portable, Patapon, MGS: Guns of the Patriots, GTA Liberty and Vice City Stories (those two were amazing to play back in the day), Burnout Legends, God of War: Ghost of Sparta and God of War: Chains of Olympus, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, Lumines, and many other amazing titles. And the fact is that many of them were exclusives. We, who grew up during the reign of PSP were amazed by the power of the console and playing games on it was an exclusive experience on itself. Nintendo, on the other hand, also had much success with the Nintendo DS and its sequels, also getting lots of interesting titles to play. Game libraries for both consoles were, and still are, amazing.
But, with the release of PlayStation Vita the market showed that handheld consoles will have a hard time competing with the mobile gaming space, which managed to earn more money in 2017 than PC and console gaming markets combined. Even the Nintendo 3DS sales saw a massive decline in recent years along with the lack of new titles. If it weren't for Pokemon X/Y in 2017 the Nintendo 3DS sales would drop the fifth year in a row, after they reached peak numbers in 2013 when almost 14 million units were sold. Sales dropped to 6.8 million in 2016 and climbed to 7.3 in 2017, mostly because of Pokemon X/Y.
Likewise, PlayStation Vita was a massive flop, one of the biggest flops in the history of gaming consoles with Sony discontinuing the console in 2018 without any sign of offering a new generation of its portable gaming station. On the other hand, we have the massive success of the Nintendo Switch, but the mobile gaming market is still hovering over handheld console like a giant flying snake from Shadow of the Colossus. Do handheld consoles have future? Is there a place for another handheld console to live and prosper next to the Nintendo Switch? Why PlayStation Vita flopped, and is mobile gaming market capable of killing handheld consoles for good? We'll try to answer those questions here and now.
Handheld console market was healthiest during the 90's. There were many different consoles to choose from such as Game Boy Color, Atari Lynx, Sega Game Gear, WonderSwan, Game Boy Pocket, Neo Geo Pocket, and others. The market was crowded, and gamers could pick their favorite without any problem. But, the most important thing is that all of the above-mentioned consoles ended as relatively successful sans the Atari Lynx.
The 2000s came and the handheld console market evolved, or is it better to say devolved. The market came down to two major devices, the Game Boy Advance, which was later replaced by the Nintendo DS, and the PlayStation Portable. There were other attempts by companies trying to enter handheld console market but all of them failed miserably. Devices like the infamous N-Game gaming smartphone made by Nokia, the cool looking Gizmondo, and the Tapwave Zodiac that was in front of its time but that didn't help it from becoming a massive flop.
The number of handheld consoles came down to just two. Sure, there were many different Nintendo-made handheld devices, but they all played the same games, they all were interchangeable, like they are today. You have the 3DS, 2DS, 3DS and 2DS XL devices and they all feature the same library. It all comes down to which form factor and size you prefer and how much money you are ready to shell out.
Over the course of two decades handheld console market shifted greatly, and while we didn't have as many different devices as during the 90s at least we got a healthy competition between the PSP and the Nintendo DS. But as soon as Sony announced the PlayStation Vita, the market shrank even more and is today dominated by Nintendo. The PlayStation Vita flopped because of more than one reason, but one very important one was the rise of the mobile gaming market. The other was the company itself. In other words, Sony managed to destroy a fantastic portable gaming machine and create a portable console market dominated by one company, Nintendo.
Cell phones evolved at a massive pace for the last couple of decade. They got from being simple devices with a fairly limited set of features to full-fledged mini computers that give us everything we need in a size that can fit into any pocket. And yes, they can play video games. The last couple of generations of flagship smartphone models are powered by immensely powerful internals that can easily support console-grade graphics and the mobile gaming market grew substantially during this decade, becoming the highest grossing part of the video game market, and will count for more than half of the total market revenue in just a couple of years.
Mobile gaming is on fire, but is it solely responsible for the downfall of the handheld console market? Well, the main reason for the lack of handheld consoles we have today is the fact that the PlayStation Vita became one of the biggest failures in the history of video game console industry and yes, one of the main reasons for its disappointing sales is the rise of mobile games. Today there are more and more proper video game titles (meaning those that are also available on the PC Xbox One and PS4) that appear for Android and iOS devices. Most of them, if not all, are indie titles with lower production values that can be quickly ported to smartphones and they tend to generate solid sales number on the mobile market. These titles are the closest we can get to a proper gaming experience on our smartphones and iPads, and developers of these games can earn more money by porting them to Android and iOS than they can earn by making them playable on the PlayStation Vita. But there aren't to blame for this, Sony is.
You see, instead of promoting the Vita as a perfect platform for playing indie titles, Sony tried to push the console as "premium gaming experience," and that strategy backfired massively. Firstly, Sony launched the Vita and imagined the console will offer the same experience as its bigger, home console cousins. The company launched a couple of spinoff AAA titles for the console, all of which were rushed ultimately bringing down the quality of the gaming experience. Titles such as Resistance: Burning Skies, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, and Killzone: Mercenary offered a solid but ultimately flawed experience failing to push the sales of the device.
On the other side of the line, Nintendo built a massive and quality game library for the DS and its derivatives by focusing on quality, unique experience, and exclusivity. Games that launched for the Nintendo portable device never put graphics on the front and always offered something different and memorable, unlike PS Vita titles that gave gamers nice visuals but did not much else.
Next, Sony failed to embrace the emerging indie games market, which is a weird decision because the PS Vita seemed like a perfect platform for indies. Sure, the console had a couple of indie titles (like Don't Starve, Minecraft, Telltale's The Walking Dead) but the lack of support along with Sony's disinterest to drive indies to the Vita was probably the biggest mistake the company did, and probably the main reason for the fall of the Vita. Along with ignoring small game studios, Sony also faced a massive exodus of big-name publishers, who started strong but almost all abandoned the console after just a couple of years. EA released six games in total, Ubisoft released about a dozen titles, and other big publishers either released a couple of titles or they completely ignored the console. Remember Bioshock Vita? So, Sony ultimately failed to attract big-budget publishers and they ignored indie developers. Basically, the shot themselves in the foot, two times.
Ultimately, Sony made another huge mistake. Instead of enabling PS2 games to be played on the Vita (which would be the best thing since the discovery of the burger!), Sony imagined the Vita as a companion device for the PS4. Sure, it is nice to play PS4 titles while in bed or sitting on a toilet seat but for the console was too darn expensive to be used just as a companion device, and since its library was catastrophic (and still is), using the PS Vita to play PS4 games was the best thing about it. And the best thing was massively flawed because leave the house and your PS4 and all PS4 support would stop, leaving you with an overpriced handheld with lousy choice of games.
Instead, Sony could port PS2 titles for the Vita, making the console the ultimate handheld because the best-selling console of all times has a massive library with hundreds of excellent games. But no, the company ported a small number of PS One games and that was it. A shame, a real shame. Couple the above issues with unnecessary high price, the lack of medium budget games (the console featured either AAA titles or small number of indies, along with a laughably low number of mid-budget titles, the ones that usually drive the game sales), and Sony's completely wrong approach at promoting the Vita, and you have a perfect recipe for destruction.
The PS Vita is a great device. I remember holding it for the first time when it came out, playing Uncharted and Fifa (Fifa was especially pleasing to play on the Vita), and imagining this is the ultimate handheld console ever to come out. Boy, was I wrong.
The PS Vita ended up as a complete failure but handheld console market recently got a new player, one that managed to sell in more than 10 million units in just one year. Yes, we talk about the Nintendo Switch, a device capable of resurrecting handheld console market, and one that can show Sony and, potentially, Microsoft how to make a handheld that will sell and that will be massively popular.
Nintendo lived through its worst years once the Wii ended its lifecycle. The 3DS and other handhelds didn't sell so well and the Wii U well, we all know what happened with that. The company faced dwindling earnings and some even started thinking Nintendo will leave hardware business for good like Sega did after the infamous Dreamcast fiasco. But, the Japanese company rose from ashes and gave the gaming community of the best consoles ever, the Nintendo Switch.
The Switch is a great device. It doesn't offer top of the line processing power but it comes with other cool features. The most important out of them all is the fact that you can take it out of the dock, strap Joycon controllers to it, and take it with you along with all of your games. This was the ultimate reason to buy the Switch for many of its owners, the chance to play full-fledged games while on the go. No spinoffs, no special handheld editions, no half-baked low-quality titles. No, the Switch offers the best handheld experience ever because it offers full games, games developed for a home console that can now be played on the go, something we never saw until now. This isn't some flawed way of playing home console games on a handheld no; this is a proper home console experience available wherever we go.
Second, it seems Nintendo finally realized that without third-party publisher support they cannot make a console that will be massively popular. Instead of offering mostly first party titles, they attracted other publishers and even now, just over a year since the Switch debuted, we can say it has a great game library with lots of games coming for it on a daily basis and lots of big titles planned for the future. On top of it all, Nintendo saw something Sony managed to completely ignore and now the Switch is the Holy Grail for indie developers. The console became the first choice for new indie titles, replacing Steam as the publishing platform of choice for small budget developers and publishers.
And finally, the Switch showed that gamers want a powerful handheld console. It showed we don't mind carrying a dedicated gaming device along with our smartphone if it is good enough. We don't mind the fact the Switch is large and bulky compared to previous handhelds because it allows us to play the latest Zelda, phenomenal Doom and, of course, Skyrim everywhere we want. The Switch showed that there is a future for handheld consoles, but it is up to other companies to use its success, to learn from it, and to offer handhelds of their own in the future.
Yes, there is. While mobile gaming market is taking the biggest chunk of profit, much more than PC and consoles, it is filled with free-to-play titles most of which don't offer the level of quality hardcore gamers expect to experience. Mobile gaming showed some potential less than a decade ago, when we thought we might use our smartphones to play big budget titles when games like Rage Mobile started to appear but it seems publishers saw they can make easy money with free-to-play titles and they stick to making those instead of investing big money in quality mobile games that would come with a high starting price.
Mobile games market turned into an endless money grabbing pit that has some quality titles (Like Square Enix GO game series, or occasional indie title like the Witness or Legend of Grimrock) but ultimately most hardcore gamers look at it as a poor source for good games to play. Instead, most of us would rather want to have a good handheld, a device made specifically for games that we could take anywhere with us (and most of us already bought the Switch for that reason), instead to rely on the App Store or Google Play to satisfy our portable gaming crave. Surely, there are titles that are of high enough quality but there are so few of them no hardcore gamer can be satisfied with the offer on those two app stores.
And yes, with Steam releasing its Steam Link app for the iOS and Android some might think that handheld market got a powerful adversary. But, you can play your Steam games only when in range of your home Wi-Fi router, effectively removing any real handheld gaming option.
And I think that market can see another handheld console along with the Switch. Because, Nintendo will probably slowly shut off its 3DS console and because there is a new generation of gamers on the rise, kids who started playing games on their smartphones but once they realized mobile games are crap, they switched to consoles and PC. And since they are comfortable with playing games on the go they probably want a console instead of a new smartphone. And yes, some will get the Switch but not all, so there is definitely room for Microsoft and Sony to fill that gap and give us another handheld smashing hit.
It has to offer lots of titles, it has to give room for indie developers to shine, it has to be powerful (and probably to find a way to stream home console games on the go, not just when in range of a home Wi-Fi network), and it has to offer backward compatibility. Microsoft did wonders with backward compatibility on the Xbox One so we think the company could create an excellent handheld console capable of playing Xbox and Xbox 360 games. Of course, anyone who tries to launch a new handheld console should be ready to invest lots of money and to find a way to reach a bigger audience, but ultimately handheld consoles do have a future, and it could be a great one indeed.