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The State of Handheld Gaming

Since the creation of the original Gameboy, portable gaming has taken off in such a way that many people, especially “non-gamers”, are able to enjoy software without the hassles of having to spend large amounts of money on a console and accessories. It is now the year 2008, and the DS has taken an incredibly large part of the gaming market, emphasizing more simple and varying software than previous handhelds. With some of the best-selling titles not truly being “real games”, what’s right and wrong about the market today, and what needs to change in the future?

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“What’s right and wrong about the market today, and what needs to change in the future?”In 2004, both Nintendo and Sony released their own respective next-gen handhelds to the market. The DS was touted as being intuitive and revolutionary, coming with not only two screens, but also the bottom screen being a touch-screen. This was a first in the industry, and it showed what was to come from Nintendo, foreshadowing the Wii and the motion sensor technology that changed the way we played games. While not necessarily strong in the realm of software, the DS had promise. Moderate in power, but strong in trying to achieve success with audiences that had never before been tapped into, Nintendo was ready for a different type of hardware.

On the other hand, Sony went all out and tried to create a powerhouse of a system to compete. The PSP, with technologies comparable to the PS2 and the sort of media capabilities that was never before done in a portable gaming system, was quite the opposite of Nintendo’s strategy. Instead of trying to do something different and giving us a new way to enjoy games, we instead got a balanced handheld that had quite a nice launch, with a solid lineup at launch that included such titles as Lumines and Twisted Metal: Head-On.

Since their respective launches, many things have changed. The DS has gone on to become ridiculously popular, and is the target platform for a vast amount of games. The PSP, however, did not meet with the same success, and the “tried and true” strategy of using raw power against innovation has once again failed. However, is the DS truly the future of games? Is it really what most gamers want at the end of the day?

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The majority of software that makes up the DS includes many titles that are not necessarily games. These “non-games” are also the most popular games these days, with Brain Age and Big Brain Academy becoming phenomena in sales. In Japan, these sort of learning titles have become the best-sellers, and it seems to be attractive to many who have never, or have no intention of playing traditional games. This is in contrast to the PSP, which has had many ports or re-makes of older franchises to reach the casual and hardcore gamers. Some of the best games are simply older games that have been newly invigorated, such as Maverick Hunter X and Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles.

Overall, one could say that both handhelds have solid libraries at this point, catering to different audiences and having a large variety of exclusives that keep the two systems apart. However, if one looks to the previous effort from Nintendo, the Gameboy Advance, there is clearly a balance between offering games that hardcore gamers and casual gamers alike want. This is certainly not the case with the DS, with many of the great Nintendo franchises becoming changed simply because of the presence of a stylus and two screens. That’s not to say there are no games that hardcore gamers will appreciate, but it seems they are few and far between these days, with the Professor Layton’s and Cooking Mama’s taking the place of another title in vain of New Super Mario Bros. or Kirby: Squeak Squad, two iterations of staple Nintendo franchises that were done with very little change, and play more traditionally, yet still manage to succeed in being great games despite the fact that they not only weren’t changes to try and appeal to just about everyone, but also because they really stay true to the original franchises while still being just about as evolutionary as anyone could want.

The PSP has many titles that you can find on a PS2 or Wii, but on the go. This is somewhat similar to the Sega Master System and Game Gear’s own relationship, but on a whole new level. And to that end, many gamers are quite satisfied with this, including me. Of course, there are great PSP-exclusive titles as well, but the idea of taking a game that has PS2-level graphics and sound on the go is quite awesome, especially due to the fact that now you can hook up the PSP to your EDTV/HDTV and play games on there as well. With no compromises to the traditional design scheme of handhelds, or gaming in general, where did the PSP go wrong, if at all?

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Perhaps the biggest issue for many with the PSP was the fact that it launched at a high price in territories outside of Japan, with the so-called “Value Pack” being really expensive, as well as being the only option to get the hardware. I myself can think back to launch day in America, and getting the PSP with several games for a few hundred dollars. While I was quite satisfied, my screen did have two ‘fixed’ pixels (unliked ‘dead’ pixels, ‘fixed’ or ‘stuck’ pixels can sometimes change back to normal over time). However, that is nothing compared to some of the other quality control problems out there at the time, with many screens being far more defective. The DS did not have these quality control problems, but it would have it’s own with the ‘cracked hinges’ becoming a huge problem later on.

With two strikes against the PSP at launch, the only thing that could keep it from failing would be for Sony to really push software, and for a time they did. The DS didn’t have quite the library to compete, and merely sold based off of being a Nintendo handheld, or the fact that it was something different (though most launch games barely took advantage of this fact). The first title that not only took advantage of the new advances of the DS, but was also fun to play was probably WarioWare: Touched!. From the DS’s launch until Spring of the following year, there was absolutely nothing coming out. And this was Sony’s real chance to take over and become the dominant one of the two early on. But unfortunately, bad press and the lack of advertising buried the PSP once the DS picked up steam, though it held on for quite some time. It was when the DS Lite finally launched that the PSP was, in a sense, doomed.

“With this new iteration of the DS, Nintendo held all the cards.”With this new iteration of the DS, Nintendo held all the cards. Flashy, cheap, and even more portable, the DS Lite is quite possibly the best-looking hardware to come from Nintendo. Sony would counter with the PSP Slim in late 2007, and while it continues to sell fairly well, the DS Lite is obviously outselling it by a ridiculously high margin. At present, the PSP is still struggling to catch up in sales, though it has seen temporal spurts in sales due to the likes of Monster Hunter Portable 2nd and Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core in Japan, and other various titles in NA and Europe.

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So in what does all this matter? Well, it seems to me that gamers are suffering regardless of what system they choose, even if one decides to support both. The Gameboy Advance library is easily one of the best simply because it had such a great variety of old and new titles, many of them being true to their predecessors while incorporating changes that progressed them to greater lengths than ever before. The classics, such as The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past, Super Mario Bros. 3, Final Fantasy IV-VI, Kirby’s Adventure, etc, are all present, as well as newer entries and extensions like Metroid Fusion, The Legend Of Zelda: The Minish Cap, Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald, and F-Zero: Climax. And of course, there are entirely new franchises altogether, such as WarioWare Microgame$ that would go on to spawn several sequels on the GCN, Wii, and DS.

“It seems to me that gamers are suffering regardless of what system they choose, even if one decides to support both”Frankly, I would like to see Nintendo focus more on making a library that included a lot more titles like these, and less on the non-games that seem to saturate the market. The DS obviously supports GBA games, and therefore one could say that I could still enjoy those previously listed titles on the DS. But what happens in the future when the inevitable dropping of the GBA slot occurs, be it in a new DS model or a next-generation piece of hardware? As Nintendo focuses on what makes them more money (which I am not criticizing as any good business should obviously go where the money is), hardcore gamers are seemingly left to play whatever slim pickings are on the market. Already we have most of the ‘big’ franchises released, including The Legend Of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass, the previously listed New Super Mario Bros., and Metroid Prime: Hunters, but that is surely not enough. It sounds foolish, but what the DS needs is more of the same from what we got before. No more gimmicky controls thrown in just because it’s possible. Why do I have to control Link with the stylus if I don’t want to? It’s entirely possible to play without the touch controls, and yet I am forced to do so just because the game is on the DS. Why not have the choice? At least do it this generation until the adjustment to these new ways to play has been completed.

And what of the PSP? Is Sony just going to give up and try again later? For those that own a PSP and follow it actively, this is definitely not the case. With more and more new features and capabilities added each firmware update, and with an ever-growing library of games that more hardcore gamers will want, the PSP can still succeed in the hearts and minds of gaming enthusiasts regardless of sales. This handheld is the embodiment of the idea that just going through the motions and release standard hardware with emphasis on power over new ways to play, and it shows that it still not only has an audience, but that games can still be fun and evolve on something with a D-Pad and 4 face buttons.

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It may seem I am celebrating the idea of releasing the same stuff once again in lieu of change, and in a sense I am. We don’t necessarily have to keep making the same games over and over again, but I don’t believe we have scratched the surface of maxing out the potential with traditional controls and ideas, so why should we be forced to skip ahead to something we’re not all ready for?

“It’s also not about quantity, but quality”Sony’s handheld is hardly the perfect hardware, and it has many flaws that inhibit it from being a strong portable device, including fundamental design flaws that should have been fixed in this day and age, such as having such a fragile build and screen, and utilizing such a weak and uncomfortable input device like the ‘nub’. UMD was also not fully thought through, though problems with load-times have been corrected with the new PSP.

It may benefit Sony to take a note or two on design from Nintendo, and for Nintendo to realize that there really needs to be a higher ratio of software that isn’t just for their newest audience, and that not everyone is ready to move away from what they’re used to quite yet. It’s also not about quantity, but quality, and this is clear if you look at the short-lived Neo Geo Pocket, which had such a small library, and yet most of the games released are still some of the best seen yet on any handheld. What exactly has happened between the demise of the GBA and the rise of the DS? The market has shifted greatly, and for now it seems Nintendo is poised to reign supreme once again should they follow the DS’s footsteps and release something similar. How will Sony counter? Will they too try and tap into the grandmothers and housewives by selling something they too can enjoy? Only time will tell.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2008.

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