Gamers these days get divided into a lot of different groups: casual, hardcore, console, PC, etc. One category you don’t often hear is “handheld”. Handheld gaming tends to be seen as a sort of amusing spinoff of gaming. It’s something you do on a lunch break, or sitting in a waiting room. In the endless “console wars”, or the “consoles VS Gabe’s Legion” debate, dedicated handhelds get a bit lost in the shuffle. Of course you’ll get the odd remark about “Vita VS 3DS”, but by and large you rarely hear about dedicated handheld gaming as a genre unto itself. Obviously the story is a bit different in places like Japan, where handhelds are practically issued at birth it seems, but even then it’s usually more out of lifestyle necessity than a conscious decision. Work and school schedules are so long, and public transport so pervasive, that gaming on the go is often the most viable option. Plus, handhelds are where you can hunt all the monsters, and catch all the Pokemon. Here in the West, it’s different. Handheld sales are much lower, and those who do buy them generally get them as more of a diversion than a platform choice.
Well, I am here today to formally and proudly announce my status as a “Handheld Gamer”. That’s right; my preferred platform to game on is handhelds. I don’t mean I enjoy gaming on handhelds, I mean given the option I will always actively choose to play a game on a handheld before any other platform. Handhelds have been my gaming home since the Game Boy Color. Otherwise, I use my PC. I haven’t even owned a modern console in several years. I’m a bit of an oddity. I bought a PS Vita on launch day and played it almost every single day for over a year. You know, the one with “no games”? I have my 3DS XL next to me as I type this, I’m in the midst of a heated battle in Fire Emblem: Awakening. I’m not going to go into a debate over physical buttons VS touchscreens, or game libraries, or processing power. I want to talk about what handhelds can provide that no other gaming platform out there can: the unique experiences. It’s these experiences that tend to be forgotten about, or glossed over whenever the Great Platform Debate comes up. Handheld gaming isn’t something that should be relegated to bus rides, it’s something that gamers should be embracing the way they do consoles.
Let’s start off with one of the more obvious dividing lines – controls. I don’t mean the debate over touchscreens and physical buttons. I mean how completely unique controlling a portable game can be. I prefer dedicated handhelds over Android/iOS not because the physical buttons exist and “that’s the only way games should be played”, but because they add options. Options that no other gaming platform can truly provide. Let’s take a look at the Xbox 360. Occasional Kinect usage aside, the only real viable way to control your game is by clicking buttons. It’s limiting. So how about the PS3? Same thing, only with some rudimentary motion control tossed in. Okay, so that’s another option, but it doesn’t work as well as it could. Of course you have the Wii and its whole thing, but it went the other way and managed to make the buttons feel like an afterthought instead. Now the other side of the spectrum – tablets and the like. You get some motion control, and swiping at a screen. The motion control experience is different from what’s on consoles, and in some cases better owing to the screen moving with you. The touch interface provides a whole new form of interaction, but the buttons are gone. So now you have a whole new set of limitations. Okay so you grab a Bluetooth controller, for some often poorly implemented controls and loss of realistic portability.
That leaves us with dedicated handhelds. They have most of the physical buttons of a console, usually well implemented. In modern form, they offer the touch screen interaction and motion controls that dominate the mobile space. Sometimes you even get to use voice controls, or even visual controls with cameras. Multiple screens, touchpads, light sensors, you name it. Nothing else out there can provide so many different ways to play a game in one place, aside from maybe Nintendo’s mixed results trying to replicate this on the WiiU.
So that’s the physical, but what about the emotional? What else is it that makes portables so great? For me it’s the intimacy with having that game in my hands. It’s not the controller, it’s the game, right there in my hands. Wearing a set of headphones, no matter where I am, I can melt into my own virtual world. Sitting on the couch playing on a screen across the room just doesn’t “feel” the same. Plopped in a chair, with a mouse and keyboard sprawled across the desk doesn’t either. There’s just something about having that game, that world, that story, right there in my hands all to myself that really sets it apart. Nobody else around me can hear what I’m hearing, or see what I’m seeing. It’s just me and my game. This adventure is mine and mine alone.
Of course this is all little more than potential at this point. None of these things matter if there aren’t any games to take advantage of all this. Thankfully, there is a great plethora of games that do exactly that. Portables can offer some of the best gaming out there, because they have to. As technically impressive as something like the Vita is, it will never be able to keep up with a console, let alone even a moderate PC. Handhelds are inherently limited in what they can do in graphics and processing, which takes away what has become a horrible crutch for developers over the last couple generations. With handhelds, you can’t hide your derivative, or badly designed, or just plain boring game behind a sheen of pretty pixels. Gameplay is king again. Of course there is plenty of phoned-in shovelware, but for every Call of Duty Black Ops: Declassified, or Imagine Fashion Designer, there is a LittleBigPlanet Vita, an Animal Crossing: New Leaf, Pokemon X/Y, or the upcoming Tearaway. Gravity Rush just wouldn’t be at all the same on the PS3. Not to mention how great it is to be able to re-play older console games anywhere I choose, sometimes in better form than the original. Chrono Trigger DS, Persona 4 Golden, and the (hopefully) releasing soon Final Fantasy X/X2 HD come straight to mind. Ocarina of Time at the doctor’s office people! It’s like living in my 12 year old self’s dream world.
The best part is that I can have all of this anywhere. Any time. No need for a TV and a living room. No need for a desk and a full PC setup. I don’t need to lug around a laptop, or worry that my phone’s battery might die. I can just flip open my 3DS or wake up my Vita, toss my earbuds on, and I can have this completely unique, full featured gaming experience. Anyone who feels the same as I do understands the frustration when people proclaim that handhelds are dead, or when they are passed off as just something to amuse the kids in the car. If you don’t understand how I feel, well maybe you should give handhelds a shot. Instead of letting your 3DS collect dust until the next train ride, spend some quality time with it right there on the couch. Or in bed, or better yet: lying out in the back lawn under your favorite shady tree. I am a handheld gamer for life.