Examining the Handheld Console Arena
By Eric Ashley (@flapjackashley)
Nintendo has long been the Gold Standard when it comes to the Handheld Console Arena. From the moment the big, bulky Game Boy debuted in 1989, Nintendo has won the handheld market every generation since then, and the races haven’t even been close. Despite often having inferior hardware, Nintendo’s handhelds outsold their competitors by embarrassingly large numbers. They became the company that everyone wanted to emulate, but could never come close to matching. Whether it was the original Game Boy, fueled by a little game that was called Tetris, or last generation’s Nintendo DS (which went on to sell over 153 million units worldwide), Nintendo is nearly invincible in this area. Even with the rise of smart phones and tablet casual gaming that was supposed to void the need for dedicated handheld video game devices, the current Nintendo 3DS was 2013’s top selling game system worldwide, and has tallied over 61 million in sales since its 2011 launch.
But what about the losers that Nintendo steamrolled over? Beyond their poor sales, did they bring anything to the table that left a mark on the industry? Let’s take a closer look at some of the memorable pretenders.
GAME GEAR: Sega Does What Nintendon’t
Sega was in the middle of a fierce war with Nintendo for the home console 16-bit market, and they wanted to further that rivalry with a handheld of its very own. The Game Gear was released in North America in 1992 for $149 and outshined the Game Boy in every possible facet – superior graphics on a full color backlit screen, an optional TV tuner and higher quality sound. So where did Sega’s Handheld Child go wrong? Two words: Battery Life.
Because of the backlit screen, the 6 AA batteries that it took to power the Game Gear would last barely 3-5 hours – or a small fraction of the 30 hours Game Boy could run on just four batteries. The Game Gear was deemed as being not very portable for a portable system for this reason, and sales were low. Despite some inventive Sega trademark advertising (including a memorable one with a dog who only saw in pea green colors of Game Boy as opposed to the full colors in Game Gear), the system sold only 11 million units – although that would be a number Sega would have loved to have later on with it’s Saturn and Dreamcast consoles. It placed second to the Game Boy in that generation, although ahead of the Atari Lynx and NEC’s TurboExpress – which had a better name than it had games.
ATARI’S LAST (Handheld) CAT
Atari also had a fighter in the Handheld Wars in the form of the Lynx, debuting at $179.95 in 1989 – just a month after the Game Boy itself hit store shelves. The system itself was long and not the easiest to carry around. It experienced moderate success, selling approximately half a million units in 1990. Atari redesigned the console and rereleased it at a lower price point ($99) the following year. In 1994, Atari moved its focus away from the Lynx and onto the Jaguar, its “64-bit” home console, and total system sales figures are hard to come by to this day.
The Lynx is notable for being the first full color handheld gaming device (predating the aforementioned Sega Game Gear by a year), and having full backlit capabilities. This affected battery life, naturally, and it could only last a portion of what the Game Boy was capable of, although it was slightly longer than the Game Gear. There were also three different cartridge formats manufactured over the lifespan, each with a slightly modification in its core design. Not one “system selling” game was released for the Lynx, and certainly none would approach the phenomenon of Tetris. The Lynx would be discontinued officially in 1996, although, as with many niche systems, there are still small circles of rogue programmers and fans who continue to produce code for the system – with a cartridge game coming out as recently as 2009.
GAME.COM: The First dot com Failure
Possibly the most interesting challenger in the Handheld Wars was the peculiar Game.com, which Tiger Electronics released in 1997. It took on Nintendo in many forward-thinking ways, emulating the Game Link cable that could connect multiple systems for a multiplayer experience, and predating the Nintendo DS with an innovative touch screen and use of a stylus by almost eight years. It also had a dial up modem built in so you could connect to a phone line and check your email and upload high scores to online leaderboards.
Unlike the Atari Lynx, Game.com was supported by many major publishers. Games such as “Sonic Jam” (by Sega, who was not yet a third party-only publisher at the time), “Mortal Kombat Trilogy”, “Duke Nukem 3D” and “Resident Evil 2” all made appearances on the system. Sounds like the recipe for a major success, doesn’t it?
The one glaring drawback proved to be its downfall. For all of its innovation and top games, the screen was a blurry, LCD dot matrix, pea-green throwback to the original Game Boy. Imagine what “Resident Evil 2” would look like on a screen like that, and then try to imagine it being remotely playable. An update (called the Game.com Pocket Pro) was released and was ignored by everyone, and not even carried in many retail outlets. The Game.com officially was put to rest in 2000 after barely over three years in the market.
SONY PLAYSTATION PORTABLE:
After many years of rumors, Sony finally entered the handheld market in 2005 in North America, less than a year after the Nintendo DS had hit store shelves. Sony was riding high on the monster success it experienced with the PlayStation 2, which is currently the best selling video game console of all time. The PSP bested the DS in every way with superior graphics – some being nearly on par with a PS2 itself. Sony chose to go with a proprietary format for its game discs – a mini disc-like creation called the UMD – and it allowed for long games and even full length movies to be played on the system.
Sony, though, experienced some success with the PSP, as it was the first system to really feel like a portable version of a home console. The PSP sold over 53 million units worldwide, which is the most of any of Nintendo’s handheld competitors, but still was a mind-boggling 100 million units less than what the DS topped out at.
SONY PLAYSTATION VITA:
Sony’s latest handheld, the PlayStation Vita, was released to a lot of fanfare but an astronomical price of $249 and $299 (for Wifi and 3G). The $249 price matched the price tag that the Nintendo 3DS started at and struggled with, but unlike the 3DS, the Vita remained at that level for a year and a half before it saw it’s price go down to more affordable levels. Much like the PSP that came before it, the Vita was released after Nintendo’s current handheld (in this case, it was the Nintendo 3DS) and is superior hardware-wise in nearly every sense. It’s front touch screen is absolutely gorgeous to look at, and its rear touch panel (which is rarely used, except in the case of a game like Tearaway) was equally as innovative. Cross platform play also pushed the Vita to new levels, with Vita gamers being able to compete with PS3 competitors in games like PlayStation Battle Royale. Add in smartphone-like features like Skype and location-based services, and you have yourself a system that is more than a game machine.
Despite the future looking compelling for the Vita (it can be used as a second screen and remote play like the gamepad for the Wii U, as well as stream classic games via the PlayStation Now gaming service), sales have been decidedly worse than the PSP that came before it. Although it is beginning to see some success in Japan, it’s dismal North American numbers hold it to around 7 million sales worldwide – or a small fraction of the 40+ million the 3DS has enjoyed. Even with Sony porting some major heavy hitters to the handheld, including “Little Big Planet” – one of their top selling franchises, the Vita has yet to gain any traction in the shrinking portable gaming market place. A relaunch of the system that features a slimmer unit and better battery life (at the cost of a slightly lower resolution screen) is set for North American release at the end of this May, so the final verdict is not closed yet on the Vita’s bid to become a major portable gaming force to be reckoned with.
THE 3DS AND BEYOND
So is there any company that can finally dethrone Nintendo from its handheld throne? The biggest threat one would would think would be Sony, and they haven’t been much of a threat at all. When you add up lifetime sales of all Nintendo handhelds combined, it would easily approach the 300 million mark. The 3DS is proving to be Nintendo’s savior when it struggled with its home console, the Wii U.
But Nintendo’s future isn’t disaster-proof. It’s franchises are getting older with each passing generation of gamers. Nintendo’s online network and regulations are severely outdated. And aside from a “Kirby” game and “Super Smash Bros.” (which is making its handheld debut), 2014 is pretty bare as far as major game releases – especially in comparison to the blockbuster year that 2013 was.
Despite all of its success, Nintendo is vulnerable. Its just a question as to who will step up to the plate? The main rival may be Nintendo itself, as the Nintendo Switch is a hybrid home/portable console that will eventually render the 3DS and any successor to it a moot point. Nintendo has stated that the 3DS still has a “long life ahead of it”, but I see that as saying it is an insurance policy – because if the Switch fails, the 3DS will continue to be a workhorse much like it has been over the past couple of Wii U years.
The 3DS has been my favorite handheld, with its Virtual Console and a library of strong games. But is it the last dedicated handheld that I’ll ever play, thanks to the Switch? I’m not sure, but I am very thankful for the memories that handheld gaming has brought me.