With the recent launch of the Nintendo 3DS, and Sony’s NGP on the distant horizon, handheld video game systems appear better than ever. Improved graphics, touch-sensitive controls, 3G Internet connections, and more are paving the way for portables to compete on par with consoles. Even though I own a DSi, PSP, iPhone, and iPad, and have owned a GameBoy Color and Sega Game Gear in the past, I still find it difficult to really get invested into this form of gaming.
In 1991 Sega released their first handheld system into the North American retail market. Called the Game Gear, the device performed comparably different to the already released Nintendo Game Boy; I wanted one and eventually, at age six or seven, I got one. I spent hours ignoring my NES and Genesis to stare at a smaller screen that I could hold in my hands while playing Streets of Rage, Mortal Kombat, and Sonic the Hedgehog. I already owned these titles on consoles, but it didn’t matter. I was young, an only child, and wielded the power of virtual entertainment that I could carry in my backpack.
Thinking back, I probably only played it for a few months before my interest dwindled and I returned to the trusty tube-television for my fix. The Game Gear was still great for when I wanted to sneak some playtime in before going to sleep, though the anticipated longevity of use fell far short of prediction and promise to my parents.
By the age of twelve I had amassed quite a collection of systems and titles to the envy of my friends; I was that kid. My mother should have foreseen the monster she inadvertently created and limited my consumption, though as a single and lonely parent she did her best to satisfy my amusement while juggling multiple jobs to keep us warm, safe, and full. Hey Mom: I turned out okay, so no worries.
By 1998 Nintendo had already infected the U.S. with their spectacular reputation. The NES, Super Nintendo, Game Boy, and Game Boy Pocket had dominated over the Arari Lynx, Sega Game Gear, and even Nintendo’s own Virtual Boy. To further combat the introduction of color screens in the handheld scene, they released the Game Boy Color during the holiday season and continued to look down upon the industry from above.
Due to choosing Sega’s system over the original Game Boy, I had missed a plethora of games that had come out in the last five years. Over the next few months I played through The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX, Pokemon Red, Star Wars (A New Hope), and more. I squeezed a lot out of the system in a short time span, to my own detriment because, once again, I burnt out.
Let’s skip ten years ahead to 2008 when I purchased a Nintendo DSi, a marvelous little technology to behold with its black matte finish that didn’t show grease and its surprisingly long battery life. Initially, I only bought one game: Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift. Having never fully experienced the original Tactics on the PlayStation, nor the Game Boy Advance version, I dictated A2 the premiere title for the new console purchase. From there I embarked on a 100-hour voyage across the lands of Ivalice whilst strategically defeating monsters and completing quests. It was a magical event despite it cramping my hands.
After Tactics I eventually went on to pick up Professor Layton and the Curious Village, Yoshi’s Story, Civilization Revolution, remakes of Final Fantasy 3 and 4, and the only other DS game I’ve actually completed: Radiant Historia. I now look over at my shelf and see what I’ve bought, played fifteen minutes to an hour of, and put down to collect dust. I ineffectively persuade myself to play them, but it either doesn’t happen or does in brief stints. I seemingly have a subconscious aversion to the system. Where is my desire? Why can’t I fully enjoy this brilliant handheld beyond a mere two games?
2009 changed my life forever. With the acquisition of my degree, first desk job in the graphic design field, and first chance to make any sort of substantial amount of money I treated myself to an iPhone 3GS. Apple’s revolution to the cell phone industry had already opened up a wormhole to a world of mobile gaming. I could easily log into the App Store from anywhere and download bite-sized fun on the go. The concept floored me.
After playing some of the chart-topping titles of the time, I eventually dove in deep with Plants vs. Zombies from developer PopCap Games. This wasn’t the first time I encountered the tower-defense genre but it cemented my admiration of it. PvZ is a masterfully crafted, one-screen game in which you use plants to defend your house from waves of hungry zombies. By collecting sun-stars from either the sky or from sunflowers, you spend said points to build and reinforce your defenses. It features a myriad of defensive choices to combat the variety of enemy classes.
However, after that I fell back to my old habits of owning mobile devices. The iPhone turned into a simple phone with extreme practically designed for productivity. The only other game I spent any considerable amount of time with had been Danger Cats! by Joe Kauffman. Even after three playthroughs, and although I enjoyed my time with both games, any others concluded to merely five-minute distractions.
In 2010 I bought an iPad because, well, it’s an iPad. The device is perfect for reading the web away from a lap or desktop computer, doing research combined with a nice day outside and a notepad, and, apparently, gaming. I scoured the iPad’s App Store for so-called “must-haves”, though each disappointed me more than the last; none enthralled or captivated me. Even my most recent experience with Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP cannot keep me glued to the tablet. S&S:EP is a fabulous point-and-click adventure with an enchanting musical score, but I can’t stay focused when I play it.
Am I destined to repeat this pattern forever? Is there something different about sitting down with a controller and staring at a television, or at a desk with a mouse and keyboard, that the handheld experience just can’t deliver? Is it the graphics, control scheme, seating position, or history with consoles that drives my affinity towards them?
It’s now 2011 and I recently purchased a first-generation PlayStation Portable and a single game. Can you guess which one? I bought Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions. Any dedicated handheld gaming device I ever buy seems destined to become the Tactics machine. Although instead of engrossing myself back into the world of Ivalice, I have only ever put a total of two to five hours into it. I haven’t picked up my PSP now in months except to move it from one location in my room to another.
I’m not even excited for the 3DS. I couldn’t care less about the gimmicky, headache-inducing 3D mechanic. I only want the new technology, Legend of the Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3DS remake, and inevitable Tactics 3DS version. 250 dollars stands as a steep price point for two games, so maybe I’ll eventually get around to buying one after Nintendo releases its third iteration of the system and the original drops to around 100 bucks. Even then, I’ll probably buy those two games, and any others that may pique my interest, and barely even play them.
Even with Sony’s PlayStation Portable 2, codenamed “NGP”, on the way I just can’t seem to get excited for handheld devices like I can for next-generation consoles or desktop computers. The NGP features too many different control schemes from the traditional twin-sticks to the rear-sided touch pad. Sure enough the thing will play Netflix, have achievements, and come packed with any other attributes that modern gaming systems incorporate; but it just doesn’t matter.
Something has got to give. Either I doom myself, sinking money into handheld gaming forever hoping for a more enjoyable, emphatic experience or I am just going to give up. With mobile phones on the rise to become the predominate source for quick, on-the-go gaming, can dedicated systems from the industry’s powerhouse hardware developers ever make something that will really interest me?