I Was Wrong About Handheld Gaming

I was wrong about handheld video games. Very wrong indeed.

There's a hilarious scene in Malcolm in the Middle. One morning Bryan Cranston's character Hal discovers his youngest son has been carrying a handbag to school each day. Instead of getting all weird, macho and defensive, he empathises. He understands why his young son might want to carry a handbag around. "I can't tell you how many times I've been jealous of your mother and her purse," he says. "You know, we men have to shove our whole lives in a little square of leather, that we then have to sit on."

I don't have much room in my wallet.

When Nintendo and Sony (particularly Sony) announced it was planning to re-enter the handheld market I openly poured scorn on the idea. Why? Why would you do that. Why would you force me to carry two more goddamn devices. Why? My wallet is full. I have to sit on it. It is painfully uncomfortable. These things do not fit well into my pocket. They just don't.

I don't need these bloody things any more.

I said these words to myself. I may have even said them out loud.

I Was Wrong About Handheld GamingS

The year was 2012. I had just bought a tablet. A Nexus 7 to be precise. The screen was large, it was crisp. It was a device that did so much, a device I could easily tailor to my everyday needs. I'd check my email, read books, watch movies, read manga. Even write or edit my own work.

I'd play games. Good games. Very good games in fact. Rayman Jungle Run was one of my favourite games of 2012. Why would I need a handheld? Why did I need two more devices lunking around in my pocket or bag. What was the point even? Who would still buy these things.

My reasoning was relatively unsophisticated. I only have room/time in my life for one device and If I can only fit one device into my pocket/bag/purse/whatever, that device is going to be a mobile phone or a tablet. That device would never be a dedicated games console.

Besides, the potential of mobile gaming, at that particular point in time, felt stratospheric. We had smaller games perfectly suited to quick bursts of play. Games that worked brilliantly on touch screens. Mobile hardware was evolving constantly, evolving rapidly.

At the time I was completely bamboozled at Sony's reasoning. Why was the PlayStation Vita not a phone. Why? If Sony was to make a dedicated gaming console that also worked as phone (the Xperia Play doesn't count — it just doesn't) every single gamer would make that their phone. Why was this not a thing already? Why were we stuck with a more powerful version of the PSP with an extra analogue stick? Why.

Two years later, the situation feels markedly different.

The 3DS, obviously, has sold in droves. Massively successful. The PS Vita hasn't garnered the same commercial success but every single person who owns a PlayStation Vita understands what it is, they understand its value. There is a respect for the niche it has carved into their lifestyles.

I was wrong about handheld consoles. I was wrong about a lot of things.

I was wrong about mobile games. I had assumed that 2012 was the tip of the iceberg in terms of the quality and production quality of mobile games. I assumed that by 2014 we'd be playing mobile games that could match the scope and quality of, say, A Link Between Worlds on my Nexus 7 or the iPad. I assumed that trajectory would rise exponentially. It hasn't. The harsh truth is this: it has plateaued and I find myself ignoring the vast majority of mobile games being released right now.

This week's coverage of mobile gaming has focused on two games: Flappy Bird and Dungeon Keeper. Those games perfectly represent my bird's eye view of mobile gaming. Faddy, compulsive twitch-based play and free-to-play mechanics that subvert all that is good and holy about video games. There are plenty of brilliant, innovative experiences between those two extremes but developers — quite simply — are rarely financially recompensed for creating those experiences. For smaller developers it's far easier to throw simple, dull gimmicky ideas at the wall and hope something sticks. For major publishers? It's all about taking existing valued IP and milking it for all it's worth. TL;DR: it's Flappy Bird or it's Dungeon Keeper. Good games exist, but they're far more difficult to find.

I Was Wrong About Handheld GamingS

I was wrong about my wallet. In this silly extended metaphor the wallet is my life. It is bulky, uncomfortable and it barely fits in my pocket. I have to sit on it. I thought there was no room in my wallet for the experiences that the 3DS and the PlayStation Vita would bring. I wanted to fill that limited space with something a little more seamless — a catch all device like the iPhone or my tablet.

But there were gaps in my life waiting to be filled. Empty slots I had no idea existed. Playing Hotline Miami on the couch while my wife watched The Block. On holiday, on a sun lounger, blasting through a Link Between Worlds. Stuck at Strathfield on a train that won't move, soothing the rage with Luigi's Mansion 2. Wrapped in my blanket — one more run at Spelunky and then sleep.

Handheld consoles adapted. The 3DS and the Vita both found their niche. The Vita: slick, indie games on the move. The in-case-you-missed-it machine. The 3DS: home to brilliantly produced Nintendo experiences with a twist. Has Nintendo ever been as bold and inventive as it has on the 3DS? The device seems to have inspired a new lease of ideas and innovation within existing franchises. Think Super Mario 3D Land. Think A Link Between Worlds.

At one point handhelds seemed doomed to obscurity. Now, today, they feel more relevant than ever. I was wrong about handhelds. Very wrong.


This post originally on Kotaku Australia, where Mark Serrels is the Editor. You can follow him on Twitter if you're into that sort of thing.