It’s Monday and time for Ask Kotaku, the weekly feature in which Kotaku-ites assemble to deliberate on a single burning question. Sometimes a serious one, other times less so; mostly it’s just a nice opportunity to talk more about video games. You down?
This week we Ask Kotaku: What is your favorite gaming handheld of all time?
The PSP-3000 in piano black. Light but substantial. Flashy but elegant. The last gaming handheld designed to be an accessory rather than a console-level main attraction. I love the PS Vita but it’s clunky and overdesigned by comparison. The PSP easily slips into a front pocket and no it doesn’t have analog sticks because no handheld should. The UMDs are garbage, but the hinged loading bay on the back is beautifully mechanical in its construction and lets you play 2006’s Miami Vice the film one minute and 2006’s Miami Vice the game the next.
But it’s my personal favorite because it’s a heavyweight when it comes to tactical RPGs, complete with some of the best from the PS1 era thanks to PS1 Classics, as well as the definitive versions of Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. Jeanne d’Arc deserves to get ported but it never will be. It’s also the best place to play the early Disgaea games, which I’ve spent years chipping away at across long bus rides and late-night waits for the subway. The PSP didn’t try to compete with consoles because it couldn’t, for which I am thankful. It was a niche device that fit perfectly into the spare moments, complementing my life without ever trying to completely take it over.
I should say the Sega Game Gear. I’ve often sung its praises, particularly for being the platform to host the greatest Sonic handheld game of all time. However, as I examine my personal history, one handheld stands above all others as my favorite and most significant: my purple (excuse me, Grape) Game Boy Color.
It was the first video game anything that I owned. And I only owned one game for it, Pokémon Blue. I don’t think seven-year-old me knew what other games I could own for it—Pokémon was my sole concern. The personal significance of the Pokémon franchise is enough to catapult the Game Boy Color to my favorite handheld despite having better experiences with my Game Gear, my Nintendo DS, and hell, even my phone.
I don’t know what happened to it. I kept it for a very long time, even when I had my Game Gear and my PSX. I have no memory of it past a certain apartment I used to live in. That apartment burned up when I was 16, so pretty sure I lost it then.
Logically, I’d say the Switch, what with its revolutionary ability to play console-grade Zelda on the go. Were I feeling snarky and trollish, I’d say “Stadia.” But the true answer is the Game Boy Advance SP. The sheer progression in quality-of-life improvements—the SP introduced both a backlight and a charging cable—over the standard Game Boy Advance puts this technological marvel in a class of its own. That’s to say nothing of how aesthetically pleasing it is. I always thought the GameCube was the first console to look good in a living room, and the Game Boy Advance SP carried the design torch further. Between the sleek lines and the zillion fun yet functional color options, this thing was a true work of art.
Then there’s the small but significant matter of its portability. By folding the thing up, you could fit it into the pocket of any jacket or, if you subscribed to the apocalyptic fashion that existed in 2003, any pair of pants. Throw in a library of terrific, unforgettable games—from Metroid Fusion to Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga to the inarguably best generation of Pokémon games (FireRed, LeafGreen, Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald)—and you’ve got the best handheld console on, well, your hands.
This isn’t going to be a very popular answer. My initial thought upon hearing this week’s topic was something from Nintendo, with one or more screens, starring the usual Nintendo suspects.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my handheld gaming habits have changed a whole lot over the past 13 years. More and more I’m less likely to grab a Nintendo 3DS or my trusty PlayStation Vita. Who needs them when I have my iPhone? Despite Apple’s draconian store moderation, nearly any sort of game imaginable is just a download away on the App Store. Real-time strategy, classic turn-based RPGs, random puzzle games, platformers, rhythm games, sports games, all available at the touch of a capacitive touchscreen.
People complain about mobile games and microtransactions, but I’ve played more games for less money on my iPhone since it debuted in 2007 than any other handheld gaming system I’ve owned. Also, it makes phone calls and plays Fortnite.
Neo Geo Pocket / Color was weird as hell. SNK, bless its heart, released the Japanese NGP in late ‘98... as a black-and-white competitor to the new Game Boy Color. Huh? Not even six months later Neo Geo Pocket Color replaced it, offering stylish shell designs, an unusual, highly clicky microswitch “joystick” (wonderful), built-in horoscopes (v. important), a rarely used Dreamcast link cable (not my best purchase), and barely any third-party support. NGPC was more capable than GBC, but not that much. And corporate antics condemned it to a premature death, not unlike another beloved contemporaneous console.
I loved it. At a time when the venerable but stale Game Boy family failed to move me—it was the millennium, and change was in the air—NGPC delivered an invigorating burst of outsider weirdness. On its menu were chibi arcade tie-ins, no-name, occasionally great oddballs (shout out to Dark Arms), and most notably, the first legit portable fighting games. They’re still a blast to this day (and slowly trickling onto the Switch).
NGPC was the right system at the right time. I was lost and unhappy then—not ready to thrive in college, but unlike SNK, lacking a Plan B—yet I have pleasant memories of playing killer games like Card Fighters’ Clash and Metal Slug 2nd Mission in a parking lot each morning instead of, uh, attending classes.
...Everything eventually worked out, okay?
Runner up: Game Boy Advance is full of the types of 16-bit-style games I love. (Nintendo DS, much less so.) I miss GBA a lot and am looking forward to revisiting it if Analogue Pocket ever materializes.
It’s got to be the Nintendo 3DS. I really liked the GBA SP and was fond of my Nintendo DS, but the 3DS was just the perfect system for me, especially once the New 3DS XL came out, what with its bigger screens and superior stereoscopic 3D.
I loved the system for its games, of course. There were the expected highlights like a terrific Zelda (A Link Between Worlds), a brilliant Fire Emblem (Awakening) and a superb Mario & Luigi (Bowser’s Inside Story). There were entire oddball series polished as only Nintendo-backed games tend to be—multiple Pushmo games, multiple Dillon’s Rolling Westerns, multiple Box Boys. And even weirder: a slew of games that all used the 3DS’ StreetPass system of local, passive, system-to-system data transfer in the service of games about fishing, zombie-hunting and... planting flowers? And I haven’t even gotten to the great Professor Layton games on the system, the 3D Picross games, the libraries of older GBA and Game Boy games, the myriad indies that popped up, the ability for it to transfer over some of my favorite, weird download-only DSi games and so much more. Plus, I liked the 3D effect, finding it made so many of the games I played more interesting to look at.
The 3DS proved to be one of the best canvases for creative game development this side of the PC. It’s a system I’ll forever be backlogged on, because no one person can try all the wonderful games on it in a lifetime.
I don’t think I’ve ever grown attached to anything, living or otherwise, in the same way I did my Game Boy Color. As my first portable system, I was blown away by the sheer amount of gaming it afforded me. I played it in the car on the way to dinner. I played it while taking care of my dogs. I played it in bed, quickly hiding the light attachment whenever I heard footsteps in the hallway. It felt like it was mine in a way home consoles never did.
It’s also how I was introduced to some of my favorite games (and game series) of all time. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say Pokémon Blue changed my life—no video game since has felt quite as expansive or adventurous. My cousin wouldn’t let me play Metal Gear Solid on his PlayStation, so I begged my parents to buy me Metal Gear: Ghost Babel when I stumbled upon it at Wal-Mart. Turns out it’s the best entry in the franchise! And how could I forget Super Mario Bros. Deluxe? I must have completed and restarted that game over a hundred times.
After giving away my entire Game Boy Color collection a while back, my sister recently surprised me with a brand-new Atomic Purple model for Christmas. I don’t break it out all that much anymore, but there’s something comforting about knowing I can, you know? Owning a Game Boy Color as a kid was like getting your first taste of freedom, and while the technology isn’t all that novel anymore, that cute little handheld still holds a special place in my heart.
It surely has to be the DS! The lovely, beautiful, utterly insane DS. It never made sense, a two-screened folding gaming console, but one of the screens was a touchscreen, and you could shout at it to play games. This utter strangeness, this depth of peculiarity, created a spark of imagination in the whole industry, meaning big-name publishers started putting out absolutely bonkers games, right from its launch.
Feel The Magic XX/XY does not feel like a game the Sonic Team ever would have created, nor ever would again. Pac-Pix let you draw hideous mutant Pac-Men and then see them come to gruesome animated life. Kirby: Canvas Curse was a Kirby game that wasn’t boring!
It got so odd in those earliest days that everyone joined in the silly jokes, with multiple franchises thinking of “D.S.” initialisms for their post-colon titles. (Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, Advance Wars: Double Strike, Resident Evil: Deadly Silence… there were squillions of them.) There was even a strange running joke where multiple games’ cover art featured the same outstretched hand. The bizarreness of the DS brought everyone together!
Sure, it didn’t last, and perhaps people’s lasting memory of the DS is the endless slew of cynical shovelware that eventually drowned the poor little blighter. But those first couple of years were something truly special, something I can’t remember any other device having inspired. I stan the DS forever.
Kotaku’s weighed in, but what’s your take? What sort of miniature games player do you like in your pocket? (Assuming it’s not a pants-defying Atari Lynx or something, in which case, what kind of games player do you like in your cavernous gym bag and/or briefcase?) Have your say. We’ll be back next Monday to deliberate and debate on another nerdy issue. See you in the comments!