Evolution of Handheld Gaming
George Orwell had big predictions for 1984, but it was 1989 when a different revolution took place — the birth of handheld gaming. Nintendo launched the very first Game Boy and its various iterations sold a whopping 118 million units, making it the bestselling gaming console of all time.
Handheld consoles still exist as a niche product today, but gaming is thriving on smartphones and tablets in 2014. It was a long transition from Nintendo to Apple and Android, with tons of interesting changes in between.
Nintendo Game Boy (1989)
Let’s come back to the Game Boy for the moment. At the time, Nintendo was a gaming powerhouse. The company was already enjoying tons of success with the NES and had tons of resources to pour into the Game Boy — it had a huge game selection and cost an affordable $109 at launch. There were other handheld systems before the Game Boy but they were, well, terrible. It can’t be stated enough how much this one device started it all.
Nintendo DS, 3DS (2004, 2011)
Nintendo took things up quite a few notches when it released the DS in 2004. It featured two screens, the second of which could be used to display additional information like maps. It also had touch-screen capabilities that could be used with a finger or stylus. Up to 16 players could link up using Nintendo’s LAN or networking capabilities. The DS had voice recognition that allowed connected users to chat with one another. The 3DS continued the evolution, with improved 3D graphics that did not need glasses to view.
Sega Game Gear (1991)
Nintendo’s biggest rival wasn’t going to let the handheld wars be won without a fight. Sega quickly launched the Game Gear just two years later and gave the device an upgrade — a backlit, colored screen. The numbers don’t touch Nintendo, but the Game Gear did sell enough units to call it a success: 11 million. Its biggest downfall was extremely short battery life, as the Game Gear’s backlit screen would absolutely devour AA batteries.
Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) (2004)
Jump ahead 13 years, and Nintendo’s marketshare kept growing with consoles like Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance and Game Boy DS. Sega made a few more attempts at the handheld world but ultimately conceded to Nintendo. Now there was a new big player in the game — Sony.
In 2004, the Playstation 2 was the most popular console in the world and Sony was just a few years away from releasing the Playstation 3. The Sony PSP aimed to be awesome for all the same reasons we loved the Game Gear with none of the pitfalls. It had a super sharp, backlit LCD screen, a huge library of games and a much better battery life (also, no more replaceable AA’s). And it worked like a charm — the PSP sold 80 million units.
Sony PS Vita (2011)
Not content to rest on its handheld laurels, Sony launched the PS Vita in 2011. It delivered console-level functionality, increased memory and the ability to connect to 3G networks to make it a full-fledged multi-media device. SlashGear called it “without a doubt the most advanced and awesome mobile gamine unit in the short history of mobile gaming units.” But with an expensive retail price of $250 and the necessity to buy proprietary media cards, sales suffered.
Apple iPhone (2007)
This is where handheld gaming makes its biggest shift. Other cell phone companies like Nokia made attempts at mobile gaming, but it wasn’t until the iPhone launched it 2007 that the trend really stuck. There are three big reasons why it worked so well for Apple:
The iPhone’s touchscreen gave developers the freedom to make any type of game controls they wanted.
No more cartridges or discs; all games are 100 percent downloadable.
Anyone can develop games for the App Store; the market no longer belongs to big companies.
These games are cheap. Like, really, really cheap.
Number three is the big one. Games like Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies didn’t come from EA and Activision, they came from independent developers. And when I say these games are cheap, most of them cost five dollars or less. Many of them are even free to play online.
Dedicated handheld gaming consoles are still around, but it’s a very niche market. When you look at how easy and affordable it is to game on your phone (and the tech has finally caught up), it’s likely that this is the way we’ll game for a very, very long time.
About: Peter Biu
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