Though dedicated handheld consoles may no longer be popular, portable gaming devices are seeing renewed success thanks to devices like Nintendo Switch and Steam Deck.
The PSP and PS Vita both struggled against smartphone market dominance, yet Nintendo Switch has reignited interest in portable gaming. Is this a new era or simply another phase?
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1. They’re not dying
Mobile gaming is often blamed for the decline of dedicated handheld consoles, yet these consoles continue to exist and evolve into something entirely new.
The development of handheld consoles is truly astounding. What was once just a pocket-sized device has blossomed into an all-in-one console capable of playing triple A experiences both at home and on-the-go – not only Nintendo is taking advantage of this opportunity to reach different audiences; major console companies Sony and Microsoft are entering this hybrid market by offering their own handhelds.
When the PlayStation Vita first hit shelves, its innovative design won widespread acclaim. Equipped with a 5-inch OLED touchscreen and backtouch panel for remote game streaming capabilities, this console was not enough to compete with smartphones at that time and failed to meet expectations.
Many were led to believe that handheld gaming had come to an end due to smartphone gaming’s increasing influence; but in truth, Vita’s failure is less due to smartphones than due to it having been released at precisely the wrong time against an established competitor.
The DS line of consoles unfortunately did not make an impression with gamers, although not for lack of trying. They offered many incredible innovations ahead of their time but just couldn’t compete against smartphones in terms of appeal.
Nintendo’s Switch remains one of the only handheld devices that have managed to remain relevant among an increasingly competitive handheld market. Although not as groundbreaking as its predecessor, DS, Switch nonetheless did an incredible job of keeping this market alive with record sales and its ability to provide both portable and tabletop gameplay options.
The Switch may not be the last handheld console ever made, but it could mark its demise as traditional handheld consoles become less desirable over time. That is fine; smartphones now support many of the same games you could find on handheld consoles so it is no longer necessary to spend several hundred dollars on a device you will likely only use occasionally.
2. They’re evolving
Though mobile gaming may be the go-to method of choice for video game enjoyment, handheld consoles remain an integral part of the industry. Not only can you use them to access AAA titles but they provide something mobile gaming doesn’t: an actual physical device dedicated solely for playing games.
Handhelds offer more of an intimate gaming experience than home consoles, making them better suited to traditional RPGs where the screen is in front of your face. Plus, their compact form factor means they’re ideal for travel or taking to school; Game Boy was one of the most successful handhelds ever because its unique gameplay experience couldn’t be replicated via smartphones at that time.
As technology has advanced and phone screens become sharper and sharper, handhelds have seen their market decline; that’s partly why Nintendo Switch is so successful – offering gamers an excellent gaming experience similar to that offered on home consoles and boasting an extensive library of games as well.
There are still dedicated handhelds out there, but none have achieved the success that Nintendo’s handhelds did. Sony’s PSP was surprisingly powerful but couldn’t match up to Nintendo’s affordable and approachable offerings.
Similar to its counterpart, the 3DS also suffered initial setbacks but managed to recover thanks to exclusive content and an affordable price point.
Now, however, handhelds are experiencing a renaissance due to advancements in technology. The Nintendo Switch stands as an exemplar in this regard and boasts incredible game power thanks to its advanced hardware; other similar handhelds include Valve’s Steam Deck for PC games on the go; Panic’s Playdate from Panic; and Analogue’s Pocket from Analogue which will be released sometime before 2021.
3. They’re not dead
Nintendo still dominates handheld gaming with their 3DS and Switch handheld systems, and this market is headed into an exciting era of indie-centric curated apps (Apple Arcade), streaming services (such as the Switch itself) and throwback charm (no more so than with the Switch itself). There is even an emerging best portable gaming console PC option called Steam Deck that is relatively complex to setup but offers a massive library of free titles.
Mobile gaming is here to stay and won’t go anywhere anytime soon; major publishers aren’t spending billions of dollars on free-to-play for no good reason. Tablets are ideal for casual games while on the move; for an enhanced experience though, dedicated devices with long battery lives may be required.
The PlayStation Vita and 3DS were two handheld consoles that initially faltered in their early years before rebounding thanks to affordable prices and exceptional game lineups. Of particular significance is the PlayStation Vita as it marked one of the last generations of handhelds featuring truly innovative games such as Patapon and Loco Roco as well as cinematic stories and blockbuster titles like The Last of Us.
Sony’s move is even more surprising given their failures have little to do with smartphones; rather they stem from treating handhelds poorly while pitting them against more robust competitors.
Sony may follow its pattern with their next handheld console release, though there’s no telling. Perhaps they could experiment and introduce something unique; then we may witness a handheld console renaissance! Let’s hope so!
4. They’re not dying
There was once a time when many believed handheld gaming consoles were on their way out. Mobile gaming had seemingly stolen all their thunder since smartphones could now run graphic-intensive titles with ease.
But that was far from the case; Nintendo managed to keep the handheld gaming market alive with their DS and 3DS consoles, even if they weren’t as successful as previous handheld game consoles they still sold enough units to sustain its viability as an industry.
Sony responded to Nintendo and their DS consoles by developing their Playstation Portable (PSP). This handheld device was ahead of its time, offering graphic power comparable to what the PS2 could achieve at that point in its lifespan and offering UMD movies for entertainment options.
The PSP sold over 80 million units and became a favorite among fans of fighting games, indie titles, and RPGs. Unfortunately, its commercial failure led Sony to discontinue producing their handheld gaming system; though that may be disappointing news to PSP enthusiasts at large, Sony likely realized it wasn’t necessary juggling both systems at once; after all, they had already developed Xbox home console systems successfully at that point.
Competing against Nintendo was no easy feat; their handheld console market leadership had established themselves firmly over time. While the 3DS underperformed when compared with its predecessor DS, it still managed to sell 70 million units – an amazing accomplishment considering this console was effectively just an improved DS 1.5!
The Nintendo Switch is currently one of the hottest handheld consoles on the market thanks to its hybrid design and wide variety of games. However, whether or not its popularity will sustain itself and keep handheld consoles alive remains to be seen; should that happen it would certainly make for an exciting handheld renaissance!