Handheld Gaming in a Time of Smartphones

May 01, 2016

The current state of handhelds

Smartphones are ubiquitous: you’ll find them everywhere today. Quite unlike handhelds, actually. From what I hear, handheld gaming is only really popular in Japan, where the PS Vita still sells like hotcakes.

This is funny, seeing as the Vita never got any major traction in the West. The 3DS has had slightly more success: it is still receiving new first party titles from Nintendo and other companies.

As you can see, the 3DS's bottom screen sports a resolution of 320 × 240, which is pretty low-res. The top screen is 800 × 240 (400×240 pixels per eye). Compare that to the Vita's 960 × 544 that's quite a difference.

The jump from DS to 3DS is the largest on the top screen which now also sports a widescreen aspect ratio. As a side note, I'd like to point out that the Nintendo DS - the 3DS' predecessor, is still their most popular product. Nintendo has sold 58.85 million 3DS handhelds, and they have sold 154.02 million DS handhelds. These numbers are from March 2016.

The PS Vita sports a much better screen, which you can see by the size of this screenshot.

To get back to the crux of the matter: I don’t see a lot of handhelds in public (on the train or the like), be it the 3DS or the Vita. Instead, everyone is using their smartphones and tablets. It’s a shame, since there’s a distinct lack of really great full priced games on mobile. It's not easy for developers to make a large game or equivalent to a 3DS game, since profits are an issue: people don't pay as much for apps. These developers that have to make their app cheap or free with in-app purchases.1

I don’t want to go on an elaborate microtransaction rant, I’ve already mentioned that I don’t like them. But seriously, why would you want a dedicated gaming handheld if you can get games on your phone?

First, there’s the fact that this is a separate device. You're not filling your phone’s storage with games, and you’re not wasting your phone’s battery. As someone who uses his phone frequently, having a separate device to play games on saves a lot of battery on my phone.

Secondly, there’s the advantage of having physical buttons to press. While it isn’t a big issue, I feel most games are better with actual buttons. I guess the alternative is getting a controller, but that isn’t easy to carry around. Also, most games are not optimized for a controller.2

My experience with handhelds

Last year in April, I purchased a Nintendo 3DS after much wondering if I should get one. After all, I also have an iPhone and an iPad that I could play games on, and let’s not forget I play most of my games on a dedicated gaming PC (which I use the most often).

So, on a whim, I ordered a New 3DS on my birthday last year, and it arrived the day after. I was immediately in love. I purchased some of the top games (Fire Emblem, Ace Attorney, Bravely Default, Pokemon X) and I got to playing. So far, Fire Emblem Awakening has been my favorite game so far, to the point that I’m actually playing the Gameboy Advance versions on Virtual Console right now. There’s a ton of other great games for the 3DS as well.

After getting my 3DS, I went digging in my closet, and found my old PSP. It had not been turned on for at least three years, if not more. Its screen was pretty scratched up (well, the front-plate was) so I ordered a new one and repaired it.

I repaired my old PSP, and put in a microSD adapter so I have some more storage for ROMS of my games, because those UMD's do get damaged quite quickly.

So the logical next step was considering whether I should get the PSP's successor. I figured: why the hell shouldn’t I get a PS Vita as well? So I got one, and I got a large memory card as well. I really like it. There’s a solid selection of Japanese games on the Vita, along with some launch titles. The games that Sony initially pushed out (like an Uncharted spin-off for the handheld) fell a bit short for me. However, practically speaking, the Vita seriously has superior hardware; the 3DS’ screen is rather poor. It doesn't have a 3D gimmick and games run at a much higher and consistent framerate.

So yeah: I’m really happy with my purchases. If you’re interested in picking one up, I would definitely suggest a 3DS, because you’ve got a wide selection of great games to play on that platform. There’s even more amazing games coming later this year for the 3DS, which is a thing we cannot say about the Vita: the new titles for the Vita are usually ports, and not really major titles.

It’s a bit of a shame.

  1. Yes, we keep seeing more and more games that contain microtransactions; and the games are often built around them: they’re built to make you spend money. Even though they don't cost anything upfront, they are not actually free. 

  2. Perhaps haptic feedback is the future, but we’ll need to see some improvements to existing tech before it’s good enough as an alternative to real buttons. But we’re getting there.