With the ‘retirement’ of the 3DS in 2019, we arguably saw the end of dedicated handhelds. These devices had a long run, with the ‘Game and Watch’ series of handhelds releasing in the 1980s, then Nintendo’s GameBoy dominating in the ’90s, to the highly successful PSP in the 2000s. You could argue that the rise of smartphones and mobile gaming has killed off the dedicated handheld, but the Nintendo Switch (a hybrid system) shows handheld gaming isn’t completely dead, and there’s still a market for it (possibly). Will we ever see a return to the dedicated handheld?
Gaming in the 1980s was obviously less complex than it is today. Technological limitations meant projects were less ambitious, and most games had players competing to beat high scores rather than crafting story-led narratives and adventures. Nintendo released a range of simple handheld LCD gaming devices during this time that starred none other than Mr. Game and Watches from Super Smash Bros. These devices were relatively cheap and sold really well.
Then towards the end of the 1980s Nintendo’s legendary Gunpei Yokoi (developer of the Metroid series) developed a system that was much more advanced (it was built on simple calculator-derived technology), used its own cartridges, and had a nice form factor. This was the original Game Boy. It went on to sell over 100 million units and dominated handheld gaming during the 1990s, driven by titles such as Super Mario Land (1&2), Tetris, and Zelda: Link’s Awakening.
The GameBoy Era
The Game Boy had competition from its main rivals at the time, Sega. After watching the success of Nintendo’s handheld they decided they’d tackle the handheld market and released the Sega Game Gear in 1990 (1991 in North America). This handheld boasted not only a color screen but was backlit (a technology Nintendo didn’t fully adopt for their handhelds until over ten years later). However, mainly due to being backlit the Game Gear was relatively expensive, and although doing well, it didn’t sell anywhere near the numbers of Nintendo’s Game Boy.
The Game Gear had some great games including Sonic ports, Defenders of Oasis (a great little RPG), and its own Shinobi game. However, the console was bulky (even bulkier than the Game Boy) and drained batteries really quickly. Possibly for these reasons, it was discontinued in 1997. Other forays into the handheld space were made around this time and one that’s worth mentioning is the Atari Lynx. This handheld was released in 1990, and again, was bulky, but it was really technologically advanced for its time, boasting color graphics and being backlit, similar to the Game Gear (but released before). Despite these cool features, it didn’t sell well, and the Game Boy easily dominated the handheld market throughout the ’90s.
We can’t really talk about the Game Boy without talking about Pokemon. By 1997 the system had already been out 8 years, but it was about to become a ‘must have’ item again when Nintendo released the original Pokemon games from 1997-1999 in Japan and across the world. I don’t need to tell you that these games involve collecting, and training up ‘pocket monsters’. The gameplay was just so addictive and the games were accompanied by anime and loads of merchandise. Kids everywhere were hooked and this craze continues on to this day (ironically, the mobile version, of Pokemon GO is massively successful, yet probably helped kill the dedicated handheld).
The Game Boy went through a few improved iterations including the Game Boy Colour and Game Boy Advance which brought 16 -bit graphics to the system. This meant Super Nintendo and Genesis-level games were possible on the handheld. Then with the GBA SP in 2003, a backlit Game Boy was finally released. This system, in my opinion, is the best Game Boy. It is backward compatible, backlit, and has a great form factor because it uses a clam-shell design and can easily go into your pocket. There was one last Game Boy iteration released in the form of the GBA Micro in 2005. This system didn’t sell too well and it was the last time that we’ve seen the Game Boy brand. In 2004 we saw the release of what was at the time meant to be a third ‘active’ (with new games being released) device from Nintendo.
The Nintendo DS was released in 2004 and, at the time, people were doubtful that it would succeed with its odd dual-screen design and touch controls. These doubters were very wrong. The Nintendo DS is one of the best-selling videogame devices ever released with over 150 million sales. Its touchscreen controls followed (similarly to Wii) Nintendo’s ‘blue ocean’ strategy of bringing in the ‘casual’ gamer. Games like Brain Training and Mario Kart sold millions and blurred the line between the everyday person that sometimes plays video games and the hardcore fans that live and breathe video games.
Speaking of how people play games, handheld gaming is different from console gaming in that it is a more personal experience. The screen is right in front of your face and multiplayer is less common than with home consoles. Whether you’re playing Pokemon in 1998, Chrono Trigger in 2009, or Majora’s Mask 3D in 2015 these are largely personal experiences hence why handhelds are so suited to traditional RPGs.
Another console that was released at a similar time to the DS was the Playstation Portable. Known as the PSP, this console had incredible graphical power for the time, being on par with the PS2. It also could play UMD movies which worked with Sony’s tactic of marketing its systems as entertainment machines rather than systems with the role of purely playing video games. The PSP did really well and sold over 80 million units. It had great fighting games such as an installment in the Street Fighter Alpha series as well as many RPGs, both turn-based and real-time. However, the DS still sold more units and even though the PSP was a great system with an abundance of power, the DS was cheaper and appealed to a wider range of people.
A Slow Decline
By around 2010/2011, the next (and possibly last) generation of dedicated handhelds was released in the form of the Playstation Vita and the Nintendo 3DS. The Vita could be seen as a more powerful PSP with touchscreen controls while the 3DS had a similar design to the DS but with a larger top screen and the novelty of glasses-free 3D (if you choose to turn it on).
Both handhelds were pricey but had some great exclusives. Including Assassin’s Creed: Liberation on Vita and Fire Emblem: Awakening on 3DS. However, by this point gaming on mobile phones was becoming more popular and both systems struggled in their first couple of years. While the Vita never fully recovered from early poor sales, the 3DS (with a price drop and some good new games) managed to be a success and in the end sold around 75 million units. Both consoles were still having new software released up until around 2020.
Gaming on smartphones has really become a popular thing in the last few years. Simple puzzle games and endless runners are some genres that people play on their phones. However, a problem I see with mobile gaming is that, similarly to what caused the 1983 video game crash, there’s a lack of quality control on mobile. There are thousands of games available, some free, some that you have to pay for. The sheer number and lack of reliable indication of how good a game is can lead to you often finding yourself lost on the Google Play Store and App Store.
It’s such a different space compared to the simplicity of putting in a cartridge or even downloading titles on a dedicated gaming device (maybe because there better indicators of quality on the Nintendo Eshop or Playstation Store). In general, for me, it feels like games on a 3DS or PSP are just more likely to be worthwhile experiences. Plus the input methods (actually having buttons) on handhelds are so much more intuitive than the touch controls on a smartphone.
With smartphone gaming taking a large portion of the market from the 3DS and Vita, and Nintendo having to think of a new strategy to recover from the failure of the Wii U, Nintendo released an innovative hybrid system in 2017. This, of course, was the Nintendo Switch, which has the ability to either be played as a handheld, on a tabletop, or on a TV. This console has been a massive success with over 110 million systems sold. The concept obviously appeals to people and I know maybe 50% of people who play Switch play it almost exclusively in handheld mode (don’t quote me on those specific numbers though).
So there’s still a market for handheld videogame devices but will we ever see a return of the dedicated handheld? Well, there is the Evercade, which is a dedicated handheld currently available that uses cartridges and primarily hosts retro games. There are also loads of ‘retro handhelds’ such as the Anbernic systems which are basically hardware that you play ROMs off. However, neither of these options is selling the kind of numbers that Sony and Nintendo used to do. There is a chance Nintendo could release a GameBoy ‘mini’, similar to the Game Gear ‘micro’ that has recently been released (a novelty console basically). However, a GameBoy ‘mini’ would be expensive because of the need for a decent-quality screen.
Return of Handhelds?
It is also possible that after the Switch Nintendo decide to release a home console and a separate handheld like they used to, but this all depends on what the successor to the Switch will be. I don’t really see them going with this option because, as we know, Nintendo likes to innovate. I think it’s more likely that Nintendo will develop more games for mobile and try to truly conquer that market. If there’s enough demand for it, or Nintendo identifies a gap in the market I could see them releasing a handheld that exclusively uses digital downloads. I know I would definitely buy that if they released it.