Handheld Gaming

date
Feb 29, 2024
type
Post
year
slug
handheld-gaming
status
Published
tags
Game
Console
summary
Handheld gaming has always been special, but it has changed over the years. What have we gained? What have we lost? And where do we go from here?
Handheld gaming has always been special. Computer games that fit in your pocket and are ready to go wherever you go? What more is there to say really!
But handheld gaming has changed over the years. - Let’s take a step back, look at the history of handheld gaming, think about what we’ve gained and what we’ve lost along the way and ultimately ramble a bit about the future.

Handheld Electronic Games

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When I was a kid I got a tricOtronic knockoff that was essentially a simplified Frogger, except you were playing a car swerving between other cars on the highway. There were several actual tricOtronics in my circle of elementary school friends and I remember the Octopus one especially well. (The rest of the world knows these devices as Game&Watch, but there were sold as “tricOtronic” in Austria). Those were great, but in retrospect they also … ahem … sucked. Minimal gameplay, annoying sounds - but it was all we had at the time.

Game Boy

Later (sometime in 1990 or ‘91) one of my friends got a Game Boy and oh boy was that a step up! Imagine a group of boys, all huddled up around the tiny screen, taking turns playing Nintendo World Cup. That game is still reasonably fun today, by the way… Then there were Mario, Zelda and Pokémon… And Tetris was of course the killer app of all killer apps.
 
 
 original Game Boy (1989) original Game Boy (1989)
original Game Boy (1989)
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Nintendo World Cup
TetrisTetris
Tetris
Game Boy CartridgeGame Boy Cartridge
Game Boy Cartridge

Game Gear

Then another one of my friends got a Game Gear and initially we were all impressed. But no matter how much the owner kept pointing out the colour screen and the superior performance, the rest of us had tired of Sonic the Hedgehog after a few short weeks and there was nothing else out that was more interesting than anything one could play on the GameBoy.
Game Gear (1990)Game Gear (1990)
Game Gear (1990)
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Sonic the Hedgehog
CartridgeCartridge
Cartridge

PSP

Roughly ten years passed until the next handheld grabbed my attention - the PSP. And my white PSP-1000 is my favourite handheld console to this day!
PSP (2004)PSP (2004)
PSP (2004)
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The fat PSP (as the first version is now known) was pretty comfortable to hold, had an amazing set of features and a lot of good games - from simple puzzlers like Mercury Meltdown and Lumines to charming exclusives like Me and my Katamari or Locoroco all the way to PS2-quality flagship titles like GTA and God of War. And let’s not forget about Wipeout Pure and Wipeout Pulse! And even though Sid Meier’s Pirates was in no way made specifically for the PSP, it worked just so well on it!
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You could put your own music and movies on it and watch and listen on the go. Sony even released movies on UMD. This was all before smartphones, so carrying this around in your pocket felt pretty futuristic at that point in time…

Nintendo DS

The Nintendo DS came out around the same time as the PSP and also had a lot going for it.
Nintendo DS (2004)Nintendo DS (2004)
Nintendo DS (2004)
But mostly more Mario, more Zelda, more Pokemon, Brain Age and the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney ports. Input stylus? Why not, it's an interesting thing to have, but were there ever any games that made actual good use of it? In any case, I appreciate the DS, but personally I stuck to the PSP for the second half of the 2000s.
DS CartridgeDS Cartridge
DS Cartridge
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New Super Mario Bros Trailer
They made a few more confusingly named variants. 3DS, 2DS, New 3DS 🤦, but essentially more of the same.
And then smartphones happened…

iPhone/Android

With the iPhone and the App Store a whole deluge of mobile games came over the world. There were some really good and novel games over the years. Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, Flight Control, Monument Valley, Infinity Blade, maybe even Jetpack Joyride.
I, too, spent a few years of my life making mobile games and had a good time with it…
iPhone 3G (2008)iPhone 3G (2008)
iPhone 3G (2008)
Spider: The Secret of Bryce ManorSpider: The Secret of Bryce Manor
Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor
Flight ControlFlight Control
Flight Control
But there’s one thing that smartphones were really missing: Ergonomics and physical controls. Well, two things. Touch screens are great, but you constantly block your view with your fingers and you don’t get proper haptic feedback. The pleasure of pressing a physical button is not to be underestimated in gaming. 😉 And no, no one carries a gamepad with them - if it’s not part of the device it might just as well not exist.

PS Vita

After the PSP, Sony released the PS Vita. It seems the design team started with a PSP and stuffed everything on top that they could possibly think of. A touchscreen, a second thumbstick, a built-in camera, a SIM-card slot (3G), an OLED screen, the ability to remote-play PS4 games and … a touch-sensitive backside?! Very few games ever used it, but I like it if a game console tries something new and unique, as it enables experiences that are only possible on this specific device.
PS Vita (2011)PS Vita (2011)
PS Vita (2011)
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Look at how Tearaway uses the touchscreen on the back
But on top they added the worst and ugliest user interface I have ever seen. This ruined the Vita a bit for me, to be honest. The PSP had a perfectly fine PS3-style UI, why go all in on wiggling, rotating bubbles? Who thought that would be a good idea?
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Game-wise it was a step down from the PSP era. There were a few okay exclusives (like Tearaway), but not a whole lot of new ideas. Most games were either ports or special versions of preexisting franchises, not too different from games on the PS3 or PS4. So why play them on the Vita? - Just for portability, not due to anything related to unique features. The game that I played the most on the Vita was Minecraft. But at this point cellphones had already won and Sony soon (more or less) abandoned the Vita.
Then not a lot happened in the handheld gaming space for a while. Until…

Nintendo Switch

Calling it pocketable is a stretch, but you can take it with you in a backpack, so I guess it counts...
Nintendo Switch (2017)Nintendo Switch (2017)
Nintendo Switch (2017)
Switch Game CardSwitch Game Card
Switch Game Card
It’s got more Mario, more Pokémon and more Zelda (some of the very best ones, I’d argue), etc. But not a lot of creative new exclusives. I played most of the games on a big TV with the Switch in its dock.
And there were so many ports that one could argue - were it not for the Nintendo exclusives - that the Switch had become obsolete the moment the Steam Deck released.
Don’t get me wrong - the Switch is great, but at this point we realise that we've taken a step away from handheld gaming. This is a full console made portable, not a traditional handheld gaming device. And the kinds of games it plays are mostly just normal console games or even PC games.

Portable PCs

From there we’re drifting off into portable PCs. The Steam Deck, the Asus ROG Ally and the many other upcoming knock-offs are literally PCs made portable.
Steam DeckSteam Deck
Steam Deck
Asus ROG AllyAsus ROG Ally
Asus ROG Ally
They’re essentially laptops in a different form factor. So the games you can play on them are simply PC games. Worlds have merged, end of story. Or wait! Yes, it’s great to be able to play PC games on the go, but somehow it feels like we lost something along the way…

Did we lose something along the way?

What is it that made the games on the portable game consoles of old so charming? (Well, some of the games - most of them actually suck by today’s standards) - Maybe it was the restrictions? The limits of the hardware?
The original GameBoy offered a 2-bit display (4 colours, or well: 4 shades of green) with a resolution of 160x144 px and you could fit a maximum of 1MB on a cartridge. You had a D-Pad and 2 regular Buttons plus the Start and Select buttons to work with. And yet incredibly good games were made within those harsh limits.
All these limits have pretty much disappeared, and yes - theoretically everyone is free to impose arbitrary limits upon themselves, but few of us do. Maybe we should aim lower, get more done and focus on creativity and innovation? Big budgets force companies to try and release their games on as many platforms as possible, which leads to the design shrinking to the lowest common denominator.
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Here’s an idea: It costs $200 million to make and market a Call of Duty game. How about we skip one iteration and instead give half a million each to 400 indie game devs - here’s $500K, make the best games you can for as long as the money lasts.
I might go against the grain here, but I think great things do not come from competition in the market. I think great things are created if you remove economic pressure and let people roll with their ideas and dreams and passions. And that’s why I’m such an outspoken supporter of the idea of a Universal Basic Income.
Anyway… Where were we? Restrictions! Is there anything out there that’s truly handheld and gives us a specific set of hardware inputs and outputs to work with? Yes! There’s actually quite a few!

Arduboy

On the lowest end of the spectrum is the Arduboy, you can build one yourself for a few dollars. Just stuff an Arduino Micro, a small screen and several buttons into a 3D-printed box and shake it. Or you can buy one.
Arduboy FXArduboy FX
Arduboy FX
Games are made in the Arduino IDE using the Arduboy Library. Here’s a whole lot of games that you can play right there on the website in an emulator.

Play.date

On the opposite end of the cost-spectrum is the Playdate. A gorgeous-looking little device (teenage engineering was involved), 1-bit color (so only black and white) but on a nice 400x240px screen (no backlight though), D-Pad plus 2 buttons and a crank. Yes, a crank! How’s that for creative new possibilities?
Playdate (2022)Playdate (2022)
Playdate (2022)
Anyone can develop for the device, the SDK is available for free (includes a simulator that lets you run everything on your PC/Mac). There’s even a web-based editor to make simple games with.
There’s a whole bunch of games already, but I haven’t had a chance to try any of them.
EyelandEyeland
Eyeland
Gun TrailsGun Trails
Gun Trails
Under the CastleUnder the Castle
Under the Castle

Honorable Mention: Analogue Pocket

The main selling point of the Analogue Pocket is that it doesn’t simply emulate the GameBoy, instead it uses a Field-Programmable Gate Array (essentially an integrated circuit that can be reprogrammed after manufacturing) to recreate the workings of the original GameBoy hardware on its hardware and thus run original GB, GBC and GBA cartridges. It has an insane 1600x1440px screen (exactly 10x the resolution of the original GameBoy, so great for pixel-perfect upscaling)
Analogue Pocket (2021)Analogue Pocket (2021)
Analogue Pocket (2021)
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They recently opened it up a bit and it now runs emulators, so there might be some potential for getting something custom running on it!
But one thing you can definitely already use to make games for it is GB Studio, which lets you make games and build ROMs that you can run in any GameBoy emulator:

Honorable Mention: PICO-8

PICO-8 is a fantasy game console. So no actual hardware is built by the developer, instead it’s a software virtual machine + development environment that pretends to be a game console that imposes a strict set of limitations upon the developer. 4-bit (16 colours), 128x128 px resolution, 32K cartridge size. - How’s that for some proper restrictions to spark your creativity?
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The developer is not building any hardware, but that doesn’t stop others who do from adding support for PICO-8! The Miyoo Mini Plus is a very popular recent device that’s all about emulating other platforms. It has a GameBoy-like form factor (same button layout, but comes with WiFi and a modern display) and runs emulators for anything from GameBoy to the PS1. And now it also runs PICO-8 games! And so do the PowKiddy RGB30, the AYN Odin 2, the Anbernic RG35XX, the Gameforce Chi, the ClockworkPi GameShell, any Raspberry Pi or even a PS Vita with custom firmware. The one thing to look out for is if a device simply runs the PICO-8 games in an emulator or if it actually runs PICO-8 natively (which is the preferred option because then you get maximum compatibility and can use Splore to download new games right on device)
So that’s another open platform that you can use to make games that run on modern handheld!
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There are a few more game engines like PICO-8 out there that run on these emulation-centric devices: Lutro, Lowres NX, ChaiLove

Conclusion

There's been a slow decline in handheld gaming devices over the years. We started out simple, then got every feature we ever asked for and now we've ended up with portable PCs almost too big and heavy to hold. And the handheld gaming experience has changed with the hardware. Instead of quirky little games that were specifically made for these little gaming platforms, we can now play normal PC games on the go.
But what if I still want to have new quirky little games and new quirky little handhelds?
Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a few open handheld platforms to develop for? No walled gardens, just buy a device and do whatever the hell you like with it!
Could some of the better emulation devices that come out of Shenzen by the boatload be used like this? They’re all marketed as running lots of emulators and old games, but if you look at the most popular ones:
The Miyoo Mini Plus is running Linux on an ARM Cortex-A7 Dual Core 1.2GHz CPU, but has no GPU. The Powkiddy RGB30 sports an ARM RK3566 1.8GHz CPU which should theoretically have a GPU in it. The AYN Odin 2 is running Android 13 on a Snapdragon 8Gen2 3.2GHz Chip, the same chip that’s inside the Samsung Galaxy S23.
 
Miyoo Mini PlusMiyoo Mini Plus
Miyoo Mini Plus
PowKiddy RGB30PowKiddy RGB30
PowKiddy RGB30
AYN Odin 2AYN Odin 2
AYN Odin 2
These are reasonably capable devices and at least the Odin should have no trouble running Unity and Godot games. (But it's about as big as a switch, so leaving true traditional handheld territory…) Does it make sense to develop handheld games for these platforms? Did I miss any devices or game engines that would be good for creating modern handheld games? If you want to make a modern handheld game, where do you go? Let me know in the comments or on Mastodon!

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