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Opinion: Handheld gaming has lost its way

The one mostly-ignored handheld is actually the perfect portable, argues Mike Jackson...

I adore handheld gaming. I have ever since I first laid eyes on the original Game Boy in 1990. Vita and 3DS? Both day-one purchases. So it pains me to admit that my interest in dedicated portable consoles has hit an all-time low.

I've taken serious time to reflect on this, but I always come to the same conclusion; handheld consoles have lost their way.

Modern portables are just not what they used to be, or what I want them to be anymore.

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I always loved handheld gaming for the convenience of portability, and I don't mean "gaming on the go" - the most overused term in handheld console marketing. I use my handhelds at home. But I don't always like to be confined to my living room TV. I enjoy gaming in the garden under the shade of my porch. I like gaming in complete ignorance of my wife's obsession with Vampire Diaries and Once Upon a Time - shows which dominate the TV for hours each week. I love gaming in bed before sleeping - that's a near nightly practice for me.

But I also love portable gaming for its purity. As console games gradually became bigger, prettier, more complicated and inherently more expensive throughout the late '90s and early 2000s, portable gaming's inferior hardware forced it to remain true to the simpler origins of my lifelong hobby. I don't just mean 'old-school', but streamlined, fast, and direct.

Now, in 2012/13, we have portables that are more capable than the wildest dreams of my 12-year-old self. And having lived with them far beyond the initial honeymoon period, I really wish they weren't.

My point is, portable consoles' obsessive pursuit of "console quality gaming" has done more harm than good. It's their final attainment of this high-end performance that's ruining handhelds for what they really should be - portable, convenient and, crucially, instantly gratifying.

Let's start with that - load times. This grates on me more than any other aspect of modern portable gaming. I want to flick on my portable and I want to be playing a game within 20 seconds. I want to play a quick race during a commercial break. I want to blast through a quick mission while I wait for my wife to apply the finishing touches to her hairdo. Nevermind the scenario, I just don't want to bloody wait.

Yet it takes a hair under a minute to get to gameplay in Resident Evil: Revelations on 3DS. And no less than a minute and 28 seconds to get Vita from standby mode - not even full shutdown... standby - to actual gameplay in Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation. A minute and a fricking half.

I know, I know... huge open world, high-res textures - it's all 'triple-A'. I get it. Truly impressive on a machine that size, too. That much is undeniable. But this is exactly my point. I sit down on the throne, fire up my Vita and I'm half-way done before I even get in-game. Sorry, but that's a fail.

All those high-end visuals have an knock-on effect in other areas, too. Namely, battery life. Unfortunately, power cell technology hasn't progressed in equivalency with the increasingly power-hungry processors of today. Admittedly, most of the time it's not a huge deal - the 2.5 to four hour battery life of the 3DS and Vita is enough to see you through your average commute, or doctor wait time.

"There's no denying that this is abysmal performance"

However, I recently took my Vita out to a racing track day where I knew I'd spend most of my time waiting to get on track in a car. My plan was to keep busy with Vita during downtimes. I started the morning with a fully-charged Vita. It was dead before lunch.

There's no denying that this is abysmal performance. Anything less than 6 to 8 hours and battery life becomes a serious concern - especially for long journeys or extended periods without access to a power outlet. Convenient, this is certainly not, and it even calls into question the true 'portability' of these machines before we even touch on their size.

Let's talk about that though. Surely, portables should be portable, no? I mean, truly portable. 'Put them in your pocket even if you might not use them' portable. 3DS is just too big for that kind of commitment, and to call Vita portable in that regard is almost laughable. It's a brick. Early '90s mobile phone levels of heft.

You could argue that very few portable consoles have actually been pocketable over the years, and you'd be right. Game Boy was massive. Game Gear? Ha! The crucial difference is that there was nothing like Game Boy back in 1990. 'Snake' - the Angry Birds of the pre-smartphone era and the title that unintentionally kick-started mobile phone gaming - wasn't even programmed for a Nokia device until 1997, according to the official Nokia blog.

Game Boy evolved though, and it attained true portability with the brilliant GBA SP. But modern handhelds have seemingly thrown this all away in favour of high-end performance, cameras and rear touch panels.

Both Sony and Nintendo's latest machines are undoubtedly impressive bits of kit, but if I could sacrifice some of that horsepower and a few of those cameras for a console that slips neatly into my inside pocket, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

I find it deeply depressing to see how complicated portable gaming has become. Retail-only games, retail games for download, download-only games, Virtual Console ports, 'HD' remakes... and even now DLC. We've got internal memory, external memory cards, cloud storage and cartridges. Fire up the machines and we have firmware updates, game patches, network IDs... the list goes on.

Now, I don't want to sound like an enemy to technological progress. I'm a tech junkie; give me all the futuristic gizmos you can make. But has it gotten to the point where this technological 'advancement' is detriment to the core values upon which the portable segment was originally created? I think it has.

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And what of 'triple-A' games on handhelds? Do we really need these big, complex, multi-million dollar behemoths with their convoluted story lines, bombastic QTE sections and fancy motion-capture cutscenes on our little pocket consoles anyway? I thought I did. I've come to realise I really don't.

Here's a painful admission. I am ashamed to admit that I've racked up more gaming hours on my iPhone 5 than I have on either of my dedicated portables. Wait - don't facepalm just yet. This is NOT another 'smartphones > handhelds' rant.

I said I was ashamed to admit it. Why? Because I am absolutely a hardcore gamer. Because I like me real buttons. Because I refuse to accept those monetisation apps, disguised as so-called 'social games', as valid forms of gaming. And, crucially, because I am passionately against the notion that smartphone gaming is rendering dedicated portables obsolete in any way.

On the contrary, if dedicated portables are dying, I believe the blame is with their creators having lost sight of what portables should be.

So how can I, a thoroughbred hardcore gamer, have spent more time jabbing away at games on my button-less phone than playing, say, Resident Evil Revelations or Uncharted: Golden Abyss on my expensive portables? Because iPhone serves up many of the core values and aspects of portable gaming that the dedicated portables themselves seem to have forgotten - and with its own modern-age flair.

Factor one: It IS portable. I carry my iPhone everywhere. It's always there. It's capable of visuals almost on par with Vita - and certainly sharper in terms of screen resolution - yet all that tech fits into a profile so thin I forget its even in my pocket. I'm committed to gaming enough to carry my phone in one pocket and a handheld in the other, but as discussed earlier, not when said handheld is bulkier than Bill Gate's wallet.

Factor two: The lack of buttons is often touted as the iPhone's biggest disadvantage, yet it's this very thing that forces (good) iOS developers to streamline their ideas and be creative. There are some fantastic iOS games out there, some, full-fat adventures that are insane to imagine could even exist on a phone, others so ingenious in their simplicity that they nail those core portable values with quick, instant-fun.

And I'm not strictly in opposition to on-screen buttons either - I'm 10 hours into GTA: Vice City and having a blast. Plus the phone's motion controls, multi-point touch and always-connected capabilities only help to promote creativity in game design.

Factor three: Continuous and near-instant access to new games. Anywhere, anytime. I actually enjoy browsing the recently much-improved App store for games, and Apple's clear focus on gaming on the store has only helped this. The fact is, on the occasions when I've fancied playing a new game, I've got one on iPhone within minutes.

Factor four: The games are, on whole, very cheap. I'm never usually one to complain about the cost of video games since I believe £50 for anything more than 12 hours of entertainment is good value for money. But I've come to appreciate the joys of snagging a fairly full-featured game for under £6. Real games too - not cheap mini games.

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Arguably, the 3DS' eShop and Vita's PSN offerings provide much of the low-cost, quick-hitting, streamlined experiences I've discussed through much of this piece, but these digital-only corners of Nintendo and Sony's consoles are not the focus of Sony or Nintendo's platforms. On 3DS and Vita, the more compact digital games are almost like the b-team offerings of the consoles' lineup. An underground, back-alley scene - left to a cast-away collection of small indie developers to provide these experiences, many in their infancy as game designers. Sure, games like Pullblox are an occasional 'me-too' performance from a big-name in-house developer, but these are few and far between.

I want dedicated gaming portables to go back to doing the job they were originally created to do, with only the mod-cons that'd enhance their offerings, not hinder them.

And so it's here that I declare my undying love for one handheld that - almost - got it dead right. If you focus on form factor, performance and sheer usability, one portable outshines them all.

I love the PSP Go.

It was expensive. Holy shit, that thing was it overpriced. And that's what killed it. But the PSP Go, in my view, struck the perfect balance of performance and functionality versus compactness and convenience. It was small - easily small enough to slip into a pocket. Yet it was capable of decent 3D visuals (Ridge Racer still looks great), awesome 2D (Metal Slug, anyone?), and it had all the buttons a portable needs.

It wasn't perfect, but it was headed in the right direction. My dream portable would look just like the PSP Go. Four years of modern advancements would surely see it get a touch screen, more internal memory, a slightly faster CPU than the 333Mhz one that was in it, and a cellular data connection. Probably. And I'd take all that in the same slim casing.

But more than all that, I'd want to see good, honest, portable games. Not 'console-quality' or 'triple-A' - just portable games in all their instantly-gratifying glory.

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