Give Thanks, For Mobile
How many of you grew up playing Pokemon on one of those old, ugly, gray Gameboys? Like the one in the image above, huge, bulky, shitty contrast, no back-light, battery devouring original Gameboy. It was awesome, right? No, fuck no! That system was garbage. Sure there were plenty of amazing games for the original Gameboy, Pokemon and Super Mario Land spring to mind, but the system itself was a portable system in the loosest sense of the word. You couldn’t carry the system but in the bulkiest of pockets, it ate batteries, and you had to have near perfect lighting to play the thing reliably. When Sega came out with the GameGear the lighting problem was alleviated but the size and battery problems were just made worse. Even with smaller and more colorful versions of the Gameboy, the main problems still remained: battery consumption, and the reliance on external lighting for play. Until these problems were solved portable gaming was but the fevered dream of a madman, or children who had fuck-all better things to do than sit upside down on a sofa to hit the light reflecting from their TV onto a mirror just right.
And then Nintendo finally pulled their collective heads out of their asses (or the technology became viable, whatever) and gave us the herald of the golden age of mobile gaming: the Gameboy Advance SP. With a clamshell design the SP was small enough to fit in even the tightest of pants and came with a built in rechargeable battery and back light, which meant that you could play your SP in the middle of the night, on a plane, or in the bathroom all day long and just plug that asshole in and not worry about losing your progress or needing to go fumble for more batteries! (Look, we all know we used the excuse of ‘taking a shit’ to do just one more mission in Final Fantasy Tactics: Advance.) With these innovations in handheld gaming, handhelds finally moved from a niche market to one that had appeal to a much broader range of gamers. People who refused to do handheld gaming finally had run out of excuses- they could play the fucking thing almost anywhere and anytime.
And here’s the crazy thing about the Gameboy Advance SP: people loved it. It became one the best selling Nintendo systems of all time. Not best selling handheld mind you, but system. People ate this mobile shit up, turns out being able to play video games at your dear aunt sally’s funeral is actually kind of nice. She was an asshole anyway, amirite? When gamers began to adopt the system in droves, developers paid attention. But the handhelds have never been huge powerhouses, though Sony sure is trying to change that, so developers were limited in their game making capabilities compared to a full console. So what did they do instead of trying to push the graphical envelope on the Gameboy Advance? They just pushed the limits of what made a sane game on any system. More than anything the wide adoption of handheld gaming gave us a place where unique and wacky games can live and thrive.
It’s this tradition of making new and unique games that has defined the handheld market for the past three generations, and what has made it such a staple of the gaming world. Sure, the portability and rechargability and lighting are all nice but those are just the base requirements to make people even want to play handheld systems in the first place. It’s in these limited environments that games like The World Ends With You can exist, where graphics can barely be pushed and the emphasis has to be on interesting gameplay over making prettier explosions and making new iterations in ways to facilitate tea-bagging. And Nintendo didn’t stop with the Gameboy Advance SP. They went on to make the DS, then the 3DS, even spurning Sony into entering the handheld market with the PSP and the PS Vita, and it has been nothing short of amazing.
In the past ten years I can easily think of more experiences that were worth remembering coming from my GBASP/Vita/PSP/DS/3DS than any combination of the big consoles and PC gaming. The highs and lows of Phoenix Wright, the joy of Persona 4, the fun and frustration of Professor Layton, the wackiness that was Jeanne D’arc, the awesome Viking battles that happened in Valkiyre Profile: Lenneth, I could go on and on and on about how many games and how much time I’ve spent playing them on handheld systems. Because those are the environments where interesting games are forced to live. No one buys a 3DS to play the newest Call of Duty, they buy a 3DS to play Pokemon. But those people who are willing to spend their free time putting little monsters into balls are the same people who are willing to try something as absurd as a game about a group of men who save people’s live by dancing to American pop music.
So this year, I think we should all take a minute to sit back and reflect on how lucky we are to live in a world where some of the most interesting, unique, strange, and wonderful games to ever exist can be taken with us and played at a moment’s notice no matter where we are in the world. Because more than new consoles, better graphics, and fancier ways to stab people, the unique world of handheld gaming is what we should really be thankful for.