After a four-month layoff due a combination of heavy writer’s block and a stupidly busy winter holiday period, I thought now was the right time to bring back Glacier Gaming’s RETROspective series. My inspiration came from the release of the Nintendo Switch, which got me thinking about all the mobile gaming devices I’ve played over the years.
The early days of gaming on the go were archaic at best, mainly restricted to single game, LCD screens powered by button celled batteries, or good old AA’s for larger models. Nintendo had an early grip on the market with their Game And Watch series, and I have fond memories of playing the single screen version of Donkey Kong (I even have a Game And Watch cover for my mobile phone). Other LCD games were made by Konami, Tiger and TOMY; with ports of big franchise hits like Skate Or Die, Contra and Afterburner, along with licenced properties such as TMNT, Star Trek and Top Gun. These LCD games were great fun as a young boy on long cars journeys. The major drawbacks were that you were restricted to just that one game, and a lack of backlight meant play ended when the sun went down.
There were larger versions of the handheld game – take a look at the photo across, the Afterburner unit by Tiger could hardly be considered portable and were made to be played at home. Playmates “Fun To Drive” dashboard, offered 80’s kids a quasi-driving experience, with a light up screen built into a plastic dashboard/bonnet, complete with steering wheel, ignition switch and gear stick – whilst not a true LCD game, the toy still occupied most kid’s bedrooms throughout the era.
The nineties saw the arrival of Nintendo’s ground-breaking Gameboy. I was lucky enough to get the original version the year they were released and was soon hooked on Tetris, which was bundled with the console. Although the Gameboy is remembered for quality spin-offs of NES classics like Super Mario Land (although series creator Shigeru Miyamoto was famously hands-off) and The Legend Of Zelda: Link’s Awakening; but I remember plenty of awful licenced titles as well – Home Alone and The Simpsons Escape From Camp Deadly spring to mind. Of course the Gameboy is perhaps best remembered as the launch platform for Pokémon. Nintendo’s decision to give the Gameboy a monochromatic screen equated to a longer battery life than its competitors, but a lack of backlight meant buying a bulky, third party backlight add-on was essential for post-sundown gaming.
In the early nineties, I switched allegiances from Nintendo to Sega, and their handheld console – the Game Gear. My fondest memories of the Game Gear were playing Sonic, which closely resembled the Master System version, Streets Of Rage and Shinobi. The Game Gear had a colour screen and backlight but would drain AA batteries like a thirsty vampire. The lack of battery life was the console’s downfall, as my parents soon got fed up with handing batteries over every week – goodness knows how my Game Gear’s batteries would’ve faired had my parents bought me the TV tuner add-on I bugged them for every birthday and Christmas! In 1995 Sega released a more powerful handheld called the Nomad, which was capable of running Mega Drive cartridges, although European gamers were denied the opportunity to play the Nomad, as it was only released in North America – fading into obscurity four years after its release.
Before we skip forward in time, I want to give an honourable mention to the Atari Lynx. By far the most advanced handheld of the nineties, the Lynx was 16-bit as opposed to Nintendo and Sega’s 8-bit devices. I never knew anyone who owned one but would drool over it every time I entered an electrical store that stocked them. Oh, and I almost forgot about Barcode Battlers – a bizarre device that mixes RPG style combat with the thrill of scanning the barcodes of everyday items to inflict max damage on a comparatively primitive LCD Screen. I remember plenty of news reports about kids who discovered that the code for a tin of baked beans would inflict massive damage – which speaks for how many slow news days there must’ve been in the nineties!
Handheld gaming had come on in leaps and bounds by the dawn of the new millennium. Nintendo had released a colour version of the Gameboy, followed by the more powerful Gameboy Advance and the clamshell SP – which was my personal favourite due to its reduced size and Nintendo having overcome the pesky backlight issue. Plus I could play one of my favourite platform games – Earthworm Jim. The mid—naughties saw the release of the Nintendo DS, which my fiancée (now wife) and I lost countless hours to playing Mario Kart DS and raising our (long since abandoned) Nintendogs. I also recall becoming overly addicted to The Sims: Castaway, one of the only times I played a game in the Sims franchise, other than a soul destroyingly bad experience with SimCity on the SNES (but that’s another story for another time).
Having elbowed its way into the console market in the mid-nineties, Sony released its answer to the DS with its PlayStation Portable. When the console was released I was travelling on a semi-regular basis to various corners of the globe, so having a handheld with PS quality graphics whilst on a long-haul flight was an absolute godsend; having plenty of time to complete the PSP version of GTA or Daxter, a spin-off of the PS2’s Daxter and Jak. The PSP was also capable of playing movies – although I found the catalogue was a little lacking in quality movie titles. Walk into any pawn establishment and check out the range, I doubt you’ll find any Oscar worthy titles on the shelves.
Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention the explosion of mobile gaming during the Naughties. From its humble beginnings with the fondly remembered Snake on the Nokia 3210, the genre has expanded rapidly. As mobile phone technology improved, so did the games that could be played. One of my favourites to this day is a port of the old C64 button basher Track And Field on my old faithful Nokia 5410. Nokia dipped its toe in the mobile gaming device market with its ill received N-Gage handset – which failed as a useable mobile phone and handheld console.
The Present Day
Today, as with the past three decades, Nintendo rules the handheld gaming roost. The DS is still going strong in its current 3DS and XL incarnation, with a firm fan base and a strong release schedule including stalwart franchises like Pokémon and Mario. Nintendo reinforced its position earlier this month with the release of its hybrid console the Switch, which has garnered positive reviews from the gaming industry and the general public. With an instant classic in The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, as well as some quirky titles that utilise the console’s Joycon controllers, and stronger third-party and indie support, things are looking good for Nintendo’s mobile gaming future.
Mobile phone and tablet gaming has continued its meteoric rise in popularity, with the increase in freemium games based on popular franchises, such as The Simpsons: Tapped Out and CSI: Hidden Crimes. If you’re happy to play, then wait, play, then wait these games can be fun, but then there’s always the lure to pour money into them to speed up proceedings. Another game that was wildly popular for an insanely short period of time was Draw Something, which gave everyone a chance to let loose with their inner Van Gogh against friends or complete strangers. If there’s one game that I spent far too much money, it was Draw Something’s sequel – the imaginatively titled Draw Something 2. I bought all the additional colours, brushes, effect – something that would’ve taken months to acquire through normal gameplay, instead my bank balance took an absolute battering as a consequence. Personally I blame the Canadian Devil. My wife plays Candy Crush daily, using it as a destress mechanism at the end of a busy work day whilst watching TV.
Sadly, Sony has failed to enjoy the same level of success with the PSP’s successor, the PS Vita. The device had some great innovations and its early first party releases were amazing. Unfolded is an absolute joy to play, and lost the uniqueness when it was ported to the PS4. Uncharted: Golden Abyss is another shining example of a big game on a smaller screen that just… works. The Vita had an instant back catalogue of PS1 and PSP titles via its PS store, but Nintendo’s dominance and casual mobile gaming, along with a decline in major third-party releases have pretty much sealed the Vita’s fate. I still use my Vita when I’m away from home, or when I have to concede the TV to my wife, relying on its Remote Play function to play my PS4 games.
In conclusion, mobile gaming is here to stay. Big gaming franchises are appearing on mobile devices. Pokemon Go was insanely popular if only for a short period last year, Nintendo are getting in on the act with Super Mario Run, studios like Sega and Konami are making strides; and even Sony has said that they’re looking into making some of their big hits available on iTunes and Google Play store. The Switch has had thus far exceeded expectations, becoming the fastest selling console in Nintendo’s history, with strong sales in both North America and Europe. If Microsoft and Sony can strike back with equivalents devices (there are already supposed leaked patents of a Switch-like Vita 2), we could see a permanent shift into hybrid gaming devices; which can only be a good thing for the industry.