If tech reporters seem excited today about the prospect of Project Shield, a new handheld PC gaming console by Nvidia, it’s probably because they are at CES where there is little else to be excited about within the confines of gaming. Perhaps they’d be better served by moseying on down to the Adult Entertainment Expo to pick up one of the those state of the art crank-operated, Bluetooth-enabled Fleshlights. It’s times like this that make me wish we lived in a world where Razer’s Switchblade, the talk of last year’s CES, had been released and bombed commercially so I could simply point at some news article and say “Look! I made hyperlink. I are smart.”
Instead, the Switchblade is still awaiting its retail release (sometime in Q2 Never), leaving game/tech journalists to praise it, gamers to doubt it, and developers to half-heartedly endorse it -- the kind of endorsement you would give Pauly Shore if you’d been sent five free Pauly Shore’s to use as you please. Despite not having the Switchblade’s retail performance, there is a history to awkward, expensive handheld gaming PCs that is best summoned on a day like today #slownewsday.
I don’t live a very portable life. When I’m on a plane, I like to stare at a book. Not necessarily read it, but stare at it very intently in hopes that an attractive girl will spot me doing so, recognize the book, and then ask me what’s it about. Then *hopefully* she’ll know the book so I can just ask her what it’s about. Soon, we’ll be having a kind of deep, meaningful conversation. That’s the idea, at least. Hasn’t happened yet. (I don’t actually do this but I don’t doubt there are many that do.) But, there was one time where I played Unreal Tournament 2004 on my MacBook during a red eye from New York to Houston. That was kind of neat, because I had the whole plane to myself. I’d do that again if the same conditions were met, but red eyes and empty planes are variables that don’t often repeat, especially not together.
It will take some serious brain juice, but I’m going to imagine that I’m the person that really wants to play World of Warcraft on a tiny monitor with a tiny keyboard -- perhaps I'm just a tiny man -- or Xbox-like controller while traveling on planes, riding on buses, and waiting in lines at midnight movie premieres. OK, now that I’ve imagined being this person, all I want to do is kill myself. Disregarding my total lack of interest in WoW, I can’t possibly fathom why you’d want to play games designed for the home environment outside the home. There is a novelty in playing Darksiders 2 while outside the home, but it's just not worth sacrificing the big screen, comfort of your living space, and a proper audio setup.
Not to mention that most PC games you’ll find on Steam don’t cater to those with only a small amount of time to commit. I feel like I need a spare lifetime to sit down and dig into Dark Souls, not a spare 15 minutes. As such, puzzle games with low time commitments are the only portable games that have resonated with me over the past decade. When stuck at the airport, I start playing Valkyria Chronicles 2, realize it's a poor approximation of its previous console entry, turn it off, and pick-up my book. Are people going to buy these cutting edge handheld gaming PCs to play Dark Souls, only to discover all they really play is Bejeweled 3 on them?
Japan was obsessed with pocket PCs in the ‘90s and they were right in feeling that way: Not many things had as great of an impact in cutting costs and time as the rise of the pocket PC in the workplace. Now Frito-Lay can pack those delicious snacks at a rate that our forefathers could only dream of snack goods being packaged at. These devices by Fujitsu, Sharp, and other leading electronics manufacturers didn’t cater to snaggletoothed hunchbacks waiting in line for the midnight premiere of The Hobbit, unable to socialize or even breath in the direction of another human being without contemplating what they must look like naked and/or dead. So, the Fujitsu AcutTote 3000 wasn’t really made with them in mind.
Disregarding sad versions of Tetris and popular board games appearing on PDAs, it wasn’t until 2010 that we got a glimpse of a real handheld gaming PC. Panasonic’s Jungle. Yeah, I didn’t remember this thing either. First of all, it’s called Jungle. Second, it’s by the manufacturer that gave us the 3DO. It looked like a cheap Taiwan netbook with a mini-DJ set for your iPod next to its miniature keyboard designed for elves that make cookies in a tree. Naturally, it was marketed toward MMO players that just couldn’t get enough of that, uh, Battlestar Galactica MMO (apparently this existed.) A 720p screen would be nice but RuneScape on the toilet is still going to play like RuneScape on the toilet. Jungle never arrived and Panasonic’s brief flirtation with gaming handhelds was soon forgotten.
(Ok, so I lied: I played a fair amount of Beavis and Butt-head in Virtual Stupidity and Jagged Alliance 2 on my netbook at the airport. I did this mostly out of a wish that some heavyset man with a ponytail and goatee, wearing a promotional T-shirt for some obscure, defunct tech company, would see me and recognize my work. Maybe even give me a fist bump.You know, keep the dream alive. I also played a fair bit of FTL on it while visiting Vancouver.)
Later in 2010 came OpenPandora. At long last, a console made for homebrew enthusiasts by Koreans that want to make money off homebrew enthusiasts while cutting every corner possible. One thing OpenPandora has over Jungle is that it was released, though that may not be, in fact, a positive. Somewhere in a landfill outside a town in China is a kid breathing the fumes of discarded OpenPandoras burning, slowly attributing to the Elephant Man-size tumor growing on his forehead. OpenPandora looks like an aborted Nintendo DS that somehow merged with one of those weird, massive all-in-one-card readers that my university’s film lab used to have -- I swear it even had a Zip Drive somewhere on it. Like most Korean handhelds, the device focused primarily on console emulation and it didn’t even do a good job of that.
(Although it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of these, I feel a need to mention the Visteon Dockable Entertainment device. This highly dockable system was basically one of those seemingly titanium-plated “portable” DVD players, except you could play GBA games on it. This whole novelty of watching movies on a dedicated player seemed obscene to me in 2003-2004. After all, I could watch DVDs on my laptop which wasn’t much bigger than these devices. Nevertheless, my brother bought one of these things so he could watch Eyes Wide Shut while running at the gym. He would do this after midnight, which I’m not sure makes it more or less creepy. I always saw a future in a portable device that plays DVDs, but I had the foresight to wait for that device to come in a more convenient form, as in phones and tablets -- which, yeah, I didn’t know that was coming but I did know that THIS couldn’t be the future.)
After a botched effort by Panasonic and a Korean piece of junk, Nvidia and Razer stepped in to show the world what handheld PC gaming could be: not much better. Both of these PC hardware juggernauts are taking a different approach to making the PC mobile. Razer has touch controls and a smart keyboard that reconfigures itself to fit each game. Nivida's Shield has a controller that could be mistaken for a Xbox 360 third-party peripheral. The main difference between these two, beyond default input options, is that Nvidia’s streams games from your PC to your handheld. According to reports from CES, the device worked -- at least, it worked on a high-end PC in a very controlled environment.
Disregarding price and the likelihood of these ever reaching retail, I’m still not sure where these devices fit into my or anyone else’s life. Do I really want to play the best PC gaming has to offer on a screen that isn’t much bigger than a clamshell? Do I want to cramp my fingers trying to play an action game on a keyboard that is half the size of my netbook’s? No and no, which is why these devices are always promoted to niche audiences. Like this make believe audience that doesn’t know how to connect an HDMI cable from their PC to their computer, so instead they buy a Nvidia Shield that does all that hard work for them. Or the make believe audience that is so hopelessly addicted to WoW that they need it in portable form, but not actual portable form, just a portable device that squishes it down so it could slide in the big pockets of a tiny giant’s Levi's. OK, so that audience actually exists but I like to pretend it doesn’t.
So these devices don’t exactly “blow my mind six ways from Sunday” (Engadget actually wrote that about the Switchblade and weren’t alone in their enthusiasm). They are the games industry toothing, much like those silly DVD players that emerged right before the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD battle was won. Soon, our tablets and phones will be offering us the latest Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty with graphics comparable to a high-end PC in 2012. We’ll have Bluetooth keyboard, mice, and controllers to play them with. It’s the only logical place things can go. Having a controller tied to a tiny monitor or a touch-controlled netbook is a road that takes us far away from logicville, a very lonely place where the Jungle and OpenPandora await any and all possible neighbors.
I don’t listen to music through my iPhone’s speakers and I don’t watch films on my iPod’s screen. There are limits to how we consume our media. The technolust that pumps through the veins of CES reporters has a way of clouding their judgement, forgetting this axiom. But when they all come home from the war, they'll regret the hyperbolic headlines they wrote about these misguided devices that serve a non-existent audience. If not, we'll just have to remind them on Twitter.
To bring us back to the topic (which I never really established but please do pretend that I did and did a very good job at it), the Fleshlight has evolved as much as it ever will need to evolve. We are at the brink of Fleshlight technology -- the time and place where we start applying the tech to the labias of dragons and other mythical beasts. If you buy a Fleshlight today, you know damn well that you are also buying the Fleshlight of tomorrow (hopefully one that you have maintained through proper use [see here]). So, go buy a Fleshlight and have a crafty wank on your next plane trip, while some millionaires sort out the future of portable gaming.