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Portable Gaming- State of play


For a while I've been thinking about the future of portables and the direction the industry is taking. This mainly came about due to what seemed to be a lack of recent outstanding titles being released or even announced on the DS or PSP.

A bit of backstory- I've always been a fan of portable gaming- the ease and accessibility was introducing non core gamers into the fray in the days of the original gameboy, long before the introduction of motion controls. I've managed to own every gameboy variant since the pocket and have also been able to play other portables from the Atari Lynx to the Sega Game Gear. On reflection what seems to have brought me into this world of portable gaming is the relatively lower cost of entry and ease of access to enjoy a vast array of game titles and genres. For the developers and publishers of such products the reasons for investing are pretty simple- quick turnaround, low development costs and massive user base potential. Even today if you look at the sales charts handhelds continue to sell incredibly well and some may argue form the basis of many companies, helping Nintendo through more difficult times when their other home consoles were not perfoming as well as expected, especially during the Gamecube era.

Now the original gameboy and was almost a cousin to the NES, with similar games and challenges. However, as is the case with the majority of portable games, the actual game play mechanics and design brief had to be altered to suit shorter play times, dependence on battery life, and limitations of the intrinsic hardware. These restrictions seem to have almost been a blessing and a viewpoint held by many proponents of the retro gaming scene is that the limits presented to developers fostered a culture of technical and design creativity. This could perhaps be extended to games released at the end of a console's lifespan that manage to squeeze every ounce of potential from the hardware.

A little further on down the line, some of the portables went down the route of the Game Gear, almost trying to directly emulate they home console counterparts and were less successful as a result of not being thought out in terms of what they should be trying to achieve. I fear that this may be trap that the PSP could fall into. The key difference being that even if it does become a 'mini Playstation 2', gets a second analogue stick, and continuous laystation 2 ports, it will continue to sell well, not only due to its multimedia capabilities, but also the shift in target audience; being more welcoming of what they've seen before and not what they should be getting. There definitely seems to be a generation shift in the sense of substantive quality but then again quality isn't always the endpoint that games are measured by, user satisfaction is perhaps more apt a benchmark. While this is not a slight at the developers (give the people what they want right?) its more a case of do we as the gaming public truly know what we should be asking for and are we content with what we are receiving?

It may be a tad hypocritical to sight the Gameboy advance as one of portable highlights as it was basically a SNES in your pocket. No bad thing I'm sure you'll attest, not entirely revolutionary in the gaming sense, but still producing high quality titles regularly. They key difference between the advance and the PSP is the hardware capability and the direction Sony have decided to take. The technical limitations of the Gameboy advance allowed for the high quality games at the end of the SNES era to be continually produced; games that were limited to two dimensions but thrived in imagination and challenge. With the PSP, whilst quality titles exist, it seems that the endgame seems to be along the lines of pushing greater amounts of hardware into your hands, the same way the PS3 is pushing the limits of technology available to the consumer. This may seem like an offensive against Sony but Nintendo seem to be losing touch with what made them great in respect to the handheld domain. Or gaining it in the case of the DS. If you've ever had the chance to play Trauma Centre, Elite Beat Agents, Phoenix Wright and Zelda: Phantom Hourglass you would understand that high quality games are available that are unique and enjoyable. However visit any game store and the incessant levels of 'shovelware' that prevail any DS section is disheartening to see. Lines upon lines of shallow cash-in games, exploiting the uneducated soccer mom, or riding high on the tide of school yard vogue. This is similar to what the Playstation went through, and the DS appears to be following in those unfortunate footsteps.

The introduction of touch seemed it odd at first, but eventually gave Nintendo a licence to print money and whilst Nintendo and Sony continue to be profitable with their handhelds, it looks that they have little impetus to change. I fear that this however may result in the downfall of what used to be in my opinion, definitive portable gaming. Shoe-horning touch mechanics (and in extension motion controls on the wii) into so many games that would have benefited from solid design and presentation is not only unnecessary but detrimental- Star Fox on the DS being a prime example. Why can't the next generation of handhelds include a high resolution 2D tour De force of quality and innovation, hosting Indie games, new genres and natural play mechanics? Why can't the next Sony/Microsoft console allow for XBLA/PSN style quality and affordability whilst pushing boundaries at the same time? Indeed, this could be more a sign of getting old (I'm only 24!) but maybe this is a necessary shift in direction that the industry must take. Riding on public transport, at stations and airports, the number of handhelds I've seen is the highest its ever been at, and this loosely connects to the argument that more gamers can only be a good thing, regardless of who they are and what they will buy. The danger of losing what I used to cherish in two hands is perhaps outweighed by the perceived benefit of gaming culture disseminating into the psyche of Joe Public to make the pastime socially acceptable. I could also be talking a lot of crap.
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About wobzeeone of us since 3:30 PM on 08.02.2009

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