When the beloved PlayStation Vita eventually died out, many blamed the rise of mobile gaming. “I think the PS Vita is ahead of its time in many ways … at just the wrong time in terms of market opportunity,” said former Sony VP of Marketing John Koller told The edge about the fight against smartphones. But despite the demise of the Vita, dedicated gaming handhelds are not extinct – in fact, the room is arguably as lively as ever.
Valve just announced the Steam Deck, a chunky portable PC that looks like a Sega game gear from a parallel universe. It is designed so that players can take their Steam library of PC games with them on the go. Just a few hours later, pre-orders were opened for the latest iteration of the Nintendo Switch, which isn’t changing much aside from a bigger, brighter OLED screen and a stand that doesn’t suck. In the meantime, Panic plans to release it the oddball playdate this year, and Analogue builds up maybe the prettiest Game Boy ever with the Pocket, also planned for 2021.
Nintendo has shown that there is still a market for this type of device. Almost five years ago, the company completely changed its approach to hardware with a machine blurring the lines between a handheld and a home console, and the Switch has been a huge hit and has been moving since then more than 84 million units. Most interestingly, though, since the Switch debuted in 2017, the two hardware revisions have both focused on portable gaming. First was there the pure handheld Switch Lite, and now the OLED version; a better screen doesn’t really matter if you’re playing the Switch docked.
The Steam Deck takes a similar approach. It’s basically a cheap PC with a screen that you can play with on the go, but that can also be hooked up to an external monitor or TV if you want. It’s kind of a Switch with no Nintendo games. Given Valve’s history with construction hardware like the steam controller and Living room-focused steam enginesChances are, the Steam Deck won’t be the breakout hit that the Switch was. It could usher in a new style of PC gaming hardware or, much more likely, end up as a popular niche. But its very existence further proves that there is a market here.
Because smartphone games didn’t kill the portable console. Mobile gaming continues to be a huge success; EA is not throw around billion dollars for nothing. But for the most part, the types of games that have proven successful on mobile are not the ones you would buy specifically to play. Free-to-play has completely turned the space upside down, covering virtually every genre and major release, from Pokémon Go to Call of Duty cell phone to candy Crush Saga. At this point, unless your game is called Minecraft, it probably won’t sell. Apple Arcade is an attempt to bring things back to those early, exciting days of premium iPhone gaming, but dedicated handhelds seem better suited to filling that niche.
The most exciting thing about this handheld renaissance is how different each machine is. The Switch is so incredibly Nintendo, an underpowered device that is still a must-have because Zelda and Mario kart. The Steam Deck is a PC for on the go. Analogue’s first foray into wearable devices – The company makes some great retro consoles – Solves a very important problem, namely playing original Game Boy cartridges on a beautiful, modern screen. The Playdate is the weirdest thing: a little yellow box with a crank that lets you play black and white games designed by Keita Takahashi and Zach Gage.
In some ways, 2021 is very similar to the handheld markets of previous years. You have Nintendo at the top and lots of other companies – some big, some small – trying to find their own niche. In the past, these failed experiments have become popular devices. I still have Vita, Game Boy Micro, and Neo Geo Pocket Color in a desk drawer because I can’t let go. That could well happen again here because none of these machines is a guaranteed success. Years from now, a play date could fill an empty space in this drawer. But one thing is one thing is for sure: I can’t wait to travel with a shoulder bag full of games again.