It goes without saying that handheld games have come a long way over the past 35 or-so years. From electronic bleepy things that were little more than glorified calculators, portable technology is now almost unrecognisable in 2017.
Back in 1989, the world collectively shrieked with excitement at the thought of playing Tetris on a bus. By the early years of the 20th century, we were finally able to type angry messages on Twitter from the top deck of the number 45 from Wellingborough without a second thought.
Yes, mobile phones and tablets have changed the way we do just about everything, from navigating around cities to connecting with friends. But while those devices have played host to some great games themselves, we’re concentrating here on dedicated handheld games machines – how they’ve evolved with technology, and how they’ve responded to the growing competition from the likes of Nokia and Apple.
While we can’t claim to have included every device in existence – so sorry, Gamate; GP2X, we hardly knew thee – we have tried to pick out the high points and obvious lows. So buckle up – it’s going to be a long and often strange ride…
Game & Watch (1980)
Yes, other electronic games were available, but it was Nintendo’s Game & Watch that everyone secretly wanted to play on the bus to school. Besides, where other handheld games, with their tiny LCD displays and warbly sound, had to make do with odd little approximations of football or Space Invaders, Nintendo’s selection of Game & Watch titles included adaptations of such arcade hits as Mario Bros and Donkey Kong. The LCD displays were still crude and the sound warbly, but hey, this was the closest we could get to jumping over barrels on a handheld in the early 80s.
Pros: long battery life, pocket-sized design.
Cons: Inevitably, some of the games are simplistic in the extreme. (Juggling! Hitting rats moles with hammers! And so forth.)
Best game: Mario Bros recreated all the thrills and spills of working on a production line in a factory; Donkey Kong 3 introduced a genuinely innovative two-controller design.
Nintendo Game Boy (1989)
The handheld that got the whole pocket-console zeitgeist going, obviously. Chunky though it was, the Game Boy’s interchangeable cartridges were revolutionary, and its simple components made it cheap enough for parents to buy for their kids at Christmas. It’s worth noting how the Game Boy carried over designs from the Game & Watch, too: the cross-shaped controller made its debut on the Donkey Kong Game & Watch in 1982, and the combo of red buttons and off-white plastic were found on those electronic handhelds long before the Game Boy.
Pros: more generous battery life, a pretty extraordinary library of games, especially if you were willing to import from Japan.
Cons: The unlit screen was blurry and difficult to see unless you invested in some after-market devices that left your Game Boy looking like a Cubist sculpture.
Best game: the multi-million-selling Tetris seems like an obvious choice, but Pokemon Red and Green arguably defined an era of portable RPGs, as well as proving that forcing animals to fight one another could become a pop-cultural phenomenon.
Atari Lynx (1989)
On paper, the Atari Lynx made the Game Boy look like an abacus: here was a big, grown-up handheld with a full-colour screen and a fancy processor that could crank out games that sort of approached those of a 16-bit console. The Lynx was also the first – and possibly last – handheld to feature a layout for left or right-handed players. Nice touch. Unfortunately, the Lynx was also, to use a technical term, ruddy massive – about as pocket-sized as a car radiator and only slightly less heavy. With all those graphics sucking on the battery life and a price tag of about $180 (around $100 more than the Game Boy), the Lynx was far too pricy and impractical to really find a mass audience. A more svelte version came out a bit later (see image above), but it was too little, too late. Like so many companies after it, Atari (and developer Epyx) tried to sell a console on superior hardware. Bear this in mind – it’s a theme we’ll be returning to shortly.
Pros: for the time, the graphics and sound really were superb.
Cons: Wait, how much?
Best game: despite slow sales, the library was pretty good, thanks to Atari’s back-catalogue. Afterburner clone Blue Lightning showed off its tech credentials, but the port of Robotron 2049 was our favourite.
NEC TurboExpress (1990)
Since the dawn of handheld gaming, various firms tried to find a way of shrinking home console games and make them portable. Here was an early attempt: a miniaturised version of NEC’s PC Engine, known in America as the TurboGrafx-16. The original console was a huge hit in Japan, less so in America, and never got a release in the UK. Its games were generally brilliant, but this console, with its $249.99 price tag, made it for posh, hardcore gamers only.
Pros: great library of PC Engine games, great little LCD screen.
Cons: the second mortgage required to actually buy one.
Best game: great coin-op conversions abound, but our choice goes to 2D shooter Galaga 88. Pure retro heaven.
Sega Game Gear (1990)
Like Atari before them, Sega tried to compete with Nintendo with superior firepower – hence the Game Gear, essentially a portable Master System with a built-in colour screen. Tidier in design than the Lynx, the Game Gear had Sega’s market presence to help it sell reasonably well outside Japan. Once again, though, battery life was a problem: the system could tear through a packet of six AA batteries in about two hours or so.
Pros: great games, compatibility with the Master System thanks to an add-on device; another dongle even let you watch the telly.
Cons: Unless you stayed tethered to an AC adaptor, completing Castle Of Illusion would require a mountain of Duracells.
Best game: The aforementioned Castle Of Illusion. A hugely entertaining platformer with tonnes of hidden stuff and great Mickey Mouse animation.
Mobile phones and things of that ilk (1994-)
We might as well pause here to address the elephant in room: games on mobile phones. Games like Tetris and Snake blazed a trail in the 1990s, which helped pave the way for things like Angry Birds and Pokemon Go on modern smart devices. We won’t go into too much detail about mobile phones and games, though, otherwise we’ll be here all day.
Best game: I don’t know. Snake, or whatever.
Tiger Game.com (1997)
“This time next year, Rodney, we’ll be millionaires”. If you ever wondered what a handheld console designed by the cast of Only Fools And Horses might look like, may we present the Game Dot Com, Tiger Electronics’ anonymous-looking and terminally ill-fated device from the late 90s. To be fair, it introduced a touchscreen – beating Nintendo and Sony by several years – and even some rudimentary web capabilities, so it wasn’t all bad news. The sales, however, made for dismal reading: some 300,000 units were shifted in total. Del Boy still has a pallet-load of these in a Peckham lock-up, we should think.
Pros: not applicable
Cons: an apologetic library of 20 games (Quiz Wiz! Monopoly! Wheel Of Fortune!). Possibly the most boring console ever conceived.
Best game: Ports of Resident Evil 2 and Sonic Jam sound exciting, right? Yeah, wait until you play the games. The Resi game is borderline coma-inducing.
Bandai WonderSwan (1997)
After the interesting yet headache-inducing experiment that was the Virtual Boy, veteran designer Gunpey Yokoi left Nintendo and joined Bandai. The fruit of his labour there, before his untimely death in 1997, was the WonderSwan – an odd yet endearing alternative to the Game Boy, a system that Yokoi had himself helped conceive. Like the Game Boy, the WonderSwan used a monochrome, dot-matrix display to keep down battery life and costs, while its innovative button configuration meant that it could be displayed in portrait or landscape. The build quality wasn’t quite up to Nintendo’s standards, but later editions added an increasingly decent colour screen without upping the power consumption too much. Obscure elsewhere, the diminutive WonderSwan was something of a hit in Japan.
Pros: small, neat design. Perhaps the best console name in videogame history.
Cons: unremarkable build quality, import-related expenses.
Best game: for simple fun on the go, the puzzler Gunpey is pretty hard to beat. The dinky port of Namco’s Mr Driller is also surprisingly brilliant.
Neo Geo Pocket (1998)
SNK lacked Sega and Nintendo’s profile, but its status on the arcade scene was legendary. Its foray into the handheld market – with its promise of miniature versions of Metal Slug and King Of Fighters – was an enticing prospect, then, in the late 1990s. Although SNK couldn’t hope to compete with Nintendo’s brute marketing strength, the Neo Geo Pocket was a great little system. Admittedly, the initial, monochrome version was an early misfire, but SNK swiftly replaced it with a colour version, which managed to make two AAA batteries last a whopping 40 hours.
Pros: the Neo Geo’s clicky little thumbstick felt like an upgrade from the Game Boy’s old cross-shaped controller. Nice low price point of about $70.
Cons: a tiny library of games meant that it was soon drowned out by the Game Boy Color, released around the same time.
Best game: Metal Slug 1st Mission. A classic run-and-gunner writ small.
Seriously. What were they thinking?
Pros: the story behind this extraordinary tech misfire – it sold about 25,000 units after the company behind it spent millions on champagne receptions in London – is the stuff of legend. Sting even sang at the launch party – a sour omen if ever we’ve heard one.
Cons: just try playing the thing.
Best game: its biggest seller was an item called Sticky Balls. We’ll say no more.
Game Boy Advance (2001)
The late 90s and early 2000s were littered with the corpses of rival portable machines, all left choking on the dust of the Game Boy Advance. Other firms may have groused about Nintendo’s hold over the market, but it’s hard to argue with the results: the colour display was vastly superior to the Game Boy Color’s, the processor was faster, yet the GBA was still compatible with all those old handheld cartridges dating back to its predecessor’s release in the late 80s. In essence, the GBA’s power meant that gamers could enjoy Super Nintendo-level RPGs in a handheld – a minor revelation at the time.
Pros: smaller, more compact than the Game Boy; whizzier tech.
Cons: Still no backlit screen – at least until the SP, which came out in 2003.
Best game: Advance Wars provided a surprisingly deep and fun strategy experience, while Castlevania: Aria Of Sorrow may just be one of the best series entries available on any system.
Nokia N-Gage (2003)
It was a phone! And a handheld console! How could it possibly fail? Well…
Pros: it was a phone and a console…
Cons: …but you had to open up the back just to change the game cartridges. Groan. The RRP was also a wallet-punishing $299.
Best game: Puzzle Bobble Vs. A decent port of the arcade action-puzzler. The perfect time killer for bubble haters (and lovers of tiny dinosaurs) everywhere.
Nintendo DS (2004)
Once again, Nintendo went forward to the past with its sequel to the Game Boy Advance. Although the touch screen was a nod to (relatively) cutting edge tech, the twin displays and clamshell design harked back to the company’s pivotal years two decades earlier: the Game & Watch title Oil Panic was the first title to use such a layout, and that came out in 1982. By the mid-2000s, companies like Sony and Nintendo were well aware that mobile phone manufacturers were breathing down their necks, and it’s interesting to see how the companies’ design philosophies resulted in two vastly different consoles. With the DS, the twin screens meant that developers could dream up innovative games that wouldn’t be possible on a typical smart device – at least in theory. In practice, most companies just shoved a map or some pretty graphics on the second screen.
Pros: innovative layout, stunning library of games.
Cons: the hinges were a bit weak and the design a little ungainly on the first generation models.
Best game: If we were forced to choose just one, it would have to be The Legend Of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. Beautiful visuals, novel use of the device’s screens, and one of the best portable adventure games of its era.
Sony PSP (2004)
Sony’s answer to its rivals? More power! In fairness, Sony’s first dedicated foray into the handheld console market had more going for it than snazzy processing; although longer than the DS, it still felt comfortable to carry around, and sturdy enough to withstand long, lonely journeys in the depths of a bag. The four to six hour battery life was decent but not great, but that proved to be a small price to pay when weighed against the games, which looked spectacular for the time. Its PlayStation Store and other web-based capabilities were also streets ahead of Nintendo’s.
Pros: rock-solid design, superb graphics, wireless multiplayer.
Cons: hideously expensive memory sticks at launch, proprietary UMD cards are fiddly to get in and out.
Best game: having blathered on about fancy graphics, we’ll go for one that looks like drawings stuck on a parent’s fridge: the wonderful Loco Roco. The colours, the music, the simple yet challenging action – you can’t be unhappy playing this game. Unless you’re Vladimir Putin or someone like that.
Nintendo 3DS (2011)
Things looked a bit wobbly for the 3DS at launch, with some dodgy marketing leaving some would-be punters (including tabloid journalists, oddly) mistakenly thinking that this all-new system was just a DS with a stereoscopic screen. In any event, the 3D worked quite nicely on the 3DS, but it was hardly its most interesting feature: the use of front and rear cameras allowed for some novel augmented reality games, and the addition of an analogue stick and better online support brought it broadly in line with the PSP. As ever, the 3DS’ internal tech wouldn’t trouble rival console manufacturers or even Apple, but there’s no denying that Nintendo have done some pretty impressive things with it over the past six years or so.
Pros: the analogue stick feels lovely, while the later 3DS XL sacrificed a bit of portability for bigger screens and a nicer, chunkier feel in the hands.
Cons: we stopped using the 3D mode after a few days, and Nintendo has started producing systems without the stereoscopic display. Funny, it’s like 3D was just a passing fad or something.
Best game: Ocarina Of Time is a stunning port. Super Mario 3D Land is a joy. Pokemon Sun and Moon are among the best yet.
Sony Vita (2011)
In what we’re sure is a complete coincidence, Sony’s handheld again came out in the same year as Nintendo’s. And, once again, Sony went for eye-watering power, and the features offered by the Vita were pretty stunning: quad core processors, two analogue sticks, a fancy OLED screen and a cool-sounding touch pad doodad on the back. Sadly, all that technical possibility didn’t translate into sales this time around: where the PSP sold 80 million units, the Vita is reckoned to have shifted around 10 or 15 million. The Vita’s graphics and precise controls meant that Sony could do something hardware manufacturers had toyed with since the late 80s: recreate the quality of a console experience on a system that fits in your pocket. Somehow, the Vita just didn’t capture the broader public’s imagination; at the time of writing, Sony has expressed no plans to make a third handheld, and through the company Forward Works, the Japanese giant now intends to develop games for smart phones.
Pros: another beautifully crafted system.
Cons: those memory sticks were another financial kick in the nethers.
Best game: Tearaway was a corker and used the Vita’s controls well, while Touch My Katamari should win a medal for best handheld game name in history.
Nintendo Switch (2017)
Given that Nintendo had the handheld market all to itself, more or less, by the middle of the 2010s, and that the Wii U didn’t exactly set the world on fire in terms of sales, the Switch (codenamed the NX) sounded like a bit of an odd business decision. A console that also wants to be a handheld? With tiny removable bits of plastic that double as miniature Wii remotes? It’ll never work. Or will it? So far it’s gone down remarkably well: a bigger, more grown-up counterpart to the 3DS ‘family’ that functions both on a big telly and as a small-screen experience. It’s not the kind of thing you’d necessarily take on long journeys, but if you want to carry on playing Zelda while everyone else in your flat watches Emmerdale, it’s a far more elegant solution than the Wii U was, bless it. Oh, and the removable, dinky controllers? A neat idea, as it turns out: you and a bunch of friends huddling around a couple of screens, like a miniature LAN party.
Pros: a faintly batty idea that makes perfect sense in practice. Great games so far.
Cons: Those tiny Joy-Cons are pricey as chuff. Getting the postage stamp-sized game carts in and out of the hatch at the back is akin to a Crystal Maze challenge. If the bus hits a pothole, your £50 copy of Super Mario Odyssey‘s gone forever.
Best game: It’s a tough call between Odyssey (a corking Mario game) and Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, but we’ll plump for the latter. Although it looks beautiful on a big living room telly, it also functions remarkably well as a handheld game; its scale is vast, yet its challenges are often discrete and bite-sized enough to be played in brief bursts. Phones and tablets may be gnawing away at the handheld’s market share, but Breath Of The Wild proves that a great game on a dedicated console’s a difficult experience to beat.