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The Rise Of The Handheld

An analysis of the past, present and future of the handheld platform, all from someone who was forbidden to play the Game Boy when it first came out.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

July 15, 2009

10 Min Read

In my den I have over $1,000 worth of this and last generation console titles and their respective systems. In this room I have a pc that I spent over $2,000 getting the parts together, so why this past year have I spent more time playing a Nintendo DS and recently the PSP? Growing up I can say that I'm one of the people who followed the rebirth of the Games industry from 1988 and on. I remember a time where the handhelds were really the hand me down platform of the industry. For this entry I'm going to break apart the handheld platform with a look at its growth, the future, design challenges for it and lastly use all that to analyze the Nintendo DS vs the PSP so once again get comfy as this is going to be a long one.

Generational Design:

I can track the development of this platform through several generations of growth. The first generation is of course the original Game Boy, which was created by no small part by Gunpei Yokoi. Like the Nes with Super Mario Bros before it, the Game Boy needed a killer app and found it with Tetris, another franchise that would sky rocket to success. Funny enough I was forbidden to play the Game Boy when it first came out due to the quality of the screen and the lack of color giving me headaches from staring at it too long, an issue that has long since dissipated. Games at this time for the handheld were in the most part downsized versions of the NES. Many classic franchises had Game Boy titles released such as Super Mario Land, Castlevania, and Mega Man and so on. As the Game Boy matured we did see some titles that could take on its big brother the console such as the Legend of Zelda titles for it. As with the TV industry, the next big growth came with the addition of color.

The 2nd generation of handhelds came with the inclusion of color. Personally I think the color handhelds solidified the platform position as a part of the industry much in the same way the SNES did for the consoles. With color now replacing the hard to see background I was finally allowed to play game boy and it was around this time that handheld games started to become more complicated. Sega stepped into the handheld market with the game gear but it never achieved mass success like the game boy which I'll talk about later when I look at designing a handheld game. Many handheld titles still felt like hand me downs from the consoles yet as consoles improved so did the handhelds.

The third generation and where I believe we are still at is where the handhelds broke away from the consoles to establish themselves as a separate platform. Personally I think the Game Boy Advance ushered in this generation as this was the first time I remember a handheld being described on terms with a console. I read a preview of it in Nintendo Power in which they said that the GBA was technology wise more powerful then the SNES and as someone who grew up playing everything I couldn't believe that. Yet I was proven wrong as the variety of titles that came out started at the same level as the SNES and soon went past it. Handhelds have finally reached the point that they could pump out quality along the same lines as the consoles. The GBA and later GBA SP had a great source of RPGS and strategy titles, a trend that would continue on with the DS.

With the DS and PSP in full swing now I can definitely say that the handheld platform can now stand equal with that of the PC and console. The amount of quality and unique DS titles I've played these past 2 years is astonishing with many titles easily as developed or more so then console titles. I've found myself more amazed with each new handheld then I am with the console iterations as I can't wait to see what they can put into them. The secret to the success of the platform is that designers finally see it as its own market and not to look down at it. However I think there is one thing missing still that will open up a fourth generation of handhelds.

Moving onward:

While both the PSP and DS are great, they are still in my opinion 3rd generation handhelds. The next big leap in my opinion and what will bring us to the next generation is full online capability. No longer will we need hotspots or routers to go online but just turning on our handheld and we will be connected to the internet. Not only will this grow the DLC market but we could see MMOs having a new home on the handheld. The Monster Hunter series on the PSP has been an amazing success in Japan but unfortunately is limited here due to its ad hoc design. Now if handhelds could be online without the need of routers and such then games like Monster Hunter could become huge over here. With the release of the DSI and the upcoming release of the PSP Go I think we're maybe one or two more design iterations from my vision. Moving on it's time to talk about what goes into making a handheld title.

It's all in the hands:

Creating a title for the handheld market is noticeably different then the console from several angles, first and foremost is the issue of the battery, you can't leave a handheld on for extended periods without either running out of juice or being tied to the power cord. An issue that led to many problems with Sega's Game Gear so many years ago What this means from a design point of view is that either levels need to be small enough to allow the player a chance to save, or the player should have the option to save just about anywhere. Now recently with the DS and PSP the sleep functions on both have been excellent although an in game quick save is always good. It should come to no surprise that you don't have access to the same resources when designing a handheld game compared to a console and a designer needs to work around that whether from a control perspective or from a graphical one. Even with these constraints there are a few advantages the handhelds provide over the console.

While a developer will have to put up with some constraints when dealing with handhelds, it can be worth it when you look at the benefits. First is simply cost of development, being less powerful then the consoles also means you don't need to spend as much money creating a game for it. This leads me to my next point originality, being cheaper to produce means that you can try different forms of game design without breaking the bank or your studio in the process. The DS is home to many unique titles and has become a haven for RPGS and strategy titles. I can think of several hits on the handhelds that wouldn't have been developed for the consoles mainly due to how original they were. Now with all that said let's take a look at the current grudge match, the DS vs the PSP.

Handheld war:

This is a very interesting platform war due to how different the two platforms are from one another; first let's take a look at the DS. Let me start by saying that I'm slightly biased towards the DS, having bought more games for it in the past 2 years then any current gen console or PC. The DS wins in the originality category hands down with too many games to list that could literally not be done on any other platform. There are of course shovelware titles for the DS but the quality easily out numbers them. As I mentioned earlier the DS is home to some of the best RPGS I've played in some time and has lead Atlus to release numerous titles for it. Graphically the DS is the weaker of the 2 but it once again proves in my opinion that you don't have to have amazing graphics to have an amazing game.

The PSP is a different beast compared to the DS and was aimed at a different market. While the DS's unique control scheme give designers a different set of tool for coming up with game design, the PSP boasts a lot more power then the DS. Unfortunately the level of creativity on the DS cannot be said about the PSP, let's face it there is not one game on the PSP design wise that couldn't be done on the consoles. The PSP does have its share of great games such as Patapon which I got hooked on last month. The real strength of the PSP is that it has power similar to last generation's consoles and should be used to deliver titles of that quality with the cheaper cost that is affordable to the handhelds. The system can do 2d extremely well and I'm surprised that the 2d genre hasn't become as prevalent on the PSP much in the same way the RPG and Strategy genre has become on the DS.

Overall I feel the DS as a game platform is better the PSP, mainly because of how much use designers have gotten out of its unique interface. I do wonder much like with the Wii where does Nintendo go from here? The DSI was a tiny upgrade compared to the DS and I still feel that until handhelds have the same online capability as cell phones that they will be stuck in this generation.

While with the PSP, I think Sony has the same problem with it as they do with the PS3. They're trying to create a platform not aimed solely at gamers, with the multimedia functions of the PSP and the blu ray player on the PS3. The PSP could be a solid contender if it was built from the ground up as game platform, and if it did it would have probably had a 2nd analog stick but this kind of discussion isn't meant for this post so I'll leave it at that.

Wrapping it up:

Developing titles for the handheld market has grown considerably, no longer a platform for simple ports of console titles. With downloadable content as the next big thing for the platform it will be interesting to see the full effects of it in action. With the popularity of the market growing it will be interesting to see who else will step into the ring with Nintendo and Sony and if we'll have a true 3+ handheld war.


P.S I know that this article left out cell phone and mobile games and I did this for 2 reasons. One I am oblivious to cell phone games using just a basic cell phone (no I phone here). 2nd I wanted to focus on the handhelds themselves and the history and development of them.

P.P.S and yes I know about the Wonderswan but I never owned one.


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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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