The continued rise of Handheld gaming
My very first handheld game was probably the ring toss game… But in all seriousness it was my fathers Game Boy in the late 90s. I distinctly remember playing Star Wars and I don’t think I ever beat it.
I remember handheld gaming being all the rage growing up, and I have fond memories of playing on Game Boys, Game Boy Colors, Game Boy Advances, PSPs, and DS'. Like many, after about the PSP era, I moved away from consoles and handhelds in favor of PCs. But since getting back into handheld gaming with my Steam Deck, I was shocked to see there had been a Cambrian explosion of handhelds. Many are from major players in the tech space, though some are from companies I've never heard of. It feels like we are in a renaissance, or, that is what I thought the angle of this article was going to be when I started writing it. But in actually researching handheld history, I've come to the conclusion that while I had abandoned it, it hadn't gone anywhere.
A lightning Tour
Let's take a look back at one of the earliest handhelds. For the sake of brevity I'll only consider handhelds that could play more than one game, so no Game and Watches, or single game electronics. In this vein the honor to the first handheld gaming console that fits our criteria is the Microvision created in 1979.
It looked more like the iClicker I had in College than a gaming device, but it had 12 different games that it could play. Clocking in on a CPU that ran at 1kHZ, a frequency I have never seen next to a CPU, It's honestly hugely impressive it could play anything.
But just 10 years later we would be introduced to one of the most popular handhelds of all time, by one of handheld gaming’s most prolific supporters, Nintendo. The Game Boy would be a smash hit, bringing handheld gaming to the masses. Nintendo has certainly not slowed down since then and if we look at the timeline from the Game Boy to the Switch we get a history that spans from 1989-2021 with no signs of stopping.
Game Boy: Released on April 21, 1989, in Japan, July 31, 1989, in North America, and September 28, 1990, in Europe. The OG.
Game Boy Pocket: Released in 1996, it was a smaller, lighter Game Boy that required fewer batteries.
Game Boy Light: Released only in Japan on April 14, 1998, this model featured a backlit screen.
Game Boy Color: Released on October 21, 1998, in Japan, November 18, 1998, in North America, and November 23, 1998, in Europe. Backwards compatible with the Game Boy! Contained a 15-bit color palette instead of the 4 in the original Game Boy.
Game Boy Advance: Released on March 21, 2001, in Japan, June 11, 2001, in North America, and June 22, 2001, in Europe. Backwards compatible again! Hardware that was more powerful than the SNES from a decade prior.
Game Boy Advance SP: Released in February 2003, it featured a front-lit screen and a clamshell design.
Game Boy Micro: Released on September 13, 2005, in Japan, and subsequently in other regions. A slimmer version of the original GBA.
Nintendo DS: Released on November 21, 2004, in North America, December 2, 2004, in Japan, February 24, 2005, in Australia, and March 11, 2005, in Europe. Successor to and backwards compatible with the Game Boy Advance.
Nintendo DS Lite: Released in early 2006, it was a slimmer and lighter version of the original DS.
Nintendo DSi: Released on November 1, 2008, in Japan, and in 2009 in other regions. No slot for GBA Games. Two cameras, SD Card slot, and other enhancements.
Nintendo DSi XL/LL: Released in 2009, it was a DS that larger screens.
Nintendo 3DS: Released on February 26, 2011, in Japan, March 25, 2011, in Europe, March 27, 2011, in North America, and March 31, 2011, in Australia. Successor to the DS with the most notable feature being the 3d graphics, 3 cameras, and AR capabilities.
Nintendo 3DS XL: Released in 2012, this version featured larger screens.
Nintendo 2DS: Released on October 12, 2013, as a budget version of the 3DS without 3D capability.
New Nintendo 3DS: Released on October 11, 2014, in Japan, and 2015 in other regions. Enhanced performance, better 3d, a C-stick, and built in NFC.
New Nintendo 3DS XL: Released alongside the New Nintendo 3DS, with larger screens.
New Nintendo 2DS XL: Released on July 13, 2017, as an upgraded version of the 2DS.
Nintendo Switch: Released on March 3, 2017, a hybrid console, usable as docked as a home console and undocked as a handheld device.
Nintendo Switch Lite: Released on September 20, 2019, features non removeable joycons.
Nintendo Switch OLED: Released on October 8, 2021, it's a Switch, but with a nicer screen.
Phew! That was a lot. While compiling this list a couple of things became apparent to me.
Nintendo has been keeping the handheld dream alive, even after other hardware manufactures had left the space.
Nintendo loves to sell you the same handheld over and over again.
Multiple Game Boy's DS' and Switches. I wouldn't be surprised if we see a Switch XL at some point. And you already know there will be a Switch 2 Lite.
But while Nintendo never stopped making Handhelds, the list of handhelds we got from 1989 to ~2013 ranged for weird, wacky, cool, and everything in between. Here are some of them
Atari Lynx (1989) - First handheld console with a color LCD screen.
Sega Game Gear (1990) - Competitor to the Nintendo Game Boy, known for its backlit color screen.
Sega Nomad (1995) - Handheld version of the Sega Genesis, allowing players to use Genesis cartridges.
Tapwave Zodiac (2004) - Short lived device that functioned as both a PDA and a gaming console.
Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) (2005)- Known for its powerful hardware, multimedia capabilities, and wide game selection. I had one with a skin covered in green skulls, and it was incredible.
GP2X Wiz (2009) - An open-source, Linux-based handheld console produced by GamePark Holdings.
Pandora (2010) - A combination of a handheld game console and a mini PC, running Linux.
Sony PlayStation Vita (2012) - Successor to the PSP. Featured a touch screen, rear touchpad, and high-quality graphics. Please bring it back Sony.
Nvidia Shield Portable (2013) - An Android-based device that combined a game controller with a screen, capable of streaming games from a PC.
One interesting thing to note about this time. With devices like the Nvidia Shield, we begin to see the rise of handheld streaming devices. This is a lot more common now with the likes of the PlayStation Portal, and Logitech G Cloud (with an honorable mention to the Steam Link).
I would be remiss if I didn't at least talk about the most common forms of handheld gaming of our generation, mobile gaming. While I do remember playing games like Dragon's lair on my father's Sprint flip phone...
It was when we got smartphones where I really saw the quality of mobile gaming blow up. I remember games like Zenonia back in 2009 being awesome. I couldn't believe I was playing such a fully featured rpg right in the palm of my hand at that time. I remember sitting back and playing it for hours on my landscaped iPod in a wooden chair with no cushion, my back and eyes would never permit that now.
This was pre candy crush too, so the dark patterns were either non existent, or much simpler at the time. You could even buy a game once, and never pay for it again (shocking I know). And remember Infinity Blade? Mobile gaming may have truly peaked in 2010.
But if we include phones on this tour, we'd be here all day so let's get back to dedicated handhelds. Not only have we had great handhelds for the last 35 years, if you look at the top 5 best selling consoles of all time...
Game Boy/Game Boy Color
We see that three out of the top 5 are actually handhelds. So with that fact, and with this article having mentioned over two dozen handheld devices at this point, It's safe to say handhelds, and handheld gaming, never went away. In fact I'd say it's more popular now that it has ever been!
The experience is also so much better than it used to be. For one, I don't have to go through dozens of AA batteries a month anymore. And two, they don't feel cut down. Using my previously mentioned Star Wars Game Boy game as an example, I recently found out that this is what the NES version looked like.
Shocking! I would have loved to have my Game Boy version look like that back in the 90s. By the Game Boy Advanced era in 2001, we were able to create incredible 2D handheld experiences, but we were only just getting to the point where we could render anything impressive in 3D. Sure you could program a 3D GBA game if you were a literal programming God like Randal Linden, but unless you are willing to write 200,000 lines of highly optimized assembly then we still needed a few generations before this was feasible for your average programmer.
But fast forward to the PSP era, and we were beginning to see what no compromise 3d handheld experiences looked like.
And by the time we got to the Switch, it was clear that while certain games might have struggled to hit their 30fps target sometimes, we weren't getting stripped down version of a game originally made for PCs and consoles anymore.
And now in the more modern times (a sentence that will age like milk) we see many other players in the space besides Sony and Nintendo. There are Android, Windows, and Linux based handhelds, some from well known brands, and others from rising stars...
GPD XD: 2015
GPD Win: 2016
GPD XD Plus: 2018
Abernic RG351P: 2020
Retroid Pocketc 2S: 2020
Miyoo Mini: 2021
Ayn Odin: 2022
Steam Deck: 2022
Miyoo Mini +: 2023
Logitech G Cloud: 2023
Lenovo Legion Go: 2023
Ayn Odin 2: 2023
Asus Rog Ally: 2023
Steam Deck OLED: 2023
PlayStation Portal: 2023
Msi Claw: Sometime in 2024
And it's exciting. It feels like we've hit an inflection point with handhelds. With devices like my Steam Deck, I don't feel like I'm giving anything up when I'm using it. But at the same time, I'm excited for every new iteration. It feels just like how it was in the late 90s and 2000s where every console generation, or graphics card generation, was a noticeable improvement over the last. And with the Switch 2 rumored to be announced later this year, it seems like that excitement isn't going to be slowing down anytime soon.
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Hi 👋 my name is Diego Crespo and I like to talk about technology, niche programming languages, and AI. I have a Twitter and a Mastodon, if you’d like to follow me on other social media platforms. If you liked the article, consider liking and subscribing. And if you haven’t why not check out another article of mine listed below! Thank you for reading and giving me a little of your valuable time. A.M.D.G