The bustling, yet empty handheld market

Welp, it hasn’t even been that long, has it? It’s amazing how quickly things can change. There’s a PlayStation controller out for iPhone and renewed interest in the PSP seems to be trickling in. It’s probably only a matter of time before the Vita starts seeing more of the same love with what’s already there.

At the same time, Valve did a whoopsie and included a Switch emulator in their Steam Deck ad, which was of course quickly noticed and deleted, which of course made it the biggest news of the week.

With other systems like Playdate courting the faux-retro market and numerous emulation platforms courting the actual retro market, with a trickle of games for retro hardware gaining interest, it really does feel like there’s a vacuum that’s slowly being filled when it comes to gaming on the go.

Let me just say it’s not surprising. The Switch succeeded where I was positively convinced it would fail. I can be wrong sometimes. But I think my criticisms of it hold true, not the least of which is that it simply does not fit in a pocket. Not that the Steam Deck does, but the Steam Deck having a Switch emulator tells me that the Switch itself isn’t necessarily the most desirable thing the Switch has to offer. The Switch is still on store shelves. There is very rarely a need for an emulator when that’s the case outside of seeing if it can be done. And generally speaking, the ones made for that reason are really built for future PCs. Nintendo of course has been wildly supportive of the idea given their dedication to video game preservation and availability.~ (← That’s a Snark Mark if you’re not familiar.)

Let me be clear, a lot of people saw potential in the Switch in terms of peripherals – things like fishing rod JoyCon alternatives that would capitalize on the system’s modularity. None of that happened and that’s probably in part because it’s something that likewise would have to be sturdy enough to throw in a backpack or bag just like the Switch (though if anyone wants to make a fishing pole attachment, hit me up; I think it could be accomplished with the pointer and a little creativity). Switch ended up doing one thing and doing it well; being a system that is powerful enough that’s portable enough. You wouldn’t choose a Switch over a PS4 if you wanted to play games at their prettiest, but you wouldn’t choose a PS4 over a Switch for a plane ride. That said, you probably would choose neither of them to take to the playground at recess. And being brutally honest, that’s how I ended up meeting one of my oldest friends. He was new and I was the first person to talk to him literally because I’d never seen a Game Boy before. It’s those kinds of connections that games can really facilitate. Switch was advertised to Nintendo adults. The 3DS and 2DS were really the last systems intended to bring in new Nintendo kids. Nintendo has stopped advertising to children and started advertising directly to the children they raised.

There is absolutely a void left by the Switch that’s being filled by retro handhelds. And I don’t just mean the aforementioned PSP, Vita, and Game Boy. As I mentioned in my WonderSwan review, demand for the things is getting pretty ridiculous. That’s becoming increasingly true in the used games market as well, with cartridge prices skyrocketing in no small part due to easy access of modern systems capable of playing them, though demand for the systems themselves is not keeping up. The reason being, so many of the games can also be dumped to handheld systems using those modern systems. If you look at many modern handhelds, they aren’t just playing Game Boy games; they’re playing PlayStation games like ”Crash Bandicoot”. Let me just be clear again that this isn’t even a matter of piracy; this is a matter of people legally buying games and then doing what they want with their single legally allowed digital archival copy. The point being, what people want to do with their one legally allowed digital archival copy is put it on a system that fits in their pocket.

That’s really the key here. All of the interest in retro games is because they’re easy to put in your pocket now. People want games they can put in their pocket.

The Big Three (Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft) simply aren’t coming out with systems that fit in your pocket anymore, so Kickstarter projects are picking up the slack.

What’s in my pocket?

Chances are: your phone, but as I explained previously, that’s precisely why nothing else is. And while I may have talked extensively about it elsewhere, I don’t think I ever sat down to write anything here about why streaming is a dead end in America at length. I could easily convert my thoughts into a whole Rant there, but the bottom line is the big telecoms scammed the American taxpayers by promising connectivity they never provided to rural America and that means that vast swaths of the US are either on dial-up or if they’re really lucky some means of using cellular signal, satellite, or maybe microwave beam technology, which, yes, that’s a thing. But for vast swaths of America, connectivity simply isn’t there. And for many who do have it, it’s monopolized by the likes of Comcast with data caps. Millions of Americans need a system with physical media because downloading a game might blow through their monthly data and leave them without enough to work or just enjoy being online.

Your phone being the supercomputer it is is precisely what’s ruined everything for the mobile market, full of promise of serious experiences that never actually came to fruition. But it seems people are realizing that now. As much as Sony’s Xperia line is being billed for gaming and even has a cooling fan attachment now, it’s the #1 platform that’s never been the platform for serious gaming. Part of this is because it takes so much battery life that you could be using for all the social media, browsing, and, y’know, phone calls that it’s otherwise useful for. The days where a decent phone battery could last more than waking hours has been over for years and phones just aren’t very good at serious games because serious games do best with buttons. And even if you have a mobile controller, you still have to download the game, which is why lower-fidelity games have come to mobile when a mobile version of an HD title has come out. Just because phones are powerful doesn’t mean they’re ideal as a platform and other than streaming, they have failed to fulfill their promise as a serious platform.

So where does that leave us?

Well, right where I started this Rant, to be honest. There’s a market for devices that fit in your pocket and a bunch of small fry swimming into the gap thinking it’s their time to shine. But they’re doing it on borrowed games in many cases and the ones who aren’t are banking on novelty, which, unfortunately, is not enough on its own to survive.

Just to set my sights on Playdate specifically, what they’re doing is good and it certainly has people’s attention, but that shine is going to wear off eventually and they’ll need to innovate to bring out a new system that addresses the feedback. They’ll probably need color, backlighting, something that keeps them relevant in the not so distant future. Novelty only lasts so long; just ask Sifteo Cubes. What Playdate has is good; don’t get me wrong. It’s just not going to last forever.

But more importantly, that leaves the rest of it all to emulation and in the end, if a product doesn’t have adequate safeguards to prevent piracy, then it’s going to get into legal hot water. Let’s be frank, there are legitimate reasons you’re legally entitled to a backup of your software. And in my opinion, historical preservation is one of the key reasons it should be done if you have the tools to do it. But not all rights holders are so friendly to even preservation efforts and things need to be very clear between the makers of these platforms and the owners of the rights. If things stray outside of those agreements, things will get legally messy. So I don’t actually put much faith in the longevity of these platforms.

The solution is simple: make pocket-sized products with longevity, just like Playdate. There’s never going to be a time when people don’t want a portable game system now that they’ve existed. Phones are more powerful than ever and will simply never be a viable platform for serious games because there’s little to no way of separating them out from time-wasters or whatever microtransaction slurry is in the pipes this week. Unless you do what more than one mobile controller maker has and offer a curated storefront that’s just another layer over the storefront on your phone of choice, there’s really no means other than marketing of not having a serious game get buried under the mountain of crap.

Maybe that means that Hasbro takes the renewed interest in the WonderSwan line to heart. Maybe Sony makes a new handheld. Maybe Nintendo makes a new handheld. Maybe someone comes up with a brilliant design for something totally new and the market gets a couple major players in it. Maybe someone will hit me up about any of my various ideas; I can dream and there’s plenty to work with, more than I have visible on my site.

But ignoring my own hubris, it’s clear there’s a market waiting for someone to come along with the solution that the Big Three decided we just didn’t want anymore without actually asking. It will be interesting to see who that someone will be.