The hand held gaming market is one that is far larger than many people know. With these consoles selling in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions, it provides a lucrative outlet for the video game industry... so much so that makers of these devices, like Nintendo and Sony, who make the DS and PSP ranges respectively, are constantly trying to capture the market with fresh ideas. Last year saw the launch of Nintendo’s 3DS, while this month will see Sony’s PS Vita arriving on our shores.
With the imminent release of the Vita we thought it would be good to take a trip down memory lane, and see where these devices started, as well as how they have developed over the relatively short time that they have been available.
The first hand held video game devices were released onto the market in 1979, when Mattel released a game called Auto Race. But the nature of the hand held console is to offer the user variety, in the form of interchangeable game cartridges... something which also took place in 1979, when Milton Bradley released the Microvision system.
Also in 1979, but on another continent, Gunpei Yokoi was inspired while watching a man work a pocket calculator aboard a Japanese bullet train. Nintendo took his ideas and, a year later, released the Game & Watch series of LCD games. These small devices each only offered one game, programmed into the unit, but their influence would prove to be massive. In one instance, it was these devices that first made use of the D-pad, a directional controller that is now common to virtually every video game controller. And the second, bigger reason, is that the range launched Nintendo on the road to becoming a major player in the hand held video game market.
Aside from earlier forays into the idea of hand held gaming by numerous companies, it wasn’t until 1990 that the activity would gain the kind of prominence that those companies hoped for. What launched the activity into the limelight was the release of the Game Boy, Nintendo’s first attempt at creating a console that featured interchangeable game cartridges. While the device did receive some criticism, it was a huge leap forward in terms of technology. The release of Tetris for the Game Boy gave the device the boost it needed in the market, helping drive sales to a point of 25 million units within two years.
The success of the unit was undoubtedly what helped spur on the creation of more and more hand held devices, but the Game Boy didn’t exist in a vacuum. Rival Atari also produced a console, called the Lynx, which was the first colour hand held console ever created. In addition it also featured a back lit screen, and the ability to allow networked play. It could even be turned upside-down for left-handed players. But all of these features pushed up the price, and combined with an unwieldy size, this negatively affected sales. This, combined with Nintendo’s aggressive marketing of the Game Boy, saw the Lynx fail.
Numerous other hand held devices, like the Bitcorp Gamate and technologically advanced TurboExpress also saw the light of day, but the next big player to enter the fray was Sega. They released the third colour hand held, following in the footsteps of the Lynx and TurboExpress, in the form of the Sega Game Gear. This device hit shelves in the
in 1991, and would prove itself
to be a stronger, longer lasting rival to the Game Boy than most other
competitors. Based on the Sega Master System, the developers at that company were
able to produce a large number of games for the Game Gear relatively quickly. US
The Game Gear proved so successful that Sega soon began development of a new version, which would feature a touch screen. This was many years before their rivals Nintendo would release the first touch screen hand held, but the technology at the time proved to be far too expensive to be viable.
In the nine years since the release of the original Game Boy, Nintendo had been extremely quiet. But in 1998 they released a successor to the Game Boy, in the form of the smaller, lighter, full colour Game Boy Colour. The device did not have much more to it than the original Game Boy in terms of technology, save for the colour screen. While it brought new games with it, and offered backwards compatibility with the original (a first in the hand held market) the apparent lack of advancement opened gaps for other devices to reach prominence.
One of these devices was the Neo Geo Pocket Color, released by home console and arcade maker SNK. But several factors harmed this console, which looked set to be the strongest competitor to the Game Boy since the Game Gear. One of these factors was the announcement that Nintendo would be releasing a new console.
The Wonderswan Color also gave Nintendo a bit of uphill in the
Far East. This was largely due to a very
low sales price, as well as a deal struck between makers Bandai and the
publishers of the Final Fantasy series, Square. However, anticipation for the
Game Boy Advance, as well as a renewed deal between Square and Nintendo, saw
the Game Boy still hold the lion’s share of the market.
The Game Boy Advance finally saw the light of day in 2001, at the start of a decade that would see Nintendo’s strongest competitor enter the hand held market for the first time. Two years later the design was reworked in the form of the GBA SP, incorporating a clam shell design that Nintendo had not used since the days of Watch & Go, but one that would dominate their consoles from that time forward.
There were, once again, numerous pretenders that emerged during the next few years, including the ill-fated Nokia N-Gage. The thinking behind this device was solid... it combined a phone with a gaming platform and other multimedia features. But poor design decisions scuppered the success of this device from the word go. Even a revised edition released later could not save Nokia’s attempt to enter the market. And in the meantime, Nintendo just kept raking in the users and their cash.
The next Nintendo coup was one of the most exciting innovations to enter hand held gaming in many years. Like the invention of the D-pad, Nintendo once again revolutionised the activity with the release of the Nintendo DS. This dual screened device featured a touch sensitive lower screen, which allowed users to interface with their games in a whole new way. The 2004 release was met with great enthusiasm, with sales reaching over 100 million across the various subsequent DS models within five years. But in 2005, Sony entered into the picture with the new PlayStation Portable, or PSP. It featured a larger screen, Internet connectivity and multimedia functions, and was the first console to make use of optical disks for storage of games. The success of the PlayStation brand spurred sales on, and Nintendo was finally saddled with some real competition.
He remainder of the decade saw numerous other handhelds emerge, like the cult favourite Gizmodo, and some open source models, including the Pandora, which used Linux. But the real battle was between Nintendo and Sony, who produced new consoles based on the DS and PSP brands respectively with fair regularity.
The latest volley in that battle was the 2011 release of the Nintendo 3DS, the first console t feature an autostereoscopic screen, among many other functions. Sony’s answer will come in the form of the PS Vita, which will be available at the end of this month.
The battle is certain to rage on. Nintendo have managed to hold fast, but their latest rival Sony is surviving far better than any before. For the last few years the hand held gaming market has not been a one horse race, and the rivalry between the major players means that consumers are the ones who benefit, with better technology and games needed to win their hearts and minds.