The Portable Console Mistake

I remember when the PSP came out, and Sony was shouting to all the world that it was a handheld that provided a console experience on the go. The veracity of the claim was pretty suspect to begin with- the awkward controls and sub-PS2 graphics were hardly the equal of console experiences of the time- but that wasn’t what bothered me about them. What they left me wondering is, “Why is that even a goal?” I can appreciate wanting better graphics and controls in a handheld title, but actually aiming to feel like a console game in the palm of your hand is misguided. That’s not what a handheld should be about.

I have owned just about every handheld Nintendo and Sony have put out- a Gameboy, a Gameboy Pocket, a Gameboy Color, an Advance, an Advance Micro, a DS Lite, a 3DS, two different models of PSP, and a PS Vita. It’s never been the attempts to simply recruit a console experience on handheld like GTA Liberty City Stories or Ocarina of Time 3D that really made for compelling, exciting handheld titles. I’m not trying to spit on those games, they’re fine games, but in trying to recreate the console experience on a tiny screen, they miss out on what handhelds are really good at.

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What are handhelds good at? They’re good at bite-sized level design, at gameplay that you can interrupt at any moment without destroying the feel of the game, and at repetitive design like grinding. While grand design built to astonish and overwhelm falls flat on a tiny screen that you end up putting into standby frequently, tasks that need to be repeated to progress are far easier to stomach when broken up by constant breaks. Indeed, grinding turns from a con to a pro when handheld- you can grind out levels on the bus, in an airport, wherever, without having to really dedicate your attention to it. It’s engaging enough to keep you from being bored, but not so engrossing that you can’t still safely listen for your flight to be called.

The only reason we ever discovered that a more restrained design benefits handhelds, however, is that they originally couldn’t handle a console experience. Whether through cartridge size, processor size, controls, or something else, handhelds throughout gaming’s history have been a few steps behind their console brethren. Now that the gap is beginning to close- or at least not matter, as even a few steps behind these machines are powerful enough to handle quite a lot- it’s becoming possible for developers to make games that aren’t well suited for portables at all. The advancement of technology has made mistakes easier to make.

So don’t let the poly-pushing capabilities of the modern machines make you forget what makes handheld games truly shine, developers. Stick to the strengths of your platform, and don’t fall down the trap of trying to make a console experience on the go. It can be done, yes- it just isn’t a very good idea.