Gaming Through The Ages – Part 6

 

Handhelds

Handhelds

Gaming on the move has been a part of my videogame landscape from the outset. From the early game and watch series right through to modern phones, the smaller screen has played host to some innovative titles.

So let’s take a look at some of the notable handheld devices, some owned, some played, others admired from afar.

Game Boy / Game Gear Lynx

Game Boy

I never owned one of these and never really saw the appeal of the Game Boy to be honest. The ‘killer app’ was of course Tetris, a game (or perhaps genre) that just left me cold.

Perhaps at a more fundamental level I just couldn’t get past the shonky graphics and colour.

The Game Gear and Lynx looked much more like the real deal, the full colour, detailed graphics really giving the impression that you were playing a mobile Megadrive.

But as a staunch Amiga man, the games were foreign to me and so I never felt a strong pull to invest.

And thus pretty much the entire phenomenon of handheld gaming from my youth passed me by virtually unscathed.

Playstation Portable

PSP

Picked up as an impulse purchase at the start of my Honeymooon (I know, she’s a lucky lady), the PSP promised PS2 quality visuals and game experience in the palm of the hand.

Initial purchases were FIFA 2008 and Ratchet & Clank, a series I had yet to play to that point. FIFA seemed to fit the bill of handheld gaming; quick, uncomplicated, the type of thing you can have a quick game of on the bog. It was good fun, the challenge mode in particular offering some longevity after I quickly got bored of simply churning through matches.

It was some time before I played Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters and I was belatedly rewarded with an excellent game. Great graphics and sound, a tough challenge and levels that drew a fine balance between satisfying length and suitability for quick gaming sessions.

In a similar vein, God of War: Chains of Olympus was my first experience with the series and whilst obviously a stripped down version of the real thing, this is another excellent title. I hope to find time at some point to revisit the PS2 / PS3 versions.

Burnout Dominator remains a perennial favourite, the type of game that can go unplayed for months but very quickly become a fixture again. The graphics can be a little squinty at times, but the speed, the variety, the adrenalin rush of the full titles are present and correct.

Football Manager Handheld was picked up for about £2. It was an older version (2005 I think) and it was okay but I couldn’t really get into it. The point of FM for me is to get lost in the detail, something the handheld version cannot hope to replicate. But it was a good effort.

Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core has received some attention but, whilst enjoyable, the plot is baffling, the combat monotonous, the cut scenes annoyingly unskippable and the leveling up system frustrating. As a result, I find myself part way through and unlikely to see through to the end.

My most enjoyable game time was spent with GTA: Liberty / Vice City Stories. It seems impossible but this truly was the PS2 experience boiled down to a handheld, with few compromises apparent in the transfer. The mission structure is perfectly suited to the medium, the game feeling like a natural extension of the series rather than a shoehorned extra.

As with other systems, a handful of games have stacked up and remained either untouched or underplayed. Metal Gear: Portable Ops and Silent Hill: Origins are both intriguing but have so far had minimal play time. Sega Megadrive collection seems an obvious fit for a device such as this but despite my love of retro gaming, I somehow never found the motivation to play for any serious amount of time.

There have been subsequent versions of course in the guise of the PSP Go and PSP Vita, refining the model and ditching the defunct UMD format.

Ultimately though the PSP will go down as somewhat of a novelty in my collection. I would sometimes play almost out of obligation of having bought the device rather than a genuine desire to experience the games. But there are some quality titles to be found and the system remains a worthwhile addition.

Nintendo DS

DS

Reminiscent of the old clam shell style game and watch Donkey Kong game I owned many years before, the DS would become one of the most successful handhelds of all time, Nintendo doubling up their grip on the family market with the Wii

Purchased as a gift for the wife, initial forays were the casual gaming tat that proliferated the market, such as Brain Training and its ilk.

But the usual favourites soon came to the fore. Super Mario was a perfect fit, making good use of the format, the short but challenging levels perfect for a spot of lunch time platforming. Similarly Mario Kart boils down perfectly to the smaller format, the dual screen really adding something by allowing the map to display at all times, effectively negating the impact of the wretched black ink weapon. Professor Layton was acquired for a couple of quid at a charity shop and proved a perfect time filler, the sort of game where you find yourself leaning over someone’s shoulder, biting back the answer as they struggle with an obscure puzzle.

And Sonic, which still seems weird for a Nintendo console. I have yet to finish, the game simply not as consistently engaging as Mario, but another good quality title that is perfect for gaming on the go.

Other games have so far escaped me but I look forward to picking them up on the cheap somewhere down the line.

As with the Wii, the DS crosses generational boundaries, in some respects being all things to all people. Whilst I appreciated the traditional arcade style games, wifey found time for Zelda, Spyro and some mind numbing puzzle game.

As with the PSP, this remains a device I feel that I have failed to experience the best of. Time spent with it was fun but it would sit gathering dust far more than it would being played, which is a shame.

Casual Games / Mobile

Mobile

Of course these days, a dedicated handheld gaming device is almost obsolete, most of us carrying a powerful miniature PC around in our pockets in the shape of our phones.

The casual gaming trend began in earnest with Facebook games such as Farmville. The games themselves were dreck, just resource gathering snooze fests that worked by encouraging you to share with your friends to unlock more content but they seemed to strike a chord with a broad corss-section of society, gaming being opened up into the mainstream.

The rise of mobile and tablet gaming took the quantity of this dross to a whole other level. You can’t navigate the Google Play Store without stumbling across Castle this or Clash that. The things even have adverts, featuring bright cartoon graphics that bear no resemblance to the actual game.

Reflecting the family friendly nature of the new gaming trend, there are a number of games for kids. Dressing up princesses, building cakes and more to keep the little ones entertained while you try to get five blissful minutes of peace and quiet.

In amongst all this garbage, some good games can still be found. Titles like Subway Surfers and Temple Run are back to basics arcade titles at heart. There is no narrative, no end point, just you against the points tally, constantly trying to push your score higher.

Other games such as Angry Birds, one of the original mobile phenomenons, is actually quite a clever little puzzle game, the short levels a perfect time filler whilst you wait for an appointment or for the toaster to pop. And if you dig deep enough, there are shooters, drivers and more, decent quality games with high quality production values.

And the best thing about these games is the price tag – free. Well, kinda. Nothing is truly free of course, game time split between playing and navigating away from incessant advertising. But that seems a reasonable sacrifice to make. After all, what possible incentive could there be for a company to release completely free software, they’ve got to make some money somewhere, right?

There are paid for titles of course, established franchises such as Football Manager or GTA as well as original content. I have yet to indulge. Part of me resents the thought of paying for games when free ones are available, part of me has no interest trying to navigate the touch screen controls.

Undoubtedly my favourite mobile was the Sony Xperia Play, which slid out to become a miniature Playstation pad. What a great idea! Except that it was crap. No publishers really invested in it and so it never took off, but I did manage to run Crash Bandicoot on it, a great game on any device. Unfortunately my time with it was limited as poor design meant that the screen did not last the life of my contract, the handset ditched in a sea of bitterness and resentment. And so it is back to a standard handset and the free fare available on the Play store.

My concern with these types of games is that they will become the standard. Will companies continue to invest in new consoles and expensive titles if they can make more money from ‘free’ titles via advertising and in-app purchases? Might this become a self fulfilling prophesy, the market eating itself as it becomes saturated in the gooey fat of clan war clones?

Still To Come

Join me for part 7, as the final instalment of my videogame journey takes us to modern PC gaming and looks ahead to what my gaming future might hold.

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