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Video Game Handheld War Part 10 May 12, 2014

Posted by Maniac in Histories, Video Game Handheld War.
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After a lapse of a few months, we’re back to talking about the Video Game Handheld War.  When we last left the series, Nintendo had once again dominated the handheld space with the Nintendo DS family of portable gaming devices.  Sony, who entered the portable gaming space for the first time with the Playstation Portable, was unable to compete against Nintendo in sales figures.  However, the PSP had its loyalists, and Sony was ready to compete against Nintendo again in the next handheld generation.

Being on top of the handheld space since they entered it and being the clear winner of the previous generation console war, Nintendo was not going to revolutionize the gaming industry in the next handheld war like they had with the Nintendo Wii.  The Nintendo DS family had serious brand power, and their next generation handheld would be more evolutionary than revolutionary.  Since the release of Avatar, 3D, previously a fad, was returning to the mainstream. By 2011, analysts predicted 3DTVs were about to become as revolutionary an enhancement to the entertainment experience as HDTV and Surround Sound were, and Nintendo was ready to offer a 3D experience you couldn’t get anywhere else.  Nintendo’s next handheld system not only include some of the most impressive graphics they had offered on a handheld, on par with what a GameCube or Wii could offer, it would have a 3D gaming screen you wouldn’t need glasses to see.  Nintendo called their next handheld the 3DS.

The price was pretty steep, $249US.  In comparison, no previously released Nintendo handheld ever broke the $200 price point, and Nintendo reaped the benefits.  Sony had launched the original PSP at $249 US back when the handheld launched in 2005, but even with all the features Sony included with the handheld to justify that price point, PSP sales were never close to being competitive with Nintendo’s offerings.

In the meantime, Sony was preparing their own next generation handheld system, which they dubbed the “NGP” for Next Generation Portable.  Like they had with the PSP, Sony was banking on providing the most technologically capable gaming handheld on the planet.  The NGP would feature an OLED screen, for the best possible picture quality, and the most cutting edge graphical hardware, superior to what was possible on consoles at the time!  When an early version of the handheld was first unveiled, the press could not believe Sony’s portable was capable of practically recreating the same kind of graphics gamers had seen on the PS3’s killer app, Uncharted.

We can talk for hours about the NGP’s sheer technical powers, but really the biggest advancements the NGP brought to the table came in the form of the new control system.  Taking a page from the Nintendo DS, the NGP would feature a front and rear touchpad, and like the PS3 controller, it would have motion control and rumble.  The NGP would also have the most requested feature players wanted on the PSP, a second analog stick.

The Nintendo 3DS launched in Spring 2011, a few months before that year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo.  Early sales of the platform were strong.  For a lot of DS players, the 3DS seemed like a logical upgrade.  The 3DS design was very similar to the DS form factor.  It featured all the functionality of the Nintendo DSi family of handhelds including dual screens, compatibility with DS and DSi games, and wireless access.  In fact, DSi players could transfer all their purchases and savegames to their new handheld by simply downloading a free application to their DSi, increasing the early value of the new system.  Also, the Nintendo DS offered some of the finest exclusive titles of the previous generation, so anyone who never picked up a DS could finally play all of the classic DS games on the new 3DS.  It was like having two platforms in one.

After a moderately successful 3DS launch, Nintendo had a problem on the horizon.  After strong early sales, 3DS purchases quickly began to falter.  A price point of $249 was just too high for a handheld device, while top of the line smartphones were readily available with greater capabilities at a lower price.  While the DS compatibility was a great feature, the initial allotment of 3DS exclusive titles was just not enough incentive to buy a 3DS immediately.  On top of that, new DS games were being published on a regular basis, and players decided to stick with their DSi systems for the time being.

In a surprising move that nobody could have seen coming, Nintendo responded to their lower than expected sales by slashing the price of the 3DS hard!  Almost overnight, the price of the Nintendo 3DS dropped from $249 US to $169 US.  To appease the early adopters, anyone who picked up the system before the price drop could register their system serial numbers and become a part of the Nintendo Ambassador’s program, making them eligible to download a dozen of the most popular Game Boy and Game Boy Advance games ever made free of charge.  This was no small promotion, to this day Nintendo has not officially offered a single GBA game, including any of the titles they released through the Ambassador’s Program, on the Nintendo eShop for purchase.

The lower price point helped sales of the Nintendo 3DS pick back up, but analysts didn’t believe Sony would be immune from the same market trends that affected Nintendo.  In fact, many pundits predicted that dedicated handheld gaming devices were no longer practical in today’s smartphone driven economy.

At E3 2011 Sony unveiled the final version of their next portable device along with its final name, the Playstation Vita.  Five playable games were shown at the event, including the game that everyone expected to be the Vita’s killer app, Uncharted: Golden Abyss.  The controls were smooth, the OLED screen looked fantastic, and the games shown were a lot of fun to play, but gaming journalists (myself included), walked away from E3 that year without the impression that the Vita would be a sure seller.  Sony did not have the Vita’s battery finished by the time of E3, and would not answer questions about the system’s battery life.  They also impressed a lot of people by saying they were offering a Vita model with a 3G modem, but actually got booed when they announced an exclusive partnership with AT&T for that 3G access.  Gamers were still angry over AT&T’s poor handling of the iPhone on their wireless service since the iPhone 3G, and they were not happy they would have to use AT&T’s network for the Vita.

The Playstation Vita launched in December 2011 in Japan and February 2012 in the US at a price of $249 US.  Even with Uncharted: Golden Abyss as a launch title, the platform was nearly Dead on Arrival.  While the Vita itself was a beautiful piece of hardware capable of everything Sony promised it would be capable of, the high price point and lack of an early allotment of must-have titles hurt the Vita’s sales early on.  The Vita did not use a UMD drive, instead going with a new proprietary Vita Card slot for retail games.  Because of that, the Vita could only play PSP games that players purchased digitally and downloaded from the Playstation Network.  On top of that, unlike the 3DS which used a pretty common SDHC card for external storage, the Vita had its own propriety memory card for storage.  The new Vita memory cards were incredibly overpriced in comparison to the SD storage medium and gamers would have to buy one since the first version of the Vita had no internal memory of its own.

By early 2012, gamers were left with a choice.  They could either buy Nintendo’s handheld which was much cheaper, could play two generations of retail handheld games (which included some of the finest games Nintendo ever published), and was compatible with a cheap, common storage medium, or they could buy a Vita which had nowhere near the library of quality titles, was incompatible with the previous generation’s retail games, and used an expensive storage medium.  Gamers made their choice, and they chose the Nintendo 3DS.

Stay tuned next time for when Nintendo decided to take their lead and throw it into overdrive.

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