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Video Game Handheld War Part 13 March 21, 2020

Posted by Maniac in Histories, Video Game Handheld War.

Welcome back to our chronicle of the Video Game Handheld War, where we tell the story of everything related to handheld consoles. In the last part, we devoted an aside to talk about the history of smartphones and tablets, and their place in the handheld gaming war at this time. Today, we’re picking up from where we left off in Part 11, where the Nintendo 3DS was absolutely dominating the Playstation Vita. Now, we are about to enter the beginning of 2013. Smartphones and tablets were starting to make it clear that the majority of games that were going to be available on them could no longer be considered games, and game developers were slowly realizing dedicated handheld gaming consoles still had their place.

The Nintendo 3DS was fully backwards compatible with Nintendo DS cartridges, just as the Game Boy Color had been with Game Boy games a decade earlier. Because of that, even though the 3DS had launched in 2011, the newest Pokémon Games, Pokémon Black 2 and Pokémon White 2 released on the DS. Game Freak did take some advantage of the 3DS’s capabilities by digitally offering a companion app, Pokédex 3D on the 3DS’s eShop. They also sold a digital mini-game in the form of Pokémon Dream Radar, which allowed players to use the 3DS’s AR functionality to “catch” legendary Pokémon that could not be easily found in the games. With the help of the 3DS’s game card reader, anything caught in that application could be transferred to the newest games.

I don’t normally get personal in these articles, but the time has come to switch perspectives. If you remember one of the earliest parts of this article, Pokémon was the MUST OWN handheld game franchise. By the late 90s, everyone had a copy of Pokémon Blue, Pokémon Red or even Pokémon Yellow. This time period is what I like to call the first wave of Pokémania, and it existed between the US launch of the original games, up to the release of Pokémon Crystal for the Game Boy Color in 2001. After 2005, very few people I knew talked about Pokémon out of the context of it being a game for kids. It wasn’t openly played at my local college, and the animated movies which used to be summer blockbusters at the local cinema were now choosing direct-to-video or made-for-television. It was not a great era for the franchise, although new games were being released on a regular basis for the Nintendo DS, the games were only played by either children or devoted fans. That was about to change.

By 2013, fans were clamoring for a Pokémon resurgence. The Generation 5 games were very good (I would argue the best games of the entire franchise to this day), and fans all over the web were starting to produce their own independent video retrospectives and reviews reminding people of just how great Pokémon was, and how big a phenomenon Pokémania was. As Nintendo released their first Direct of the year, Satoru Iwata (Ed Note – RIP) deferred his time to the President of The Pokémon Company who revealed the very first Pokémon games for the Nintendo 3DS, Pokémon X and Pokémon Y. Most of Nintendo’s Pokémon-loving customers had a 3DS by this point, and the time was right for Pokémon to come back into the mainstream, and return it did.

The PlayStation Vita was down, and due to its high price and limited library had little to offer potential customers. However, instead of ending their support for the Vita and cutting their losses, Sony tried one last play to bring the Vita out of obscurity. Smart TVs and streaming boxes were slowly gaining popularity at this time. While game consoles had offered access to services like Netflix and Amazon Prime in High-Definition for half a decade and newer “Smart” HDTVs came preloaded with access to those services without the need of a separate box, many older-HDTV owners of limited means turned to cheaper mini-streaming boxes (like the Apple TV or Amazon Fire Stick) to access these entertainment services. They were much cheaper options than gaming consoles, supported the HDMI standard so picture and sound on them were good enough, and so they sold very well. The interesting component about that story, at least in Sony’s eyes was, is the rules of a streaming box is not all that dissimilar to that of a handheld. The components had to be small and yet still be able to pack a central processor, internal memory, WiFi and video chip. The Playstation Vita already had all that, only it had a beautiful screen nobody was willing to pay a premium price for and lacked a video out. In 2013, Sony made the decision to create a television streaming box based around the PlayStation Vita. It would be called the Playstation TV.

The Playstation TV launched in November 2013 and absolutely floundered at retail. Even die-hard Vita owners, who may have already had either a Smart TV or streaming box, were hesitant to buy it. The biggest problems with the PlayStation TV was price and limitations. If you didn’t have a wireless Dual Shock controller, the PlayStation TV cost $125US, a hefty price for a mini-streaming box only capable of 720p output at that time. While it had a slot for Vita game cards, it was incompatible with many of the Vita’s best exclusive games, including Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Silent Hill: Book of Memories. Had the PlayStation TV supported ALL Vita games, and worked with any third-party PC Bluetooth controller or remote, it might’ve done better in sales. On top of that, Sony was also releasing the Playstation 4, and many gamers chose to save their money to buy a superior console that took full advantage of their 1080p HDTVs with a new library of games that were guaranteed to work.

By 2014 a second wave of Pokémania was taking over, fueled by excellent 3DS remakes of the Generation 3 games, Pokémon Omega Ruby and Pokémon Alpha Sapphire. However, by 2015 game developers were starting to have problems with the 3DS’s limitations. Having only one analog stick was becoming an enormous control problem, and the 3DS XL’s Circle Pad Pro accessory (which was designed to solve this problem) was enormous and unwieldy. The 3D feature was being underused, as most players who couldn’t get comfortable with viewing the 3D screen at the proper angle would turn the feature off. On the other side, the 3DS’s CPU was starting to bottleneck newer games, especially when it came to making use of the 3DS’s Home Screen while a game was active. The solution was clear, Nintendo would release a New model 3DS which offered an enhanced CPU, better battery life, a second analog stick, and face tracking to adjust the 3D screen to match the player’s eyeline. This New 3DS would be called…The *New* Nintendo 3DS.

The New Nintendo 3DS handheld would only be released in Japan. In the United States, the 3DS XL had come out as the superior form-factor based on sales. In fact, I never picked up the 3DS myself until the XL was released. The US and Japan would get the *New* Nintendo 3DS XL, which boasted all the *New*’s features in the XL’s larger and more comfortable XL size. Games across the board ran better on the *New* 3DS, and the second analog was able to replicate circle pad pro functionality better than the original accessory did.

However, there were some problems. Some games, including Xenoblade Chronicles 3D, shipped as *New* 3DS exclusive and would not function on an earlier model console. SNES-ported Virtual Console eShop games, including Super Mario World and Earthbound could only be downloaded on a *New* 3DS. Many gamers in the US (for some reason) preferred the size and form factor of the original 3DS and refused to purchase the larger XL. Personally, I felt the XL form factor was the superior 3DS in every single way, and to this day I can’t comprehend the outcry over Nintendo’s refusal to bring the Non-XL to the US. Eventually, 3DS players either chose to make the upgrade or they moved on.

2016 was going to be a big year for Nintendo, as it with the 20th anniversary of the Japanese release of Pokémon, and the second wave of Pokémania was still in full effect. In February, Nintendo released digital ports of Pokémon Blue, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Yellow on the Nintendo 3DS eShop, where they sold like crazy. If you asked me, they should have done that three years sooner, but it was better late than never. The Generation 7 Pokémon Games, Pokémon Sun and Pokémon Moon, sold well, but Nintendo released “Ultra” versions of the games just a year later with new features making the vanilla games feel more obsolete sooner than I felt was needed.

At the beginning of 2017, Nintendo announced the Nintendo Switch, a combination game console and portable tablet. It was later released to incredible success, surpassing the install base of the Xbox One. You might remember I talked about it’s launch in the last part of my Console Wars articles, so why am I talking about it here? Because, while the Switch can be considered a dedicated game console like the PS4 or Xbox One, its TV-out functionality is entirely optional. Like the Sega Nomad decades earlier, which played Genesis games on the go but also had a TV-out function, the Switch fits the definition of a handheld better than a console. Why would Nintendo release the Switch to function as both console and handheld, especially since they were dominating the handheld war with the 3DS? Well, I have my own opinions on that, but these are just that, opinions.

My opinion is that Nintendo wasn’t satisfied with being compared to Sony and Microsoft as a game console maker. Their company’s philosophy has always been to provide a unique product for recreational activities. The Wii U was a complete miscalculation that was marketed incorrectly and due to its lower power yet unique touch screen gamepad could not be fairly compared to either of the consoles on the market. However, time and time again, Nintendo made the right decisions when it came to the handheld market. Even back in the days of the Game and Watch series, Nintendo’s handheld products were juggernauts. By designing a handheld to be something as powerful as a game console, Nintendo could bank on what they were historically best at, handhelds, and still have a library of high-quality exclusive titles ready for it.

The final games released for the 3DS was an English translation of a previously Japanese-only game which was being adapted as a Summer Theatrical Blockbuster, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. The game was an adorable sendup to the point and click adventure titles I played on the PC as a kid, which took place in a new region of the Pokémon World. Ports of Pokémon Gold, Silver and Crystal from the Game Boy Color were also released on the 3DS eShop. For some reason Nintendo chose to stagger the release of Crystal, they did include access to the Celebi DLC campaign that never was activated in the US, and that was good.

With the release of the Nintendo Switch Lite phasing out the 3DS line, and with Smartphones and Tablets capable of providing casual games on the go (alongside all the other major features they already offer), the Video Game Handheld War has concluded. At this point, I am ending this article series and bringing future installments into the Console War series as the progress of the Nintendo Switch evolves.

Thank you for joining us through this incredible thirty year chronicle that has taken half a decade for me to write. The winner, forever more, is Nintendo, but I like to think that gamers are also the winners here as well.



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