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Video Game Handheld War Part 13 March 21, 2020

Posted by Maniac in Histories, Video Game Handheld War.
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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.


Video Game Handheld War Part 12 March 9, 2020

Posted by Maniac in Histories, Video Game Handheld War.
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I know I promised in the last part that I would talk about the great resurgence of Pokémania in 2013, but I felt that since this whole series is focused on video game handhelds, up until this point I had been ignoring a major elephant in the room, smartphones and tablets. Because of that, I wanted to devote this part to talk about personal computing devices and their place in the video game handheld war at the time of the PS Vita and 3DS generation.

In 2007, Apple Co-Founder Steve Jobs (Ed Note – RIP) went on stage to announce new products that Apple would be releasing over the next year. Since he had returned to Apple in the early 2000s, the company had seen a tremendous wave of success thanks to the release of the iPod and OS X Mac computers. As he concluded his speech he announced a series of features Apple intended to sell to the public that year, all in a product Apple had never provided before. A personal music device that could allow its user to read emails, browse the Internet, and make phone calls! It had a twelve hour battery life, a camera, and could function from a cellular connection! It would be called, the iPhone.

The first generation iPhone was revolutionary but it suffered numerous setbacks. It had a $500US price tag, which was quite expensive for a phone at the time. While it was more capable, its interface was not as user intuitive as other phones on the market. It also had many of the same limitations of the iPod. It could only work with Apple’s proprietary iTunes program, it had no replaceable battery, but the biggest issue was there was no third-party software support, which meant the phone was reliant on Apple to provide its users all its features. Tech geeks and Apple enthusiasts purchased the iPhone on day one, but the mainstream was not impressed with it yet. That would change, and quickly.

Nearly a year after the iPhone’s release, Steve Jobs took the stage again to reveal new features that would be coming to the iPhone. Apple was improving the iPhone’s interface, allowing for easier access to things like its camera. They were also adding in support for third-party applications, both free and paid. This meant that GAMES could be written specifically for the iPhone, and many major developers looked forward to the challenge of designing a game entirely around a touch screen interface. At the very least, ports of old PC games looked inevitable. Apple assured users they would be testing EVERY application that would be sold on their phone, making the chance of programs leaking personal data much slimmer. While they intended to ship these new features in an all-new improved iPhone, Jobs revealed most of the software features he demoed would work on the original iPhone. Oh, and the price was being slashed by several hundred dollars thanks to subsidies by the cellular providers.

Now, the public took notice and major companies including Blackberry, Microsoft, Palm and Google prepared to release their own phones to compete against Apple. This started what has been dubbed as the smartphone revolution. Palm, having been one of the first companies in the personal data assistant space, was heavily favorited to release a phone that could compete against Apple. Eventually, Palm released the Pre. While it could do multitasking in a way iPhone could not, it was clearly rushed to market and was paired up with a poorly designed phone. If there was going to be competition against Apple, it would not be from Palm. Eventually, Apple would get some real competition once phone makers began to ship phones loaded with the Android operating system. Android was developed by Google using Linux code and while its interface was nowhere near as elegant as Apple’s, Google allowed their users to run their own third-party programs, including ones Apple would never sign off on. For non-Apple smartphones and tablets, Android was the go-to operating system. By the end of the smartphone wars, only Apple and Google survived.

Apple would eventually fall into a pattern of releasing yearly hardware updates for the iPhone line, bringing some of the new software features to older devices when they could. Despite the massive success of the iPhone line, Steve Jobs was not merely satisfied with total domination of the phone market, his company’s next major product was going to be something that had only been seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation, a fully interactive portable touch screen computer. Basically Apple was making a BIG iPhone, and it would be called the iPad. The iPad launched in 2010 and was slow to be adopted by the mainstream. However, the iPad was cheaper and lasted longer on battery than a laptop of the time, and could handle simpler tasks like web surfing and email on the go just as well as the iPhone could. It also supported a line of third-party games from major publishers like EA. Apple’s continual support of new features including the video chat program FaceTime, slowly made the iPad a must-own device. Once it was clear the iPad was also going to dominate the market, competitors like Samsung, Microsoft and LG released their own similar products which became known as the newly minted tablet line of computers. While Microsoft’s own products shipped with their own tablet versions of Windows, most third-party iPad clones used Google’s Android operating system.

So if these smartphones and tablets were as revolutionary as I’ve described them up until this point, and their hardware specs have made them perfectly suitable for gaming, why haven’t they been included in this list up until this point? The answer is complicated but we can try to simplify it here. The modern smartphone or tablet can be classified more as a PC than it could be a gaming device. While today’s smartphones can certainly be capable of running unique games, like with the PC, gaming is not their mainstream purpose. Also, like the PC, Apple and Google regularly release new features and security updates to their products. While this is a great thing, these updates have had a tendency to downright break programs, even purchased ones. Once a device update breaks compatibility with a program, only the game’s developer can fix it. Sometimes, especially if the game is old, they just won’t do that. However, if the game was somehow still making its developer money, the chances it would stay supported was much higher. But how would that get determined?

I mentioned earlier in the article that when Apple launched their support for third-party applications they would offer iPhone owners both free and paid applications. As you could imagine, free applications were far more popular than paid ones. By the time the third iPhone was released, both Apple and Google allowed developers to charge users to unlock in-app content. I’m sure the mainstream believed this feature could be used to allow users to purchase full versions of a program from its demo or unlock expansion packs with new levels or content (like PC gamers would buy back in their heyday), instead developers discovered this new feature could be used far more often than anyone could have expected.

Inspired by browser-based games like FarmVille (which can barely be considered a game by most dedicated gamers) game developers discovered they could charge users money to complete simple in-game tasks quicker than they otherwise could. These purchases were eventually dubbed Microtransactions, and the games that used them, since they were free to download, became known as free-to-play. Within no time, developers discovered that releasing their games for free and charging people for essentially using in-game shortcuts were earning them more money than if they had charged them up front for the game. This gave certain games designed to take advantage of it a consistent monetary income flow. Developers quickly realized they had an excuse to keep games that supported this kind of an income flow running, and would regularly release new updates to keep free-to-play games functional even as other traditional pay programs stopped working.

This inconsistency is why we haven’t been addressing the smartphone and tablet platforms in this history to this point. As of the time this has been written, nearly all games being released on Apple or Google platforms revolve around a free-to-play design. The ones that haven’t eventually stop working, even if you initially paid for them. This, as far as I’m concerned, disqualifies them from further consideration on this list. I know major publishers have attempted to bring these income-driven game mechanics to mainstream PC and console games over the years, but a vocal subset of the gaming community have vigorously opposed it.

Thanks for joining us for this aside in the Video Game Handheld Wars. When we return, we will be going deeper into the domination of the 3DS, the disappointment of the Vita, and what might be the final chapter of this series for all time. Stay tuned.

Video Game Handheld War Part 11 September 11, 2014

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When we last left the Video Game Handheld War, Sony launched their second dedicated gaming handheld platform in the form of the Playstation Vita and it was practically dead on arrival. The system and its peripherals were just too expensive at launch and many players believed that after Nintendo’s 3DS price drop, Sony would respond with one of their own and chose to wait. Even though the handheld’s biggest launch title, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, received some favorable reviews from the gaming press, in gamers’ minds it did not merit an investment in the product just yet. Stock of the Vita gathered dust on retail shelves for weeks. Everyone expected Sony to announce a price drop at E3 2012 but strangely it didn’t happen. To further hurt the Vita’s chances, Sony didn’t impress much in the form of any new Vita games at the show. The biggest takeaway we got from that show was Sony’s promise there would be Vita connectivity with future PS3 titles. While none of the mainstream press mentioned it at the time, I had seen a similar tactic years before. Nintendo had brought GameCube connectivity features to the extremely popular Game Boy Advance, hoping to increase sales of the floundering console. It may have sounded like a gimmick at the time, but Nintendo was able to do some pretty creative things with that connectivity feature in games like Four Swords Adventures and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. In hindsight, Sony was not able to do much with their connectivity plans. They were able to offer some decent features, like cross platform multiplayer for select games but that was about it. At least they were willing to offer cross platform digital purchases, ensuring any digital games purchased on different platforms would be playable on any Sony hardware a player owned without forcing their customers to rebuy the same game multiple times. While it was certainly very consumer friendly, to this day neither Nintendo nor Microsoft will allow software purchased on one platform to be played on a different platform without making you rebuy it, it didn’t add much to enhance the multiplatform gaming experience.

Nintendo meanwhile had a great E3. To show off how strong their handheld platform had gotten since it’s price drop, they dedicated a separate live show exclusively to show players all of the upcoming 3DS games and Nintendo had a lot of surprises ready for that show. Tons of new games were shown at the separate presentation hosted on the first day of E3 including New Super Mario Bros 2, Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon, and even a new Castlevania game. They also announced they were enhancing their digital download service capable of offering full retail titles for digital purchase. 3DS owners interested in purchasing all their retail games digitally would have done well to purchase a new High Capacity SD memory card, because Nintendo was planning to offer New Super Mario Bros 2 on digital download the same day and date with the game’s retail launch.

However Nintendo’s handheld release schedule for that year did not revolve entirely around the 3DS, there was one major release coming to the DS by the end of 2012. Well to be clear, there were actually two major releases for the end of 2012, Pokémon Black 2 and Pokémon White 2. That 2 is not a typo, these were the very first direct sequels to a Pokémon generation Nintendo ever released and continued the story of the fifth generation games. Nintendo was also planning to release two digital applications to the 3DS’s online marketplace which would tie into Pokémon Black & White 2‘s release, Pokémon Dream Radar and Pokédex 3D. So while the games would play just fine on the Nintendo DS for all current DS owners, 3DS owners would be able to download some extra applications which could enhance their gaming experience. Heck, the original Pokédex 3D application was totally free.

While the DS was still going strong, the PSP on the other hand was just plain dead. Retail stores, if they had any left over PSP games in stock, was trying to get rid of them at heavily discounted rates. If you were able to find them, games like The 3rd Birthday and Dissidia 012 would be at some pretty reasonable prices. It was also a great time to buy some last minute peripherals like spare batteries, earbuds, and tv out cables for the PSP because they would not be restocked.

With the PSP on the way out, the Vita needed to step up to the plate to keep retailer confidence. So what was next for the Vita in the form of new exclusive games? A new Resistance title. The Resistance franchise had garnered a dedicated following since Resistance: Fall of Man launched alongside the PS3. In fact, I believed that game was the best PS3 title until Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was released in 2007. Sadly, the franchise’s creator, Insomniac Games, had moved on and Sony had put the franchise in the hand of another developer to produce the Vita exclusive title, Resistance: Burning Skies. Sony put a lot of hype into promising great things from Burning Skies but when it launched in June 2012 reviews of the game ranged from lukewarm to abysmal and it was not the system seller Sony desperately needed. The aftermath of the game’s failure was so bad many are worried it may have killed the Resistance franchise.

As the summer progressed, Nintendo had another huge announcement ready to go, they were preparing to release their first hardware revision for the 3DS. That announcement shocked just about everyone, since it hadn’t been that long since the 3DS launched, but Nintendo was ready. The new 3DS was larger and would feature a larger screen, making the handheld’s 3D effect much easier to see. It would also have an improved battery for longer gameplay and standby times. Nintendo even got rid of the 3DS’s annoying collapsable stylus, instead the XL would come with a solid full sized stylus. The new handheld was called the 3DS XL and the price would be $199 US, still $50-100 less than what the Vita was selling for. It would even come stock with a 4GB SDHC card for storage, offering an improvement over the 2GB cards which came standard in the original 3DS. About the only problem gamers had with the XL was that it lacked a second analog stick, and the new form factor made the XL incompatible with the 3DS’s Circle Pad Pro peripheral. However, most 3DS games were designed around a single analog stick and proponents of the platform didn’t believe this was much of a problem. Current DSi and 3DS owners would even be able to fully transfer all their save data and purchased content to the 3DS XL without much issue, making it a logical upgrade in the minds of many Nintendo fans, and gaining the interest of gamers on the fence about investing in the platform.

The 3DS XL launched in August 2012. On the same day, Nintendo released the highly anticipated title New Super Mario Bros 2, the sequel to the DS’s biggest selling game, at retail. Just as promised, Nintendo made it the first 3DS retail game to have a day and date launch online, and gamers were happy to be offered the option. This was the kick off point of a revamped 3DS eShop, and more 3DS retail games would be coming to complement the NES, Game Boy, DSi and 3DS downloadable titles the service already offered.

To compete with the launch of the 3DS XL, Sony had…nothing. After the failure of Burning Skies, Sony was unable to bring Vita games to the platform at the same pace that Nintendo was getting games for the 3DS. Gamers were not adopting the platform if it wouldn’t offer games and developers weren’t willing to take a risk on a platform with such a low install base. About the only thing that was in store for the Vita in the immediate future were ports. Meanwhile Nintendo was swinging hard with regular releases for the 3DS on the horizon. As 2012 came to an end, not only was it clear that Nintendo was keeping its crown in the Video Game Handheld War, it was possible that the Vita no longer had any chance in being even remotely competitive against Nintendo for the rest of the handheld generation!

However, total dominance in the handheld space wasn’t good enough for Nintendo, and little did they know that as 2013 began, the conditions were right for Pokémania to have a resurgence not seen since the year 2000. All it needed was a little announcement by Pikachu to kick it off. Stay tuned, dear readers. I’ll share that story with you next time.

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.

The Video Game Handheld War Part 9 October 6, 2013

Posted by Maniac in Histories, Video Game Handheld War.
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Times were changing and while the hardware was still being revised on a regular basis, we were still in the middle of the handheld war between the Nintendo DS and the Sony Playstation Portable.  Previously, Nintendo had launched its highly successful DSi, a camera equipped DS which allowed for digital game downloads, and Sony had just released their third revision to the Playstation Portable, dubbed the PSP-3000.  Based upon sales, the Sony PSP was still trailing behind the Nintendo DS, but the landscape for what would make for a video game handheld system was about to be completely changed.

After the failure of the UMD Video format, Sony set their sights digitally.  Apple’s iTunes store had seen a major influx of customers after they released the iPhone.  After the release of the second iPhone, the iPhone 3G, many critics believed that Smartphones would be the future of portable gaming platforms and not dedicated handheld gaming systems.  This was a worrying prospect for everyone, and Sony was determined to take drastic steps to prevent the PSP platform from becoming obsolete.  Sony had already established a hugely popular online store for the PS3 which offered full game downloads, add-ons, trailers, and more for download, and Sony was ready to bring it to the PSP.  Also, portable storage was getting cheaper.  By this point in time, with the low price and larger capacity, PSP’s Memory Stick offered players a lot more options than UMD could, and unlike UMD, digital downloads cost nothing to manufacture and ran no risk of running out of inventory.  Soon, Nintendo would not be the only handheld game system with an online store.

Sony decided to go further with the idea and designed an entirely digital PSP.  Sony completely redesigned the PSP’s form factor to slide open, making it look and feel more like a modern day cell phone.  However, there were a lot of downsides to this new system.  First off, it would be using entirely new standards for everything, making currently existing PSP peripherals and external storage incompatible.  The device would have 16 GB of its own internal storage, with the option of expanding memory using Memory Stick Micro.  It would also feature no UMD drive at all, making it incompatible with all retail PSP games.  Dubbed the PSP Go, it would ship at a price of $249 US…which was $50 dollars more expensive than the already released PSP-3000, which had nearly all the same features of the PSP Go and a UMD drive.

In 2009, Nintendo released a larger model DSi, dubbed the DSi XL.  The intention was to release a larger handheld with all the functionality of the DSi, including access to the popular DSiware store, but with a larger screens.  The DSi XL would be the final DS model to get released from the DS line.  Sadly, Nintendo chose not to bring the GBA slot back with the new system, making the entire DSi line of handhelds incompatible with GBA games or DS peripherals that made use of the GBA slot, like the Rumble Pack.  However, this turned out to be a moot issue, as DSi XL owners were buying their systems to play the fantastic library of DS games that were already available and the DS games that would be coming soon.

The PSP Go launched just in time for Christmas 2009, and by all intents and purposes it was Dead on Arrival.  Most users thought that the PSP Go was the stupidest idea that Sony had ever had and they couldn’t believe Sony actually brought it to retail.  Any regular model PSP would have access to the digital Playstation Store and so long as they had a Memory Stick with enough space, they could download all of the same content that a PSP Go could.  On top of that the PSP Go had an incredibly unfair price premium over the most recent model PSP, and yet without a UMD drive it could not play any retail PSP game!  If a user didn’t have access to a WiFi hotspot with internet access, the PSP Go was useless, unlike an iPhone owner who could download content through the wireless phone service.  This made it the most illogical handheld upgrade ever and current PSP owners decided to stick with their systems.  Gamers knew Sony was expecting them to pay extra money for what was essentially a crippled PSP, and they did not have any interest in it.

In fact, many retailers worldwide were uneasy about stocking it, not just because of its high price point and the bad word of mouth, but brick and mortar stores were angry that Sony was planning to cut them out of possible revenue from the system’s games.  Sony assured retailers that was not their intention, and retailers would have the opportunity to sell prepaid digital game codes for many of the PSP’s most popular games at the time of the PSP Go’s launch.

Aside from a few curious adopters, the PSP Go did not sell.  Reviews for the device were lukewarm to terrible, as critics believed the device did not merit the high price point.  However, while the PSP Go was by all accounts a complete failure and a big black eye for Sony, the online marketplace set up to be used by the PSP Go was a resounding success.  Playstation Portable owners hoping to get their hands on older games that were no longer in print finally had the chance to download all the games they wanted.  With the low price and high capacity of external Memory Sticks, the storage capability on the PSP could in theory get just as large as what a stock PSP Go could offer.  No matter how many price drops Sony did on the PSP Go, no one would buy it, and the system, as well as the peripherals for it, collected dust on retail shelves.  However, the digital download codes that Sony offered to retailers, since they worked on any model PSP, sold quite well.  There are still plenty of people who do not have credit cards or are unwilling to use them for digital purchases, and retailers made a smart decision by offering downloadable game codes, as well as Playstation Network Gift Cards, at retail.

Meanwhile as Sony floundered with the PSP Go’s launch, Nintendo had entered in unimaginable success with the DSi systems.  Now, Nintendo prepared their fifth generation Pokémon game launch, and the second generation to appear on the DS platform.  Previously, a new Pokémon generation game (not including remakes) would launch on a new Nintendo platform, but the success of the DS was so great that Nintendo chose to release the newest Pokémon games to the same platform as the previous ones.  The fifth generation games would be called Pokémon Black and Pokémon White.  Normally, a Pokémon game’s release would go on to become the biggest selling games on Nintendo’s handheld platform, but Pokémon’s popularity had started to wane since the release of the DS.  By this point there were so many other great games on the DS that were huge system sellers, a Pokémon game released so late into the platform’s lifespan just could not make up those sales, but Black and White sure tried.  When the games were released, they gave a great boost to the franchise’s popularity and went on to become staple games for the platform.  In fact Pokémon Black & Pokémon White were so popular they remain the first Pokémon games to not receive a special third game in their generation like Pokémon Yellow or Pokémon Platinum.   They were also the first Pokémon games that would go on to get direct sequels in the form of Pokémon Black 2 and Pokémon White 2, but I’ll get more into those games at a later time.

In 2011, Sony officially announced they had discontinued the PSP Go.  Nintendo on the other hand was still doing phenomenally with their entire DS line, and the DSi XL still can be found at retail to this day.  In the end, the Sony Playstation Portable could not compete with the overpowering success of the Nintendo DS brand, which if you take into account combined sales of all their different DS models, made the DS the second best-selling console of all time.  However, Sony’s PSP cannot be considered a complete failure.  While UMD never took off in the way that Sony had hoped when they designed the format, the PSP itself offered a lot of features that gamers liked, including MP3 Music and MP4 Video playback, Internet Browser, and support for streaming Podcasts.  The fact that it allowed its internal software to be updated on a regular basis offered gamers the opportunity to receive new features, and to this day no game console goes without some sort of update feature.  Also, the PSP Go’s online digital network laid the groundwork for a fantastic digital game marketplace to already be in place by the time Sony’s next handheld would hit the market, but that’s a story that is still being written.

The Video Game Handheld War Part 8 September 25, 2013

Posted by Maniac in Histories, Video Game Handheld War.
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As we enter this eighth part of our History of the Video Game Handheld War, we’re going to continue our discussion of the Sony PSP and Nintendo DS generation.  The reason why I’ve chosen to break this particular generation into so many different parts of this ongoing series is because unlike most of the previous generations before it, a lot of events transpired during this past generation.  New hardware was getting released regularly, and the popular franchises that were coming over to the platforms were big events.  Each side constantly tried to one-up the other, but as we enter this latest part, the Nintendo DS was still far ahead of the Sony Playstation Portable.

The year was 2007 and Sony had just shipped a brand new model of the Playstation Portable, the PSP-2000, but many just simply dubbed it the PSP Slim.  By all intents and purposes it was an improvement over the original PSP, and immediately after launch, gaming journalists discovered that the games played on the PSP Slim enjoyed much shorter load times.  However, the PSP Slim was not without its problems as some players would find issues with the Slim’s LCD screen, and complaints of image ghosting started to spread.  However, the PSP Slim’s TV-out feature, which was compatible with both SD and HDTVs, made the ghosting issue a bit of moot point.

At around the end of 2007, Sony released their final first-party title for the Playstation 2, God of War II.  The game was the sequel to one of the PS2’s most critically acclaimed games, and it became one of the highest anticipated releases of the year, and one of the best selling on the PS2 that season.  While the game ended with a cliffhanger, the game’s manual hinted at the possible future of the series.  Gamers saw there was an advertisement for the next God of War game which made it clear that the series would be coming to the Playstation Portable.

Once again, just like with Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, instead of jumping in excitement that one of Playstation’s most iconic franchises was getting a new title released on a portable platform, gamers complained like crazy that it wasn’t coming to a platform they already owned, like the Playstation 2.  However, when God of War: Chains of Olympus finally launched on the Playstation Portable, it got a huge critical response and many critics remarked just how well God of War’s core gameplay was able to be brought over to the Playstation Portable.  While it did not resolve the cliffhanger left at the end of God of War II, it served as an exciting prequel story which further fleshed out God of War’s characters, and had a pretty exciting ending to boot.  Players who picked it up were not disappointed, and the game became a hot seller.

In 2008, Nintendo decided that the time was right for a new DS revision.  The early buzz was that Nintendo was going to release a larger DS Lite model, but Nintendo chose to go a different route.  Once again, Nintendo was releasing a smaller and lighter model DS which would have slightly larger dual screens, but that wasn’t all.  This new model DS would also feature a dual camera system, giving players the chance to take digital pictures or to use the cameras during gameplay, and because of that, the new handheld revision was dubbed the DSi.  The downside was that the DSi would not feature a GBA slot, and any peripherals that would take advantage of it (including the required adapter for Guitar Hero: On Tour) would no longer be compatible.  This angered some of the DSi’s early adopters, as well as Nintendo loyalists planning to upgrade, but by this point Nintendo was no longer selling Game Boy Advance games, and most retailers were no longer stocking GBA games either.

With the release of the DSi came the end of the long reign of the Game Boy brand, one of the most successful hardware platforms of all time.  The DSi, like the DS Lite and Game Boy Color before it, once again shipped in multiple colors which offered players a small way to personalize their systems.  In Japan, the platform was a huge hit at launch, both from new customers and from already existing DS players who wanted to upgrade.  Nearly all of the launch units solid immediately.  When it finally launched in America, it shipped in two colors, a first for the region.

Reviews of the system were widely positive.  While the addition of the extra cameras wouldn’t win the DSi any major awards for great technical achievements, the DSi’s new online DSiware store alone made the upgrade worth the price.  While Nintendo chose to only release DSiware exclusive content and not full retail games through the service, the service was very successful and it gave Nintendo the opportunity to release new DSi content on a regular basis.  While the device only shipped with a finite amount of memory, Nintendo included an expansion slot for SD cards, which would allow users to hold more memory.  The downside was that the DSiware content was region locked, unlike retail DS game cards, and like the Wii, DSi purchases were locked to the individual handheld device.

Unfortunately, everything still wasn’t going well for the PSP.  By 2008, the UMD Video bubble had finally burst.  Far too wide a range of videos were getting released and the PSP’s market share was not large enough to buy all the titles that were being offered.  With Walmart having ended their support years earlier, the UMD Video market had started to stagnate.  On top of that, UMD was seeing a heavy competition on a medium without a physical format.  Apple’s iTunes store was offering digital downloads of movies ever since Apple released a color version of their highly successful iPod and with removable media overtaking the storage capacity of what could be held in a UMD, gamers decided that downloading multiple movies to a portable device instead of carrying around physical media was the better option.

Sony released one more incremental hardware revision to the PSP in the form of the PSP-3000.  By all intents and purposes, it was another PSP Slim, but it featured a slightly improved screen which lessened the ghosting images that many complained was a problem with the PSP-2000.  It was also compatible with nearly all of the PSP-2000’s peripherals, including the battery, Skype headset, and TV Out cables.

However, I would be remised to talk about the other big elephant that had entered the handheld space by this point, and that is the rise of the Smartphone and by 2009, both Sony and Nintendo had to sit back and take notice.  Smartphones had already hit the market with huge success, and it became clear very early that something like a brand-new iPhone could have just as much gaming capability as a portable game system could.  An iPhone user could wirelessly download anything they wanted to their phone in just a matter of minutes.  Previously, Sony had been one of the largest cell phone manufacturers in the world, and they saw this digital download craze as something they could bring to the Sony PSP in the form of an entirely new PSP hardware revision.  Would they succeed?  That’s a story for next time.

The Video Game Handheld War Part 7 September 13, 2013

Posted by Maniac in Histories, Video Game Handheld War.
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The first year of the PSP versus DS battle was now a memory and the DS was far ahead due to a lower price point and more successful titles, however Sony was not out for the count and had a lot more planned for their handheld.  While Sony was happy to continue to support the PSP with regular software updates, Nintendo had learned from the success of the various Game Boy revisions they released over the years and believed that regularly updating their handheld line with new hardware revisions was the best way to go.  While the UMD format was taking off, Nintendo was working on the first major system revision for the DS.

In 2006, Nintendo released the DS Lite.  This was the first major hardware redesign for the Nintendo DS.  Like the Game Boy Pocket or Color before it, while it only launched in one color, the DS Lite shipped in a variety of different colors including black, coral, or white, giving players a small amount of personal customization options like we would see in today’s cell phones.  It was smaller and thinner than the original DS, but the system’s dual screens were larger and sharper than the original DS, and it had an improved battery with new power saving options to extend battery life.  It could still play all DS games and interface with all other DS systems through its internal WiFi.  The best part was even with the reduced size, it still featured a Game Boy Advance slot and a lot of developers were working on special peripherals to make use of it with DS games including a Rumble Pak.  The price was a reasonable $129 US, far less expensive than Sony’s counterpart.

Nintendo players were mixed on the DS Lite’s release.  On the one hand, it was a little upsetting to early DS adopters to see Nintendo release a hardware revision so soon after the platform’s launch.  On the other hand, the smaller DS Lite was attractive to new DS adopters who may have been on the fence about picking up the platform.  The system sold like crazy internationally, with huge system shortages at retail in Japan for months.  It looked like Nintendo was cementing its handheld reputation all over again.

On the other side, with the first hardware revision out for Nintendo, the gaming press asked Sony if they planned to release a new hardware revision for the Sony PSP.  Sony balked at the question, saying that they had no plans to revise the PSP’s hardware and that any further updates to the system would come in the form of free firmware updates, which up to that point had added a bunch of new features to the PSP including an Internet Browser.

Sony may have been holding firm on their support for the PSP but in reality their handheld was struggling.  While it saw a few great exclusive titles for the platform that rivaled the PS2 in graphical quality, instead of choosing to pick up the platform, gamers instead complained that these games were not being released on platforms that people already owned.  After the release of Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories was such a critical hit, instead of being excited about the chance for a brand new game that could bring all of Liberty City on a portable system, gamers were furious they would need to buy a PSP to play the next Grand Theft Auto game, and that it didn’t release on the PS2.

The UMD movie format was also starting to reach its peak.  After the initial successful launch, more movie studios threw their weight behind the format and released many popular titles that the PSP’s players would be interested in buying, by 2006 Walmart,  one of the biggest retailers in the US, pulled their support for selling the format.  They claimed that the format’s low sales didn’t justify them stocking the format, although other retailers including Best Buy and Circuit City pledged to continue supporting it.  More titles were being released for the format on a regular basis, including popular movies like The Matrix and cult classics like TRON.  In fact, some studios were experimenting with what could be done with the format and released music albums like Nirvana’s Nevermind on UMD.  Heck, some studios even released Digital Graphic Novels on UMD, including an interactive Silent Hill graphic novel, and a graphic novel version of the original Metal Gear Solid game.

Even with all this behind them, by 2007 the Sony PSP still couldn’t compete against the outstanding sales figures of the Nintendo DS and DS Lite, and Sony started to work on the first major hardware redesign for the Sony PSP.  The plan was to make the system lighter and thinner than the original model PSP, take out what was never used, and bring in what players were asking for since the platform’s launch.  Sony improved the PSP’s CPU to make it able to cut down on game load times, removed the IR port on the top of the PSP, and redesigned the UMD slot to make the system slimmer.  But most important of all, Sony announced that their new model PSP would feature TV Out, the most requested feature players wanted, so PSP owners would finally get to play their PSP games on their SD and HDTVs.  Sadly, most of this functionality could not be brought over to the early PSP adopters, and they would need to upgrade their PSPs to take advantage of the system’s new features.  Dubbed the PSP-2000 in Japan, or PSP-2001 in North America, the new slim PSP was Sony’s best chance to finally overtake Nintendo’s dominance on the handheld market.

How did they do?  That’s a story for next time!

The Video Game Handheld War Part 6 September 7, 2013

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The latest Video Game Handheld War was in full effect and the Nintendo DS had struck first blood.  Pretty soon, Nintendo had a hit in the handheld market with the release of Nintendogs, which did a great job in getting players to adopt the format and would go on to become one of the best selling titles for the entire DS platform.

On the other hand, all was not going well for the PSP.  After a successful launch, Sony’s PSP sales started to slow down.  Gamers knew their major problem was that they had a much more expensive platform with only a few titles that could take advantage of it.  While the DS had the same problem, it could rely on its Game Boy Advance slot to appease players until the DS library was expanded, which could play any Game Boy Advance game without much of a problem, a smart move on Nintendo’s part as they were still releasing new titles for the Game Boy Advance for some time even after the DS’s release.

The PSP on the other hand was seeing decent sales for PSP versions of their more popular franchises, and to everyone’s surprise, gamers found something special included with their copies of Wipeout Pure.  Some industrious players discovered that the game’s DLC menu functioned very similar to a webpage, and they determined that with a little ingenuity, they could get the PSP to visit any webpage they wanted to without the need to alter the system in any way!  Players were excited at the chance to have a mobile web browser that could run off a wireless internet connection, and the PSP could do it.  Not too long after the browser was discovered in Wipeout, Sony officially updated the PSP’s firmware using the device’s WiFI connection and made the platform’s Internet Browser accessible from the system’s menu.  Sony didn’t charge any extra for the update and all PSP’s were able to download and install it.  This kind of development was quite common for PC users to expect, but nearly unheard of on a gaming platform, let alone a portable one!

The UMD movie format was a very surprising development in the early days of the PSP.  Sony noted that they had a lot of success at launch by choosing to bundle copies of the Spider-Man 2 movie with the PSP on the UMD format.  A lot of early PSP adopters were choosing to buy the system just so they would have a way to watch movies while on the go in near DVD quality.  Unlike the game component of UMD, Sony chose to release the movie specifications for the format openly, allowing any movie studios who wished to release content on the format the opportunity to do so.  A lot of different movie studios showed interest in releasing content for the portable platform, but they were cautious about moving too much content for a platform that could be just having a brief boom.  If the format failed, the studios stood to lose a lot of money in the costs of unsold manufactured discs.

On UMD video’s official launch date only two movie studios were willing to invest in the UMD movie format at launch, Disney and Sony Pictures.  Some launch titles for the format included recent hits from the studio’s back catalog including Hellboy: Director’s Cut and Kill Bill Vol. 1, and to everyone’s surprise the format had a great launch.  The studios did a great job by picking some popular titles for the format’s launch, expecting that many gamers would be interested in rebuying their movies to play them while on the go.  Picture quality was pretty good on the PSP’s screen, and while Sony chose to release their films on a cropped widescreen format to fit them to the PSP screen, Disney decided to release their films in full widescreen, and let the user choose for themselves how they wanted to display them.

Game developers had more power to spare with the PSP’s system architecture and they were ready to release some titles that would truly take advantage of everything the PSP could do.  Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories may have seemed like it would be a smaller game, but it turned out to be a full fledged open world prequel to Grand Theft Auto 3.  All of Liberty City was completely recreated in detail, and while many players wished the PSP had a second analog stick, the camera control worked very well.  Planet Moon Studios, who had announced around the time of the PSP reveal that they would be a PSP exclusive studio, released Infected.  All of the great humor that Planet Moon had been known for was intact, even though this would be the most violent game that Planet Moon had worked on to date,

While the PSP was trying to make it clear to gamers they could produce a console experience on a handheld device, Nintendo knew they had a handheld system with a unique control system and display, and they were going to make every one of their games to be a unique DS experience.  In late 2005, Nintendo released Animal Crossing: Wild World, a portable entry in their widely successful Animal Crossing series and one of the first games to take advantage of Nintendo’s Wi-Fi Connection, which allowed DS players to play their games online.

Both the PSP and the DS systems were selling.  The games that were coming to the platforms were getting critical hits, but Sony just couldn’t shake the fact that the DS was far less expensive, and had a unique control system that people were enjoying.  Sony decided to release a special bundle for the holiday season that would include a PSP with a whopping 1GB Memory Stick.  The bundle cost $299 US, but this was in a time when flash memory was very expensive, and some people thought of it as a decent deal since they would need to have a Memory Stick with decent storage capacity in order to get the most out of the PSP’s capabilities.

The first year had ended and the Nintendo DS was still ahead of the Sony PSP.  While Sony was still behind in the first year, the UMD format was a surprising success and more movie studios, including Warner Bros, were starting to release movies for the PSP alongside their DVD versions.  But this war was just beginning, and both Nintendo and Sony had a lot more planned for the road ahead.  Stay tuned for next time, when we talk about Nintendo’s first major hardware revision to the Nintendo DS, and how Sony’s UMD bubble finally burst.

The Video Game Handheld War Part 5 August 26, 2013

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The Nokia N-Gage was by all intents and purposes a complete failure.  By the time the next generation of the Video Game Handheld War started to kick into gear, Nokia was nowhere to be found.  Instead, the cell phone company decided to incorporate N-Gage branding into several of their new cell phone models, offering customers the chance to download games through their carrier.  This new N-Gage store didn’t last very long, as by this point, more cell phone companies and providers were offering these services.

On the dedicated game handheld front, Nintendo was firing up development of the successor to the Game Boy Advance, which would be in a lot of ways, the first true successor to the Game Boy line that started fifteen years earlier.  Taking a page from Gunpai Yokoi’s original Game & Watch designs, Nintendo designed a truly revolutionary new type of handheld system that the West had never seen before, a dual screen system.  It would fold in two just like a Game Boy Advance SP would, but in a fit of genius, the new handheld would feature two backlit screens with one screen being touch capable.  You wouldn’t need a System Link cable anymore, as it would have internal wireless support that could connect the handheld to either another handheld locally or a wireless hotspot for online access.  Even with having to render two screens and touch inputs, the system’s graphics would be comparable to a Nintendo 64.  It would also have a Game Boy Advance slot so gamers would not need to choose between Nintendo’s systems when on the go.  The new system became known as the Nintendo DS, a fitting name as only something this completely different in design could put an end to the Game Boy’s lifecycle.

However, Nintendo would not be fighting this battle alone.  Technology company Sony had won the previous two console generations with the highly-successful Playstation and Playstation 2 gaming systems, and now Sony wanted to dominate the handheld market Nintendo had controlled unilaterally.  Sony believed the time was right to offer an alternative device to a market that was growing up.  Nintendo, and their properties like Super Mario Bros and Pokémon still had a kid-friendly image attached to them, and like the N-Gage before them, Sony believed that there was a market who had not decided to enter the handheld race quite yet, who had previously chosen to purchase Playstation systems.  Sony planned to manufacture a multi-purpose portable system which would have slightly more power than an original Playstation, but slightly less power than a PS2.  Like the DS, it would use WiFi for local and online multiplayer, but more than that, it could receive system updates with new features down the line.  As this device epitomized everything about Sony’s Playstation mantra on a handheld format, what better name for it than the Playstation Portable?

Sony developed a new proprietary disc format for the system’s games called UMD for Universal Media Disc, which was based on DVD technology and could offer much more storage than Nintendo’s previous game carts could.  In fact the UMD format could also store more than just games, it could hold movies or music in a pinch, and offered some interesting possibilities for the PSP down the road.  The problem was the UMD format was read-only memory, the PSP would need some other storage medium for save games and downloadable content.  To solve this problem, Sony included a slot for their Memory Stick Pro Duo storage device, the exact same popular storage used by Sony’s cameras, and if a customer had used the Memory Stick on multiple Sony devices, it would be able to display the photos on it.   The device’s screen would not be able to support touch controls, but it was pretty big and supported widescreen gameplay.  In all, this was a Sony branded device through and through.

The Nintendo DS launched first at a suggested price of $149 US and started to sell like mad.  The system’s graphical capabilities were ever apparent right off the bat as a launch title for the DS would be a port of Super Mario 64, one of the greatest games released for that platform.  A demo version of Metroid Prime: Hunters, the first handheld game of the highly successful Metroid Prime series, was bundled with every launch model of the Nintendo DS, and although the final version of Metroid Prime: Hunters would be delayed a bit the Nintendo DS sold like hotcakes.  Nintendo made some great decisions with the platform and people were totally loving the device’s touch capable second screen.  As the DS lacked any analog stick, some developers chose to use the second screen to simulate analog control, similar to how a game developer simulates a control stick on a touch-screen smartphone nowadays.

The PSP launched a few months after the Nintendo DS with what has been described as one of the best launch lineups since the launch of the Sega Dreamcast.  Sony did a mega marketing campaign featuring the latest hit from Franz Ferdinand, “Take Me Out”.  A brand new system would launch at the price of $249 US and include a whopping 32MB Memory Stick Pro Duo, a set of earbud headphones with remote control, and a protective sleeve.  Ridge Racer, Metal Gear Ac!d, and ports of popular EA Sports titles all launched alongside the platform, and other games like Mercury and Infected were in development and were promised to be coming later.  In North America, a UMD copy of Spider-Man 2, one of the highest rated movies of the year, was bundled with every launch model of the PSP.  The PSP may have come with only one analog stick, but the system’s games would make you forget you even needed one.

After launch, the PSP saw immediate sales to die-hard Sony fans, gamers who were looking for a more mature handheld than what Nintendo would offer, and gamers interested in the platform’s exclusive titles.  However, The PSP was still $100 US more than the Nintendo DS, and Nintendo’s flawless handheld track record spoke volumes about their experience.  While the PSP had its loyalists, the Nintendo DS continued to outsell the PSP.  Everything about the DS was designed from the ground up to be for games, wheras the PSP tried to be a multi-purpose device for portable electronic use that just so happened to be really good at playing games.  However, this was just the beginning of the story, and Sony wasn’t out for the count just yet.  On top of that, Nintendo wasn’t going to rest on their success as Sony started to gather momentum.  What happened next?  That is a story for next time.

The Video Game Handheld War Part 4 August 19, 2013

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While Nintendo competed practically uncontested in the previous Video Game Handheld War with the Game Boy Color, they were not going to rest on the Color’s success for nearly as long as they did with the original Game Boy.  Just a few years after releasing the incredibly successful Game Boy Color, Nintendo started to prepare its successor, the Game Boy Advance.

The Game Boy Advance would feature a color screen and a graphics system that could reproduce a Super Nintendo game.  It would be able to play any Game Boy, Game Boy Color, or Game Boy Advance game, once again making it a logical upgrade to current Game Boy or Game Boy Color owners.  The Game Boy Advance required just two AA-batteries to get working, and they would provide a phenominal 15 hours of gameplay time.  The only downside was once again you would need to buy a new cable for games that supported System Link.

The Game Boy Advance launched in early 2001.  Once again, it seemed like the company that would uncrown Nintendo would be Nintendo.  Early system sales were strong as gamers once again chose to bet their money based upon Nintendo’s flawless handheld track record and the strength of their first-party properties.  New Mario Kart, Metroid, and Legend of Zelda games would be coming to the Game Boy Advance, to say nothing of the highly anticipated third entry in the Pokémon series!  If you were a gamer who wanted a handheld in 2001, you wanted a Game Boy Advance.

However, it became clear shortly after launch that the Game Boy Advance was not without problems.  While the GBA featured a fantastic full color screen, the fact that Nintendo chose not to backlight it was a huge issue.  Providing a system backlight would drain power quickly and seriously cut into game time.  It hadn’t been much of a problem in the past due to the simplistic graphics of the earlier model Game Boy systems, but the improved graphical capabilities of the GBA made backlighting necessary.  Many gamers complained after picking the system up that the screen was just unreadable unless games were being played under a direct light source.  In fact, Penny Arcade made a comic strip which theorized the reason why moths were so attracted to light sources was because they were trying to play games on their own Game Boy Advance systems!

Regardless of issues with the lack of a backlit screen, Nintendo had once again made a successful handheld gamers bought like crazy.  By choosing to use a game cartridge slot that could accept a game from any version Game Boy up to that point, gamers were once again choosing to make the upgrade, and to take their game libraries with them.  In fact, many gamers took it upon themselves to add a backlight to their GBA screens themselves in the form of the unofficial Afterburner modification.

However, the Game Boy Advance was not the only Nintendo console that was on the market at that time.  A few months after the release of the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo released the GameCube.  While it had a unique graphics system and a great first party lineup of Nintendo titles, the GameCube was sitting in third place behind the Xbox and Playstation 2. To rectify this, Nintendo tried to create a way to capture some of the magic they were having with the Game Boy Advance and bring it to the GameCube.  To do that, they created the Game Boy Advance/GameCube Link Cable.

This new Link Cable could connect to the GBA’s serial port and connect to one of the GameCube’s front controller ports.  From that point, the possibilities this cable provided were limited only by the developer’s imagination.  The cable could be used to unlock unique content in either the GameCube or Game Boy Advance games, like in Metroid Prime, where a user could unlock the original NES version of Metroid or an exclusive suit for Samus if they connected their GameCube to a Game Boy Advance with Metroid Fusion loaded on it.  As time went on, the Link Cable’s possibilities got all the more stronger when games such as Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles or The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures were released for the GameCube.  These games took advantage of the Link System and Nintendo promoted them as party friendly, theorizing that a player would invite over their GBA-equipped friends to play these games together.

The GameCube Link Cable was far ahead of its time.  While it did not improve the GameCube’s standing in that generation of the console wars, Nintendo saw a great amount of publicity in releasing games for the system which would now be considered cult classics with a GBA Link feature, and cemented the strength of the Game Boy Advance.  In a precursor of Sony offering PS3 and PS4 connectivity with the Playstation Vita, Nintendo’s link-enabled games offered a true dual screen experience, where you could enter rooms in the GameCube and search it in real-time on the GBA’s screen.  Nintendo has since offered Dual Screen solutions with their gaming devices including the Nintendo DS and Wii U, but the origins of that interest began with the Game Boy Advance and GameCube.

I’ve spent this whole article so far talking about the Game Boy Advance and that is because the Game Boy Advance was uncontested in the Video Game Handheld War for a few years.  That was all about to change.  In the early 2000s, cell phone manufacturer Nokia had made a huge name for themselves in meeting the demands of a country exploding with a desire to be contacted wherever they were.  Most cell phones that people used in that time were made by Nokia and because of that Nokia’s brand had never been stronger.  Suddenly the Game Boy was being replaced as the personal electronic device people took on the go.  The problem was cell phones of the time had nowhere near as much technical capability as a Nintendo Game Boy did, and because of that Nokia could only include simplistic games with their handsets.  Well, Nokia wasn’t content with doing that anymore.

Nokia announced the N-Gage in 2003.  It was marketed as both a cell phone and a handheld gaming system.  Nokia’s marketing focused exclusively on the older gamer demographic who may have been turned off by Nintendo’s cuter family friendly face.  Many people were impressed from the early previews of the system.  Nokia had done quite well in the cell phone industry up to that point and pundits believed if there was anyone with enough experience in the mobile industry that could unseat Nintendo from their flawless track record, it would be Nokia.  The N-Gage had great system specs, a long list of developers and publishers who planned to release or port games to their system, and most importantly, the ability to make phone calls.  The problem was they had went about their marketing in the completely wrong way.  A Nokia executive was famously quoted as saying that they didn’t believe their target market would be the kind of person who would break out a Game Boy on the subway train.  Well, he said this without realizing that person they were making fun of was their target market.

The N-Gage launched at a $299US price point, the same as the launch prices for that generation’s consoles years earlier, and much more expensive than the Game Boy Advance.  While the N-Gage had a few immediate loyalists, early reviews of the system were mixed.  The N-Gage had a 3D graphics chipset with a backlit screen, which could in theory provide superior graphics to the aging Game Boy Advance.  However, from nearly every other perspective, the N-Gage was a total functional disaster.  Nokia had an exclusive retail deal with GameStop, which was the same kind of retail space that a person could pick up a much cheaper Game Boy Advance.  A better retail space for it would have been a cell phone store, which were doing quite well in the middle of the booming cell phone market.  The N-Gage also failed from a design perspective.  The N-Gage released just before digital distribution of games became practical, so Nokia distributed its games on physical memory cards similar to a regular SD card which you could buy at retail.  However, if you planned to change games in the middle of a gaming session you needed to remove the system’s battery, not a convenient task for someone planning to play games on the go.  If you wanted to make a phone call you had to turn the N-Gage on its side, a very unnatural and uncomfortable position.  Because of all that the N-Gage systems collected dust on GameStop shelves.

On the other side, Nintendo was listening to their fans and understood the difficulty people were having with the GBA’s non-backlit screen.  In 2004, Nintendo released a major revision to the Game Boy Advance, dubbed the Game Boy Advance SP.  The Game Boy Advance SP’s primary selling point was that it included a backlit screen that the user could turn on and off during gameplay, but the truth was it offered so much more.  The SP was a complete top down revision of the GBA’s form factor.  Instead of being a solid device, the SP flipped open very similar to a cell phone.  This reduced its size and make the device easier to keep in a pocket.  The SP also featured a rechargeable battery, the first that I had ever seen in a portable device which exclusively played video games.  Previously, rechargeable batteries were common in electronic devices like video cameras, but devices like the iPod or modern cell phones had proven that a rechargeable battery would work in a small personal device and provide a longer battery life than disposable batteries could.  It also saved the player a fortune in not having to buy more packs of AA-batteries.  The Game Boy Advance SP could play Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance games, as well as support GameCube linking.  The redesigned SP scored a lot of points with critics and sold a lot of units to gamers, both in players wanting to upgrade, and new players finally ready to join the Game Boy Advance’s community.  The only problem that critics of the SP had was that it lacked a native headphone jack.  If you wanted to listen to your game with headphones you would need to buy an adapter to plug your headphones into the system’s charge port, or buy a new set of headphones which used the GBA SP’s unique port.

Undeterred by the GBA selling at a near 10-to-1 ratio to the N-Gage, Nokia decided that they should do a redesign for the N-Gage as well, and redesign they did.  On the new N-Gage, a user would no longer have to remove the battery in order to change games or turn the device on its side to make phone calls.  They also expanded the device’s retail channels.  You could finally buy the N-Gage at your local Cingular store, a perfect location as it was the same place you could buy a new cell phone plan to go along with it.  Dubbed the N-Gage QD, the redesigned system was what Nokia should have released originally.  Nokia also included a price drop on the system.  The cost of a brand new N-Gage QD would be a much cheaper $100 US.

While the QD was an improvement from almost every perspective, the problem with the N-Gage QD was that it was too little too late.  Other than a handful of titles at launch, new games for the N-Gage would be slow to release, and when sales of the system floundered, developers and publishers stopped supporting the system.  By 2005, the Game Boy Advance and the redesigned Game Boy Advance SP were seeing a renaissance of some of the greatest games the handheld would see.  Metroid Fusion, Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, and of course Pokémon Ruby and Pokémon Sapphire would be some of the platform’s highest rated exclusive titles, with the Pokémon games being the system’s biggest sellers.  In fact, in Japan, Nintendo would release Mother 3 for the GBA, the highly anticipated follow up to the cult classic called EarthBound in the West.  To this day, gamers are still talking about these games, and it is no surprise that Nintendo has promised to rerelease many GBA exclusives on the Wii U’s Virtual Console in the future.

In the end, the N-Gage could not compete with the near unstoppable force of the GBA’s quality titles.  The Game Boy Advance already had a hugely solid library of hit games, as well as the full support of Nintendo’s entire Game Boy library of titles.  The N-Gage could make phone calls if you turned it on it’s side.  That was it.  In the end, even with two revisions, Nokia could not compete against Nintendo and the N-Gage was a total failure and a huge black eye for Nokia.  For a device that tried to do everything, it ended up being a device that did everything poorly.  Once again, Nintendo would take the crown in the Video Game Handheld War.

For the next Video Game Handheld War, we’re going to talk about the time Nintendo went Dual Screen, and the gaming giant who had won the two previous console wars that decided to throw their hat into the handheld gaming ring to bring the strongest competition Nintendo had seen yet.