Are We Witnessing the Death of Portable Console Gaming?

Both Nintendo and Sony did exceedingly well in the last generation of portable consoles. The Nintendo DS was a massive success, selling almost 150 million units worldwide and quickly dominating the market with its simple, yet highly appealing touchscreen functionality. The PlayStation Portable, on the other hand, only sold around 72 million units worldwide and even though this handheld didn’t sell nearly as well as the DS did, the PSP was still successful especially for being the first non-Nintendo handheld platform to sell such a staggering number units.

But even when these consoles established a strong market, it seems like most people are simply not interested in immersing themselves in core gaming experiences and want to play simpler games on their phones instead. Is it just simplicity, though? I also think people in general got sick of carrying too many items around and instead of travelling with a Nintendo 3DS, Sony PSP, Netbook, iPod and all their respective big chargers, they just decided carry their iPhone, which by the way, fits in your pocket.

Even if your iPhone has a bulky protective case, it won’t take up a lot of space and with it you can check your e-mails, surf the net, write articles for your blog, listen to music, watch videos or movies and even play some crappy video games. Don’t get wrong, I know there are some refreshingly unique and extremely engaging games for iPhone, but generally speaking and if you don’t know what you’re looking for you may end up playing some really appalling titles that should never have been released. What all those titles have in common is that they are much more accessible and affordable.

Another aspect that should be considered is battery duration. For smartphones users this is terrible, because once they completely drain the battery not only are they unable to play games, but they also are unable to use their phone capabilities like calling or texting. Sony has definitely struggled with this problem in the past as the PSP ran out of battery after 5 hours of playing a game, but fortunately this was improved on subsequent redesigns of the portable console. Nevertheless, Nintendo received many complaints from users who simply hated to recharge the battery of their 3DS systems every three hours of gaming.

In fact, the 3DS is the best example of how much Nintendo has been changing its approach regarding portable gaming. The original DS worked because the two screens not only were a novelty, but also added something to the core experience of the games. These provided some unique possibilities to the way in which a game could be presented, and the fact that one of those displays was a touchscreen designed to accept the stylus or the user’s fingers was mind-blowing at its time because it was simple and nobody had done it before.

When the novelty disappeared Nintendo decided to do something different again, but his time the company decided to favor a trendy gimmick (the 3D technology,) instead of something that added to the games’ experience. In addition, the Japanese-based company developed a flawed handheld that was poorly designed because it lacked an extra pad that they later on decided to release as an extra attachment. This seems blatantly stupid because it makes a portable console, much less portable as you have to carry around an extra add-on which apparently will be necessary to enjoy certain games.

Fortunately, Sony seems to know what they are doing as the company learned from their mistakes (read: PSP Go.) For the upcoming PlayStation Vita, the pretty much-dead UMD format will be replaced by the more convenient and faster memory card, a new beautiful 5-inch OLED screen was created with touchscreen capabilities, the graphics processor will be much more powerful, full digital support will be incorporated and two analog sticks and two cameras will be featured among many other new features.

But do players want more powerful graphics and a better screen? Some of them probably do, but in the end I think it all comes down to the games. Some of the most memorable titles of the original PlayStation Portable were simple games like LocoRoco, Patapon or Lumines that had unique distinctive qualities that made them perfectly suitable for a portable. But apart from the lighthearted titles, I have to admit that I still enjoy playing long RPG’s on these dedicated portable consoles and probably will keep doing it for years, but the experiences some of the handhelds encapsulate are so hardcore that you can easily find them in all the other major consoles (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 or PC.)

In conclusion, I don’t think portable console gaming is going to die, at least not any time soon. What I do think is that the market is changing rapidly and both Nintendo and Sony will have to adapt one way or another. It would be a good idea to embrace the own capabilities of their handhelds and do something in them that can’t be done on any other portable platform. In the meantime though, I’m happy playing Patapon on my PSP.