Monday, March 16, 2009

potent portables part 5: modern times

yes this is a real poster mister funnyman The Potent Portables series is my Duke Nukem Forever – I started it awhile back and I had the best of intentions, but twelve long years have passed since then and everyone has forgotten that I ever started. Well forget about forgetting! It’s time to finish! This is it!

Let’s recap, since even I have sort of forgotten where I was in this piece: this whole mess started when I said “you know guys, handheld video game systems are really much better than they used to be! But we’ll talk ‘bout that later.” I started with a quick run down of the Dark Ages, those pre-Game Boy handhelds, then I moved on to the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance and all the systems they stepped on to get to the top.

But now! Now we’re finally to the interesting part: the present day. The Nintendo DS and Playstation Portable both came, no, burst onto the scene in 2004 – the DS has broken all sorts of sales records and there’s no end in sight, and the PSP, while not as successful, has solidified its place as the only portable in history that has been able to keep its footing in the face of Nintendo’s portable empire.

In 2003, Sony announced its Playstation Portable. To realize the buzz that created among gamers, you have to remember the state of the game market in 2003 and 2004 – Sony looked unstoppable. Their Playstation 2 was far and away the most popular of the then-relevant consoles, and it was already apparent that Nintendo’s own Gamecube was going to lose out even to the Xbox, which people were beginning to take seriously in spite of a shaky start. Big Nintendo console games like Wind Waker and Mario Sunshine had been reviewed well, but there was a general feeling that no, these games did not top Ocarina of Time or Super Mario 64 in any meaningful ways. With the advent of Halo and the rising popularity of the console first-person shooter, Nintendo’s perennially popular franchises (and their genres) were falling out of vogue. In short, market conditions looked like they were against Nintendo – Sony had dethroned Nintendo in the very console market it had rejuvenated in the 80s with the NES, and the advent of their portable competitor made it seem like history was about to repeat itself.

It did not help that Nintendo’s counter to the PSP looked like an expensive Happy Meal toy.

augh who designed this monstrosity The original DS, now affectionately referred to as the “DS Phat,” released 2004.

It was as if Nintendo had forgotten everything it learned while designing the Game Boy Advance SP, pictured below.

such a snappy little handheldThe Game Boy Advance SP, released 2003

Gone from the DS were the clean lines of the SP, replaced by awkward slopes and a lid which was no longer flush with the base while closed. You’d also have to don some pretty serious cargo pants if you wanted to carry the thing around in your pocket – it was handheld, but considerably less portable. In terms of aesthetics, a step backward in every way, especially when compared to the slick new PSP.

ain't she a beautThe PSP 1000, released late 2004/early 2005.

This thing was positioned to be a serious consumer electronics device – it had a nice, big screen, it played music and movies, it was powerful graphically, and it made the DS look like a toy. Nintendo’s outlook was not good. It appeared that even they themselves were uncertain about the DS – the massively successful and till-then ubiquitous “Game Boy” moniker was conspicuously absent from the device, and at the time Nintendo made it clear that the DS was a “third pillar” in their business strategy, with the other two pillars being the home console business and the Game Boy Advance. The company was clearly hedging its bets – if the DS became successful (as it did) it could replace the Game Boy Advance (as it has), and if not it could fail without tarnishing the Game Boy’s brand name or mindshare. A good marketing move, but it did little to inspire confidence in the platform.

We all know that this isn’t how it all went down, though. The unthinkable happened – Sony stumbled. Their attempt to position the system as a movie player via the UMD disc format was a flop, as I’ve talked about before (I believe the exact word I used was “scam”). Marketing was confused – it was a device for 18-34 year olds that would replace their music and DVD players, or maybe it was a game machine for 15-year-olds that was supposed to supplant the Game Boy? No one was sure. The leet haxxing crowd liked the potential of the device for home-made games and apps, but was unhappy with Sony’s handling of it. They took it into their own hands, adding functionality to the program through illicit means. Sony spent a lot of time and money patching the holes they exploited, making the haxxors even more upset. The device also suffered from a few of the same problems earlier Nintendo competitors did – it was ahead of its time graphically, but suffered from low battery life and a smallish game library, which was widely seen as being composed of ports and near-ports of games already available on the PS2. It was out of character for Sony at the time, but it was the first in a series of missteps that landed the company at the bottom of the pile, its present-day position.

Meanwhile, things have gone better for Nintendo’s DS than Nintendo could possibly have hoped for when it created the thing. The software lineup started out shaky, but beginning around the release of the excellent and innovative Kirby Canvas Curse the first party line-up improved by leaps and bounds, and the third parties followed suit. Like the software, the hardware also got better – they didn’t borrow a page from Apple’s book so much as they knocked Steve Jobs out and stole the book straight out of his office.

the ipod called - it wants its everything backThe Nintendo DS Lite, released 2006.

Nintendo’s insistence that the second screen, the touch screen, would push innovation in games sounded like a corporate line, but it turned out to be real. Just as the PSP, in its way, heralded Sony’s downfall, the DS signaled the beginning of a more optimistic era for a revitalized Nintendo.

This is all very interesting game history, but it doesn’t by itself explain the reason for portable gaming’s sudden popularity. Between 2001 and 2009, the Game Boy Advance (unchallenged by competitors) and all its iterations sold some 81.5 million units worldwide. Between 2004 and 2009, the Nintendo DS and its derivatives have sold 100 million units, and the PSP has sold 50 million – nearly double the Game Boy Advance’s numbers in just a little over half the time. Why this increased popularity? Why, pray tell, are these portables so potent?

Part of it is that these devices have grown up – no longer mere Game Boys, they have become Game Men! Portable experiences before were typically cut-down, low budget versions of their console counterparts. Then they put 3D hardware in portables, and now those little systems can do everything their console counterparts can do, even if it still doesn’t look quite as good. God of War: Chains of Olympus is a third-person action game with all the trimmings, and Mario Kart DS is probably the best game in the series. These titles are no longer just imitations of their console brethren, but true competitors and replacements.

We’re also seeing these things take advantage of the Internet, something else formerly limited only to stay-at-home consoles. The Playstation Network was recently made accessible to PSP owners, and we’re seeing a push from Sony to get developers working on downloadable titles for the system. You guys need to get working on a version of Flower that I can play on a system I own already, please. Nintendo’s upcoming DSware, the portable version of their WiiWare service, also looks to bring downloadable games and applications to the DSi, Nintendo’s latest DS revision due out on this side of the ocean in April.

There has also been a more impressive effort from developers to really push and innovate on these systems. The Castlevania series has flourished on the DS, generally being compared favorably to series high point Symphony of the Night. Loco Roco and Patapon are also portable-exclusive games that innovate with interesting control schemes and art direction. Phoenix Wright brings text-based games back in a hilarious way, and Phantom Hourglass and Trauma Center use the stylus and touch screen in ways that couldn’t be replicated with a controller. Notably, Dragon Quest IX, the next mainline title in the RPG series, is coming exclusively to the DS. Dragon Quest remains one of the biggest franchises in Japan even if it hasn’t made waves over here just yet – if you need an American equivalent, it’s about equal to Microsoft announcing Halo 4’s arrival on the Zune.

There you have it! I think I’ve accomplished most everything I set out to do – thanks to better, more compelling hardware, relatively healthy competition, and more effort from developers, handhelds have really come into their own. As technology progresses, I think we’ll see even more innovation from portables. I’d love to see a handheld that could be carried around in your pocket, but when hooked up to a television (perhaps wirelessly) could push high-definition graphics and play TV, movies and music – all of your games could be carried around with you, and the distinction between portable and console would no longer exist. It sounds little farfetched, but given how far these things have come from where they were even ten or fifteen years ago, it certainly doesn’t seem impossible.