A Brief History of Handheld Gaming

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Release Date: 22/02/2012

Sony PlayStation Vita- 3G or WiFi at Gamestation

This week saw the long-awaited UK release of the PlayStation Vita, the most powerful handheld gaming console ever. Despite a size that fits snugly into your palms, it's a muscular beast of a machine capable of giving its PS3 big brother a run for its money where graphics and processing oomph are concerned. But how did we get here? How did gaming on the go become such a big deal?

The simple answer is that it's always been a big deal. Even way back in the early 1980s, when the best games were on giant arcade cabinets and the best home gaming had to offer was the bleeping blocks of the Atari 5200, Nintendo was cleaning up with its Game & Watch series of handheld LCD games. Simple in the extreme, they were a cultural phenomena - and Nintendo's first runaway gaming success.

They were so popular, in fact, that their creator, Gunpei Yokoi, couldn't leave the idea of portable gaming alone. As well as designing classic games such as Donkey Kong and Metroid, he is best known as the father of the GameBoy.

Nintendo GameBoy - ahh, memories

Launched in 1989, this chunky beige brick with a tiny monochrome screen was nothing short of a revolution. Gamers snapped the system up, along with portable versions of hit console games, movie tie-ins, the first entries in the evergreen Pokemon franchise and a certain little game called Tetris. Bundled with the GameBoy, the Russian puzzle classic helped to define handheld gaming as the natural home of simple yet addictive one-more-go game design. It also pioneered the world of multiplayer, using a link cable to allow two GameBoy owners to battle against each other.

The GameBoy was such an enormous hit - shifting well over 100m units in its lifetime - that other electronics companies tried to ride the bandwagon. Atari released the Lynx, the first handheld with colour graphics, but it struggled to match Nintendo's efficient tech, draining its batteries at inconvenient speed.

The Sega Game Gear - giving the Game Boy the only serious run for it's money

More challengers emerged from Japan, such as the TurboExpress, but it would be Nintendo's long-standing rival, Sega, that put up the best fight. The Game Gear launched in 1991, and shrewdly used the same technology as the popular Master System home console, allowing hit games to be quickly ported to the handheld. Although it never outsold the GameBoy, the Game Gear put up a solid challenge.

GameBoy and Game Gear battled for handheld supremacy throughout the 1990s, with other - often technically superior - portables such as the Neo Geo Pocket and WonderSwan barely making a dent in their dominance. Nintendo's lead was so assured that they waited until 1998 before upgrading the GameBoy's grey and black screen to a colour model.

Getting stylish with a stylus - the Nintendo DS

As the 21st century rolled around, however, the home console experience was becoming so sophisticated that the handhelds were starting to look outdated. Nokia tried to capitalise on the rise of mobile phones with the ill-fated N-Gage, a clumsy hybrid of phone and console that failed to capture the public's imagination.

It was Nintendo, once again, in 2004 that changed the landscape. The Nintendo DS at first appeared to be an act of supreme folly. Boasting two screens - much like some of the Game & Watch titles of yesteryear - as well as a stylus for touchscreen interaction, it was like nothing else around. And, as with the original GameBoy, Nintendo kept the DS fresh by constantly revising and relaunching the machine in different configurations - smaller, larger, and with more features.

Sony PSP - Like a PlayStation but, y'know, portable

With Sega having long since abandoned the hardware market, the challenge to the DS came from a new rival: SONY. Having exploded into gaming with the PlayStation, SONY's take on handheld gaming was sleek, powerful and designed for the hardcore gamer on the go. The PSP, or PlayStation Portable, certainly made the cheerful DS look like a toy but, much like the Game Gear, it was never quite able to topple Nintendo from its throne, even with cult hits such as Monster Hunter making the system a must-have in Japan.

Nintendo 3DS - Avoid joke about a new dimension

Which brings us to 2012, where once again Nintendo and SONY are battling for the palm of your hand. Nintendo's 3DS continues the design approach of the original DS, with left field technical innovation and a breezy pick-up-and-play approach. The PS Vita, as we've seen, is the PSP on steroids, a desirable bit of beautiful entertainment technology that pushes the boundaries of what can be done in a small space.

Looking from dazzling titles like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, all the way back to the rudimentary two-button Game & Watch experience, it's hard to believe only thirty years separate them and yet it feels as though handheld gaming is only just getting up to speed. Imagine where we'll be in 2042!

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