Portable Gaming: Power in the Palm of Your Hand

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When I was a kid, before kids were invented, I had limited choices for portable gaming. I owned (and cherished) my Mattel Football handheld game, which was just a series of red dashes against a painted-on top-down football field on a hunk of plastic that weighed about a pound. Each time a play happened, there were a series of electronic squawks and squeaks that sounded like robot chipmunks arguing, and to tell the truth—the game was hard. It was also incredibly repetitious, but back then, before kids were invented, handheld gaming had few options.

I graduated throughout the years, and moved on to other systems. I owned (and still own) an Atari Lynx and Lynx II (Dracula the Undead was my favorite game), every Nintendo handheld from Game and Watch through every iteration of the Game Boy, a Sega Game Gear and Nomad, NeoGeo Pocket Color, and a PlayStation Portable. I spent a lot of time gaming in my life—I would say wasted it, but once you beat your first Pokémon game completely, or trudged through Wario Land 2 and finished it, it doesn’t seem like such a waste. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Handheld and portable gaming has an allure to it that is difficult to ignore. Somewhere around the Sega Nomad, where you could play higher-res games on a small screen, portable gaming really started to take off. Nintendo began upping the ante with bigger, better, and more technologically advanced systems—to a point where they saturate the handheld market now—and only a few manufacturers want to even compete for that lucrative portable gaming market. But there are competitors, not the least being mobile and iOS smartphones. But for true action-packed, multi-level console-in-your-hand gaming, these are three that stand out.

PlayStation Vita

When Sony first got into the portable market, the Sony PlayStation Portable unit was, in my estimation, a better choice graphically than the Nintendo handhelds. The problem was that Nintendo offered more games, more variety, and more fun. While Nintendo has eaten up the market share for handheld video games and systems, Sony quietly morphed the PlayStation Portable into the PlayStation Vita and, along the way, added a ton of new features that make the Vita a contender in the portable arena. The way that the Vita is integrated into the Sony ecosystem of games, its interactivity with the company's flagship consoles (something Nintendo does to a limited effect with their handhelds and the Wii U, but which Sony does better) and an aggressive lineup of games both online and through retail will help spur your buying decision. You can rent previous-generation PlayStation 3 games by the title at PlayStation Now individually, or grab a monthly subscription and play as many as you want. Hot titles like Uncharted and The Last of Us are available, and you can even stream PS4 games to the Vita with remote play, allowing you to control your PS4 title through your portable unit. When you rent games individually, you can choose between weekly, monthly, or hourly rentals, giving you the chance to test out a game before making a full-fledged purchase.

The graphics don’t always depend on the cuteness factor that Nintendo’s lineup does (and sometimes delves deeper and darker than the Big N might), and that keeps these games edgy and distinct. The two caveats are that the Vita leans a little too heavily on Wi-Fi connectivity, especially if your main game source is going to be the PlayStation Now network (which requires a steady broadband connection of 5Mbps or greater), and the Vita’s reliance on proprietary memory cards for storage. Dollar for dollar, though, the Vita puts a little more power in the palm of your hand than the Nintendo 3DS. Need more convincing? Check out this bundle at B&H, which gets you a PlayStation Vita, digital download of Borderlands 2, and an 8GB PlayStation Vita memory card. Sweeeeet. Also, check out Sony’s PlayStation Plus subscription service for an added value—they give out free game downloads, demos of the hottest titles, and more. B&H has 3-month and 1-year subscription packages, sold through the website.

Nintendo 3DS

So, why would you want a 3DS over a PlayStation Vita? The software is always the thing that moves the hardware, and Nintendo is no slouch when securing franchise-specific software. It may not be a big deal to you, but you can’t play Pokémon anywhere else but on a Nintendo system. Not convinced? How about Mario and his ilk, Legend of Zelda, Super Smash Brothers, Kirby, or Starfox? That’s a lot of fans to ignore. On top of a stellar lineup of games, most family-friendly and safe gifting purchases, the Nintendo 3DS comes in various sizes, colors, and options in which the Vita does not.

A problem with all gaming systems, portable or console, is backwards compatibility. No one wants to shell out hundreds of dollars for software titles each year, only to find that the newest and slickest systems can’t handle them. With the many iterations of the Nintendo handheld systems, keeping games compatible is a struggle. Games made way back in the day for the GameBoy Advance worked with the earlier Nintendo DS and Nintendo DS Lite systems, but when they went to the Nintendo DSi, they killed the slot to play GameBoy Advance games. The new Nintendo 3DS can play Nintendo DS and 3DS games, but not Advance cartridges.

With the leap into total-immersion 3D gaming, the Nintendo 3DS XL (and new 2015 version) adds so much more to the system than previous versions did. There are unique face-tracking capabilities that allow you to view the 3D more comfortably, new button controls that add more options when playing new 3DS version games, and the XL version adds more screen space for even greater detail and color.

The strikes against the 3DS are some of the very same features that people will enjoy. The 3D effects, for instance, may seem like an extra special trip into fantasy land, until your eyes start aching and you start feeling nauseated (as with any portable system, play responsibly and give your eyes a rest now and then). The 3DS sometimes relies too heavily on the stylus, which was a pain for games like Kid Icarus, where you had to deal with both the 3D and the controls; and the games, while super fun and engaging, don’t really push the envelope for deep and dark much (and when they do, it’s to sometimes disastrous or even worse, hilarious effects).

But that’s all overlooked once you get your hands on a 3DS. People who have never played a video game in their lives find themselves totally enthralled by the games, the system, and all the bells and whistles. I own both the Vita and the 3DS, and find my time equally split between them, although I skim games on the Vita and play through games on the 3DS. And you can sometimes find great deals on bundles like these, which offer the system and include games.

Also out is the Nintendo 2DS, a stripped-down version of the 3DS that takes away the 3D aspect (it plays all 3DS games, but only in 2D), the ability to fold shut (it’s one integrated piece with top and bottom screens) and downgrades to a mono speaker (but produces stereo sound when using headphones). This may be the gift to get someone who doesn’t really care about cutting-edge gaming, but for only a little more, you can upgrade to the 3DS.

  Nintendo 2DS Nintendo 3DS New Nintendo 3DS XL (2015)
Plays 3D games In 2D only In 2D and 3D In 2D and face-tracking 3D
Plays Nintendo DS games
Local & online multiplayer
Download games & applications2
Plays 3D videos In 2D only
Records 3D video and 3D stop-motion animation
Data storage for games, photos & music SD card (4GB included) microSDHC card (4GB included) microSDHC card (4GB included)
Takes photos with built-in cameras 2D and 3D photos (views 3D photos in 2D) 2D and 3D photos 2D and 3D photos
Built-in NFC reader No No
AR capabilities (Augmented Reality)
StreetPass (Exchanges game data with system owners you pass on the street)
SpotPass  (Detects Nintendo Zone locations to access content on the go)
Parental Controls (to manage content accessed by children)
Included software AR Games AR Games AR Games
Face Raiders Face Raiders Face Raiders
Mii Maker Mii Maker Mii Maker
StreetPass Mii Plaza StreetPass Mii Plaza StreetPass Mii Plaza
Activity Log Activity Log Activity Log
Nintendo eShop Nintendo eShop Nintendo eShop
Nintendo 3DS Browser Nintendo 3DS Browser Nintendo 3DS Browser
Nintendo 3DS Camera Nintendo 3DS Camera Nintendo 3DS Camera
Nintendo 3DS Sound Nintendo 3DS Sound Nintendo 3DS Sound
Screen size Upper: 3.53 inches (diagonal) Upper: 4.88 inches (diagonal) Upper: 4.88 inches (diagonal)
Lower: 3.02 inches (diagonal) Lower: 4.18 inches (diagonal) Lower: 4.18 inches (diagonal)
Graphics display Widescreen LCD, capable of displaying approximately 16.77 million colors at 400x240 pixel resolution Wide-screen LCD showing 16.77 million colors with 800 x 240 pixel resolution. (400 pixels are allocated to each eye to enable 3D visuals) 3D-enabled widescreen LCD (with face-tracking 3D) 800x240 pixels (400 pixels per eye when using 3D feature)
Sleep Mode (with a sleep switch) (by closing the console) (by closing the console)
Power saving mode No
Speakers Mono (Stereo w/ headphones) Stereo Stereo
Dimensions 127mm high x 144mm wide x 20.3mm thick 93mm high x 156mm wide x 22mm thick (closed) 93.5mm high x 160mm wide x 21.5mm thick (closed)
Weight Approx. 9 ounces Approx. 12 ounces Approx. 12 ounces

Add to the mix the new amiibo figures, and now you’re creating a cocktail of video games and collectible toys in ways that have previously been limited to one or two titles (like Skylander or the new Disney Infinity series). What perfect way to get two genres together that appeal to the young and the young at heart? The amiibo figures add specific enhancements to specific games, and leave you with a detailed figure to display (or if you’re really a kid, to play with). Some of the enhancements include power-ups in the game, secret levels to unlock, or the ability to store data from your character and build it up to use later—some contain read-only data, and some contain the ability to read and write data to the figure. New figures and enhancements are released by Nintendo on a monthly basis.

And where are you going to stand when the portable gaming wars get even more heated? NVIDIA is soon releasing an update to its NVIDIA Shield Portable, which is a small screen attached to a controller, giving you a full handheld experience. Microsoft is always rumored to have portable inclinations, and Nintendo wants to eat up more of the portable landscape by getting into mobile games and apps. With a larger number of consumers giving up portable systems to play on increasingly sophisticated smartphones and tablets, is portable gaming being handed its hat and shown the door? Maybe. But until it leaves the room, you have some serious options to put power portable gaming in the palm of your hand.

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