30 Years of Handhelds. How Nintendo Dominated the Portable Market.

By: Francis Guese (Image source: IGN)

In this age of quarantine, entertainment reigns king. People of the world suddenly have more time on their hands than they know how to deal with. Video games are an essential pastime to help make the days go by quicker. Handhelds dominated the video game market in the early 2000s. But as we begin 2020, they have seemingly disappeared aside from a few outliers. With the release of the Nintendo Switch, it marks the end of systems like the 3DS and Sony’s short-lived PS Vita. Will the trend veer towards more of the hybrid consoles favoring portable experiences? Or will Microsoft enter the same market with their own unique design? To answer those questions, we need to look back on the history of handhelds that started with Microvision.

Let’s start with explaining some of the terms used. “Portable” is used for consoles with limited capability in exchange for being compact and easy to take with you outside. “Handheld” is a little tricky but is used for smaller sized devices like the Game Boy or Nokia’s N-Gage. For our purposes, the Switch is not a handheld.

Source: Handheld Museum

In 1979, Milton Bradley Company released the Microvision, a small, cartridge-based console. It featured an LCD screen, 12 programmable buttons, and swappable faceplates. The interchangeable additions served as cartridges and separate games which would each use different amounts of buttons for unique actions. The system sold poorly, but it paved the way for handheld gaming.




Source: Reddit user u/Pklees

The most notable release leading up to the Game Boy was Nintendo’s Game & Watch (1980). No swappable cartridges but having a simple design with enjoyable gameplay. The console sold over 40 million units and introduced the D-pad design, a simple way to control your character, which is a staple in consoles today.



Source: Play-Asia

Systems like the Entex Select-A-Game machine (1981), which featured Pac-Man and Space Invaders led to the release of Nintendo’s Game Boy (1989). Made by the same team that worked on Game & Watch and bundling itself with Tetris, this system received international appeal. It sold out its 300,000 unit stock in Japan in two weeks and 40,000 units on the first day its American launch. Nintendo ported its classics, like Super Mario, Legend of Zelda, and the debut of Kirby.  The company released updated versions of the system like having different colors (Game Boy Bros.), smaller versions (Game Boy Pocket), and one with a built-in backlight (Game Boy Light).

Source: Play-Asia

Nintendo hit success in 2001 with an important revision, the Game Boy Advance. Increased resolution, a landscape design, and a backlight. The system was designed to hold better in your hand. It sold 500,000 units in the first week and Nintendo claimed it to be the fastest selling game system at the time.







A successor and the natural evolution of the Game Boy was a type of dual-screen system called the DS (2004). Having a touch-screen and stylus along with wireless capability marked a step-up to current technological capabilities. The DS sold 653,000 units in its first week outselling the Game Boy’s launch. The backwards compatibility enabled it to play Game Boy games left little reason to use older consoles.



Source: Lifewire

Following the DS and its various modifications (Lite, DSi, DSi XL), Nintendo gave the console a proper upgrade with the release of the 3DS in 2011. The system made use of stereoscopic 3D which did not require 3D glasses. It also featured an analog control stick. Nintendo kept the clamshell design from the DS and introduced social mechanics like StreetPass, which allowed users to earn points and play games when out in public. The 3DS received much praise and sold its entire 400,000 stock in Japan with similar numbers in America. After sales started to slow, Nintendo cut the 3DS’ price to one-third of the original. This led to a 260% jump in sales. The system continued to sell well up until the release of Nintendo’s new console.


The PSP was Sony’s crowning achievement alongside the PS2. In 2011, two years before the PS4, Sony released the PSVita. It had upgraded hardware, with an OLED display, and remote play with the PS4. Unfortunately, while it sold fairly decent in Japan, sales steadily decreased along with a rocky release in America. The Vita was expensive to produce. Sony experimented with 3G data plans which had to be discontinued. There were not a lot of standout titles in Vita’s library.

But Nintendo’s 3DS was hitting its stride. With the release of the New Nintendo 3DS, following the confusing naming convention of the WiiU, it received an update to its already great features. It added another control stick, gyroscopic 3D to improve playing with 3D in places like a shaky train, and improved performance.

But with the death of Vita and Microsoft’s reluctance to join the handheld market, the 3DS was the only thing keeping it alive. Game releases for the 3DS slowed down as Nintendo prepared for a new console generation.



Source: Amazon Store Page

After the disappointing run of Nintendo’s WiiU, which succeeded the breakout Wii console, the company knew they had to innovate. In 2017, Nintendo released the Nintendo Switch. A console sporting not only powerful performance and graphics, but also the ability to be taken on the go. The company announced the New Nintendo 3DS would be discontinued in July, four months after the Switch’s launch.

Nintendo’s intentions are clear: No more handhelds. The next upgrade will likely be a newer and improved Switch. Sony tried to continue the success of the PSP but failed. Microsoft announced plans for a console most similar to the Switch but not a handheld.

But what do consumers have to say about portable gaming? A few avid gamers who have owned handheld consoles in the past weigh in. “When it comes to regular consoles such as a Play Station 4 or an Xbox One, a user will need a monitor and a power source to use the console,” says Gabriel Arancibia, an owner of many Nintendo handhelds. “Handheld consoles overall don’t have much game variety when talking about companies such as Microsoft or Sony but Nintendo does support a lot of video games on the go.”

“I personally prefer handheld consoles to regular ones due to the freedom they give you,” remarks Weston Vincent, another portable gamer. He is not the only one who shares that opinion. Handheld gaming in Japan receives more sales due to its commuting culture. “Rather than sit at home with a controller and a TV, I can take my handheld console wherever I want.”

But market trends change and the consumers take notice. “I think handhelds are becoming less popular because most of the games that are being released now are pretty repetitive,” states Jomar Tompong, one who’s been keeping up with consoles since the Game Boy. “I believe that handheld consoles offer fun and addictive games that you can play anywhere but they aren’t as immersive as regular consoles.”



Source: Nintendo Official Website

So as everyone sits at home playing on their consoles, let us give a moment of silence to portable gaming. An era of compact, pocket-sized entertainment. The mobile market has proven itself to be cheap and profitable to develop games on. But it has its own problems like pricing and making games that are easy to pick up and play for a short time. Will more of these companies follow the trend of hybrid consoles? Or will a company find opportunity in the currently empty handheld market? The big three companies, Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft will be deciding that in the future. But it’s not like handhelds are lost forever. It is cheap to pick up an old DS, Game Boy, or PSP. There have been many great games on these platforms that it would be a waste to not try them out.

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