Mario and Drake… Saviours of Handheld Gaming?
Oh dear, it’s the old mobile versus handheld debate again. Many, many opinion pieces have been written about this subject already, but what fascinates me is that it seems that nobody really knows for sure whether one side or the other can actually win. The common consensus seems to be that handhelds are nowhere near as dominant as they once were, and it’s unlikely in a post iPhone world that they’ll ever be top dog again, so what keeps them alive? It strikes me that the reason many commentators (including myself) can’t call a potential winner is that the handhelds have something in their corner that can’t be measured very easily; our emotional attachment to familiar titles.
With the possible exception of the PS Vita’s Skype app, I think it’s fairly safe to say that mobile devices do all the non-gaming things better than a gaming handheld. Whether it’s surfing the net, updating social media, or taking photos on the fly, I find that no gaming handheld does it as conveniently or as intuitively as a smart phone. Sure, the web browser on the Vita is OK, but when you also have an iPhone in your pocket, only being OK isn’t good enough. The 3DS one isn’t any better either, in fact if you’re not surfing a mobile enabled site I’d argue it’s quite a bit worse. This kind of social functionality on gaming handhelds always feels shoe-horned in to me. So handhelds lose the social media connectivity part of the fight then, but that’s not the only battle they have on their hands, as smart phones and mobile devices also do gaming very well too, all of which begs the question; why carry a gaming handheld at all? If Nintendo and Sony are to convince us to not only invest in a new system, but to carry it around in addition to our phones, they need to either do mobile gaming exceptionally well, or offer something that’s not possible to do on a touch screen phone.
To me it seems very simple; handhelds are kept alive by catering to many gamers attachment to specific marquee titles. The app store might have a large number of cheap games on offer, but unearthing the gems can be tricky. With a rating system that largely feels broken to me, picking out a quality game is done either via friend recommendations, or by trial and error and a willingness to potentially waste a pound on a crappy game. For every Plants vs Zombies or Infinity Blade I’ve found, there’s been five other terrible games that’ll never darken my touchscreen again. With this uncertainty over quality control in mind, I and many other gamers will often fall back on familiar titles like a some sort of gaming security blanket.
If you’re looking for a side scrolling platformer to play for example, Super Mario is the safe option. Eating special mushrooms and jumping down big green pipes might be a little overly familiar these days, but in a weird sort of way it’s also quite comforting. Human beings are creatures of habit in the main, and gamers are no different. A recognisable name on the box seems to have a built-in guarantee of quality, Super Mario Kart was a great game therefore all future Mario Kart games will be great. But what if we stop caring about these franchises, what happens then?
Consider for a moment that your favourite Sony or Nintendo IP didn’t exist, would you purchase the hardware? If instead of Mario there was Dave the fat builder from Hackney, staring in New Super Dave Land 2, would you even give the 3DS a second look? As an avid fan of the Mario Kart series of games, I find it hard to think of a time when I would pass up the opportunity to play a new version of the game on a brand new system. Maybe I’m too easily parted with my money, but other people buy consoles on the strength of the games available too. In fact, the success of every console launch I can think of has hinged on launch titles. We all go through the same process don’t we? Am I going to buy the latest generation of console – what games does it have at launch? Years ago, when I bought my PlayStation 2 on launch day, I totally ignored the salesman’s advice to buy Timesplitters because I didn’t recognise the name. Tekken Tag Tournament and Ridge Racer were what I knew, so I bought them instead, much to my later regret. For as long as I’ve been a gamer, people have cared about the name on the game box, and I don’t see it changing any time soon.
It’s this attachment to our favourite titles that keeps handhelds viable in my opinion, mobile devices will only truly win out when they can offer you a proper Uncharted game starring the real Nathan Drake, and not just a mockbuster. With that in mind I’ve come to the conclusion that if mobile devices ever do kill off gaming handhelds, it’ll be because Sony and Nintendo let them. The value of having a great Uncharted game only on the Vita or a must have Mario title only on the 3DS cannot be overstated in my opinion, and as long as the big two remember that there’ll always be a place for their machines. I think everyone has at least one game that they love enough to buy based purely on the name, and Sony and Nintendo need to exploit that. It’s not going to be easy for them, sustaining a console with a comparatively small user base is going to be hard work, but I think it’s possible with a steady flow of high quality games. The only unknown variable here is you. Would your favourite game being available only on a handheld be enough to prompt you to buy one?