What’s to Become of Handheld Gaming?

Ever since the days of the original Game Boy, handheld games occupied a special place in the medium. At first, technical limitations forced more creativity in game design, but those same limitations also enabled side series and spin-offs to be both stylistically and mechanically distinct from their mainline counterparts on the home consoles. Without the clear separation between the likes of Game Boy, Nintendo DS or PSP, games like the original The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, New Super Mario Bros. and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII may have never been made.

With the advent of the Switch and the rise of mobile gaming though, the handheld market has more or less ceased to exist. Sure, gamers can play more on the go than ever before, but that special class of dedicated handheld game is largely gone all the same. Must it really end this way?

Back when the Switch first released, the hope was that it would be pulling double-duty as both a home console and a handheld device. It’s absolutely proven itself as a mobile home console, but the sort of games that defined the likes of the GBA and 3DS haven’t exactly been thriving on it. The reason is simple: the need isn’t there anymore.

The Switch is Nintendo’s only console now, meaning they no longer have to have so many Zelda, Mario or even wholly original titles in the works all at once. Beyond that, if the developer is going to release a game on their main console, they might as well make it as good as possible. It’s not exactly a bad thing, but it’s unfortunate all the same.

Fan demand isn’t exactly there either since fans (that’s all of us) tend not to know what we want until we see it. The only kind of game we can demand is what we already know, so fans tend to mostly just ask for sequels. Who could have asked for Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga or The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap? Perhaps some, but likely not most.

The pattern continues today too. Everyone was (and is) still chomping at the bit for Metroid Prime 4, but were blown away by Metroid Dread (more on that later). Indeed, perhaps one solution to the decline of the handheld-class of game is to simply start asking for/encouraging more spin-offs from the likes of Nintendo.

Mobile could have served as a new home for such games, but that particular sector may already be too irreparably damaged to be practical. Mobile devices should be, and in some ways are, a slam-dunk as a gaming platform. Modern devices have power enough to run a decent game, and almost everyone has one. There’s also no denying that mobile gaming is immensely profitable, raking-in millions upon millions for mobile game makers every year.

Yet, mobile gaming (and by extension mobile devices) is hampered by a terrible reputation; one that’s so bad that only a relative few take it seriously. After a decade of serving as the testing ground for the absolute worst in both game design and business practices, it’s perhaps only natural that neither gamers nor developers consider it a viable platform for more traditional games.

Such games do exist on mobile, but they’re largely overlooked to the point most of the core audience for gaming is only aware of ports of games like Final Fantasy. With that kind of reception, is it any wonder that the only games companies like Nintendo or Activision release are either gacha games such as Fire Emblem Heroes, or simplified versions of console games like Mario Kart Tour or Call of Duty: Mobile?

Metroid Dread - EMMI
The obvious solution is for makers to start putting more traditional games on mobile and do more to support playing on mobile devices (like say releasing an officially licensed controller system?), but doing so may just be too risky. Such games won’t sell until confidence in mobile is restored and that’s not going to happen until a lot of those games are released. It really is an unfortunate paradox of a situation.

Truly, it’s not looking good for the old handheld class of game, but there is at least a little hope. The previously-mentioned Metroid Dread is exactly the kind of game that would’ve been right at home on a handheld device like the 3DS in prior years and so are games like Mario vs. Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, so it can at least be said that this sort of game hasn’t been entirely forgotten yet.

Will its success encourage Nintendo and other developers to start pursuing their side-series and spin-offs again, or is Metroid Dread fated to be the last of its kind? Seeing as how the handheld sector gave gaming some of its greatest classics, hopefully it’s the former case that gets borne out over the coming years.

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