Point / Counterpoint: Handhelds vs. Smart Devices

I’ll admit it, I haven’t been a big handheld gamer for years.  I owned an original Gameboy, but hadn’t owned another handheld until I bought a 3DS a couple of years ago.  Since then, I’ve dabbled in some Pokemon X, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and Ocarina of Time.  I’ve probably banked less than 40 hours total on the 3DS at the time of writing this.  All of this, combined with the recent events surrounding Flappy Bird, got me thinking a lot about mobile gaming.  Specifically, I’m starting to wonder if the mobile gaming tide isn’t shifting towards devices not solely meant for games, iOS devices, Android devices, and the like.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that traditional handheld gaming is dead, or that it’s even going to die any time soon.  There is no doubt that the 3DS is wildly popular, and even though it hasn’t enjoyed nearly the success of the 3DS, the PS Vita also has a strong library of games for hardcore handheld fans to enjoy.

All that said though, the immense proliferation of a handheld gaming platform via smart phones and similar devices is starting to build significant steam.  Fifteen years ago it would be difficult to imagine your mom playing a Gameboy, but these days everyone games on their phones.  From the ultra-casuals playing a few games of Flappy Bird while they poop, to the hardcore gamers playing Final Fantasy Tactics on their iPads, the smart device has created an entirely new way to game, one that’s accessible to everyone.

The fact that A Link Between Worlds was met with such critical success this year makes me believe that handheld games are still relevant to true gamers.  And while I believe that most of what is available on smart devices is kind of garbage right now, I do believe that just a couple of really great releases are all it would take to put that platform over the top.  A game like Year Walk is proof that meaningful experiences certainly can exist on the smart device platform, and I believe that someday, probably sooner than later, we’ll see those games start to pop up more often, and be met with increasing amounts of both critical and commercial success.

I believe that most people are turning the corner on smart devices.  Hell, even Nintendo itself is exploring that market.  While I don’t think devices like the 3DS have to fear for their lives in the short-to-mid-term, I believe that in ten to twenty years, we’ll be looking at a world where dedicated handhelds are a thing of the past.  Right now, the 3DS has a great library, and is a wonderful piece of hardware for what it’s meant to do.  There is no reason to believe that smart devices aren’t evolving into that as well though.

With the iPhone evolving at a high rate, and a plethora of Android devices following suit, there is no reason to believe that the type of functionality you might find in a gaming handheld can’t be copied by one of these devices.  Furthermore, as smart devices build their cred by adding great games to their libraries (I’m looking at you Square Enix, nice job) they become increasingly enticing to gamers.  I see that tipping point coming.  The day that an iOS game is serious contention for game of the year is the day that the traditional handheld is going to shake in its boots; and believe me that day is coming.