By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
Before you ask where the Neo Geo Pocket Color is, I know I voted for it. I can only do so much…
10 – Atari Lynx
Say that you will about the sales of or overall gaming community feeling toward Atari’s 90s* hardware, the Jaguar and the Lynx both still have impassioned supporters/defenders. The Lynx was certainly a powerful little system, with an ahead-of-its-time full-color, backlit LCD display. It’s also said to be the first game system–handheld or otherwise–to have the ability to zoom in on and distort sprites built in on a hardware level, and its 4,000+ color palette dwarfed the Game Boy’s four shades of “grey.” The system also had some impressive titles in its relatively short lifespan, and has continued to see unlicensed homebrew games as recently as 2012, over 20 years after its release (and 17 years after being officially discontinued). If it had come out against a regular competitor, the Lynx would’ve had a real shot. But there was just no competing with the lighting-in-a-bottle phenomenon that was the Game Boy.
9 – Sega Nomad (aka Genesis Nomad)
I struggled with whether to include this as a choice, because it’s a portable Genesis/Mega Drive and not a “gaming handheld” in the traditional sense. But then I realized that nobody questions the TurboExpress’ position as a legitimate handheld, and all that does is play TurboGrafx-16 games on the go, so how is the Nomad ultimately any different? The only bad thing anybody could possibly say about the Nomad is that it absolutely demolishes batteries–and existed at a time before rechargeable batteries and battery charges were as affordable and reliable as they are now–which is not a complaint to take lightly with a portable device. But the trade-off is that you get to play Genesis games on the go, and it was much more reliable and sturdily-built than the third-party portable retro systems that you can buy today. And with rechargeable batteries now being barely more expensive than regular ones, the Nomad is almost better now than it was then…if you’re lucky enough to have one/find one for cheap.
8 – TurboExpress
Speaking of which…here is that other portable console that passed itself off as a handheld device. Only in the case of the TurboExpress, it came out right in its big brother’s prime and not when it was already in the twilight days like with the Nomad. The TurboGrafx-16 is most definitely the third-best 16-bit system behind the SNES and Genesis, but that isn’t to say that it doesn’t still have an incredible library of titles. And because its hardware was identical to the TG-16, it remained the most powerful handheld ever made for many years. Coincidentally, many of the best TG-16 games made for perfect on-the-go experiences, from the Bonk games to the Crush pinball series to some of the best shmups of all time. Also, since the games were literally the same, you could start a game at home, take it out play it on the go, and pick it up again from the same spot when you get back home–something that has only just recently been possible again thanks to PS1 classics on the PSP and PS3 (although that involves way more steps than would be worth doing on a remotely regular basis).
7 – Sega Game Gear
There’s a misconception that the Game Boy’s success alone drove the Game Gear out to pasture. While it’s true that the Game Boy’s position as #1 handheld was never truly threatened, the GG more than held its own and remained popular and profitable throughout its lifespan. Sega themselves decided to prematurely pull the plug on the system mainly in order to focus on the 20 other consoles that were trying to juggle in the mid-90s, and of course we all now know that there were a few other platforms that should’ve gotten the ax instead. Another system with a bright, colorful display that made Game Boy’s look even more dull by comparison, what the GG had that the Lynx didn’t is a far deeper catalog of great titles. Just about all of Sega’s iconic franchises made an appearance on the GG, some in fresh and creative ways (like the great Zelda-esque re-imagining of Golden Axe). And because the architecture of the GG was virtually identical to that of Sega’s Master System, Sega ported many Master System games to the GG which gave the millions of kids who had GGs but not Master Systems the chance to experience some of that system’s underrated library.
6 – PlayStation Vita
The Vita has never been a huge financial success for Sony, but the ol’ girl continues to hang on, due in no small part due to its ability to play classic PlayStation games on that big, beautiful screen and the dozens upon dozens of free games that PlayStation Plus subscribers have amassed for it. The Vita is by far the most powerful handheld ever made, capable of producing visuals on a par with first-generation PS3 games–which is nothing to scoff at if you really think about it. We were still settling for handheld visuals that were several console generations behind not terribly long ago. The Vita’s niche status has made it a landing zone for a lot of hardcore genres like JRPGs, 2D fighters, and shoot-em-ups, and those round out the seventh-gen console ports quite nicely to make for a game library that doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves. It’s doubtful that the Vita will ever see a major renaissance, and fans fear Sony’s inevitable abandonment of the platform on a nearly daily basis. But for a handheld that launched long after gaming handhelds were declared irrelevant in the wake of smart phones and tablets, that the Vita even lasted more than a year or two is an accomplishment in and of itself.
5 – PlayStation Portable (PSP)
Sony’s first handheld doesn’t need nearly as many qualifiers in extolling its virtues as the Vita does, but like its predecessor it tends to get less respect than it deserves. The PSP’s primary competition was the freaking Nintendo DS, one of the most successful game systems of all time, not just handheld but overall. For the PSP to not have immediately been crushed by the DS and to continue to have AAA releases four and five years into its life is something that it doesn’t get enough credit for. The PSP started out shaky, with developers mostly settling for shoehorning shoddy PS2 ports onto it. It wasn’t until original games started to be made for it and devs began to realize the system’s true power that the PSP really came into its own. It’s easy to take for granted now, but 10 years ago it was still a pretty huge deal that a handheld could have a game world the size of Vice City or with the same scope of a God of War. And once the PS1 Classics line kicked in, the ability to play dozens of classic PS1 games like Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid on the go was mind-blowing (again, less so today, admittedly). Some of us still lug our PSPs around specifically to use them as portable PS1 players.
4 – Nintendo DS
I’m a little surprised at the relatively low placement of the DS, but I have to imagine that people were considering the 3DS’s ability to play DS games in addition to 3DS games as reason enough to choose that instead. Still, being the 4th best handheld of all time is nothing to sneeze at. When the PSP was announced, a lot of the gaming press were quick to predict the death of the DS, as surely the sleek, sexy, cool PSP was going to render the old-fashioned, stubbornly game-y DS obsolete. Obviously that didn’t happen, as the DS went on to produce a fantastic lineup of software that rivals just about any platform ever made. Interestingly, the DS probably has Nintendo’s overall weakest lineup of first-party games of any of their systems, and it was third-party support that rivals even the SNES in the history of Nintendo platforms that made the DS have such an amazing catalog of games. The DS is also home to better-than-the-original remakes of some of the greatest games ever made, including Chrono Trigger and Dragon Quest V, rounding out a collection of titles that you can spend the rest of your life happily playing.
3 – Nintendo 3DS
As I mentioned above, the 3DS likely edged out the original DS because of its backwards compatibility. And that’s fair, because having full access to one of the best libraries of all time and then adding several dozen more great games–as well as an eShop with downloadable classic titles (Nintendo and otherwise)–definitely makes for one appealing system. The 3DS is also a landmark system for a number of other reasons: It is the first game system to feature 3D without the need for glasses, it marked the return of Kid Icarus after decades of silence, it is the first handheld to have a Super Smash Bros. game, and it was the first time in a long time that a handheld game won a Game of the Year award from a major media outlet (Link Between Worlds from Gamespot). With a lot of the buzz about NX pointing to it having some kind of portable component, who knows that the longterm future is for the 3DS, but for now it is a viable system and apparently a huge fan favorite.
2 – Game Boy Advance
The original Game Boy was beloved, but it wasn’t long into the system’s life before its dated technology was extremely apparent. The GBA, the Game Boy line’s first full-on upgrade, took the spirit of the GB and finally brought it to a level that felt slightly more modern. Finally getting to play franchises like Pokemon in full color and not just shades of green was a revelation, as was getting ports of the Mario trilogy inspired by their 16-bit Mario All-Stars counterparts. The GBA was also home to some of the best installments of two of the best franchises of all time: Metroid and Castlevania. If you need another reason why the GBA was great beyond Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow and Metroid: Zero Mission, then there isn’t much else that’s ever going to convince you.
1 – Game Boy / Game Boy Color
For as long as handheld gaming exists, there will probably never be a more beloved handheld than the original Game Boy. Millions of people spent years happily using it as a Tetris machine and nothing more, and it’s hard to find fault with that. But of course, those people also missed out on a decade of classic titles representing just about every legendary gaming franchise you can think of. There is also a little thing called Pokemon which got its start here and kept the then-nine year old (!) system alive even longer than its already inconceivably long lifespan. After going up against–and beating–numerous competitors that were bigger, brighter, and more powerful, the only system that the Game Boy was ever going to concede to was its own offspring–and even then it lived on, thanks to the GBA’s backwards compatibility with the entire GB library. By the time the last of the people who grew up with Game Boy are gone to no longer carry the nostalgia torch for the system, traditional handheld gaming will probably be long gone, too, meaning that for as long as people still care about dedicated gaming handhelds, the Game Boy will be their first and best love.
*Yes, I know the Lynx launched in 1989. It’s still basically a 90s system.