October 20th, 2016 was to be a pointing turn in the history of video gaming as Nintendo unveiled a much welcomed hybrid console, the Nintendo Switch. This new console was to be very different from any other console that ever saw the light of day, it was a home console that you could literally take with you anywhere. Now you could finally play true AAA games on the go. The news made the rounds around the world to universal critical acclaim. As the levels of excitement grew I couldn't stop and wonder that the Japanese gaming hardware giant just stumbled on the solution that both them as well as Sony had been looking for to no avail. Perhaps the PS Vita and 3DS could end up becoming the last of their kind as they find themselves in an unfortunate shrinking market that is hardly salvageable at this point. More concretely, they are being sandwiched and increasingly crushed by the ever increasing weight of both AAA console gaming and very accessible mobile gaming. In fact, this state of things may lead one to ask whether a middle ground is ever going to be possible as mobile gaming stole the magic carpet beneath the portable handhelds in the blink of an eye. Stay with me and we will explore this further.
When the PS Vita launched on western shores on February 22nd of 2012 it became the most powerful portable gaming device the world had ever seen yet. It did not, however, ever get even close to the tremendous sales success of the Nintendo DS. In fact, it couldn't even perform half as well as its new competitor, the Nintendo 3DS. It begs the question as to why it failed since from its announcement Sony had promised PS3-like graphics as they labelled it, the "ultimate portable gaming device." Gaming journalists and fans alike where very excited to see these promises realized.
Much to their disappointment and mine, it never materialized into what everyone was hoping for in any shape or form. There are two main reasons for this in my opinion. The first is that portable handhelds very rarely made games that could stand with console AAA games in both quality and scope. Therefore, a larger number of gamers would always prefer gaming on home consoles as opposed to handheld gaming for the best experiences. The second reason is tied to the first as gaming audiences are increasingly more budget-minded and will rather save as much money as possible. Essentially, handheld consoles are too expensive to justify their existence when a mobile gaming device is already in your pocket. Let's explore the first reason first.
Fully knowing that my first reason for the decline of handheld gaming is up for debate I will attempt to make my case nonetheless. I truly believe that neither the PS Vita nor the 3DS have ever really delivered a true AAA game. I understand that some will disagree here. Graphics wise, the PS Vita titles Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Killzone Mercenary were very close to PS3 visuals. However, in terms of quality neither of these, which were great games for a handheld, could even come close to what their console counterparts ever did. Take Uncharted: Golden Abyss, which I enjoyed quite a bit, it featured no set pieces comparable to those found in any of the console Uncharted games.
That in turn, happens to unfortunately be a major problem because Uncharted's 1-4 all performed wonders in the sales department accord to vgchartz. If researched, one can see that the gap in sales is significant. Uncharted: Golden Abyss which released on 2011 could only pull 1.54 million sales while the original Uncharted which released on PS3 on 2009 did about 4.93 million units. Furthermore, each entry in the franchise was able to expand the fanbase and culminate with Uncharted 4's 9.12 million units sold. I am of course ignoring digital sales because Sony doesn't share those but I'm sure the picture would remain the same even if they did. We could say the same for Killzone Mercenary which didn't even reach 1 million units on retail while it's brother counterparts on console pulled between 2-3 million units according to vgchartz once again. So why am I saying this? Well, let's put it another way. What would we gamers have preferred, these games being made for the PS Vita or for the PS3 or PS4 instead? It goes without saying, that if Uncharted: Golden Abyss or Killzone Mercenary had been made for the PS3, they would not have cost $39.99. They would instead not only have cost $59.99 but would also have had twice or three times the budget. Furthermore, they both would have likely been made instead by franchise creators Naughty Dog and Guerrilla Games with the obvious much higher chances of them being better games. Possibly even game of the year contenders or recipients.
I hope my point is coming across clearly. What I endeavour to say is that, the PS Vita and the Nintendo 3DS perhaps should never have happened or at least they should be the last specifically made handheld consoles. Now, before I make a run for my life, please consider the following. If you liked handheld games such as Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Killzone Mercenary, Fire Emblem: Awakening or The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, then think about the following question. Wouldn't a higher price tag and the ensuing bigger budget possibly have made these games even better? What if the teams that made these were instead developing for the PS3 and Wii or WiiU respectively. Or if we look at the case of Zelda. Which is better the 3DS game The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds or the WiiU/Switch game The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? Critically-speaking the latter is the clear winner although I think that it would likely take that spot by universal acclaim. I am not saying that these portable games should never have existed but quite the contrary. They should have been home console titles with a much higher budget so that they may have realized their highest potential. For that to happen moving forwards, handheld-dedicated portable consoles must go. We need a new hybrid like the Nintendo Switch that can replace them so that we can play from now on AAA games on the go such as Link's latest adventure or the best ever Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. I hope that this will be the same direction that the PlayStation 5 takes, hopefully it can be a hybrid so that we can take wherever we want, for example, the second part of the new upcoming God of War trilogy.
Moving on to my other point, handheld console gaming because of its failure to provide true AAA becomes a serious budget concern with the advent of mobile gaming. Forecasts for the rise of mobile/tablet gaming are staggering and show that they are truly destroying the handheld console market. Furthermore, everyone virtually has a smartphone capable of gaming with tons of different games for all tastes. In fact, smartphones are dominating the entertainment sector increasingly as the amount of things you can do with them makes them very convenient and so they never leave your pocket. These can now fill in the void that the handheld consoles used to satisfy before. However, most importantly, smartphones are not cheap and frequent upgrades are justifiable in many consumer's eyes to the point that purchasing also a handheld console will likely seem to many as going overboard with one's budget.
Therefore, it's what may be conceived as "smart budgeting" that becomes the final thrust of the executioner. Handheld gaming is in between the AAA console gaming and the much more accessible mobile gaming. Handheld gaming failed to provide true AAA games on the go and the experiences it offered were mostly mediocre compared to the ones on console. As a result, it becomes expensive, very expensive. So expensive that "smart budgeting" led many to buy a home console for true AAA and then stick to their smartphone for the rest of their gaming needs on the go. This also seems to be the same conclusion that Sony's Worldwide Studios Boss Shuhei Yoshida reached. When asked about a PS Vita 2, his reply was,
That's a tough question, people have mobile phones and it's so easy to play games on smartphones, and many games on smartphones are free, or free to start…So I hope, like many of you, that this culture of playing portable games continues but the climate is not healthy for now because of the huge dominance of mobile gaming.
Yoshida happens to have the sales numbers on his side as well. Sales data abundantly available can show that both the 3DS and PS Vita are light years away from their predecessors' superior sales. At the time of writing this, the Nintendo 3DS sold over 64.5 million units while the PS Vita did around 15.5 million units. Instead, a generation ago, the Nintendo DS sold over 153.8 million units while the PSP achieved around 80.7 million units, which was interestingly close to the PS3's 86.9 million units. Clearly, we could conclude that the market is shrinking for dedicated handheld consoles. Many are even predicting its total disappearance before long. Perhaps, that won't be all that bad if it happens just as long as we look at it with an open mind.
Then look at the WiiU's exclusive library and consider if you wouldn't have preferred games of the likes of Kid Icarus: Uprising with the WiiU's controls or Fire Emblem: Awakening with an even higher budget that might have perhaps included the post-released DLC at launch already on the finished game. For a console that was thirsting for more games due to the lack of third party support, wouldn't all the 3DS exclusives have been a welcomed addition to the small and limited library of the WiiU? I certainly think so. For better or for worse, it is very likely that this is going to be the scenario for the Nintendo Switch. Even though it is once again lacking in the third party department, its first party is going to be stronger because all of its studios will no longer focus on two platforms, but one. This time we will have true AAA gaming at home and on the go.