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The best portable game console you can buy

Everybody plays video games now – play them right

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Video games are welcome at the table of popular art, alongside movies, music, and television. Home consoles get a lot of attention, but portable gaming has done the heavy lifting when it comes to expanding the reach and acceptance of the medium.

The road to ubiquity began with the peculiar rise of the Game Boy. An outdated piece of hardware upon its release in 1989, Nintendo would nonetheless sell over 115 million Game Boys and Game Boy Colors. Nintendo advertised the portable as a hobby device not just for the kids, but for the family. Countless adults lots entire nights to Zelda and Tetris.

Since the late 2000s, smartphones have spread across the world at a rate that flounders Nintendo’s hardware. Millions of people who never owned a home or mobile game console now do, and the thousands of good, bad, and somewhere in between smartphone games have become a preferred distraction for grown-ups passing a long commute or a quick smoke break.

Here’s the problem: Today, most of us play games, but not all of us play the best games on the best consoles that best match our interests. We get comfy with the latest free thing and make do. Why compromise?

There are four mobile gaming options available, all exceptional. I will be talking about these machines purely as game playing devices, so whether or not the hardware can also make a call or order Seamless is entirely irrelevant.

I don’t want to settle for okay. I want the closest to perfect mobile video game system.

The Winner

The PlayStation Vita is the least commercially successful option available in the portable gaming market. Generally ignored even by video game devotees, it’s sold somewhere over 4 million units since its release in Japan in late 2011. Worse, Sony seems to be at a loss with the console, giving it little if any attention at trade shows. The Vita’s future is a mystery.

So why is it hobbling onto the top of the podium? Because the PlayStation Vita feels like a peek at the future of portable gaming.

It’s beautifully designed and comically ambitious, supported by a brilliant, deep, and varied catalogue of video games that spans decades. (If you’re deep into the gaming hobby, the hardware is the portable equivalent of Sega’s doomed Dreamcast, a console that drew the road map for today’s online-friendly gaming systems.)

To be clear, the best PlayStation Vita is not the new PlayStation Vita, aka the Vita Slim, a plastic oddity that I’ll get to shortly. No, I’m referring to the original hardware, which has a bit more heft, making it easier to hold, and a far more attractive 960 x 544 OLED display.

Sony’s spec sheet promises 3-5 hours of battery life while playing games. Three years after its purchase, my Vita still hits the high end of that estimate. Left in sleep mode, the system holds a charge for days.

The Vita is the first portable gaming device to include controls that achieve parity with what’s available on modern consoles. It feels, more so than any mobile gaming platform has, like a home video game console that can be carried with you. Partly because it handles like you’d expect, partly because of its stunning graphics that occasionally approach the quality seen on the PlayStation 3, and partly because it’s catalog is full of console games.

Via the PlayStation Network, dozens of classic PlayStation 1 games and a handful of PlayStation 2 games can be downloaded. Also available are some of the less-graphically intensive games from the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, like Nidhogg, The Unfinished Swan, and Don’t Starve. The Vita also gets a “free” game each month if you’re PlayStation Plus subscribers. Plus membership — which costs $50 a year and works across PS3, PS4, and Vita — provides multiple news games each month, along with nice discounts across the PlayStation digital storefronts.

Vita’s “exclusive” game catalog is limited, mostly because Sony’s interest in supporting the system with development resources has waned. However, the publisher does continue to partner with indie game developers, bringing some of the strangest and best games from PC to the portable console. I recommend downloading games onto one of Sony’s proprietary — and overpriced — memory cards so you can just grab the device and go.

There’s one last unusual, but noteworthy extension of the Vita’s gaming catalog: if you have a PlayStation 4 and a fast Wi-Fi connection, the Vita will stream the console’s games through its Remote Play feature. For those of us who share a television with friends or family, being able to easily stream a console game onto a handheld while someone else enjoys the TV may itself be a reason to make the purchase.

No other platform offers the best controls, an excellent screen, and the depth and variety of games, ranging from PlayStation 1 downloads to PlayStation 4 streaming. The PlayStation Vita may one day live alongside the Dreamcast as a brilliant, but underappreciated stroke of cursed engineering. It’s ahead of its time, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play it right now.

The Runner-Up

The Nintendo 3DS intends to overtake the PlayStation Vita, eventually. While the portable got off to an astonishingly rough start by the standards of Nintendo, who dominated the mobile gaming market for the two decades prior, the system has recovered thanks to a healthy, gradually expanding catalog featuring beloved Nintendo franchises.

Like Sony, Nintendo offers classic video games from consoles gone by, though it’s inexplicable why some are available, while others aren’t, and a lack of connectivity between purchases on the company’s Wii U home console and 3DS makes buying downloadable retro games doubly frustrating.

The Nintendo 3DS also comes in the larger XL format. The difference between normal and XL cater to an individual’s preference: would you prefer a slightly larger screen or a system that fits in your pocket? I prefer the larger screen, but it’s up to you.

TIMN portable gaming system

The Others

The Vita hasn't quite blossomed into an essential system in its own right, then; instead, it's a compelling $200 luxury extra for hardcore gamers. Don't buy one expecting access to a huge library of games that you can't play anywhere else — buy one because you want to play games that you know and love on the go. Anyone planning to buy a PlayStation 4 should consider a Vita, too, with its Remote Play support promising to make for the greatest bedtime console ever.

But should they wait for the newer model to leave Japan and come around the world? That's a tougher call. At $199, the original Vita isn't any more expensive than the 2000-series will likely be, and it has the benefit of being available on US store shelves today. If you're the kind of person still doggedly hanging onto your plasma TV as manufacturers switch to LCD panels, you'll probably find it equally hard to let go of the launch model's OLED screen. That's understandable, but I think the physical improvements to the 2000-series will be enough for most to consider it the better buy. Whichever model you go for, though, the PS Vita is a surprisingly solid offering at this point in time — just not really in the way that anyone expected.

Unless you really care about 3D — in which case you likely own a 3DS already — the 2DS is functionally the same, but with a nice, cheap price tag. If you're in the market for a new DS, the only real sticking point is the design. It's entirely utilitarian: it gets the job done, but it doesn't worry about how it looks doing so. Up against a PS Vita or an iPad Air, the 2DS looks like an oddly proportioned piece of plastic. That won't matter for everyone; if you just want a cheap way to play the new Pokemon game, this is your best option.

But if you don't like being the center of attention, you may want to spend an extra $40.