When the beloved PlayStation Vita eventually died out, many blamed the rise of mobile gaming. “I think the PS Vita, while ahead of its time in many ways ... launched at exactly the wrong time in terms of market opportunity,” former Sony vice president of marketing John Koller told The Verge about going up against smartphones. But despite the Vita’s demise, dedicated gaming handhelds didn’t die out — in fact, the space is arguably as vibrant as ever.
Valve just announced the Steam Deck, a chunky portable PC that looks like a Sega Game Gear from a parallel universe. It’s designed to let players take their Steam library of PC games on the go. Just a few hours later, preorders opened for the latest iteration of the Nintendo Switch, one that doesn’t change much aside from a bigger, brighter OLED screen and a kickstand that doesn’t suck. Meanwhile, Panic is planning to release the oddball Playdate this year, and Analogue is building possibly the most beautiful Game Boy ever with the Pocket, also slated for a 2021 launch.
Nintendo showed that there’s still a market for this kind of device. Nearly five years ago, the company completely changed its approach to hardware with a machine that blurred the lines between a handheld and a home console, and the Switch has since become a massive hit, moving more than 84 million units. Perhaps most interesting, though, is that the two hardware revisions since the Switch debuted in 2017 have both been focused on portable play. First, there was the handheld-only Switch Lite, and now the OLED version; a better screen doesn’t matter much if you’re playing the Switch docked.
The Steam Deck follows a similar approach. It’s basically a cheap PC with a screen so you can play on the go, but which can also connect to an external monitor or TV if you want. It’s kind of like a Switch without Nintendo games. Given Valve’s history with building hardware like the Steam Controller and living room-focused Steam Machines, chances are the Steam Deck won’t be the breakout hit the Switch was. It could usher in a new style of PC gaming hardware, or, far more likely, it could end up as a beloved niche. But its sheer existence further proves that there’s a market here.
Because smartphone gaming didn’t kill the portable console. Mobile gaming continues to be a massive success; EA isn’t throwing around billions of dollars for nothing. But, for the most part, the kinds of games that have proven to be successful on mobile aren’t the ones you would buy a device specifically to play. Free-to-play has completely upended the space, covering virtually every genre and major release, from Pokémon Go to Call of Duty Mobile to Candy Crush Saga. At this point, unless your game is called Minecraft, it’s probably not going to sell. Apple Arcade is an attempt to bring things back to those early, exciting days of premium iPhone gaming, but dedicated handhelds seem better suited to filling that niche.
What’s most exciting about this handheld renaissance is how different each machine is. The Switch is so incredibly Nintendo, an underpowered device that’s still a must-own because of Zelda and Mario Kart. The Steam Deck is a PC on the go. Analogue’s first foray into portables — the company makes some great retro consoles — solves a very important problem, namely letting people play original Game Boy cartridges on a beautiful, modern screen. The Playdate is the strangest of all: a little yellow box with a crank handle you can use to play black-and-white games designed by the likes of Keita Takahashi and Zach Gage.
In some ways, 2021 looks a lot like the handheld markets of years past. You have Nintendo leading the way at the top, and lots of other companies — some big, some small — trying to carve out their own niche. In the past, those failed experiments have turned into much-loved devices. I still keep a Vita, Game Boy Micro, and Neo Geo Pocket Color in a desk drawer because I can’t let go. That could very well happen again here, as none of these machines are a guaranteed success. Years from now, a Playdate might fill an empty space in that drawer. But one thing is for certain: I can’t wait to travel again with a messenger bag full of games.