Skip to main content

Video game handhelds didn’t die after all

Video game handhelds didn’t die after all

/

Mobile gaming still dominates, but dedicated devices have their niche

Share this story

Steam Deck.
Steam Deck.
Photo: Valve

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.

Analogue’s Pocket.
Analogue’s Pocket.
Photo: Analogue

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.

Playdate.
Playdate.
Photo: Panic

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.

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed 12:00 AM UTC Dimorphos didn’t even see it coming

R
Twitter
Richard Lawler12:00 AM UTC
A direct strike at 14,000 mph.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) scored a hit on the asteroid Dimorphos, but as Mary Beth Griggs explains, the real science work is just beginning.

Now planetary scientists will wait to see how the impact changed the asteroid’s orbit, and to download pictures from DART’s LICIACube satellite which had a front-row seat to the crash.


M
The Verge
We’re about an hour away from a space crash.

At 7:14PM ET, a NASA spacecraft is going to smash into an asteroid! Coverage of the collision — called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test — is now live.


E
Twitter
Emma RothSep 26
There’s a surprise in the sky tonight.

Jupiter will be about 367 million miles away from Earth this evening. While that may seem like a long way, it’s the closest it’s been to our home planet since 1963.

During this time, Jupiter will be visible to the naked eye (but binoculars can help). You can check where and when you can get a glimpse of the gas giant from this website.


Asian America learns how to hit back

The desperate, confused, righteous campaign to stop Asian hate

Esther WangSep 26
E
Twitter
Emma RothSep 26
Missing classic Mario?

One fan, who goes by the name Metroid Mike 64 on Twitter, just built a full-on 2D Mario game inside Super Mario Maker 2 complete with 40 levels and eight worlds.

Looking at the gameplay shared on Twitter is enough to make me want to break out my SNES, or at least buy Super Mario Maker 2 so I can play this epic retro revamp.


R
External Link
Russell BrandomSep 26
The US might still force TikTok into a data security deal with Oracle.

The New York Times says the White House is still working on TikTok’s Trump-era data security deal, which has been in a weird limbo for nearly two years now. The terms are basically the same: Oracle plays babysitter but the app doesn’t get banned. Maybe it will happen now, though?


R
Youtube
Richard LawlerSep 26
Don’t miss this dive into Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinocchio flick.

Andrew Webster and Charles Pulliam-Moore covered Netflix’s Tudum reveals (yes, it’s going to keep using that brand name) over the weekend as the streamer showed off things that haven’t been canceled yet.

Beyond The Way of the Househusband season two news and timing information about two The Witcher projects, you should make time for this incredible behind-the-scenes video showing the process of making Pinocchio.


R
External Link
Russell BrandomSep 26
Edward Snowden has been granted Russian citizenship.

The NSA whistleblower has been living in Russia for the 9 years — first as a refugee, then on a series of temporary residency permits. He applied for Russian citizenship in November 2020, but has said he won’t renounce his status as a U.S. citizen.


E
External Link
Emma RothSep 26
Netflix’s gaming bet gets even bigger.

Even though fewer than one percent of Netflix subscribers have tried its mobile games, Netflix just opened up another studio in Finland after acquiring the Helsinki-based Next Games earlier this year.

The former vice president of Zynga Games, Marko Lastikka, will serve as the studio director. His track record includes working on SimCity BuildIt for EA and FarmVille 3.


A
External Link
Vietnam’s EV aspirant is giving big Potemkin village vibes

Idle equipment, absent workers, deserted villages, an empty swimming pool. VinFast is Vietnam’s answer to Tesla, with the goal of making 1 million EVs in the next 5-6 years to sell to customers US, Canada and Europe. With these lofty goals, the company invited a bunch of social media influencers, as well as some auto journalists, on a “a four-day, multicity extravaganza” that seemed more weird than convincing, according to Bloomberg.


J
James VincentSep 26
Today, 39 years ago, the world didn’t end.

And it’s thanks to one man: Stanislav Petrov, a USSR military officer who, on September 26th, 1983, took the decision not to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack against the US. Petrov correctly guessed that satellite readings showing inbound nukes were faulty, and so likely saved the world from nuclear war. As journalist Tom Chivers put it on Twitter, “Happy Stanislav Petrov Day to those who celebrate!” Read more about Petrov’s life here.


Soviet Colonel who prevented 1983 nuclear response
Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images
J
The Verge
James VincentSep 26
Deepfakes were made for Disney.

You might have seen the news this weekend that the voice of James Earl Jones is being cloned using AI so his performance as Darth Vader in Star Wars can live on forever.

Reading the story, it struck me how perfect deepfakes are for Disney — a company that profits from original characters, fans' nostalgia, and an uncanny ability to twist copyright law to its liking. And now, with deepfakes, Disney’s most iconic performances will live on forever, ensuring the magic never dies.


E
External Link
Hurricane Fiona ratcheted up tensions about crypto bros in Puerto Rico.

“An official emergency has been declared, which means in the tax program, your physical presence time is suspended,” a crypto investor posted on TikTok. “So I am headed out of the island.” Perhaps predictably, locals are furious.


R
The Verge
Richard LawlerSep 26
Teen hacking suspect linked to GTA 6 leak and Uber security breach charged in London.

City of London police tweeted Saturday that the teenager arrested on suspicion of hacking has been charged with “two counts of breach of bail conditions and two counts of computer misuse.”

They haven’t confirmed any connection with the GTA 6 leak or Uber hack, but the details line up with those incidents, as well as a suspect arrested this spring for the Lapsus$ breaches.