Idle Thumbs: The Year in Handhelds

It’s war in the land of handhelds at the moment, and as is traditional in three-way videogame strategy battles, each side is unique: in the news this week, Kaz Hirai admitted the faltering sales of the PS Vita and a further focus on PS3 sales from Sony, Nintendo continued their policy of saying nothing while continuing to sell the 3DS to just about everyone, and on Tuesday, Apple announced the iPhone 5, to considerably less fanfare than previous launches, by which I mean only a third of the internet tuned in to the livestream to watch the announcement of a slightly longer, slightly thinner, slightly faster slab of glass and aluminium. But this is the videogames section, and with the announcement of anything iPhone, it’s required to point out that Apple now represent both the most popular hardware on which to play handheld games, and the biggest digital download marketplace through which to acquire them.

It's the new one, honest.
The iPhone 5: Soft, strong and very long. It seems that Apple have decided that size matters/Apple Inc.

So what does the new iOS family hardware and the iOS 6 update bring to the table? For the most part, not very much: the jump to an A6 processor opens the door to bigger, shinier sequels to Demon’s Souls at which to be enraged, and the switch to a 16:9 aspect screen offers slightly more space for thumbs to rest while playing Gameboy emulators; iOS 6 offers a way to suppress Words With Friends notifications until tomorrow morning and little else new: iOS 5’s Game Center remains a benchmark for Doing Games On Smartphones (and Android’s fragmented and inconsistent approach barely deserves mention). The iPhone/iPod family are perhaps the best-executed pieces of handheld design of this generation, and Apple have got hardware with the consistency of a console into the hands of a generation – a grand success compared to Google’s approach of cultivating a thousand hardware/software combinations, where a game might reasonably target ten to twenty of those. Like Nintendo, the cycle of relatively frequent hardware refreshes and predictable upgrade cycles has grown a strong developer community (even in spite of Apple’s certification process, which by the standards of console releases is downright frictionless) and a wealth of iOS-exclusives not through the traditional sacks of cash, but simply through convenience and the relative certainty of an App Store launch. Nintendo may have won the fight to 2010, but Apple are squaring up as the big dogs of the new decade in handhelds.

Goodnight, sweet prince.
The PS Vita, a console which was supposed to bring balance to the industry/ & Sony Computer Entertainment Europe

And where does this leave Sony? With the announcement of a new, even-slimmer PS3 (at a higher base price) and Hirai’s admission of the PS Vita’s expectedly underwhelming sales performance, Sony have once again been batted back in the handheld war, and not for lack of trying: perhaps even more cutthroat than the home console market, Microsoft have stayed away from the fight entirely, leaving the Japanese titans to duke it out with each other and Apple. Sadly, the Vita is not a bad console: it may be the most technically and artistically adventurous and advanced handheld on the market, but smacks of kitchen-sink design from the pre-recession era: huge screen, two touchpads, thumbsticks, 3G, a processor to rival the PS3’s, and a form factor which seems impossibly small for the device it encloses adds up to a handheld which can be judged on one statistic alone: the secondhand sale price. A 50% discount or more, for like-new-with-box, is the mark of a console which simply does not have a market: the lack of first-hand sales depresses game production, and Sony’s approach of bringing AAA home console title size and quality to a handheld only drives development cost up. The Vita plays host to a wealth of first- and second-party titles, but a void of third-party games. Hirai was right to admit failure on the Vita: to rely upon it further would be a millstone around Sony’s neck. But in my heart, it remains a console born only a little too late, and one which it is a shame to see pass into the halls of obscurity, to sit alongside the Game & Watch and GBA SP.