The Best Handheld Video Game Consoles of All Time
Handheld gaming consoles are coming back! Years ago, Nintendo started this trend of gaming on the go with their small, straightforward Game & Watch devices. Those were single game-based devices designed by none other than legendary product designer Gunpei Yokoi. Those small devices became quite popular, and Nintendo decided to take them to the next level with the Game Boy.
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Ever since Game Boy came out, there has been a flood of handheld consoles. Sony, Sega, and everyone else joined this race. But who won? What consoles should be counted as the best gaming handhelds of all time? Let’s looks at 6 of the best handheld consoles.
Gameboy and GBA
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While Nintendo’s game and watch sowed the seed for handheld gaming, the Gameboy and its upgraded sibling gave fans something else altogether. They gave them the ability to play full-fledged video games on the go. Those games came on unique-looking flash carts that were much smaller than those of the NES and SNes. It all started with a simple game of Tetris and grew to include the likes of GTA Advance and Driver 3 for GBA. Believe it or not, there was even a Resident Evil port for GBA.
These consoles gave fans the hope that no matter where they were, they would always have something to have a fun time with. Besides being extremely successful, these consoles also paved the way for the Pokemon series of games. The first games in the series Pocket Monsters: Red and Green were released for the Game Boy back in 1996. Now this series has entered the HD era and has only grown in size.
Sega Game Gear
Where Gameboy gave gamers an easy-going library of good-looking games, Game Gear was something more ambitious. It allowed gamers to take their Sega Master System games with them, no matter where they went. They could just plug their carts into it. It was no doubt a unique experience. A color display, better controls, and a more dynamic range of accessories that plugged into its cart slot—all these things helped it stand out. But there was a huge hurdle that prevented this console from being the success it deserved to be: its battery life. It used to eat through 6 AA batteries in a mere 3 to 5 hours.
While it was not much of a success when it launched, it still lives. Fans have learned how to mod it; they have added rechargeable batteries to it and are still using it. Some keep it as a collectible; after all, as a piece of generation-defining hardware, Game Gear was much ahead of the Gameboy or GBA.
It’s a strange thing that Nintendo decided to follow up on one successful handheld with a completely new system. They were very brave to do so; they could have released the Gameboy Advanced 2 or some other new iteration of its already successful lineup. But they went with DS while keeping a new GBA concept as a backup if DS failed.
DS is unique, and the most unique feature hides in its name; DS means Dual Screen. Featuring a clamshell design, one display is at the top and the other at the bottom. The lower one was a resistive touch screen that was easier to operate using a stylus. With this console Nintendo gave, the world has two things: a new way to play and a bunch of unique games that would have never existed if not for the DS. This console used a brand-new kind of media for games. Nintendo redesigned the Gameboy carts and made them much smaller in form.
Games like Okamiden, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, and Metroid Prime Hunters used the touch screen to enhance the gameplay. It was so successful that even Activision launched a port of its Call of Duty games on it every year. Thanks to its easy-to-use nature and its library of games that was a mix of casual and semi-hardcore, this console became the best-selling handheld of all time. It remains at that spot.
Sony PlayStation Portable
The Nintendo DS launched back in 2004, and it was followed by the PSP in 2005. A much more powerful console aimed at the “hardcore” gaming crowd. Yes, Sony was targeting the hardcore gamer with this console, and their console did not disappoint in the least. More than twice as powerful as the DS, this console was reportedly sold out in the UK within three hours. Its first-day sales are said to be somewhere around 185,000, more than double the 87,000 units of the Nintendo DS. With this console, Sony introduced a brand-new media to its fans, something called a UMD. These UMDs were small discs in little plastic casings that Sony tried its level best to get going.
Its library was full of games one would expect a PlayStation console to have. GTA, God of War, Brothers in Arms, Final Fantasy, and Call of Duty—every major developer and publisher released something for the PSP. This console lost to the DS in the long run, but it gave its fans some very unique games that became instant classics. Final Fantasy Crisis Core is one such example; it was so popular that Square Enix re-released it recently for current-gen consoles.
Even today, a PSP can be seen in the hands of people on the commute. There’s a reason for this; its rival DS was a decent enough console, but it was not very pocketable. PSP’s design asked its owners to slide it into their pockets. Its redesign, the PSP Go, took that portability even further, as it featured an even smaller form factor and 16GB of internal memory to allow users to download the games on the device itself instead of carrying the UMDs with them.
How does one go about improving a console that was basically a mass hit? Make it 3D. Apparently, that’s what Nintendo thought. Nintendo announced a successor to the DS with a stereoscopic 3D display and a chip that is somewhat more powerful than the PSP. Its USP was a display that allowed gamers to see 3D without the need for special glasses. It worked, too. It once again used a game cart as its primary form of media, and it was a tad overpriced for what it offered. Fans refused to buy this console at its introductory price of $249.99, so Nintendo decided to cut it to $169.99. And then it saw success.
This console is on the list of the greatest handhelds ever made not because of a 3D display but because it became the first bridge between mainline games and handheld versions of the same games. This led to Nintendo’s decision to design a hybrid console, giving birth to the Nintendo Switch. With 3Ds, they made it so that users could connect it to their Wii U and use it as a gamepad for Super Smash Bros. Wii U. It even got its own version of Smash Bros. It has a one-of-a-kind 3D Mario game called Mario 3D Land, and it has excellent 3D ports of classic games like Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask.
Its library is full of games that fans would struggle to find anywhere else. Various Fire Emblem games, a bunch of Pokemon games, and Zelda titles, remakes, and originals. And then there was complete backward compatibility. While it was not as successful as its predecessor and while it did not gain popularity for its 3D screen, it ended up being a popular console for the games it offered.
While Nintendo’s idea of a new console was more of the same with a 3D display, Sony decided to go all out with their follow-up to the PSP. They called this console by the codename NGP, which stands for next-generation portable. A clever mind would take a hint from what they were trying to do here. They were offering gamers console-level games on the go. The PS Vita was a work of art, with a beautiful OLED touch-screen display, dual analog sticks, and a capacitive touch pad at the back. This console had all the bells and whistles of a mainline home console.
Even in specs, it was way ahead of its competition. Compared to the 128 MB of RAM on the 3DS PS Vita, it had 512 MB. And the PS Vita came with 128 MB of VRAM, whereas the 3Ds only had 6 MB. During its reveal, Sony proudly showcased an uncharted game running on it, and it looked beautiful. Over its lifetime, the PS Vita received a bunch of console-level games, both in visuals and gameplay. Killzone Mercenary, NFS Most Wanted, and Sly Cooper Thieves in Time are some examples of such achievements.
But there were a bunch of hurdles. Sony decided to sell their own proprietary memory cards for the PS Vita, which were very expensive. 32 GB of PS Vita memory cards cost a whopping $119.99. And they were compulsory too, as the console had no internal memory and every game needed some memory to create a save.
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Sony made it very expensive to own a Vita, and that’s why it got off to a very slow start. By the time it caught some speed, Sony had already abandoned this console. PS Vita’s potential was never tested to its limits.
But to this day, its homebrew community stays alive; people develop games for it and port mobile games to it, and through those people, this console continues to get the love it deserves.
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These were the best handheld consoles of all time. Yes, the Nintendo Switch and Steam Deck are not on this list. That is because the Nintendo Switch is not a handheld but a hybrid console, and the Steam Deck is a portable PC. And both of these devices go beyond what should be handheld in size.