Handhelds were once a Christmas gift favorite – and now they’re bigger than ever | Science and technology news

25 years ago, few gadgets were on as many Christmas lists as Nintendo’s Game Boy Color.

Released in November 1998 and home to classics such as Pokemon, Super Mario Land and Tetris, the iconic handheld was packed under the tree in living rooms up and down the country.

With nearly 120 million units sold, the Game Boy is one of the most successful game consoles ever made.

It’s still inspiring new products to this day, with the retro Super Pocket – filled with 90s classics like Street Fighter and Ghouls ‘n Ghosts – among the stocking stuffers vying for attention this festive season.

Nintendo promotion girls Ruriko Harada (L) and Jun Suzuki show off the Game Boy Advance, a next-generation handheld player, at a press launch in Tokyo March 7, 2001. The Game Boy Advance, the successor to the world's top-selling portable Game Boy player, uses a 32-bit processor, is Internet-enabled, and will hit stores in Japan on March 21 for 9,800 yen ($82.59).  Sales in the US, Europe and Australia are set for June, Nintendo said.  ES/PB
Nintendo’s Game Boy brand was still going strong with the Advance model in 2001

Not too long ago, however, portable gaming devices seemed like yesterday’s news.

The rise of the smartphone and games like Candy destruction usurped the once popular Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable for many, while dedicated fans gravitated to the power of consoles and PCs.

But with Christmas beckoning again, the handheld market has probably never been healthier.

A Japanese model shows off Nintendo Co.'s new dual-screen video game console "Nintendo DS Lite" at an unveiling in Tokyo on February 15, 2006. The 218 gram (7.69 ounce) game console will go on sale on March 2 at a price of ¥16,000 ($136).  REUTERS/Toru Hanai
Games like Brain Training and Nintendogs helped make Nintendo’s DS another huge hit

Nintendo’s trendsetter

Despite it being nearly seven years since its launch, Nintendo’s Switch continues to sell.

It sailed past 130 million units sold last month, helped by being the exclusive home of two of 2023’s most critically acclaimed games in Legend Of Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom and Super Mario Wonder.

Nao Imoto (L) and her husband David Flores pose with their Nintendo Switch game console after buying it at an electronics store in Tokyo, Japan March 3, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai
The Switch has continued to sell since 2017…

The iconic plumber returns in Super Mario Bros. Wonder.  Image: Nintendo
…helped by games like Super Mario Wonder. Image: Nintendo

Its hybrid nature, which allows gamers to use it as a laptop or connect it to their TV, was new in 2017 but has become trendy. Its success inspired Valve, which runs the industry’s most popular store for purchasing PC games, to release Steam Deck last year.

Like the Switch, games once reserved for consoles or computers can now be taken on the go. The Deck means the most critically acclaimed title of the year, Baldur’s Gate 3can be a portable game.

With Christmas shopping underway, the company released a fresh model. Starting at £469, the Deck OLED has a better screen, battery life and lighter build.

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Steam Deck OLED.  Image: Valve
Steam Deck OLED. Image: Valve

From pockets to backpacks

Engineer Lawrence Yang describes it as “the product we wish we could have shipped a few years ago”. when pandemic-stricken supply chains meant that new technological products were hard to come by.

That couldn’t be further from the truth now. The modern handheld craze goes beyond Switch and Deck to include rivals such as the Asus ROG Ally (£499) and the Lenovo Legion Go (£699).

Admittedly, they all stretch the definition of “handheld”. With its hefty dimensions and 7.4-inch screen, the Deck OLED dwarfs the Switch – let alone old Game Boys, where portability meant being in your pocket.

But Yang believes we’re at “the start of a new gaming handheld category,” blurring the line between those that stay in your living room and those that accompany you.

Just as larger phones allowed people to watch movies on the train, Deck could normalize playing blockbusters on a flight.

The Game Boy-style Super Pocket has been surpassed by the Nintendo Switch and the even beefier Steam Deck OLED
The Game Boy-style Super Pocket has been surpassed by the Nintendo Switch and the even beefier Steam Deck OLED

Removing the compromises

Gaming industry expert John Ozimek says devices like the Deck have “removed the compromises” people came to associate with portable and phone games, such as simple graphics or crammed with advertising.

Canadian developer Nine Dots is bringing its hit adventure game Outward to the Switch, catering to gamers’ growing desire to play any game they want on the go.

Creative Director Guillaume Boucher-Vidal believes in as little “friction” as possible to meet their needs.

He was an early proponent of Google’s dead Stadia gaming servicea Netflixservice that streamed games over the Internet and still believes there is a “bright future” for cloud gaming.

A Pixel phone streams games using Google Stadia
Google Stadia died – but cloud gaming lives on

Great expectations

Console manufacturers Sony and Microsoft definitely aware of it.

Like Valve, Sony has a new gadget on the shelves for Christmas with DKK 200 PlayStation Portal. It lets PS5 players stream their games from the console to the handheld.

Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass, the closest thing gaming really gets to Netflix, is more accessible than ever. It lets subscribers stream a growing library of games on phones, tablets and consoles.

Steve Cottam runs a similar service, but for classic games. Dubbed Antstream, it makes more than 1,400 retro titles available across iOS, Android, PC, Mac and Xbox.

“People expect that accessibility with movies, music,” he says. “The idea that we treat games differently is a fallacy.

“If I’m at the airport and can keep playing the games I’ve been playing at home, that’s hugely appealing.”

The PS Portal requires strong Wi-Fi and a PS5 to work, but could easily let you play Spider-Man on the toilet.  Image: Sony
The PS Portal requires strong Wi-Fi and a PS5 to work, but could easily let you play Spider-Man on the toilet. Image: Sony

There are no such trips in my immediate future, but the convenience appeals.

I’m not saying I’d play Baldur’s Gate 3 on the toilet, but it’s pretty cool that I can.

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