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GAMES

Handheld wars redux

by Brian Ashcraft

For more than a decade, Nintendo ruled handheld gaming. Challengers, such as the Atari Lynx and the Sega Game Gear appeared, but Nintendo batted them away one by one. Only Sony and its PlayStation Portable could withstand the Nintendo onslaught. And Sony isn’t going away anytime soon — launching a new handheld to take on Nintendo’s upcoming 3DS: It’s 2004 all over again.

That year, lines were drawn in the sand as Sony and Nintendo faced off with brand-new portable gaming hardware, Nintendo with the DS and Sony with its PSP. This year, both are facing off once again with Nintendo touting the 3-D- glasses-free Nintendo 3DS (bottom) and Sony with its new PSP, currently codenamed “Next Generation Portable” or NGP (above right).

While Sony was new to the handheld arena with the PSP in 2004, Nintendo had released its first handheld gaming machines back in the early 1980s. Dubbed “Game & Watch” and designed by Nintendo’s Gunpei Yokoi, the portables were capable of only playing one on-board game. The games were simple, featuring equally simple titles such as “Ball” and “Octopus.” It wasn’t until 1989 that Yokoi’s masterwork, the Game Boy, would be released.

Featuring black and grayish graphics, the seemingly indestructible Game Boy ruled the handheld roost as did its subsequent iterations, the Game Boy Color and the Game Boy Advance.

Sony only emerged as a challenger to Nintendo’s handheld throne when it released the PSP. The PSP featured a larger screen and graphics that appeared comparable to those on the PlayStation 2. PlayStation designer Ken Kutaragi, called the PSP, which is capable of playing music and feature films, a Walkman for the 21st century. Coupled with Sony’s then gaming dominance, the PSP seemed like it would be the handheld that would finally defeat Nintendo.

Yet, Nintendo zigged when Sony zagged. The Kyoto-based game-maker was coming off its worst-selling home console, the GameCube, and was looking for something different to revitalize itself. The answer was the Nintendo DS, a dual screen handheld, that wasn’t as high powered as Sony’s machine. However, the PSP’s weak battery life and comparatively limited game library gave Nintendo the legs it needed with the Nintendo DS, a handheld that offered innovative touch-input gaming and eventually a vast library of compelling games.

Nintendo is hoping to repeat that trick with the Nintendo 3DS. The console is not simply the Nintendo DS, but with 3-D, it is an entirely new gaming platform for Nintendo, a more powerful machine with better-looking graphics. The 3DS is capable of running Nintendo DS games as well as new 3-D games. The Nintendo 3DS looks poised to be the first mass market glasses-free 3-D product. Whether or not players are ready for 3-D is up for debate, with reports of players getting headaches while playing the 3DS at Nintendo’s recent Nintendo World event in Chiba. The 3-D functionality can be switched off, and Nintendo is recommending breaks every 15 minutes while playing and has issued a warning for children under 6. The price tag is also hardly child’s play. At around ¥25,000, the Nintendo 3DS costs as much as the Nintendo Wii did when it originally went on sale.

While Sony is trumpeting 3-D for its televisions, its new handheld portable, the NGP, is not a 3-D gaming console. The handheld is a traditional 2-D machine, but features a large, crisp 5 inch OLED (Organic LED) screen. Sony points out that most smart phone screens, such as the iPhone 4, feature a 3.5 inch screen and hopes that the ample NGP screen will be a selling point. The graphics look close to PS3 quality, but Sony is quick to point out that they are not the same level as the PS3′s.

While both Sony and Nintendo are offering players two different experiences, with Nintendo focusing on 3-D and Sony on touch, both are incorporating new social networking style play. Nintendo’s 3DS has a “tag mode” that enables the 3DS to automatically exchange info with other nearby 3DSs. The NGP features applications that rank the games other NGP players are playing in the same vicinity.

Like the Nintendo DS and the iPhone and iPad, the NGP features a touch screen, allowing for touch-style gaming most players are now familiar with. What’s new is the NGP’s rear touchpad, allowing players to manipulate onscreen images simply by touching the back of the portable. The rear touchpad is the same size as the screen and during my hands-on with the NGP, the rear touchpad felt responsive, offering a new experience. And while the NGP is larger than the current PSP, it’s incredibly light, making it feel smaller than it actually is.

However, the killer app for many core gamers isn’t the touchpad or the OLED screen, but the inclusion of two thumb “nubs,” giving the NGP a layout that is closer to the PS3 controller, which has dual thumbsticks. The current PSP only has one thumb nub, making many types of games, such as action games or shooters, much more difficult to play. The inclusion of dual thumb nubs is a first for gaming portables and will make it easier for game studios to either take PS3 games and put them on the NGP or develop the same game for both the NGP and the PS3 — both of which are expected to give the handheld a large game library.

With the 3DS going on sale in late February in Japan, and the NGP expected to go on sale later this year, two of gaming’s giants will once again vy for gamers’ yen and attention, but also their hands. The consoles might be small, but this war is huge.

Brian Ashcraft is a senior contributing editor at gaming website Kotaku.com