If there’s one thing that gets me more excited than a banger MMA fight card it’s the world of handheld gaming. I’ve had a love/love relationship with handhelds since the OG Gameboy and I’m looking to get the Steamdeck to see what the latest in handheld tech can deliver. There’s something special about taking your favourite games on the road with you. I remember many a long car journey spent blasting away at baby Metroids, smashing blocks and shooting bad guys. There’s just something magical about that generation of gaming. Everything was new and there was a real buzz around the next big thing in the industry. Nintendo hit the goldmine with the Gameboy and has been a pioneer of the medium ever since. Sure, there were competitors like the Sega Game Gear and the Atari Lynx but nothing could stand up to the might of the Gameboy. If you have ever gotten your hands on one of those grey rectangular boxes of delight, you’ll know why it’s such a cultural icon. There was nothing like it then!
The year is 1991. I’m 8 years old and my whole world is about to change. Being a small kid in a small town in India, gaming wasn’t the first thing that came to mind in terms of entertainment. We were more the get dirty in the mud, swimming in the local pond kind of kids. But when my elder sister came back from Canada after 4 years away, what she brought back from the land of maple syrup and hockey would go on to define the person I am today. What I’m talking about is the original Nintendo Gameboy bundled with Tetris and a game that I still think about to this day, Metroid 2: The Return of Samus. Sure, I’d gotten my hands on the Atari 2600 but those blocky graphics just could not stand up to the two-toned colour of the Gameboy. Just opening up the box was an experience in itself. Finally, I turned it on and the now iconic *ping* welcomed me to a magical world of space pirates, parasitic monsters and the coolest hero on this side of the galaxy in Samus Aran. Suffice it to say, my 7-year-old brain promptly melted when I discovered that Samus was a girl after I finally completed the game. I can still remember exactly where I was when it happened, it’s such a vivid memory. The intro screen. The green dot matrix. The minimalistic controls. It was all very new at the time. In the years that followed, I amassed a respectable collection of games like the critically acclaimed TMNT: Fall of the Foot Clan, The Toxic Avengers, Castlevania 2: Belmont’s Revenge, Super Mario Land, Robocop and much more. The Nintendo Gameboy would be my first brush with the Japanese gaming juggernaut and it’s a relationship that has continued to this day. I’ve practically owned almost every Nintendo console out there, barring the Virtual Boy. We’ll talk about the various Gameboy Variants in a bit but for now, let’s move on to Nintendo’s biggest competitor back in the day, Sega.
My first brush with the Game Gear was through a friend of a friend of a friend, sometime in 1993. As part of the Chinese community in India, I had a network of bros who were as deep into gaming as I was. We’d meet once a year in Calcutta, since I lived in Shillong, and compare our haul for the year. Now this dude struts in with a brand new, all-colour handheld device and we’re stuck here with a crappy dot matrix screen! I’d never seen a console like that before. It was bulky and looked menacing and unlike the Nintendo Gameboy which used 4 AAA batteries, this behemoth was powered by 6 AAA batteries. Holding it felt surreal. The colours burned my retina through the tiny screen. The first game I experienced on the console was Shinobi. Just watching the white ninja sashay across the screen in full colour, back-lit was an experience I’ll never forget. The next game I played on the handheld shaped the way I looked at fighting games. Mortal Kombat 2 on the Game Gear was a revelation for me. The blood and gore of the gruesome fatalities and the life-like graphics did a number on me. It was also the first time I ever saw a boss like Kintaro and he immediately became my favourite MK character. The game ran like butter on the Game Gear and even though I wanted one really bad, it wasn’t until 1995 did I finally get my cousin’s hand-me-down console. Better late than never, right? The one thing that stood out to me when comparing the Game Gear to the Gameboy is that the games might be better looking on Sega’s console but the games and gameplay were just so much more fun on the Gameboy. Sure the games looked worse but when you have franchises such as Mario, Metroid, Zelda and more, you’re already a step ahead of the competition. As a kid, you don’t think about the price our parents paid for our luxuries so I never understood why the Gameboy was doing so much better. It should have been clear that the Game Gear was priced at $150 at retail while the Gameboy was a measly $90. Back in the day, even $50 was a lot of money and with waning support from third-party games and Nintendo signing exclusive developer rights, the road was already a tough one for the Game Gear. Eventually, the console was relegated to a dark corner of my cupboard while the Gameboy was my go-to gaming device.
This carried on for a couple of years until the debut of the Gameboy Advance in 2001. Sure, Nintendo had the Gameboy Mini and the Colour but none were as substantial a jump in terms of graphics and gameplay as the Advance. Again, as far as the games go, Nintendo delivered hit after hit. We got Metroid Fusion, Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow, Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga and many more. This time we got a full 32-bit system jammed into an ergonomic handheld device. The Advance was leap and bounds ahead of its predecessor in that it completely skipped the 16-bit era. The graphics looked much better and this reflected in more gameplay depth. Although games like the Mortal Kombat port on the Advance looked bad and it was practically unplayable. For every 10 awesome games Nintendo released, we always got a dud or two thrown in for good measure. The Gameboy Advance was my go-to system for about 5 years until the Sony PSP came along and showed me what a powerful handheld device was actually capable of.
Note” You’ll have to forgive me but I hated and still hate Pokemon so I will never touch any game from the franchise, so those looking for a nostalgia trip in the Pokemon world will be severely disappointed. I don’t have the slightest idea of what the franchise is about and I prefer it that way.
When Sony launched the PlayStation in 1995, it was the new hotness. With 32-bit graphics, 3D gaming, more complex storylines and mechanics, the PS One firmly entrenched Sony in the world of console gaming and it’s been a hell of a ride since then. I owned a PS One and subsequently moved on to the PS2 sometime in 2004. And although I’d still whip out my Gameboy Advanced SP from time to time for a quick game of Mario Kart: Super Circuit or my annual playthrough of Metroid Fusion, my SP joined its elder brother and the Game Gear in the back of a dusty cupboard. I was, after all, now in love with the DVD-playing, God of War running machine, the mighty PS2. For a while there, it seemed like I was finally getting over my handheld obsession. That was until the debut of the PSP in 2005. Again, I was incredibly lucky to have a cousin of mine purchase it from Austria and personally deliver it to me. Opening up that box is a feeling that cannot be replicated. I mean it’s why so many unboxing channels exist on Youtube, right? My cousin bought me the white version of the console and it looked magnificent. The only real issue was the fact that there were no official games launched here so sail the high seas, I did. I managed to crack my PSP and I still feel bad about it but what can one do when you’re broke and still want to game? I remember spending hours perfecting the combat system on UFC Undisputed in 2010 and even using the PSP as the ultimate PS One emulation machine. The PlayStation Portable wasn’t the incredible seller that the Gameboy was but it paved the way for future handheld systems. It was powerful, easy to use and had an amazing game library. The fact that it could also be used as an emulation machine also added to the console’s legacy.
On the side though, I managed to snag a sweet Nintendo DS from one of my younger cousins and for a gimmicky system, it had a few games that were worth it. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass really made use of the system and I actually found myself incredibly engrossed in the Zelda franchise. I did not spend as much time as I should have on the DS but I game a ton on the DS’ successor, The Nintendo 3DS.
The PSP remained my daily gaming platform when I moved away from home in 2008. I had just started working for a music magazine and didn’t have the cash for video games. The PSP served me incredibly well during the first few years of living alone. It wasn’t until I got the Nintendo 3DS XL for my 32nd birthday. The console came packaged with Mario and Luigi: Dream Team and I also received Super Mario 3D Land as a bonus. I must have sunk in at least 300 or more hours into both games. The 3DS XL became my go-to gaming console. Games like Resident Evil Revelations, Ultra Street Fighter 4, Kid Icarus and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds also helped bolster the console’s lineup. The 3D effect on the device was actually stunning although a few people did complain that the effect was giving them a headache and they couldn’t focus on the screen. Sure, the 3D effect was a gimmick but the more I used the console, the more I found myself turning the effect on. I like the idea of a small 3D screen and it really helped in terms of immersion. It also helped that the console was really easy to pick up and play. It was well-designed and controlled incredibly well. The only downside to most Nintendo consoles is its propriety charging port. God help the poor soul who lost his or her charger. The 3DS XL continued being my daily gaming machine up until the launch of the PS Vita.
The PlayStation Vita was the holy grail for gamers. It followed the same principle as the PSP in that it was an incredibly powerful console that could realistically play PS2 games with no real issues. I saw a friend of mine lug the damn thing around but I finally got the chance to get my hands on the console when one of my nephews got it for his birthday. I had the console for about two months and I finished the portable Uncharted game as well as Ultimate Capcom vs Marvel. The fact that the device wasn’t mine means that I wasn’t able to mess around with it and turn it into another emulation monster. But at the very least, I got to experience what high-end handheld gaming could look like. It wasn’t until I got the Nintendo Switch did I truly understand where the medium was headed.
I bought the Switch sometime in 2018 for the sole reason of playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I have a weak spot for open-world games and from what I’d seen of the game, I already knew that this was my kind of game. As a handheld for the modern age, the Switch really pushed the limit of what could be achieved on a portable console. Games like the aforementioned BotW, Super Mario Odyssey, Mario Kart 8 and more were some of the best experiences on the Switch. Nintendo hit it out of the park with the Switch and since its launch in 2017 has outsold both the original Gameboy and even the PS4. Numbers hover around the 122.5 million mark in terms of units sold. That’s a lot of consoles! Right now, the Switch is my main gaming console as I tend to play a lot of retro games from Nintendo on the device.
One of the few things I’m actually looking at purchasing next is the Steam Deck. The fact that it costs an arm and a leg in India bums me out. I guess I’ll have to contact my relatives abroad about this. It’s a real shame that the Deck has not been officially launched in India and even if it was, it’s pointless buying the device here since the import taxes will not only burn a hole in your wallet but is absolutely unnecessary. Oh well, here’s hoping my cousins heed the call.
The handheld game console is something that I have not been able to shake. I’ve gone from system to system, finally landing on a combo of a PS5, a gaming PC and the Switch. I honestly think that it’s the best way to go since I have access to all three platforms. But, there’s just something special about the handheld that has drawn my attention to the platform for the past 30 years. And I seriously suspect that it’ll continue for the next 30.