Editorial / Is the future of handheld gaming consoles bleak?

We all know the Nintendo 3DS didn’t perform at launch. A mixture of poor release games and overall consumer dissatisfaction led to a slump in early sales. Where Nintendo predicted to sell 4 million units over the first week of launch, it failed miserably. I personally thought the 3DS was a very ingenious product with a lot of appeal. If anything, the fact that the console was a step in the right direction for the company in terms of powerful graphics, enhanced multiplayer capabilities should have sealed the deal. Topping it off with some sumptuous icing, third party developers were not expected to plunge the machine into a barrel of copious games that had ‘Imagine…’ in the title. No, the developers were taking it seriously and we were to see some great games on the horizon.

Of course, the crazily steep price and the fact that the console was poorly marketed, meaning it missed the Christmas rush period, sent the 3DS into a spiral of decline. Then, we have the PS Vita. The PSP, its predecessor, failed to truly compete with the Nintendo DS and all of its subsequent successors. However, with the 3DS falling down at every hurdle, the PS Vita was almost guaranteed the crown, right? Nintendo had all but failed to deliver on all fronts. An early price cut seemed less of a marketing move than it was a sure fire sign of a crumbling giant that had perhaps ‘passed its age’. The Vita displayed an amazing OLED screen, dual analog sticks whereas the 3DS had only the one and a fantastic looking backlog of upcoming games.

Yet yet the PS Vita too is being met with perhaps a lukewarm reception. Even with its amazing OLED screen the Vita trailed poorly, being outsold by the 3DS 10 to 1 in Japan just last week. At its lowest point, the 3DS was selling about 300,000 units a month. The Vita was down to 70,000. While these are obviously estimates based on the actual figures, they provide an accurate representation of what is going down in the Land of the Rising Sun. Admittedly, as I write this, the 3DS has seemingly picked up its stride. Whilst boasting only The Legend of Zelda’s long awaited remake to begin with, the console has since released some of its big-hitters such as Super Mario 3D Land (an absolutely brilliant game) and Mario Kart 7 (another great addition). Sales are picking up for the 3DS however, perhaps due to the recent release of Kid Icarus: Uprising whilst the Vita is plummeting rapidly, dropping to a mere 9000 units a week in its home country of Japan, the country where the original PSP seemed to thrive.

So where is all this leading? Where are all these random facts and figures, names and games headed for? Marring the progress of handheld gaming consoles and their titles is the rapid approach of the smartphone gaming market. Companies like Apple and Google, with their iOS and Android markets are able to distribute small, but immensely fun games to all of their machines. Not only this, but the hugely popular Angry Birds game series is so simple, so addictive and so cheap, that is seems almost, well, pointless to pick up a handheld console and a game. Let me explain.

You have just purchased the latest Super Mario game for the 3DS. It is beautifully packaged, with a stellar cover art and just the feel of the latest game in your hands is elating you somewhat. Naturally you have brushed over the £39.99 (it isn’t £40! This makes it good!) price tag to take it to the till. On average you will probably finish the game in a few days and that will be that, another box on the shelf to pick up dust but hey, at least the 3DS is getting its money’s worth. But, wait a second. Money’s worth? You shelled out a rather whopping £150 for the device in the first place! With every game, the cost of the swanky Nintendo 3DS just escalates! The same can be said for the PS Vita, although the pricing there is even more dire. Releasing a ‘Wi-Fi’ and a ‘3G’ version, each with varying and heightening price ranges of course, is something best left to phones. As soon as I saw those two things I knew that this would be an even bigger rip-off than Xbox LIVE.

Anyway, I digress. So you get home and you pull out your iPhone (or whatever, let us not get technical) and discover that there is another free update for Angry Birds, the mobile game that has had 600 million downloads across its lifetime. Now, those figures are quite frankly, baffling. Putting it into context, the best selling video game series of all time is Mario, with 432.35 million sales. Now, I know what you are thinking, a ‘download’ and a ‘sale’ is kind of a different deal. Some of these downloads may only cost a £1, some may even be free, heaven forbid. However, for the sake of the argument they are in effect, the same thing and Mario, who is a household name all over the world and has been gallivanting about our screens since 1981 has less of these ‘sales’ than Angry Birds, a mobile phone game series.

It all boils down to the fact that mobile developers have got it right. A lot of these game companies are stuck in the past and I think it is interesting to find that the two handheld companies are situated in Japan. Not that I am saying American owned Microsoft would be any better at this whatsoever, because honestly they would not (hey there is a reason people often substitute the ‘s’ in Microsoft with a dollar sign, catchy right?) but the Japanese game developers are also the ones who came under fire from former Capcom big shot Keiji Inafune for being too old fashioned about how they make games. I fear the same can be said about how they market their consoles as well. £300 for a handheld gaming console is utterly insane, especially in times of economic difficulty.

Why anyone would pay £30 – £40 for a retail game when they could get just as much fun, if not more, for barely anything on a mobile phone game is the reason handheld consoles appear to have a bleak future. Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the Mario franchise has said that he enjoys the occasional Angry Birds punt, but when Nintendo claims to loathe the mobile platform because it is destroying their market, well, it is a two sided story. It is difficult to say the future of handheld gaming looks bad when the 3DS’ predecessor became the best selling gaming device of all time, eclipsing even the phenomenal PS2 but still, it only takes one bad generation to send everything into chaos…with the mobile phone market ever rapidly expanding, it would not surprise me to see people opting out of paying retail prices for games. The problem is, games have been that price since forever I can remember, so the issue is in the roots of gaming.

The solution is not a simple one by any means. Change the entire way gaming as an industry is run and risk losing out of profits? Or risk losing everything by giving way to the mobile market? ??

Who knows where the answer lies. Maybe in the near future, what with technology streaking leaps and bounds, something will come to knock mobile gaming off of its perpetual pedestal. Google Glasses, I am looking at you…though it is still a mobile device using Android technology. Oh boy.