There are a lot of people out there who question the basic concept of portable videogames. Why play a game on the subway or bus when the experience will always be a dumbed-down version of what you can experience at home on your console or computer?
Those people have a point, but, as the owner of a PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS and, now, a PlayStation Vita, I obviously can’t cede the argument entirely.
The PSP and Nintendo DS are probably most impressive when used for pick-up and play type games — usually longer experiences that can be played for either long periods of time or in more digestible, five or ten minute chunks. New Super Mario Bros. on the DS is one good example: actually sitting down to play a game like it on a Wii seems like it would get dull pretty fast (see: single-player New Super Mario Bros. Wii), but going through one or two levels and returning to it at a later time made the game much more palatable. While light puzzle games like Tetris or Lumines also fit within this framework, even longer-term time investments like RPGs seem perfectly suited to handhelds.
Though I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve played all the way through a role-playing game on the PC or console in the last few years, I’ve enjoyed a fair number of titles from the genre on handhelds. This is, in large part, due to the beauty of the standby feature. Snap the DS closed, slide a slider on the PSP or touch a button on the Vita and the game is temporarily suspended and ready to pick up and hop back into at a moment’s notice later on.
It takes a lot of commitment to return to a console or PC RPG again and again. When playing one of these games the audience is asked to sit down and commit their undivided attention to a genre that often alternates between complete engagement (for me, dialogue) and extreme repetition (exploring a dungeon while duking it out with innumerable opponents). The handheld suits this kind of gameplay perfectly and, I’d argue, often makes for a better experience.
Just like playing 15 or 20 minutes of Mario or Tetris, working through a single area (whether it’s one filled with combat, big story beats or just inventory management) in a single session is a really great way to break up the potential monotony of experiencing so many disparate elements all at once. If the player still wants to play for longer than this length of time they’re more than welcome to. If not, the game will be there just waiting for a quick toggle of the standby function to throw them back into it. That this can be done from home or while on the go only makes it better yet.
Presenting these kind of options seems like the obvious strength of portable games and something that should be taken advantage of. Look at the success of an iOS title like Infinity Blade and just how tantalizing progression based, longer form games can be when they’re presented in a format that says, “play as much or as little as you want” at its very core. A deeper game — something like the typical console title asking for at least an hour of your time before it’s willing to offer a logical break in the action — or a shallower one — one that doesn’t provide enough engagement to consistently return to — doesn’t work nearly as well.
It seems like the best option is to find the sweet middle ground between overly casual and overly commitment-centred game design when developing the ideal handheld title. Too breezy and a Flash game seems more appropriate, too serious and consoles or computers become a better alternative. If the current batch of (pretty much dedicated) portable systems, the 3DS and Vita, are able to attract enough games that find this middle ground, then the viability of handhelds should continue.
Reid McCarter is a writer, editor and musician living and working in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including Kill Screen, The Escapist and C&G Magazine. He founded, writes and edits the videogame blog digitallovechild.com and is Twitter-ready @reidmccarter.