A rabbit out of your pocket.
This week I was on holiday in Spain. Between starlight swimming and copious beer swilling, I brought my DS out of retirement to play Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. In Alicante airport waiting for my return flight, I was playing the Spirit Pipes (literally- you blow into the DS’s microphone) when four children appeared from behind my suitcase like curious elves. “What are you playing?” they asked, fascinated, giggling while I played a scale on the pipes and told them about the game. It was heartwarming.
Before I went on holiday, I had a rough idea for this edition of Reality Check. It was going to say “portable consoles have had their day, iPhones are just as good for gaming, I’ll not be buying a 3DS or a Vita, see you next week, grumble grumble sarcastic punchline”. It’s easy to think of portable consoles as another specialist device destined for inevitable failure like the digital camera or MP3 player, both of which have been assimilated into the mobile phone. Nowadays, I use my iPod for nostalgic reasons rather than utility. My phone hasn’t replaced my camera completely, but that’s because my camera is a Canon DSLR I’ve nicknamed ‘The Cyclops‘. Still, there’s a lot of appeal in having one device to rule them all.
Where does this leave the 3DS and Vita? Clearly, these offer something beyond the capabilities of a smartphone: the 3DS has migraine-inducing 3D and real buttons for ‘real’ games, while the Vita is a polygon-spewing omnisensory behemoth designed to give multiple eyegasms. My complaints about the Vita are about its consumer-hating overlords rather than its hardware, and I probably would have bought a 3DSXL before going on holiday if they were available in the UK. Yet we can emulate these experiences on smartphones with touch screens and horrible virtual buttons. We’re at the stage where Sonic the Hedgehog 4 is on the iPhone, but not the Vita or 3DS. Sonic 4 is rubbish, but that’s not the point.
The argument in favour of the handheld games console is similar to the photographer’s argument for the DSLR, or the audiophile’s defence of a dedicated music player: they just offer a better experience. Some people want a camera to take photos of their friends in a club, facial details obliterated by an overzealous flash. I want a camera to create art, as pretentious as that sounds: to convey the grandeur of Guadalest or highlight interesting architecture. Without proper depth of field on a smartphone I can’t draw your attention to an element of the scene as easily, while fast-moving animals become a smear across the phone’s sensor.
Sometimes I just want a pair of headphones that won’t fall out of my ears at the gym, but other times I want to hear every note in perfect balance or have the bass shake my cerebral cortex. Others couldn’t care less: they’re the ones who use those terrible earphones that come bundled with an iPod and pollute the airwaves with their tinny, leaking auditory effluence. I care a lot. Who’s right? Me? Yeah, probably.
Smartphone gaming is similar to handheld gaming, but it is not the same, and as long as people are able to differentiate between the two there will always be room for dedicated consoles. That’s the trick, though: the player needs to appreciate the difference. When it comes to touchscreen-centric gaming, iPhone and friends actually have an advantage over the 3DS’s ageing hardware: they feel more accurate, recognise more fingers and the screens are far brighter and sharper. Yet whenever you move away from Zoo Keeper and into something like Super Crate Box, the convenience of having your console in your pocket is replaced by the frustration caused by its utilitarianism.
Seriously, have you tried playing Super Crate Box for iOS? How can you stand it? As soon as I start enjoying the game, my comically-oversized thumbs move away from the dedicated ‘control zone’ on the screen and I die within seconds. There’s a very good reason why Team Meat chose not to directly port Super Meat Boy to the iPhone: it is immediately obvious that it would be bloody awful. It’s equally obvious that it would be brilliant on the Vita, ported as is.
Back to the Spain vacation: I ventured outside to play Spirit Tracks and I couldn’t see a thing. This isn’t an unusual phenomenon for an LCD display (I am currently writing this column in my garden, at the mercy of cloud cover) but it occurred to me that many people actually play handheld consoles indoors rather than on the move. That’s how I spend the majority of my time with the DS: I wouldn’t play it on a short bus trip into town or while my girlfriend is shoe shopping. That said, I wouldn’t game on a smartphone while shopping any more as I am single and it would be rather unproductive, not to mention frustrating for the shop staff.
Since the launch of the Game Boy Advance in 2001, portable consoles have ceased to be watered-down gaming experiences. We could play Final Fantasy Tactics, Advance Wars and Castlevania on the GBA with just as much scope and nuance as a home console. Perhaps it’s my unashamed love of the 16-bit era, but I actually prefer playing Astro Boy: Omega Factor and A Link to the Past over most Xbox games. In this sense, the 3DS and Vita act as a second miniature TV, a concession that allows a dedicated gamer to relinquish possession of the TV to their bored spouse while continuing to play. Perhaps their real competition comes from the Wii U, which fulfils a similar role albeit in a more cumbersome fashion. This is why Sony have included PS3 Remote Play on the Vita, but what they should really be doing is selling one digital license for a PS3 and Vita game with saves synced across the cloud. If you think this is foolish or impossible, you need to think harder, or perhaps think about Sony’s purchase of Gaikai.
The best devices – of any kind – are enchanting. They compel people to stop and stare, whether they care about the medium or not. The Arthur C Clarke quote, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, still rings true, but it’s not the hardware that’s magical: it’s the experiences the hardware can offer. It’s about software, but good dedicated hardware gets the most out of the software.
That’s the difference between smartphone gaming and dedicated devices: smartphones offer mere gaming on the go, but handheld consoles can offer portable magic.
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