Go Go Gaming Behold the Tiny, Handheld Future

Go Go Gaming Behold the Tiny, Handheld Future
Handheld gaming was, once upon a time, a child's medium - hence Nintendo naming its pioneering portable the Game Boy - until an all-ages attack was launched by Nintendo's money-printing DS and Sony's hardcore-hewing PSP. Now Apple has tasked its iPhone/iPod Touch with converting the stragglers.

Nintendo has owned small-scale gaming since 1989, but their blue-sky breakthrough came from selling their dual-screen, touch-sensitive device to the whole family, be they sisters (Nintendogs), parents (Brain Age) or stoners (Electroplankton). The 100-million-strong system's latest triumph is Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, which offers a bold new experience, despite (or rather, because) the DS's graphical limitations forced Rockstar to get creative, returning to the top-down perspective of the original GTAs while maintaining a lived-in metropolis and mature game play.

Since 2004, DS has undergone three iterations - the original grey "Phat," the sleek white Lite and the brand-new, matte black, camera-toting DSi - but never loosened its grip on number one.

The current-gen console conflict was actually foreshadowed by this portable proxy war with Nintendo's low-tech but innovative DS battling Sony's high-powered PSP, which somehow squeezed nearly an entire PS2 into its tiny, shiny shell (alas, without a second analog thumbstick). Sony's PSP always aimed older, but has struggled to define itself. Though both God of War: Chains of Olympus and Resistance: Retribution staged effective franchise transitions, the PSP's biggest impressions have been with its brazenly original and strikingly stylized side-scrolling platform/puzzlers LocoRoco and Patapon, both of which saw still-charming sequels this year that improved on their mix of high-design adorability and unique game play.

Patapon 2 is even helping evolve the PSP itself, acting as a digital-only test-case to see if fans of the rhythm-based god game are willing to forgo a physical UMD disc (though you can still buy an empty case with a voucher at retail). Rumours abound of an eventual digital-only device, a process that may begin with Sony's as-yet-unconfirmed PSP Go!, expected to be announced at E3 this month.

The DSi is tentatively heading in a similar digi-distro direction after adding SD memory card slot to enable their online DSi Shop. Nintendo's downloadable offerings are, thus far, just micro-games that seem egregiously weak on a machine that's housed such deep experiences as Chinatown Wars or cult RPG The World Ends With You.

The leader in digital gaming is the iPhone, which can't play games any other way. But the open-access, one-billion-downloads App Store makes it pretty hard to separate the great from the naff. There are over 9000 games to scroll through - already more than all the DS and PSP offerings combined - and most are shovelware.
Even the best iPhone game - Rolando - is a blatant LocoRoco rip-off, albeit a very well done one with addition of motion-sensing and touch-screen game play and a super-cool Mr. Scruff soundtrack. (This summer's upcoming Rolando 2 follows suit, borrowing a 2.5D LittleBigPlanet look.)

Though the iPhone runs circles around other mobile devices, it's still in its infancy as a gaming platform and can't be expected to compete directly with the PSP and DS - and it doesn't need to. Smartphones are creating a third stream of gaming, as different from handhelds as they are from consoles. Sure, phone games have long been lame time-killers, but the tech is advancing dead fast and, well, everyone owns a freaking cell. There are already 30 million-plus iPhones in the wild and as folks transition to ever fancier-pants phones, the mobile gaming market will expand beyond hardcore and casual to include literally anyone who might make an impulse buy, be it a ringtone or a game.

Many iPhone titles are franchise ports (de Blob, Assassin's Creed, Sims 3, the tilt-controlled Need For Speed), but the real gems are the bite-sized oddballs like soothing puzzler Zen Bound, music-based Tap Tap Dance, tower defence champ Fieldrunners, finger-skateboarding sim TouchGrind and those bizarre Newtonica titles from Chibi Robo genius Kenichi Nishi.

The iPhone may not have buttons, but its unique accelerometer and pinchable touchscreen paired with high-grade graphics are prompting developers to experiment with form and function, while keeping prices low for Apple's notoriously frugal downloaders. The upcoming 3.0 operating system should only further expand horizons.

Sure, handhelds have been around for two decades, but given their increasing ubiquity and evolutionary flux, the most exciting era for pocket gamers appears yet to come.