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25 years after Game Boy, portable consoles flounder

The Game Boy heralded a golden era for handheld consoles, despite its technical limits.
The Game Boy heralded a golden era for handheld consoles, despite its technical limits.
Published Apr. 24, 2014

Nintendo's Game Boy turned 25 this week, celebrating its original 1989 Japanese release on April 21 — America will have its own milestone July 31. To mark the occasion, the dedicated handheld game console market showed sputtering signs of almost total collapse.

It's been a long, hard fall since the heyday of portable gaming. The Game Boy and its various iterations sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 million units and ruled the segment with an iron fist.

With a combination of affordability, durability and a spectacular library of software, it bested the likes of superior technological wonders like the Sega Game Gear, Atari Lynx and NEC TurboExpress, which was essentially a TurboGrafx-16 in a handheld unit (well, and cost $250, much more than the Game Boy's $90 retail price). Packing in a copy of Tetris didn't hurt.

Generations of home consoles came and went, but Game Boy remained atop the leaderboard for a decade. Nintendo managed to extend the console's life for years, most notably with a color version, before it was discontinued in 2003, two years after Game Boy Advance was introduced.

Today, there's no successor worthy of the name.

The many forms of Nintendo's DS have sold well, some 30 million or so more than Game Boy, but recent versions of the hardware have floundered. Sony's first PlayStation Plus sold about 76 million units. Their Vita followup had a user base so low in January 2013 — about 4 million — that Sony has basically quit reporting sales numbers since.

What's coming next? If it's not attached to your phone, you're in trouble. Nvidia is creating a successor to its SHIELD handheld, which has been a middling offering based on the Android operating system. Sony is updating the Vita with a slimmer, redesigned version. Otherwise there's … not much at all.

The sea change in portable gaming to rely on smartphones is a wonderful bit of convergence that simultaneously makes software more accessible and alienates the companies previously best at distributing it. Whether you're for or against this democratization of gaming seems to come down to whether or not you identify as a casual gamer.

And guess what? Plenty of people do.

I, however, do not. That means I lament the loss of the segment, although I haven't been a fan of portable gaming since I moved from the mid-Atlantic corridor and no longer could take the train to work each day.

But like 8-tracks and in-home telephone jacks, handheld game consoles have lost their foothold in our everyday lives as gamers. Toting a dedicated machine with proprietary physical media is a throwback to another era, a time when juggling tiny game cartridges was a thrill and not an annoyance.

Then again, I also have a soft spot for radio and manual transmissions. And both of those are still around, right? I'd like a reminder of the time when we all could be entertained by addictive puzzle games with tiny, monochromatic graphics.

Come to think of it, maybe smartphone games aren't that different, after all.