Left behind: The sad state of portable gaming devices at E3

handheld vita

With the latest gaming consoles out in the wild, this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo is all about big games—and there’s a vast selection of them for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. Heck, there’s even a solid array of Wii U titles, albeit mostly at Nintendo’s own booth.

But when it comes to gaming-centric handhelds, both Sony and Nintendo seem remarkably hands-off this year, adding to the perception that such devices and their $40 games are being seriously marginalized by low-cost and increasingly excellent smartphone and tablet games.

As mobile devices become faster and more powerful—and thus better able to run more ambitious, richly-designed games—the only thing that helps the PlayStation Vita or Nintendo 3DS retain any appeal is original software. And while both have gems in their libraries and some potentially interesting initiatives on the horizon, the lack of attention being paid to either at E3 doesn’t bode well for the future of dedicated handheld gaming devices.

Vita’s odd evolution

The PlayStation Vita was first positioned as a handheld capable of delivering nearly console-quality graphics on the go—and 2012 launch titles like Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Wipeout 2048 largely delivered on that promise, even if they weren’t as well-received as their console siblings. In the two years since, however, Sony has moved away from being the kind of first-party publisher that sets the tone for its own platform with significant releases.

handheld borderlands

Sony made an admirable effort with Borderlands 2 on Vita, but it's not nearly as strong of an experience on the handheld.

When the company launched a revised version of the Vita hardware last month, its bundled “killer app” was a diminished port of year-and-a-half old console shooter Borderlands 2. Otherwise, Sony’s only retail Vita releases thus far this year besides annual sports sim MLB 14: The Show are a God of War Collection, and The Sly Collection—the latter two are both compilations of older titles from other PlayStation platforms. Likewise, major third-party publishers have turned their back on the device, with only a handful of titles hitting retail shelves in the past few months.

Sony’s press briefing took a moment to recognize the PlayStation Vita as a pillar of its platform strategy, but then failed to take time to showcase a single new game for it. And its upcoming lineup lacks broad, major releases, unless the kid-centric Invizimals: The Alliance fires up your engines.

On the plus side, Sony has done an excellent job of curating its digital offerings and encouraging indie developers to bring their games to the platform. There’s a large bank of Vita demo units at the PlayStation booth; the vast majority of them are running exciting projects from small teams, like Hyper Light Drifter, Race the Sun, and The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. While not Vita exclusives, indie games like Fez, Limbo, and Spelunky are great handheld experiences, plus Sony has used its tri-platform approach—with the PlayStation 4, Vita, and still-kicking PS3—to deliver cross-buy digital titles that work across the board.

In fact, that seems to be the hook for the Vita going forward: it’s a useful part of the overall PlayStation experience if you’re already in that ecosystem. You can stream games from your PS4 over a Wi-Fi connection, often saving progress between platforms, and you’ll soon be able to “rent” older games from the cloud through the PlayStation Now service. It’s the device you can use to access (some of) your console PlayStation games when you’re not in front of the PlayStation. And with the upcoming $99 PlayStation TV device, you won’t even need a Vita to play its rare upcoming titles. It’ll be even less essential.

Sony has seemingly abandoned any pretense of the Vita being a destination its own high-profile experiences. As long as it can run cross-platform games designed for the home PlayStation platforms, the Vita will probably linger—but with low sales and flagging support from both Sony and developers, its future as a dedicated gaming device seems sadly limited.

Two screens, few games

Without the beneficial multimedia perks of the PlayStation Vita, Nintendo’s dual-screen 3DS handheld feels the hurt of a weakened software lineup even more—especially since the eShop digital storefront continually lacks noteworthy releases.

handheld smashbors

Super Smash Bros will be the biggest game to come to the Nintendo 3DS this fall by a wide margin.

Nintendo is at least still producing prominent games for the device, but not many. This fall’s biggest by far is Super Smash Bros, a portable rendition of the beloved four-player fighting game that will also hit the Wii U a few months later. It’s a solid handheld adaptation of the simplistic brawling formula, with familiar faces like Mario and Mega Man in the mix, but the zoomed-out action isn’t an ideal fit for the tiny 3DS screen, and the trademark multiplayer showdowns in the series will require four devices and multiple copies of the game.

The only other big mainstream 3DS release for the rest of the year is Pokémon Alpha Sapphire and Omega Ruby, a pair of intertwined remakes of Game Boy Advance games that share the same gameplay core, not to mention the presentation of last year’s fresh Pokémon X and Y. It’ll sell millions, no doubt, but a remake so soon after a new core entry isn’t the most thrilling holiday season anchor.

Otherwise, Nintendo’s got a couple of niche offerings on the horizon—the fan service mash-up that is Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, as well as simulation/role-playing hybrid Fantasy Life. Thankfully, third-party developers still have a couple big things cooking, such as Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate and Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call, but on the whole, the rest of the year’s lineup looks very thin.

Next year will bring 3DS support for Nintendo’s figurine-based Amiibo platform, which hits Wii U this holiday season, as well as its weird, just-announced steampunk simulation game Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. Still, you get the sense that Nintendo pivoted so severely toward developing games for the failing Wii U that it diverted too much of its resources away from Nintendo 3DS games; by focusing on fighting one blaze, another may be starting here.

handheld amiibo

Look for 3DS support for the figurine-based Amiibo platform to arrive next year, after it hits the Wii U for the 2014 holidays.

Neither the Nintendo 3DS or PlayStation Vita are being strongly supported right now—and it’s difficult to believe that things will dramatically improve on that front as developers of all stripes continue to embrace smartphone and tablet experiences. E3 is the annual showcase for all that is new and exciting in gaming, but for handheld gaming systems, there’s rather little enthusiasm to go around.

This story, "Left behind: The sad state of portable gaming devices at E3" was originally published by TechHive.

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