Nintendo’s DS was bound to bounce past 100 million units sold sooner than later. Bets on whether it’ll be months or years before Nintendo’s tiny two-screened wunderkind surpasses Sony’s PlayStation 2 for all-time best-selling games console? That’s right, games console. I don’t draw the category line between a DS and PS2 or a Sony PSP and an Xbox 360. Today’s handhelds pack enough muscle in that the technical differences between a game you play with a gamepad versus a gamepad with a screen (or two) that fits in the palm of your hand are, depending on your tastes, largely incidental.
The PlayStation 2 holds the world record for best-selling video game console ever, somewhere north of 140 million units shipped. That’s followed by the original PlayStation at about 102 million. Contrast with Microsoft’s 28 million Xbox 360’s sold, and the latter suddenly seems like a splash in the bucket.
Now factor in the Nintendo Game Boy and Game Boy Color, which — between 1989 and 1998 — sold 119 million units, placing the platform behind the PlayStation 2 but well ahead of the original PlayStation in aggregate sales. Nintendo’s often referred to as the only games company with strings-free sales booty in the bank. With numbers like those, no wonder.
Will handhelds — as notebooks to PCs — eventually trade places as the center of our gaming universe? Will game systems like the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3 eventually merge with their handheld cousins?
How many of you still have landline phones?
The Game Boy and Game Boy Color’s sales during the 1990s never challenged sales of the Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, Sony PS1 and PS2, or Microsoft Xbox. The Game Boy was a “plus” accessory. “Plus” PC. Or Mac. Or whatever set top console you sprang for.
But games for today’s handhelds are often functionally indistinguishable from their set top peers. Buy Star Wars: The Force Unleashed or X-Men Legends II for the PSP and there’s not much reason to pick up the Xbox or PS2 versions. You’d mostly be niggling over the differences between the PSP and set top versions of Marvel Ultimate Alliance or the LEGO Star Wars and Indiana Jones games. And ports of mechanically complex games like Final Fantasy Tactics are actually improvements over the set top originals.
Sure, that’s not always the case. Sometimes the ports are emasculated, like all of the Madden games. Or they’re handled by entirely different developers, e.g. all of Activision’s Spider-Man iterations. And I realize I won’t be playing a real-time tactical thinker like THQ’s Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II on a PSP or DS anytime soon, much less visual torture tests like Crytek’s Crysis or Ubisoft’s Far Cry 2.
But the DS’s 100 million in sales coupled with the PSP’s hugely respectable 50 million add up to a third as many handheld game systems in the wild as the combined worldwide install base of the Wii, Xbox 360, and PS3. Factor the rise of alternative mobile gaming platforms with mass appeal, like Apple’s iPhone alongside rumors of expandable mobile screens and sophisticated tactile control surfaces, and — to paraphrase futurist Ray Kurzweil — the mobile gaming singularity may be near.
Matt Peckham vacillates between “mobile” and “fixed” platforms depending on his schedule. You can keep tabs on him at twitter.com/game_on.