Over the last few years technology has been getting bigger and better but paradoxically smaller.
Mobile phones are now a fraction of the size they once were, laptops are now closer to palmtops, and respectable games consoles are not confined to a space under the TV.
Most gamers own at least one standard console from a big name brand such as Microsoft, Nintendo or Sony - such as the Xbox 360, Wii or PS3, respectively - but it is also cool to own games which can be played on the move. Years ago this was a ridiculous concept given that consoles were so big, but the first true success in the handheld market was arguably Nintendo's Game Boy, first released in 1989.
The console seemed to be ubiquitous in my youth and its success was marked by the fact that it kept being re-released and updated. The original grey brick-like console was replaced in 1996 with a smaller, more colourful edition: the Game Boy Pocket. Two years later it took off again when the screen was made full colour (Game Boy Color), and the graphics were enhanced for the Game Boy Advance (2001) and Game Boy Advance SP (2003). Finally the series came to a close with the Game Boy Micro in 2005.
Sixteen years of gameplay is not to be sniffed at! Nintendo must have been doing something right if it held onto a console for so long and its consumers similarly held onto it wherever they went.
Perhaps the Game Boy Micro was a bit of an anticlimax, not being backwardly compatible and unable to use a GBA cable link, but even then the series came to a natural end as the Nintendo DS was there to supersede it and sell like hotcakes. Truly it seems that Nintendo has won the handheld war before it's even been fought!
So what about the competition? Microsoft has not engaged in this battle but its successes can be counted elsewhere, particularly in the fact that the vast majority of homes own a Microsoft PC.
Sony, on the other hand - the other current video game giant - attempted to go handheld with the PocketStation in 1999 but it was not released outside of Japan and served more as a glorified memory card with extra features than a serious stand-alone games console. It flopped before it had a chance to take off. All this changed with the much-anticipated release of Sony's first true handheld console, the PlayStation Portable (PSP), in 2004.
So is the PSP this era's answer to the Nintendo Game Boy? Well, ultimately sales are what govern a console's overall success. During its 16-year reign, the various Game Boy consoles shifted just over 200 million units. The PlayStation Portable, while only five years old, has so far sold almost 56 million units.
In theory it should be the games that dictate whether a console is successful or not. Tetris and the Pokemon series reeled in Game Boy's fans, but does the PSP have an iconic game? Apparently not. Still, besides games, there are a host of other factors one normally takes into consideration before purchasing a handheld console. These include: cost, appearance, games catalogue, playability, sound, screen, power, multiplayer options, extra features, backward compatibility, and name!
The last one, name, sprang to mind because of something I remember Jonathan Ross saying many years ago: how he didn't like the idea of owning a Game Boy because it sounded childish. He argued that if Sony released the "Game Man" like it had the "walkman", perhaps it would sway him to buy one. I feel this must surely be his own insecurities kicking in though, much like people who only read Harry Potter if it has the "adult cover". I still play on my Game Boy Color from time to time, even though I'm a 21 year old woman!
But seriously now, let's look at how the Game Boy and PSP fare when some of the above factors are taken into consideration.
- Sound The PSP would win this hands down if we didn't take the generation gap into consideration. The Game Boy's sound effects and music were not only good at the time, but are still fairly respectable now. The only real problem with the mono sound of a Game Boy is that you can't have people speaking or very realistic sound effects. The PSP, with its ability to play movies, obviously needs a much richer sound.
- Screen This is a more interesting factor, as screen size and definition are not necessarily hindered by available technology. True, you could count the pixels on a GB screen if you wanted as you could actually make them out, but in my opinion the PSP is a winner for several reasons. Firstly the screen size is bigger. It might seem obvious, but you'll get more on a screen if there's more of it! The quality is fantastic and you could easily believe you are looking at a small widescreen TV. Another criticism of playing on a Game Boy is that it has no backlight. You either have to attach one or depend on good lighting wherever you are. The problem was solved with a Japan-only release of the Game Boy called "Game Boy Light", but it didn't go overseas because it was believed that Western gamers were more concerned with getting colour screens. A bit of both would have been nice, though! Even now, when playing my GBC, I find that the screen is too pale sometimes, especially when the batteries are dying, but plugging it in causes irritating lines and dark areas on the screen!
- Power It's great to have a console that you can take around with you, but only if it lasts the journey! What is the attraction of a really powerful console which sucks your batteries dry in 10 minutes? I am very much a plug-in-where-possible person meaning my laptop is always connected to the mains when I'm using it and my handhelds are similarly best played near a socket. There is nothing more frustrating than completing a really tricky bit of a game just to find the battery goes flat before you find a save point! But surely plugged in handhelds defeat the point. A really good console may be more attractive, but all those extra features you're not using may still be sapping your power. I've found both the GBC and PSP have a reasonable battery life, and I'm glad we've left the days of putting 4 AA batteries (or more!) into a console. It doesn't half make it heavy!
- Multiplayer Half the point of video games is the social aspect. Beating the computer loses its appeal pretty quickly in a lot of cases but how well suited were the handhelds for multiplayer action? The Game Boy consoles could be linked either by an infrared sensor, or a link cable. I didn't make much use of the former as I had no games which were compatible with it. The PSP has the benefits of the WiFi generation and so multiplayer gaming is less of a hassle.
- Extra features Games were what games consoles were for, one upon a time. Now consoles and handheld systems alike are better described as "entertainment systems", and some even go beyond entertainment. The only notable bonus features of the Game Boy were its camera and printer peripherals. The PSP boasts its ability to play UMDs (meaning you can watch films and programmes if they've been released in this format), WiFi and downloadable material, and you can add your own music or videos.
So while the PSP may appear to be superior to the Game Boy, that is to be expected as times have moved on. However the PSP is not selling nearly as well as the Game Boy did. Why? Perhaps because the competition is greater. People would rather have the fun interactive Nintendo DSi than a new PSPgo where all your games need to be downloaded again.
Games consoles are perhaps a dying breed now, since entertainment systems have taken over, and I think the competition Sony should be watching closely is not necessarily handheld champion Nintendo, but the ever-more-popular Microsoft rival, Apple... Watch this space!