Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mobile Gaming Versus The Handheld Console

Mobile gaming has never really held much interest to me – I prefer the freedom of imagination offered by a book. That said, I have dabbled in hand-held consoles in the past, and once owned a Game Boy Colour – and a Pokemon game to boot. Sure, both are long gone now, but perhaps the legacy of trying to persuade my Bulbasaur to evolve made me invest in my shiny (second-hand) iPad 2 – but probably not. I will say this, however – times have changed.

Much like the gradual evolution of Atari to Xbox, mobile gaming has seen a massive upheaval in recent years – especially as it has gradually moved away from designated handheld consoles and more towards tablet PCs and smartphones.

While some companies manage to eke out a living on producing titles for handhelds, and the units themselves – with Nintendo’s excellent DS consoles selling well worldwide – others haven’t been able to catch the public’s eye. Take, for example, Sony’s PSP and PS Vita. On the face of it, the handhelds are powerful units in their own right – they have excellent games, mobile movies and a pretty cool graphics engine – yet they never really took off.

To my mind, there are three main reasons for this failure:

  • The consoles cost too damn much – both games and hardware;
  • You’re more likely to be mugged for a PSP than for a copy of ‘Twilight’ - although much more likely to be punched for your idiocy; and
  • Why carry a second console when your tablet/smartphone has it all built in?
Yes, despite Nintendo’s continued success, the world of mobile gaming has gradually turned towards smartphones and tablets, which offer far more in the way of functionality, weight economy and sheer selection of games then cartridge or download-only consoles.

My iPad, for example, can host an iPad build of Grand Theft Auto 3. When I discovered this, I was shocked that a game which I spent hours on as a teenager now lay in the palm of my hand – without a need for a controller. It’s all there, graphics, gameplay, soundtrack, lack of plot... The whole shebang. As well as this, there are reams of other titles on offer through the Apple App Store – or its Android equivalent – all of which can be downloaded straight to your device at a far cheaper price than that of cartridges and full consoles.

However, while this ease of use is an enticement for the punters to abandon their DS handhelds and stick to their smartphones, I have come across one problem time and time again, which the evolving nature of mobile gaming is yet to tackle. Crappy controls.

Excluding games such as Angry Birds, which involve one swipe of a finger and the use of the game’s excellent physics engine (check out Angry Birds Space, by the way, it’s brilliant), mobile games on iPads, iPods and smartphones are almost universally plagued by poor controls.
I’ll use GTA3 as an example.

The iPad is an amazing tool, I admit, but it has no thumbsticks. Or buttons. Or a D-pad.
This instantly makes controlling your nameless crook so much more difficult, as the tablet can’t handle the range of motion a thumbsitck can, leaving the gamer to have to make minute adjustments while walking or driving, which complicate the simple matter of mowing down a 1,000 hookers in an alleyway.

Similarly, the lack of designated buttons makes it all the more difficult to drive while shooting, or even jump while running – the points on the tablet’s screen where you have to tap are too close together. You can get used to it eventually, but it’s a telling problem - and one which hand-held consoles do not have.

Generally, I can forsee the handheld console becoming obsolete in a couple of years, as Apple and its contemporaries get a hold of the download market – and find a way to make thumb control more accurate. Nintendo’s grip on the handheld market is slipping slowly, and unless the Japanese giant wants to be left behind it needs to come up with something new. Or it could just bolt a phone and a computer to the DS, who knows?

Check out Andy Hemphill's blog after the jump.

(Photos: michealnugent, yum9me, damianvila)