You ever get the feeling that the world is fragmenting out from under you? That's what's wonderful and frustrating about mobile gaming right now: so many options, but so few catch-all solutions. If you want the universal Kindle of game handhelds, you're out of luck. But maybe that's a bad metaphor: Kindles have DRM, too.
It is, however, a great time to pick a system that plays great games, and has plenty of extras. It all depends on what you're looking for.
Nintendo's 3DS platform has been around three years, and while many mocked it at first, it's become one of the best game systems around...if you love classic Nintendo games. There's a lot going for the 3DS, but it's still a shadow of what the Nintendo DS was in its heyday, before the iPhone. There are three versions to choose from: the 3D effect-free $129 2DS which doesn't fold up, the $169 3DS, and the $199 3DS XL, which has larger screens. All three systems have the same internal features. The 3D effect is unnecessary. Instead, think of the 3DS/2DS as a great ticket to classic and new Nintendo games.
Best kid-friendly system
From its family-friendly content to the best all around kid-safe settings to a solid, take-a-licking build quality, the 3DS is the best bet for kids.
Huge back catalog of 3DS, DS games
Older Nintendo DS games fit in all 3DS/2DS models, so the potential for cheap used games is endless. And it means there are hundreds and hundreds of games to choose from.
Downloadable catalog deeper than you think
Nintendo and "online" aren't a great match, but a ton of games exist on the eShop that are worth getting: some are Virtual Console NES games, some are lower-priced download-only experiences like Pushmo, and some were originally released for DSi. Some eShop games only cost a few dollars, but most great 3DS games are anywhere from $10 to $35. Be prepared to pay for quality...and Nintendo doesn't tend to put older games on sale much.
Uses regular SD cards for storage
You can buy a 32GB SD card and pop one right in, and store well over a hundred downloaded games. I have, and it makes the 3DS easy to upgrade.
Limited online use
Few games have good online multiplayer modes, and while there are Netflix, YouTube and Hulu Plus apps, plus some very interesting local wireless StreetPass ways of sharing game goodies, the 3DS is the least online-friendly game system.
Great for Nintendo fans, but "hardcore" console gamers might get frustrated
First-person shooters, sports games, and other types of genres well-represented on Xbox , PlayStation and PC aren't on the 3DS much. You can get nearly every great Nintendo franchise, however, and many interesting third-party games...but a subset.
The PlayStation Vita platform is two years old, and a new variation is on its way: the new Vita Slim, or Vita 2000, costs $199, comes with an 8GB memory card and a game, and uses Micro-USB to charge instead of a custom charge adapter. You might want to wait until it's released in North America later this spring, although it's already available in Japan and Europe. Either way, thanks to the PlayStation 4, the Vita has some new life but still feels like it hasn't maximized its potential.
The Vita has a crisp touch-screen OLED display (or LCD on the newer Vita Slim), dual analog sticks, and most of the buttons you'd expect on a regular game controller. It has a front touch screen, and even has an odd touch panel on its back. The Vita is dripping in features, and doesn't lack for potential. The Vita feels almost like a smartphone with grafted-on touch controls, and that's by design. It means that phone-like games play well, but so do more standard games like shooters and racers.
Large digital game library backdating to PSP
The Vita uses either game cards or downloads, and the PlayStation Store's selection is bigger than you think: it has a lot of older PSP games as well as Vita, mobile phone-like mini games, and PlayStation One classics. And some of the very best indie games have made their home on the Vita lately: Limbo, Luftrausers, Fez, Spelunky, and dozens more. Many of these games don't cost more than $10.
Cross-play games on console and large catalog of free games for PS Plus subscribers
Vita games can get expensive -- up to $40 -- but there are some ways of passing on savings. A lot of games are cross-play, and can be downloaded onto the PS3 or PS4 for one purchase price. If you're a PS Plus subscriber, which you should be if you own PlayStation hardware, many games are routinely offered at discounts or even free.
Works as remote accessory to PlayStation 4 and PS3
The Vita can be a remote second screen for playing PS4 games off the TV, much like the Wii U Game Pad. It actually works pretty well, except in a few cases where the buttons don't match perfectly (the Vita's missing an extra set of DualShock triggers, and clickable analog sticks). There are some PS3 remote functions, too, but they're more limited.
Needs proprietary memory cards to store downloads
Bad news for those who want to beef up a large on-system game library: Sony's Vita memory cards are expensive, and you need to use them unless you want to keep deleting and re-downloading games. At this moment, a 32GB card costs about $80. You could buy game cards, instead.
There are lots of Android phones and tablets out there, and you can pair a game controller with most of them. The Nvidia Shield tries to go a step further by making a dedicated controller-screen game system with its own way of streaming games from local PCs with Nvidia graphics hardware. It cost $299 before, but it's currently being offered for $199. The Shield plays PC games via streaming, Android games locally, and the two don't really have anything to do with each other. It's an awkward marriage. Maybe that's the marriage you're after...or maybe you're happy just sticking to your Android phone/tablet and playing games on a PC separately.
Full Android 4.4 device
The Shield has a weird, heavy screen-bonded-to-controller design, but it's a full Android 4.4 handheld running off a Tegra 4 processor. There's 16GB of onboard storage, but it also has a MicroSD card slot. You can install whatever apps you choose via Google Play. That means there are a ton of games: most don't cost much, and many are free.
Not many Android games are Nvidia Shield-ready
Nvidia's somewhat short list of Shield-ready Android games shows that the pickings are kind of slim. Grand Theft Auto games and Crazy Taxi are some of the best of the bunch.
Big, comfy, but weirdly huge controller
The Shield's controls are exactly like a PC or console, down to the triggers and clickable sticks. It's comfy...it's just huge. That heavy design dwarfs a Vita by comparison, and is a hard fit for any pocket. It's a better weekend-backpack game handheld than a commute-to-work gadget.
Stream and play games from compatible PCs
Nvidia GeForce GTX graphics-equipped desktops and laptops (generally, those with 700 or 800 series GPUs, meaning something from no later than last year) can use Gamestream with Shield, meaning you can stream PC games locally or remotely, and even turn your PC on or off. For hardcore PC gamers this could be a killer feature. It's like the Vita's remote play, but with a better controller and far more games.
HDMI-out built in, plus TV-ready "console mode"
There's HDMI-out, and the Shield can optimize its games to TV-ready format. That makes this more of a hybrid system than the 3DS or Vita.
Read our review of the Nvidia Shield.
The smartphone and tablet option: Gaming on iOS and Android
Chances are you're already doing quite a bit of gaming on your smartphone or tablet. Yes, both of these options almost certainly cost more than $200 (especially if you account for wireless contracts, add-on controllers, and the like), but they also offer tons of games that cost little or no money at all. And, odds are, you already have one in your pocket.
Buttons, or no buttons?
Ask yourself, do you care about buttons on your game system? Adding hard buttons will cost you, if you're buying an accessory. Stand-alone handhelds like the 3DS and Vita have buttons, and the world of very game-capable phones and tablets don't. Maybe you think your phone is great for games. Maybe you don't. You probably already know the answer. At least know that, when it comes to phones and tablets, there are ways to add controllers. They're a bit awkward, and don't work with all games. On iOS, it involves buying a $70-$100 controller accessory, and you have to have a Lightning-compatible device. On Android, you need to pair via Bluetooth. And finding the games that work with these controllers can be a challenge.
Huge game catalog, and lots of free games
You don't get the same type of games that you do on dedicated game handhelds, but the gap is narrowing fast: Apple's App Store and Google Play are flooded with games. Some are terrible, many are incredible, and a good number of them are ports of console games. Many are free, some require additional in-app purchases, but almost none cost more than $10.
One purchase, many devices
The best news about mobile gaming is this: you could buy a game on Google Play or the App Store and have it run on many phones and tablets. I carry my extensive game library in the cloud, and no matter what I upgrade to I can have something to play on it.
Lots of new classics
Whether or not you consider Angry Birds, Threes, Ridiculous Fishing or Candy Crush to be excellent games, the most talked-about and viral games of this generation are played on mobile devices. And they're also very easy to connect with others and play multiplayer games on. It's not the same as a console or a handheld...but it's nothing to sneeze at, and the graphics power of top phones, such as the iPhone 5S and Samsung Galaxy S5, has approached or exceeded what you can get on a gaming handheld.
Small tablets: Perfect gaming match
A 7- or 8-inch tablet feels great to hold, and comes close to the feel of a larger-screened gaming handheld. Both the Nexus 7 and iPad Mini are perfect little gaming tablets, and fun alternatives to using a phone.