2015: The year that gaming handhelds feel like they're finally fading away

At this year's E3, we'll hear a lot about PCs, game consoles, and virtual reality. But we've heard very, very little about portable gaming -- unless it's on a phone.

Scott Stein Editor at Large
I started with CNET reviewing laptops in 2009. Now I explore wearable tech, VR/AR, tablets, gaming and future/emerging trends in our changing world. Other obsessions include magic, immersive theater, puzzles, board games, cooking, improv and the New York Jets. My background includes an MFA in theater which I apply to thinking about immersive experiences of the future.
Expertise VR and AR | Gaming | Metaverse technologies | Wearable tech | Tablets Credentials
  • Nearly 20 years writing about tech, and over a decade reviewing wearable tech, VR, and AR products and apps
Scott Stein
6 min read

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I love handheld game systems. I went to summer camp with a stack of Nintendo Game & Watches. Then I moved onto the Game Boy, Game Gear, Game Boy Color, Nintendo DS , PSP , Nintendo 3DS , and PlayStation Vita . (I skipped the Lynx.) These little portable powerhouses always felt like magic to me. Maybe that's why portable gaming has been something I've felt so personally attached to.

Last year, I reviewed and loved both the Nintendo 3DS XL and latest Sony PlayStation Vita . I recommended that people buy them, and I still think they have a lot of bang for the buck.

This year, I'm no longer sure where their future is anymore.

As we head into yet another E3 -- the game industry's annual trade show, which takes place in Los Angeles next week -- I've been thinking a lot about the 3DS and Vita. They're less exciting than they were a year ago. Or the year before that. No one seems to be talking about them. Big, exciting new games are few and far between.

Why? Well, you know why.

Samsung Gear VR: It uses your phone. Josh Miller/CNET

The phone: Unbeatable center of everything

It's all about the smartphone. Serious gamers hate this argument. "Shut up -- mobile games suck." I understand this. Some mobile games are annoying. The touchscreen controls still aren't as responsive as good old hard buttons and gamepads. But mobile is the king.

Phones are the new computers. Phones do everything. Phones get larger, better, more versatile.With every passing year, I take fewer devices in my bag. All I usually need is an extra battery pack...for my phone.

And they also can be popped into VR headsets, doubling as the "screen" and the processor. The Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard , two of the coolest pieces of portable tech I've tried in years, are powered by phones. Sure, they're not as powerful as bigger VR platforms like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive , but they allow a lighter, wireless freedom you can't get with those PC-tethered devices. Virtual reality is a big, oncoming wave of potential, and phones are its mobile engine.

Where do Sony and Nintendo's video-game handhelds factor into this? They don't.

The difference between phones and game handhelds gets fuzzier every day. Sarah Tew/CNET

Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Vita: Great hardware slowly drifting to irrelevance

The Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita, despite getting off to underwhelming starts, have had surprisingly good runs as high-quality mini game consoles. But unlike the role of the Nintendo DS and PSP before the iPhone, these are hobby devices. For kids, they might be fun toys. For video game obsessives, they have some specialized charms. But those charms are diminishing. I'd be hard-pressed to cite a game on either platform that I'm anxiously looking forward to.

The Nintendo 3DS just got a redesign this year in the form of the " New Nintendo 3DS XL ," an awkward name for a slight revision with a few new buttons and improved hardware. It's still got two screens, a clamshell design, buttons, and access to the same library of games as its forebears. And, while it's better, it's somehow less exciting than before. I feel like I want to play games on the 3DS, but I take it with me and just play iPhone games instead: Hearthstone , which sucks up most of my time, or many others: You Must Build A Boat, Geometry Wars 3, or...more Hearthstone. Or I read a book. Or watch a movie. Or do the other things my phone can do.

The PlayStation Vita is more like a phone -- and has apps and a touchscreen -- but the games it plays best, lately, are cross-play indie games that you can also play on the PlayStation 4 or PlayStation 3. It's a great little system, but at this point it's past its third birthday, while phones evolve every year.

Sony's Xperia Play phone: Not a good mesh of phone and gaming. CNET

Nintendo and Sony had some good ideas....and some bad ones

Nintendo and Sony both dreamed up some great ideas, maybe even underappreciated ones, when it comes to on-the-go gaming. The 3DS actually pulled off glasses-free 3D and has a lot of clever local-network social gaming. The Wii U and PlayStation Vita's approaches to streaming games to a second screen anticipated the multidevice present we're in now. Sony has done an admirable job offering games that cross-play between game consoles and the smaller Vita -- in other words, you pay one price for a game, and you get it on Vita, PS3 and/or PS4.

But both have made missteps. Sony designed the Vita as a quasi-smart device, yet also pursued and abandoned the weird PlayStation Mobile platform, which tried to serve up games that played on phones. And those phones, like 2011's Xperia Play , were badly designed. Nintendo never found a way to comfortably connect the Wii U console and 3DS, instead creating two parallel platforms. Wii U's large GamePad wasn't portable beyond the console -- the tablet-like controller can play a few games, but only while near the console itself -- while the 3DS remained largely disconnected from the console...even now, despite sharing a few cross-playing games and Mii avatars.

Wii U GamePad: Nearly a handheld...but you can't take it anywhere. Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony or Nintendo might make a game device/phone/tablet, or something that's a console as well as a handheld. Or, maybe, even a virtual-reality portable (Nintendo already tried this years ago, don't forget.) But I doubt either of them will ever make a dedicated video game handheld like the 3DS or Vita again. Single-function game portables aren't the way of the future.

I'd love to see Nintendo or Sony figure out a way to make their on-the-go game solutions better or more revolutionary, but I don't think it'll happen easily. The 3DS and Vita were already the chance to do that, and both look like they're losing steam.

Where next?

Nintendo's already announced that it's dipping into mobile games. Will they be Super Mario 3D Land, or Zelda: A Link Between Worlds? No, they'll probably be more like Pushmo, or Animal Crossing, or free-to-play Pokemon. But every other major game manufacturer has entered mobile and stayed there: EA, Capcom, Konami, Square Enix, even Microsoft -- I don't need to go on.

Sony already has deep roots in mobile. The Vita, over time, has become just another screen that plays games. The Vita's smart new role as a handheld to play a collection of games you can might already own on your PlayStation 4 or PlayStation 3 also diminishes its importance: why not offer these games on phones via a shared PlayStation app, too? (You'd still need to buy the home console and the app, so Sony would still have a nice revenue stream.)

Microsoft might be one of the front-runners to the new approach: make games that play across console, PC, tablet and phone. Microsoft is talking up Xbox One and Windows 10 integration, but will it be as good as advertised, or just another half-step?

Looking at Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo and their headng-into-E3 strategies, the upcoming road seems to be more about diversifying how you play your games, and what peripherals you use to play them. VR, TV streaming, expansion onto Windows PCs. Handheld game systems could be one more part of that strategy -- but these specialized, closed-off systems like the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita no longer feel like the way in.

I'd love to see handheld gaming reinvented. But, I don't see any company discussing it. That's because mobile apps are the juggernaut, and VR is the new big part of that world. In order for gaming console-makers to succeed, they'll probably need to cross over, meet mobile halfway. I want my PlayStation and Nintendo games, but I'm not sure I need or even want a Nintendo or Sony handheld anymore.

I'm a phone gamer now. I just don't want to admit it. And you probably are, too.