The Game.com cometh: The rise and fall of the Game Boy’s weirdest rivals

The Game.com cometh: The rise and fall of the Game Boy’s weirdest rivals

Gif: Allison Corr

There was a time—from roughly April of 1989 until the mobile revolution of the last 10 years—when “mobile gaming” meant something very different to the vast majority of people. Specifically, it meant Nintendo. Even as the Console Wars raged at home, the Japanese giant’s iron-fingered, battery-powered grip on the handheld market remained unshakable, from its venerable Game Boy line down through that plucky gray workhorse’s various descendants, two of which—the Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo 3DS—are facing major decade milestones this month. (Twentieth and 10th, for those keeping track.)

Sega, Hudson, Sony, and especially the bargain-rate, endlessly industrious LCD hucksters over at Tiger Electronics—they all tried to take on the king on its away-from-home home turf at one point or another, and almost all of them came away from the effort bruised. That’s to say nothing of the even stranger names, the ones not so much bumped as broken by their attempts to topple the Game Boy from its monochromatic throne: Cell phone companies on the make. Homebrew open-source pioneers. Members of the Swedish mafia. It wasn’t that people couldn’t see that there was a future in gaming on the go. It’s just that no one could ever figure out how to beat Nintendo at what was, very literally, its own game.

If the measure of a company is in the enemies it leaves in its wake, then the history of Nintendo’s handheld systems is an exceptionally strange one. And that’s the history we’re hoping to tell here: An examination of Nintendo’s 30-year domination of the mobile gaming market, as told through many of the bizarre competitors it steamrolled past. Some were available only in foreign markets. Many were ahead of their time. At least one added the unfortunate term “sidetalking” to the cultural lexicon. But they all had one thing in common: The Game Boy, and its children, devoured them.

This is how.

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The system: Game Boy (1989-2003)

The system: Game Boy (1989-2003)

Illustration for article titled The Game.com cometh: The rise and fall of the Game Boy’s weirdest rivals
Photo: SSPL (Getty Images)

The legend of the Game Boy’s development is well-trod territory at this point: Gunpei Yokoi—fresh off innovating the handheld gaming market by taking old LCD calculator designs and adapting them into Nintendo’s bestselling Game & Watch line of single-game devices—came to his superiors in the mid-’80s with an idea for a portable system with interchangeable cartridges, much like those used in the recently released Nintendo Entertainment System. (And also, admittedly, Milton Bradley’s short-lived Microvision, released way back in 1979.) Costs, Yokoi argued, could be kept down by sticking with a single-color display that adapted older LCD technology, rather than trying for more expensive full-color graphics. The result wouldn’t look flashy, but it would be (relatively) cheap, reliable, flexible, and built like a plastic brick. (The stories of Game Boys surviving car crashes, fires, and even military bombings became famous in the decades to come.) Modified by ideas from Yokoi’s subordinate, Satoru Okada, whose own destiny was to oversee huge stretches of Nintendo’s portable dominance over the next few decades, the system was released in 1989—and became an instant hit.

Honestly, though, it’s easy to see why the Game Boy might have seemed like an easy system for its competitors to beat. There were all sorts of angles you could out-maneuver it on: graphics, cost, novelty. But what none of those would-be rivals had was Nintendo—and specifically, Yokoi’s own famed Nintendo R&D 1 team—making games for it. Spurred on by what might have been the greatest pack-in game choice in the history of the medium—an adaptation of Alexey Pajitnov’s endlessly addictive Tetris—the Game Boy outlasted systems that were far more technologically impressive. This was mostly through the simple measure of continuing to release exceptional games (Wario Land, Link’s Awakening, Pokémon, and many more) well after its lifespan arguably should have run its course.

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The Game Boy rivals

The Game Boy rivals

Grandstand Light Games (1988, $???)

The most obvious visual problem for any portable gaming system is built right into the premise: It’s got to be small enough to carry around, which means that the screen has to be small, too. British console manufacturer Grandstand attempted to get around this eye-straining issue in an innovative way back in 1988, releasing the Light Games to murmurs of, “Oooh, that’s neat.” Only barely mobile (if we’re getting technical), the Light Games was, as the name implies, essentially a slide projector where the “slides” were playable LCD games, much like those published by Tiger, or as part of Nintendo’s old Game & Watch line. The upshot of the whole contraption—which provided the buttons and the light, while the games themselves contained the actual software and graphics—was that you could play these titles on a “screen” as big as the nearest available wall, making for easily the biggest portable display of the era. The downside (and where the system ultimately Nintendidn’t what Nintendo did) was that you were still playing static old LCD games, and not even especially good ones; the pack-in title, Auto Race, doesn’t appear to be terribly thrilling even by the very low standards of the medium, and the other eight games for the systems don’t seem to do much better. Neat looking piece of plastic, though!

Tiger LCD Handhelds (1985, ~$20)

A company whose video gaming output was essentially predicated on the idea that a parent would rather shut their kid up with a $20 Power Rangers game today than have to keep buying them expensive Game Boy cartridges tomorrow, Tiger Electronics was the most consistent and most successful of Nintendo’s portable competitors—to the extent that its nostalgia-laden LCD handhelds are still produced in occasional batches by parent company Hasbro today. Managing to out-cheap even the Game Boy, Tiger’s games (which operated by lighting up specific LCD components to represent an attacking ninja, a rolling bowling ball, etc.) were simplistic and often addictive, but the company’s real genius stroke was in its licensing. Want to play a mobile version of Mortal Kombat, kids? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? MC Hammer? Tiger had you covered, for the low, low price of about 20 bucks—and the inevitable disappointment when you realized how basic and repetitive the company’s interpretation of, say, Sonic The Hedgehog or Castlevania could be.

TurboExpress (1990, $250)

Like the later Sega Nomad, this playable portable TurboGrafx-16 should, on strictly technical merits, have blown Nintendo’s little gray box out of the water. Released just a year after the Game Boy, the TurboExpress out-performed pretty much every other mobile system on the market, running TurboGrafx games at nearly full fidelity and color. And it was priced like the wave of the future, too: $250 at launch, which was $50 more than the Super Nintendo home system that its rival was gearing up to sell around that same time. The TurboExpress’ real failing, though, is right there in the premise: It was a portable vehicle for the TurboGrafx-16 library, which meant that, once you’d extracted the bare minimum of joy from Bonk’s Adventure or Splatterhouse, you were still stuck playing the run-off titles of one of the home console industry’s most infamous early flops. The thing guzzled batteries like a horse, too.

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The system: Virtual Boy (1995, $180)

The system: Virtual Boy (1995, $180)

Illustration for article titled The Game.com cometh: The rise and fall of the Game Boy’s weirdest rivals
Photo: James Sheppard/Retro Gamer Magazine/Future via Getty Images

Everybody makes mistakes. Gunpei Yokoi’s most infamous one was Nintendo’s first foray into (alleged) virtual reality, the Virtual Boy. Portable only by a definition that included strapping a 1.5-pound headset to your face, the system, to paraphrase Henry Ford, offered graphics in any color you’d like—as long as they were bright, eye-boiling red. The result was expensive, inconvenient, physically unpleasant to play, and one of Nintendo’s first big flops. If it didn’t usher Yokoi out the door—he’d supposedly been gearing up for retirement already—its dismal performance, despite a massive promotional push that included cross-promotion from NBC and Blockbuster, produced little call to beg him back into the fold.

And yet, even here there were competitors looking to undercut Nintendo’s “next big thing.” Would it surprise you to learn that we’re talking once again about Tiger Electronics? And would it surprise you further to learn that their attempt to out-perform Nintendo in the “fake virtual reality that’s also exceptionally difficult to look at” stakes was somehow even worse?

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The Virtual Boy rival

The Virtual Boy rival

R-Zone (1995, $30)

The R-Zone was $30. Thus begins, and ends, the list of positive things you can say about the R-Zone, which, once you got past all its self-applied hype, was a system for playing the exact same Tiger LCD games you probably already owned too many of—except now they were bright red and strapped to your face. Tiger would later attempt to salvage the design, producing actual handheld versions of the hardware at a similarly negligible price point, but the true R-Zone experience is that of squinting miserably, looking at the teensy mirror hanging in front of your eye, and trying to play a stick-figure version of Daytona or Star Wars that’s being projected from somewhere up around your forehead. We’ll say this, it’s a better fashion statement than a gaming console; and given how stupid anyone wearing one looks, that’s damning with the faintest praise we’ve got. Sometimes slavishly following the leader means crashing into the same blind alley when they make an eventual wrong turn.

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The system: Game Boy Color (1998, $70)

The system: Game Boy Color (1998, $70)

Illustration for article titled The Game.com cometh: The rise and fall of the Game Boy’s weirdest rivals
Photo: Rodin Eckenroth (Getty Images)

As great as the original Game Boy was, that big gray brick had some issues. The system itself was massive and ugly; it was hard to see the screen in most kinds of light; and when you could see the screen, it was all greenish-gray. After a decade of selling the Game Boy, though, Nintendo decided to finally do something about those issues (or at least a couple of them). In 1996, Yokoi’s final contribution to the Game Boy line, the Game Boy Pocket, streamlined the system and sharpened its screen. Two years later, Nintendo released the Game Boy Color, a smaller and sleeker Game Boy with a nice color screen and a variety of different colors for the system itself—none of which are “ugly gray.” The screen still didn’t have a backlight, meaning you’d still have to hope the car was going in the right direction during a family road trip, but it was a better version of the Game Boy in every other way.

The Game Boy Color was essentially a very well-executed half-measure, improving upon what Nintendo was doing already without trying too many new things. It had a handful of exclusive-ish games that could only be properly played on the Game Boy Color (because they used color in some important way), but other than that, it could play slightly more colorful versions of everything in the Game Boy library. Playing it safe was the smarter move, though, because the problem with trying new things is that they have the potential to go wrong. (See previous entry.) There was nothing about the Game Boy Color that could go wrong, really, which is what made it more of a hit than any of its weirdest competitors. Each of them tried to do something that neither technology at the time nor the handheld gaming world was ready for, while Nintendo iterated on an idea that was already good (the Game Boy) and made it better (by adding color and making it smaller).

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The Game Boy Color rivals

The Game Boy Color rivals

Game.com (1997, $70)

How can you tell that the Game.com was instantly and hilariously rendered outdated by the progress of time? Well, it’s an internet-capable system that is now largely incompatible with the modern internet. You have to type “game dot com” if you want to find any information about it online, all because websites were a new and exciting thing when it launched in 1997, and Tiger Electronics (hello again, Tiger) presumably thought “.com” was an exciting and modern name. It’s like designing a car right when they were first invented and deciding to call it “Wheels.”

The Game.com, made of cheap gray plastic, and featuring a black-and-white screen that was technically better than the old licensed Tiger handhelds from the early ’90s (but not by much), came out at $70—the same price as the Game Boy Color. Its big hook was that you could connect it to a modem (sold separately) with a special cable (sold separately) and download your emails or browse text-only web pages. Later revisions also introduced the ability to share your high scores on the Game.com website, but you couldn’t actually play any of the games online. As for the games, the system has what sounds like a fantastic library on paper: Resident Evil 2, Duke Nukem 3D, and Mortal Kombat Trilogy could all be played on the Game.com. And they all played and looked terrible. But hey, the Game.com was the first handheld console to have a touchscreen and internet capabilities, beating Nintendo to those innovations by many years. But, again, it did those things, and everything else, poorly.

Sega Nomad (1995, $180)

The Sega Nomad is pretty much the definitive gaming example of a piece of technology that’s ahead of its time, to the extent that it’s almost hard to believe it came out in 1995. What makes it so special? Well, the Nomad is essentially a portable Sega Genesis. It plays real Genesis games on its own little screen, you can hook it up to a TV and use it as a controller, and it even has multiple controller ports so you can play multiplayer games. The Genesis (or Mega Drive if you’re outside the U.S.) was Sega’s SNES competitor, and it was still on the market when the company came out with a new device that could play its games on the go—nearly two decades before Nintendo came out with the Switch.

The catch, because there obviously has to be one when you’re making a fully portable game console in 1995, is that the system cost $180 at launch (almost $100 more than the regular Genesis cost at the time, and $110 more than the Game Boy Color at launch). Also, the thing ate batteries even faster than Sega’s original Game Boy competitor, the Game Gear, which is really saying something. It took six AA batteries, and YouTube channel Gaming Historian says it wouldn’t even last for three hours on that charge. That’s the price you have to pay for the ability to play Comix Zone on the bus, apparently.

PasoGo (1996, ~$300)

Nintendo’s great success with the Game Boy family of systems was in focusing only on the specific things that technology at the time could easily handle, and then doing those things as well as possible. Koei’s PasoGo is sort of the dark inverse of that philosophy, because it can only do one thing, and didn’t even do that one thing particularly well. Released in 1996, the PasoGo was sold for over 39,000 yen (upwards of $300 at the time), and its library of games included a digital version of the classic board game Go, a second digital version of the classic board game Go, a third version, a fourth version, and… seven additional versions. Yes, the system cost over $300, and all of its games were different variations of Go, with different cartridges allowing you to play against computer opponents or re-create classic historical Go matches—at least that’s how it seems, as concrete information about the PasoGo is pretty rare. Apparently, it was such a flop that people refuse to remember it ever existed.

But hey, at least playing Go on the thing was probably a terrible experience! Not only was the PasoGo enormous, but it its big two-color LCD screen was of the “unavoidable eyestrain” type.

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The system: Game Boy Advance (2001, $100)

The system: Game Boy Advance (2001, $100)

Illustration for article titled The Game.com cometh: The rise and fall of the Game Boy’s weirdest rivals
Photo: Johnny Green (Getty Images)

After playing it relatively safe with the Game Boy Color, Nintendo finally swung for the fences in 2001 with the Game Boy Advance, a handheld system that could finally—and more or less perfectly—replicate the Super Nintendo, which was still the best thing Nintendo had done up until that point. This was (and still is) one of the few times that Nintendo did something that seemed technologically impressive, instead of just innovative—even if the SNES was a full decade old at this point. The GBA launched at only $100, and could still play nearly the entire old Game Boy library. The original system still didn’t have a backlight, as Nintendo saved that advancement for the excellent Game Boy Advance SP redesign a few years later, but it was still a huge success.

Nintendo is often at its best when it’s not chasing anyone and trying to replicate what they’re doing, choosing instead to focus on what it thinks consumers will want, which is why the GBA as a portable equivalent of the SNES was so smart. Some of the system’s competitors of the era tried to capitalize on new technology and chase the next big thing, which is why every other company that tried to come for the Game Boy’s throne has failed, while Nintendo once again found massive success by being the very best at its own thing.

The GBA is, then, essentially the platonic ideal of handheld gaming. (At least once Nintendo got the screen-lighting situation taken care of.) And much like the SNES, it has become the rare timeless game system that you can always go back to and find something worth your time.

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The Game Boy Advance rivals

The Game Boy Advance rivals

Cybiko (2000, $139)

Though technically not a direct competitor to the Game Boy Advance, the Russia-produced Cybiko still would’ve fit into the same market space in the days before smartphone ubiquity—and “the days before smartphone ubiquity” is exactly where the Cybiko belongs. It looks kind of like a complex satellite phone, complete with big antenna on the back, but it has a full (if very small) QWERTY keyboard and the same kind of grayscale LCD that (nearly) every device like this had for a span of 30 years or so. The Cybiko’s big hook is that it could communicate with other Cybikos wirelessly, a thing we take for granted these days, but its range was limited to a few dozen feet. It also had an add-on slot on the back where you could jack in a sold-separately MP3 player, which is actually pretty cool. The whole thing is very cyberpunk.

Oh, also, it could play games, including a 3D-ish racing game and recognizable versions of Pac-Man and Tetris, a.k.a. the Game Boy’s killer app from… a decade prior. The Game Boy Advance wasn’t a revolutionary piece of technology like what the Cybiko was aspiring to be, but Nintendo figured out what it could do, and then executed that as well as it possibly could.

N-Gage (2003, $300)

Released a few years after the Game Boy Advance for three times its asking price, Nokia’s N-Gage was a legitimate shot across Nintendo’s bow and an attempt to get people into the then-nascent smartphone market. In short, it was a legitimate video game platform with actual modern games: It had versions of Call Of Duty, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and Sega’s Nintendo-friendly franchise Super Monkey Ball. And it was also a functional cellphone.

Well, “functional” is up for debate: The N-Gage’s mistake, and arguably its fatal flaw, was that you talked into it like a regular phone and not like a smartphone—which is to say that the phone bits were on the side rather than on the face. That makes a fair amount of sense, since the side of an N-Gage is shaped more like what people thought of as a phone at the time, but in practice, talking into an N-Gage was a lot like talking into a taco. Dubbed “sidetalking,” it even inspired a popular meme of sorts where people took pictures of themselves talking into things in a funny way. Meanwhile, the Game Boy Advance was just a thing that played video games that you could hold in a normal way, while a phone was either a thing that stayed in your house, or a device that your parents trusted you with in case of emergencies. Nobody really needed anything else quite yet.

GameKing (2003, $???)

From a distance, Hong Kong’s GameKing actually looks just like a Game Boy Advance, which is a major selling point for a country that didn’t get the actual GBA until several years after it came out everywhere else. Get a little closer, though, and it seems to have a lot more in common with a graphing calculator—though one that can specifically just play terrible video games, and can’t help you in math class. The GameKing’s screen is a classic grayscale LCD similar to what Nintendo stuck with for so long on the original Game Boy, but its terrible refresh rate and resolution made it very difficult to actually see anything happening onscreen once it was in motion (like what you’d see in hacked-together graphing calculator games).

Surprisingly, given everything else about it, the sound on the GameKing was reportedly relatively nice, at least compared to the original Game Boy. It was outclassed in every way once the actual Game Boy Advance came out in the region, but that didn’t stop the creators at Timetop from continuing to try and keep the GameKing alive with a GameKing II that was pretty much the same in every way, except it looked like a PlayStation Portable and had a backlit screen (something that Nintendo took some time to get around to as well, to be fair).

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The system: Nintendo DS (2004-2013, $150)

The system: Nintendo DS (2004-2013, $150)

Nintendo DS, being held by a man, who, if his name was styled like a DS game, would be called Damien lewiS
Nintendo DS, being held by a man, who, if his name was styled like a DS game, would be called Damien lewiS
Photo: Jeff Vespa (Getty Images)

You’d be excused for confusing the DS with some of its competitors listed elsewhere in this piece, given how badly Nintendo’s follow-up to the GBA seemed to suffer from feature glut: two screens (one of them a touchscreen with attached stylus), a built-in microphone, actual (if rudimentary) wifi connectivity, etc. And certainly, when compared to Sony’s fancy, powerful, and streamlined PSP (which arrived in North America the following year), the DS looked hopelessly backwards and strange. And yet, this humble bundle of oddball features would go on to be become the second-bestselling video game console of all time. So, what gives?

First up—and at the risk of repeating ourselves—it’s difficult to over-estimate how helpful it is, when selling a new video game console, to have a brand-new batch of Nintendo games you can offer up to consumers as a selling point. WarioWare: Touched, Kirby Canvas Curse, and even weirdo experimental titles like Nintendogs all helped raise the DS’s profile in the early days, at the same time that Nintendo’s massively successful guiding principle for console design in the 2000s was coming into focus: The triumph of intuitive controls.

Tapping things with a stylus just makes sense to the vast majority of people, in a way that mastering a controller’s button layout often doesn’t—just as, a few years later, it would make a similar kind of sense to swing a WiiMote to play tennis. It would be reductive to call the DS an attempt to court a more casual market of players, because Nintendo’s handhelds have always been designed to appeal to more than just a core audience of home gamers—and the DS, and its later instances, the DS Lite, DSi, and DSi XL, would continue to carry that legacy forward. (While also continuing to cater to its more dedicated audience; it’s not for nothing that Atlus’ uber-hard RPG throwback series Etrian Odyssey got its start on this unassuming little Frankenstein device.)

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The Nintendo DS rivals

The Nintendo DS rivals

The Gizmondo (2005, $400, or $229 with “Smart Adds”)

The only handheld gaming console ever—to the best of our knowledge—released by former members of the Swedish Mafia, the Gizmondo actually looks pretty good on paper. Simultaneously an MP3 player, GPS (for keeping your kids safe, see), text message device, and game console, the weird little digital potato feels smooth enough when you see it running. And if that $400 price tag seems exorbitant, well, just go ahead and pick up a “Smart Adds”-enabled model, for nearly half the cost—in exchange for watching a few streaming ads per day, of course. (This may be the most ahead-of-its-time aspect of this entire piece, now that we think about.)

Released by Tiger Telematics (no relation to Tiger Electronics), the Gizmondo didn’t even have to wait for Nintendo to come crush it; massive promotional over-spending, incredibly lax sales, and what’s been alleged to have been some fairly shady financial self-dealings led to a swift bankruptcy for the other Tiger in 2006. The DS might have gone overboard on new features, but at least Nintendo didn’t go out and buy a controlling interest in a modeling studio just to help promote the damn thing.

digiBLAST (2005, $90)

One of several devices on this list that were essentially embryonic tablets—two years before Apple finally made a decent shot at cracking the concept with the original iPhone—Nikko’s digiBLAST is a classic case of trying to do too much with far too little. Released primarily in European markets, the odd little square was as much a media player as a gaming device, allowing kids to watch (muddy) versions of their favorite TV shows on its (decidedly muddy) screen, before switching out cartridges to play blurry renditions of Rayman or Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4.

In Nikko’s defense, Nintendo tried to tackle this video player idea, too, back in the GBA days. (Can we interest you in a showing of the GBA cut of Tenet?) But by 2005, the company had embraced the idea that its devices were gaming machines first, foremost, and only—maybe because it had seen so many other competitors knock themselves out of the race by trying to be all things to all kids.

Caanoo (2010, $150)

We’ve put a major focus, throughout this history, on the role Nintendo’s software library has had in pushing its handheld sales. Well, we’ve finally gotten to a system that can also benefit from all of Mario’s hard work, through the magic of, uh, stealing. (Or emulation, if you want to get specific.) Released by South Korea’s GamePark Holdings, the Caanoo was one of a handful of portables that hit the market during the DS era that distinguished themselves by being open-sourced—that is, anyone could write software for them, without worrying about getting certification from Nintendo or anybody else. These boxes, which included the Dingoo and the later Pandora, were essentially just small, portable computers that anyone could program. And what they usually programmed them to do was play old NES, SNES, Game Boy, and Genesis games, because, honestly, why wouldn’t you?

The Caanoo itself didn’t last long, but open-sourced portable platforms have only accelerated in interest, despite what Nintendo, famously intolerant of anyone screwing with its copyrights, would probably prefer. (God only knows what they make of the Arduboy, an Arduino-powered riff on Nintendo’s most famous handheld that’s roughly the size of a credit card.)

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The system: Nintendo 3DS (2011-2020, $250)

The system: Nintendo 3DS (2011-2020, $250)

Illustration for article titled The Game.com cometh: The rise and fall of the Game Boy’s weirdest rivals
Photo: Will Ireland (Getty Images)

By every argument we’ve laid out here about the ways Nintendo’s handhelds have reigned supreme over the last 30 years, the Nintendo 3DS should have been an abject failure. Expensive, bulky, and gimmicky, the 3DS seemed to follow in the footsteps of no predecessor more faithfully than the doomed Virtual Boy, risking a massive $250 price point for an illusion of 3D graphic fidelity that was rarely worth the headaches it tended to induce.

But here’s the thing, Nintendo noticed. The initial price point lasted only a few months before dropping to a more manageable $170, with early adopters being gifted a bunch of old NES and GBA games to take the sting out of their $80 over-pay. The focus on 3D graphics was pared back (to the point that a cheaper follow-up, the 2DS, forewent the feature entirely). And then Nintendo and its third-party partners got back to what they were best at: creating games that took advantage of the limitations of their hardware, as much as their flashy bells and whistles.

It’s a theme that runs throughout Nintendo’s portable library, from the Game Boy Advance onward: the opportunity to disengage from the technical arms race of big-budget game development and focus on art, story, and gameplay instead. Finally embracing the indie market—and even, to a magnanimous-for-Nintendo extent, the internet—the 3DS served as a home to stranger, smaller titles, carving out a space for itself in an ecosystem crowded on one side by HD graphics, and by increasingly powerful phones on the other. If it turns out to be Nintendo’s final dedicated handheld system—about which, more in a second—then the 3DS goes out as a paradoxically sterling example of the principles that kept the company on top of this niche for more than three decades of gaming (eye-straining 3D effects aside).

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The Nintendo 3DS rivals

The Nintendo 3DS rivals

NVIDIA Shield Portable (2013, $300)

We’ll never know why, exactly, NVIDIA—a company that otherwise has been content to pump out graphics cards for decades—decided it needed to get into the mobile gaming market. Powered by the company’s Tegra 4 processor, the Shield Portable was undeniably a neat-looking thing, though essentially an Xbox controller with a screen bolted awkwardly to the top of it. And some of its features, including the ability to send controls to, and stream gaming video from, a wifi-connected computer, were undoubtedly ahead of their time. But the graphics card company seemed to be trying to make a virtue out of not having its own library of software to sell, instead relying on a hodgepodge of PC games and Android titles to get consumers to shell out $300 for a new “console” that could pretty much only play titles they could already access through either their computers or phones. We keep hopping on this Koopa shell, but it’s the Nintendo lesson, over and over again: Software is king. No wonder NVIDIA decided to pivot the Shield branding away from gaming, devoting it to the far less cutthroat world of home media streaming instead.

Oculus Go/Quest/Quest 2 (2018/2019/2020, $200/$400/$300)

The original Oculus Quest
The original Oculus Quest
Photo: Amy Osborne (Getty Images)

Well, someone was going to nail portable virtual reality eventually, right? (Or at least come closer than Nintendo ever has.) Oculus’ three stand-alone headsets are pure early adopter candy, complete with all the attendant issues: high costs, spotty backwards compatibility, and a rush toward forward innovation that frequently threatens to leave purchasers of the previous generation behind. By targeting VR nerds, though—who are pretty much by definition the sort of people with disposable income lying around—the Facebook-owned company can presumably keep the engines running smoothly until enough people are onboard to make a wider customer base possible. Nintendo once rushed to try to make VR mainstream and got burnt; it just goes to show that its rivals can learn from its mistakes, as much as its successes.

Nintendo Switch (2017, $300)

Switch Lite
Switch Lite
Photo: Olly Curtis (Getty Images)

Is the Nintendo Switch—the company’s most celebrated home console in generations—the next iteration of handheld gaming or its end? Nintendo made a lot of noise, when the Switch arrived back in 2017, about how the 3DS brand would stay strong, despite the release of a new console that worked equally well when docked to the TV or ported around. But now it’s 2021, the 3DS has been discontinued, and the ecological niche it abandoned seems to suit the Switch just fine. In a world where nearly every person in America keeps a “mobile gaming system” in their pockets at all time, is there any place for a dedicated handheld that can’t also play (most) of the biggest big-budget releases? Nintendo’s portable policy has always been to harvest the past and keep what’s good; it was inevitable, maybe, that that same economical instinct might finally fall on the concept of portable gaming itself. And, really, if the future of mobile gaming features games are as good as Mario Odyssey or Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, who are we to complain if the system playing them is a “real” Game Boy or not?

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