When Nintendo released the Game Boy back in 1989, it wasn’t the first portable handheld gaming device on the market, but it changed handheld gaming forever. Since then, Nintendo has held the king of the hill title for handhelds. Others have tried to edge in, such as the Sega Game Gear and most recently the PSP and Vita. However, no one has ever knocked Nintendo off the top of the mountain, even when the systems were markedly better than Nintendo’s own product.
The only handheld that was close was the PlayStation Vita, and that was still a long way off. The poor thing was almost dead out of the gate, thanks to its lackluster launch lineup and Sony’s own poor game support. In 2018 and 2019, Sony steadily cut down on the handheld’s life support, starting with shutting down cartridge production, and now the company has said it will not create a successor system. Their handheld exploits will die with the PSP, PSPgo (never forget!), and the Vita.
Nintendo has always had a handheld out in the wild, even when there was no competition. One would think that it would continue to do so even without Sony’s presence, but I have a strong feeling that the last “official” handheld gaming device will be the 3DS.
Nintendo wanted to make a handheld/console hybrid with the Wii U, and while it was an interesting start, the system never really took off. Not even remastering beloved games from the GameCube days was able to fully save it.
With the Switch, Nintendo perfected this concept. The Wii U didn’t need the TV to play many of the games. Players could play only on the gamepad, which was great for families that had to share the living room TV. However, this idea of “remote play” failed in a few ways. For starters, the player had to have the gamepad in range of the Wii U. You could not start a game, then walk upstairs to your room to play in peace. Everyone else might be watching a football game on TV, but you can’t leave the room to do your own thing. If everyone in the living room is loud and you can’t hear your game, that’s just tough.
Secondly, not every game supported gamepad-only play. With The Wonderful 101, for example, both screens—TV and gamepad—were required for gameplay. LEGO City Undercover and ZombiU also required both screens simultaneously. This had some fine ideas behind it, but it killed any idea of marketing the Wii U as a hybrid.
Enter the Switch, which, as I said earlier, perfected this hybrid concept. Now players literally have a console that they can take anywhere and play on their TVs. The gamepad itself is the system this time, so there’s no need to be in range of a base console to play remotely. I’m one of many Switch owners that has never yet connected my Switch to a TV, thus keeping it as a permanent handheld when it can do so much more.
And this is why Nintendo released the Switch Lite. You want the TV-console power of the Switch but have zero interest in connecting it to a TV? Here you go!
Once that console was announced, however, you could practically hear the bell tolling for future handheld devices, even Nintendo’s own. It’s doubtful Nintendo will create a next-gen 3DS. The company might create a lighter, thinner Switch Lite, but it’s the end of the 3DS life. From here on out, Nintendo will undoubtedly continue its hybrid creation, allowing both TV console and handheld users to have the same quality products, whereas it couldn’t before between their handhelds and console systems. And it’s doubtful any other hardware manufacturer will jump into a handheld-only product, unless it’s something akin to the Switch.
Farewell, portable-only systems. It’s been a fun 30 years.