April 21, 2019 marked the official 30th anniversary since the launch of the Nintendo Game Boy. It’s been pretty amazing to see all the pieces from various outlets (including our own) talking about how influential the Game Boy was. The thing is 10 years older than me, so by the time I popped into existence, it was already well on its way out. As a result, I don’t have nearly the same level of emotional attachment to it as older gamers do. However, I do now recognize that it truly was a big deal in the industry as it carved out the path for basically all other gaming handhelds that succeeded it. With that being the case, it’s a bit disheartening when you take a look at the modern industry: Handheld systems are basically all but gone.
One of the Game Boy deep-dives that really caught my attention was the new YouTube Original series by popular tech YouTuber, Marques Brownlee (MKBHD). The first episode of this new series, fittingly dubbed “Retro Tech,” was all about the Game Boy.
Like me, Marques missed the Game Boy’s heyday. Yet throughout the video, he spoke with individuals who not only played the system back then but also explained just how influential it was. As shown, the Game Boy was released at a time when the world of personal entertainment devices was still very new; this was back when gadgets like the Sony Walkman were the “hot, new” thing to own. On top of that, the video game market itself was still in its infancy at the time.
So, the Game Boy not only solidified the idea of a handheld game system, but it was also responsible for jump-starting the entire gaming industry, similar to its big brother the NES. Many people were introduced to the world of video games thanks to the Game Boy. That’s why it’s no surprise that it took several years before it was officially succeeded by the Game Boy Advance in 2001. It didn’t sell as well as the original GB family, but it still pulled in a hefty 81.51 million units across its nine-year production run. While the GBA was mostly just a more powerful version of its predecessor, it also came in at a very interesting time in the tech world: portable machines becoming more versatile.
Back in the late ’90s and early 2000s, most portable machines were still dedicated. That means you had a device that was primarily focused on performing just one task. Phones were for calling and texting, MP3 players and iPods were for music, and DVD players were for movies. But as the 2000s progressed, technology advanced quite rapidly. The GBA was still meant for gaming, but it later got the ability to play video files by means of an add-on. This was an early instance of portable device versatility. And things would only get better from here.
In 2004, the GBA’s successor arrived: the Nintendo DS. It was far more advanced in every way, especially with its later variants: the DS Lite and DSi. In addition to the DS, there was also the Sony PSP—an even more complex device. Being a PlayStation system, it sold gangbusters, and it certainly helped that it was really good at other tasks like audio/video playback and Internet browsing. The DS could also do these things, however not as well. For these systems, I was actually around to see their popularity. I remember during my primary and early high school years that having a DS or PSP was considered to be very cool in the eyes of the childhood masses. Each system became a grand success, with the DS being the second best-selling gaming system of all time with an absurd 154.02 million sold worldwide and the PSP nabbing a very respectable 82 million units sold worldwide.
The DS and PSP came at a time when portable devices in general were becoming truly multipurpose. But of course, things would truly change forever when smartphones became a thing in 2006.
If the Game Boy was responsible for normalizing portable entertainment, the launch of the original Apple iPhone basically made it a semi-necessary part of 21st-century society. The iPhone was sold on the promise of it being the “do-all-device;” it was a computer, calculator, calendar, movie player, music player—everything. That also happened to include the ability to play games. Sony and Nintendo probably didn’t realize it at the time, but this is where the slow decline of handhelds began.
As the iPhone became more popular and advanced, and subsequently the smartphone sector as a whole, handheld gaming systems were gradually being focused on less and less. While still popular among kids, older ones were far more interested in having a phone. The rise of casual mobile games is what really caused the paradigm shift, as mobile games became known for being mindless time wasters rather than in-depth experiences. This was good enough for older people who had less time, so having a smartphone that can do far more than just playing games was considered to be the better choice over a handheld that could do some extra stuff but had gaming as its main focus. The difference in interest would really be seen with what is now the current handheld generation: the 3DS and PlayStation Vita, both of which launched in 2011.
The 3DS had the roughest start of any Nintendo handheld in history. Meanwhile, the PS Vita was initially praised. However, the general feeling towards each system would flip rather quickly. After a price cut just a few months after launch, the 3DS started gaining traction. On the other hand, the PS Vita’s impressive specs weren’t enough for customers to justify the price of its expensive memory cards. In a few short years, the 3DS family flourished, whereas the Vita became “indie central.” Even still, this wouldn’t be enough to carry it. The 3DS family is currently sitting at 75+ million units sold worldwide, whereas the Vita ended its production run this year with an estimated 16 million units sold worldwide. These numbers, even in the 3DS’s case, are a pretty big drop-off from those of their predecessors. While their launch woes are partially to blame, these reduced sales are really a direct result of the proliferation of smartphones and tablets too.
While mobile gaming has not replaced “real games,” the general consumer is clearly more interested in picking up a phone and/or tablet rather than a dedicated handheld gaming system. The 3DS and Vita are both great pieces of hardware, but they lack the general appeal of a smartphone or tablet. You can easily convince everyone in the average family of four to own a phone, but how many are interested in video games? Perhaps maybe only one or two. That’s why the handheld gaming sector is now facing its end.
Switching things up
Now, you probably read the headline and thought: “What’s this all about? The Nintendo Switch is a thing!” If you are one of those people, thanks for either reading up to this point or just skimming until the part where I finally mention the Switch.
Here’s the short answer to your question: Yes, the Switch is a thing—but it’s not a handheld. Not in the traditional sense.
That’s a key point. Reason being that while the Switch has the design and capabilities of a handheld, it’s considered by Nintendo to be a home console first and foremost. It comes bundled with a dock for connecting to a TV and unlocking its full power. That’s why it’s not a handheld, but rather a hybrid. As the first true gaming system like this, it’s now blurred the line between handheld and home console, and that’s really what’s made it so successful. If it were just another traditional home console or handheld, it likely wouldn’t have received nearly the same amount of attention that it has gotten now.
Nintendo noticed that its home console market was flatlining, and that interest in dedicated handhelds was also waning. So, it merged the two and birthed the Switch. The “Switch” name itself embodies that: Not only can the console itself “switch” between playing those two roles, but it also marks a switch to a whole new type of console category.
A bit of the Game Boy’s legacy still lives on in the Switch by the nature of it being a portable gaming machine, but really, they’re more like distant cousins. When the 3DS family is put to bed, that will effectively be the end of the direct Game Boy lineage. And now that we have the Switch, it’s likely that we’ll never see a “true” handheld system ever again. They’ve served their purpose, and now a new age has begun. So, this 30-year anniversary of the Game Boy is basically both an anniversary to the birth of handhelds and a prelude to its memorial.
However, this all makes me think of something else: Where will consoles in general be in 30 more years? Will we even have consoles by then, or will it all be cloud-based? Now that will be something—right now we’re considering the death of one type of console, but soon we could be faced with the death of consoles completely. Actually, you know what? That’s enough doom and gloom for one day…