Analysis – Handheld Gaming

My whole life, I’ve been primarily a Nintendo handheld gamer, starting with a GameBoy Pocket in kindergarten, and then eventually getting a GameBoy Advance, Advance SP, and finally a DS, which I’ve had and used for about 8 years or so. On the other hand, the only TV consoles I’ve had are a PS2 and Xbox 360.

With the tide of mobile gaming and people claiming that handheld game consoles will be overrun by phones and tablets, I figured it would be interesting to compare the two primary handhelds – the Nintendo 3DS XL and the PlayStation Vita – against mobile devices.

As a result of not having a smart phone until this past summer and not generally being a fan of touch controls, I have absolutely no experience with mobile gaming besides the three minutes of my life I wasted on Flappy Bird. So while I don’t have experience with mobile gaming, I’ll mention all the pros and cons I can think of.

Even though I haven’t had either long (nor have I stocked up on plenty of games for either), the Vita and 3DS XL are both awesome consoles. My reasoning for getting both consoles is a little odd though.

Obviously, the Vita has been out for two years, but what drew my attention to it was Persona 4 Golden – after finishing Persona 3 FES for the first time in October, my options were to jump right into Persona 4 on my PS2 or hold out until Christmas and get a Vita with the universally-considered-superior P4G. So after playing P4 for a bit, I decided to put it on hold and wait for a Vita. The wait was well worth it.

The 3DS XL, on the other hand, was the result of a crazy bet I made with two people last April. As a result of winning half the necessary money and having an inkling of an interest in the console, I ended up buying it the next day along with Fire Emblem Awakening. Of course, with future Pokemon games and the like, I knew I would be getting the 3DS eventually, there just hadn’t been any releases yet to spark my interest.

So, to dish out the pros and cons of the Vita, 3DS XL, and mobile gaming (mainly smartphones, but a lot of what I’m talking about applies to tablets as well).

Vita – The Good

Awesome piece of hardware – The Vita has an OLED display that is undeniably awesome, solid buttons and build, and a great front touch screen – the analog sticks/nubs take some getting used to because they’re a bit unusual, but they work fine.


Selection of PS1 and PSP games – I never had either of these consoles, so having quick access to tons of games I’d be interested in is an amazing advantage. I’ve already gotten Persona 3 Portable, Persona 2 Innocent Sin, Final Fantasy VII, and The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky, and there are plenty of others I intend to get eventually – also of note, all of these were less than 10USD.

Vita games – While the selection is a bit small in the West due to minimal third-party development of Vita games and limited localization of the plethora of Japanese games, the Vita games I’ve played so far have all been great (Persona 4 Golden being my favorite), and there are about a dozen more I’d love to try. Also, indie games up the wazoo!

No region-locking! – Even if I’ve barely played one of them yet, I imported two Japanese copies of games and they worked flawlessly. No console should be region-locked.

PS4 connectivity – I don’t have a PS4 (and won’t until at least after Final Fantasy XV is out), but the idea of using a Vita as either an extra controller or for remote play sounds super nifty. I don’t expect it will work flawlessly, but it’s a great feature nonetheless. Now they just need to incorporate Vita to PS4 streaming.

Vita – The Meh

The rear touchscreen – This seems pretty pointless for the most part, although I know Tearaway is a recent game that is supposed to utilize it well. It feels like a bit of a gimmick that wasn’t really necessary.

Battery time – The time I get out of my Vita is about 6 hours, which isn’t awful, but I wish it was a bit better. The new model coming out this year, while no longer having the super special awesome OLED screen, will have an improved battery life.

Still sexy
Still sexy

Vita – The Bad

Proprietary memory cards – Sony, why? If the prices for the memory cards weren’t so inflated, I wouldn’t care. But when a 32GB card is around 75USD compared to a 20USD microSD card of the same capacity, it’s ridiculous. I’m not at the point that my 8GB card is full yet, but it will be eventually and I am not looking forward to the day I need to either upgrade or add on.

No video output/limited screencapping – While the Vita TV supersedes the first issue a bit, it doesn’t resolve the issue with the original console. The lack of a video output isn’t a big problem for me personally, but it was a decision that doesn’t quite make sense, especially considering that the PSP had video output. And why can’t you take screencaps of PSP/PS1 games? It’s a bit odd.

3DS XL – The Good

Solidly built – The build quality is much better than the original DS and even the 3DS – you can see a lot of the differences in the below picture. It’s primarily made of plastic but it doesn’t quite feel or look plastic-y. The only major exception is the D-pad, which despite feeling a bit loose, works perfectly fine.

3DS on the left, 3DS XL on the right
3DS on the left, 3DS XL on the right

Screens – Unlike the original DS, where the screens took up less than half of the overall visible area, the 3DS XL’s screens actually fill out the console very well. For comparison, the top screen is about the same size as the Vita’s (5″/~13cm diagonal). And the second screen works great as a means of leaving the top screen uncluttered, not to mention touch controls for plenty of games.

Clamshell – Unlike the 2DS, which I think is an abomination to look at, the 3DS XL folds to a comfortable size, protecting the screens, and while not quite pocket-friendly, is about the same size as the original DS (also about the same as the Vita).

3DS/DS games – Besides the huge library of great DS games out there, the 3DS has plenty of great games already, and more guaranteed for the future. Let me just recommend Fire Emblem Awakening and Pokemon X/Y. They’re definitely worth it.

Battery – Since I don’t really use the 3D feature, I can get up to 10 hours of gameplay on my 3DS XL, which is a decent length and a significant improvement over the original 3DS. Of course, this requires that the screen is dimmed a bit as well. With 3D on, the duration will tank, but I haven’t tested it for a number.

3DS XL – The Meh

3D – While the 3D definitely looks good sometimes (Pokemon X/Y battles [when the 3D isn’t causing framerate drops] as one example), it does cause a bit of eye strain and it does require that you look at it at the perfect angle – as someone who plays while lazily laying in bed a lot of the time, this requires that it’s off.


Virtual Console – While this is an amazing addition in theory, the selection is nowhere near as large as it should be for the 3DS. As an example, why is the SNES classic Super Mario World only available for the Wii/Wii U? If exclusives like that are attempts to draw interest towards an uninteresting console, they aren’t working. I’ve had a Wii and all I wanted to do with it was punt it off a bridge.

No more GBA backwards compatibility – This isn’t a huge deal, but it just means I’ll have to keep my GBA SP around for more than the five original GameBoy games that I still have hanging around. This was part of the reason I was hesitant to get a 3DS in the first place, but I’ve gotten over it for the most part.

Graphics – While the graphics are definitely improved from the DS, they leave a lot to be desired, especially when compared to the Vita or phones/tablets. Oddly, Nintendo used a 16:9 ratio for the top screen while preserving the 16:10 (or whatever it is) for the bottom.

The touch screen – While I love the bottom screen as a second display, it still requires a stylus for any sort of accuracy with touch controls. While I can use my fingers most of the time (possibly as a result of the thick calluses on my fingertips), anything requiring a bit of accuracy will need the stylus.

D-pad/analog stick – I’d personally prefer that the analog stick and D-pad switched positions, but that might just be me. My hand cramps a bit when I move my thumb down to use the D-pad for an extended period of time, and I don’t think the analog stick would cause the same problem if it were in that position (as evidenced by the layout on the Vita). Also, while I haven’t had a use for one, it looks like they could have easily included another analog stick on the right.

3DS XL – The Bad

Button layout – As an Xbox 360/PS2 gamer, I cannot tell you how many times I get the four letter buttons (A, B, X, Y) confused on my 3DS. Besides the fact that the layout is the reverse of the 360 controller, I’m used to hitting X on the PS2 or A on the 360 to confirm or say ‘yes,’ but on the 3DS that button at the bottom is B, which is used to cancel or exit. I know this is the result of carrying over the GameBoy’s A/B scheme, but it’s just causing headaches.

Region-locking – I don’t think region-locking should be a thing anymore, but it’s unfortunately the case for 3DS games. However, the DS is not region-locked, so international DS games should work fine regardless of where your 3DS is from (I’ve tested this with a Japanese DS game in my US 3DS).

No video or screen capture – It’s a bit annoying, the latter more-so, as screenshots help to brighten up reviews instead of just presenting walls of black text.

Charger – Depending on where you live, your 3DS XL may not include a charger. Yes, it’s ridiculous. It seems that this is only the case in Japan and Europe, but it’s stupid.

Mobile gaming – The Good

Extreme portability – If your smartphone is anything like mine, it slides into your pocket easily, fits comfortably in one hand, and generally takes up pretty much no space. Definitely the best thing about using one for games.

Multitasking – If you have a powerful phone, you’ll be able to text, talk, play, and more, all with the same device.

Emulators – While I believe this is technically illegal most of the time (don’t quote me on that), it’s very easy to play old games on phones/tablets via emulators. Rather than lugging around a GameBoy, why wouldn’t you just use your phone?


Price – While smartphones and tablets (and data/call plans) are very expensive, mobile games are generally free or very inexpensive. Compared to buying another expensive device just for the purpose of playing relatively expensive games, mobile devices hold a lot of appeal.

Mobile Gaming – The Meh

Game selection – For me personally, this would be a negative, but for some it could be a positive. If you’re looking for “proper” games like you’ll find on the 3DS or Vita, you’ll be disappointed, but for simpler mobile games like Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and whatever else is out there, it works better than anything else. Obviously, performance may differ drastically depending on what device you’re using.

Mobile Gaming – The Bad

Battery life – If you’re playing games for an extended period of time, your phone’s battery will drain quickly. And unlike a devoted handheld console, people rely on their phones for more than just games, so this can become a problem pretty quickly.

Video capture(?) – I don’t know if this is something you can do on a phone or tablet, but I highly doubt they’d be able to handle it unless you used some type of external device. But then again, why would anyone be that interested in capturing gameplay of a mobile game?

Touch screen controls – The main issue preventing me from trying mobile gaming is the touch-based controls. As someone who’s not a huge fan of touch-screen reliance for a variety of reasons (smudges, covering the display, accuracy, etc), it’s the main turn-off.

Imagine trying to play games on this monstrosity
Imagine trying to play games on this monstrosity

As far as future consoles go, I’m sure these two handhelds won’t be going anywhere soon, so I’ll continue to take advantage of them for their full lifetimes. And obviously, phones and tablets are going to continue to become thinner and more powerful, so their viability as “consoles” will increase. However, since Nintendo continues to dominate the handheld market, the Vita is a great platform for indie releases, and many mobile game developers rely on micro-transactions for income (which is garbage), it will be a long time until mobile devices truly take hold as “proper” gaming devices.

While the PS4, Xbone, and Steam machines are all options for TV console gaming in the near future, I’m content with my handhelds, 360, and PS2 for now. [Of course, as a result of Persona 5‘s exclusive release for the PS3, I’m going to need to pick up one of those around release or hope that there will be some means to play it on the PS4. And I’d really like Persona 4 Arena and its upcoming sequel to get a Vita port – I’d much rather play those with the Vita’s D-pad than the POS on the 360 controller. Hell, the PS2 has a better D-pad than that.]

I obviously didn’t cover every pro and con for these devices, as there are plenty I felt didn’t need to be mentioned or I simply overlooked – in particular, with mobile gaming.

Is there anything in particular that makes or breaks a handheld console for you? Or are you more of a TV console/PC gamer?

6 thoughts on “Analysis – Handheld Gaming

  1. Mobile gaming really is transforming. I can’t believe how good games like Deus Ex The Fall work on the ipad and then you’ve got games like KOTOR. Things really are driving forward regarding mobile phones and their abilities in gaming.

    Handheld consoles to me just seem to be pretty over priced for what they offer. They give pretty good gameplay and you can’t beat good old physical controls. However the price for games is relatively high, especially when a lot of the games don’t last a massive amount of time.

    1. A lot of this can be chalked up to where people’s preferences bring them, but most handheld games I play provide at least 20 hours of gameplay, and I’ve enjoyed going back and replaying many of them. (I think a big part of that might be my reluctance to buy games new post-Mass Effect 3)

      In Nintendo and Sony don’t do something to drop game prices or add “need-to-have” features to consoles, mobile devices will probably become the norm for gaming.

      1. It will also be interesting to see what controller support for tablets and phones does to the market.

        I’ve got a galaxy note hooked up to a moga pro controller and it creates a pretty great gaming experience. It’s not where it needs to be, but after another twelve months of refinement this could really do some damage to traditional handheld gaming.

  2. “Price – While smartphones and tablets (and data/call plans) are very expensive, mobile games are generally free or very inexpensive. Compared to buying another expensive device just for the purpose of playing relatively expensive games, mobile devices hold a lot of appeal.”

    I wish everyone could say the same for computer gaming.

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