As a child I dreamed of owning a portable game system that I could play in the dark, long after bedtime when I was forced to extinguish my light. Lighting accessories for my Game Boy existed, providing a feeble light source, but the lure of something with a Sega Game Gear-style backlit LCD screen, that was simultaneously not a Sega Game Gear, was all I wanted. Game Gear had failed commercially in part due to its truly terrible battery life, though competing with Game Boy in the early 1990s would have been nearly impossible anyway. After iterating on the original with smaller and then color versions of the Game Boy, Nintendo finally released its successor, the Game Boy Advance, in 2001. The Game Boy Advance also had an unlit screen, as battery life was still prioritized for portables by Nintendo at that time. However, by the release of the Game Boy Advance SP in 2003, an edge lighting system was added; though nowhere near as bright and even as a backlight would have been. A later version of the Advance SP, the AGS-101, was released in September of 2005 in North America, and it featured a backlit screen for the first time. The AGS-101 is by all accounts a brilliant system (which, sadly, I have never owned or used), but its impact was marginalized by the introduction of a different new Nintendo handheld months before (more on this shortly), and there was a handheld console from another player that had already captivated me by the autumn of 2005.
The PlayStation Portable, or PSP, was introduced to North America in March of 2015, and it was something of a revelation for portable gaming to that point. It featured a 16:9 aspect 4.3-inch (480×272 resolution) LCD screen with a bright backlight, and the promise of a multimedia experience from a library of games and movies using the new UMD (Universal Media Disc) format. This format did not take off the way Sony had intended (I can only speak for the U.S. here), and I can say from personal experience that UMD movies went untouched in the display case (in my capacity of big-box electronics manager). And so indeed did many of the PSP games, for that matter, as Nintendo’s stranglehold on the portable industry was never really in doubt. (Multiple revisions of the PSP followed, with the PSP-2000 in 2007, PSP-3000 in 2008, ill-fated PSP Go in 2009, and, finally, PSP Street in 2011.) The Game Boy Advance SP was still a popular system at the time, and the vast library of compatible games made it a solid choice for holiday 2005; but it was another system from Nintendo which had come out of Nintendo’s past to make the PSP launch far less impactful than it could have been.
Released on November 21, 2004, more than a month before the Japan launch (December 2), the Nintendo DS was a throwback to the dual-display Game & Watch products from the 1980s (the dual-display version was produced beginning in 1982), with not one, but two (backlit) displays; one famously touch-enabled. This dual-screen design with touch allowed for some unique (and often terrible) stylus-powered gameplay. The DS was a success, and Nintendo just kept iterating on the original design with the subsequent releases of the DS Lite, DSi, and larger DSi XL. And, when Nintendo jumped on the 3D bandwagon in 2011 with the 3DS, the industrial design was largely unchanged from previous DS models (why mess with success?). The 3DS was far too expensive at launch in the U.S. (on March 27, 2011) at $249.99, and could have spelled disaster for Nintendo, but they quickly lowered the price to a more palatable $169.99 just a few months later (announced July 28, 2011).
2011 also saw the release of a new Sony handheld system, albeit only in Japan until February of 2012, and it was the best effort from Sony yet: the PlayStation Vita. The Vita (which means “life”) was not the success that Sony would have liked, in part due to the 3DS-like pricing of $249.99 at launch (a 3G-enabled model was also available for $299.99). Memory cards were required to save data, and were very expensive as Sony chose to go with a proprietary format (and PS Vita cards are still expensive to this day), and the library of exclusive titles never really justified the purchase of a Vita over a Nintendo handheld. Still, the availability of PSP and original PlayStation games in digital format via the PlayStation Network storefront increased the usefulness of the Vita, making it an essential purchase for fans of timeless games such as Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy IX, which had only been available on handhelds previously via custom firmware modifications to the PSP. (A subject I know absolutely nothing about, period. I have no idea what a “Pandora battery” is. No idea whatsoever.)
However impressive from a technical standpoint, the Vita, which featured a lovely 5-inch OLED display (with 960×544 resolution), was just not a popular system after launch; selling quite poorly in the years to follow compared to Nintendo’s handheld lineup. A subsequent revision which replaced the OLED panel with a conventional LCD display (to Sony’s credit this was at least an IPS panel) and added 1GB onboard memory for game saves was still $199.99, and essentially priced out of contention with the $169.99 3DS and its ever-growing library of games. Nintendo’s continued iteration of their handheld designs resulted in the XL version of the 3DS, and culminated in the ‘new’ 3DS launch in 2014 (2015 in North America), the XL version of which is not only the penultimate Nintendo 3DS handheld, but one of the greatest consoles Nintendo has ever designed, I must admit. Its $199 price all but sealed the fate of the PS Vita, which nonetheless can still be found for that price (and sometimes less), UNLIKE the 3DS XL, which is ‘mysteriously’ absent from retail stock while the world awaits the launch of Switch. (Or dreads the launch of Switch. Whichever you prefer.)
Regardless of Nintendo’s foolishness regarding ‘new’ 3DS XL availability (which can be found for a small discount from Nintendo’s semi-hidden refurbished online store), and Sony’s commercial failure with PlayStation Vita, these systems will live on for many years to come among enthusiasts, like me, who enjoy playing long after the kids have gone to bed.