The PlayStation Vita releases today with one of the strongest launch lineups in recent memory for any console, handheld or otherwise. For all of the new features packed into handhelds these days, without a steady stream of games to play, your shiny new toy can quickly turn into an expensive paperweight. Come with us as we look at launch games of handhelds gone by and see what games helped highlight the novel features of the platform and which ones were nothing but a Band-Aid on a doomed console.
Console: Nintendo Game Boy
North American Launch: August 1989
There may have been handhelds that launched prior to the Game Boy, but this was the machine that started it all. Created by Gunpei Yokio, the creator of Nintendo’s Game and Watch series, the Game Boy came bundled with Tetris and launched with just four other games: Alleyway, Baseball, Super Mario Land, and Tennis. Super Mario Land went on to spawn two more sequels and introduce Wario to the world, and continued the tradition of launching a new Nintendo console with a Mario title. As successful Super Mario Land was, the real star of this launch was Tetris. By the time that the Game Boy launched, Tetris had been out for five years and had snared many in its addictive, shape-dropping grip. Tetris was accessible to both kids and adults and was shaped based, thereby sidestepping the Game Boy’s color-less display and, best of all, it was free.
Console: Atari Lynx
North American Launch: September 1989
Launched to compete directly with the Game Boy, the Lynx was the handheld released with a color screen as well as the ability to create pseudo-3D visuals, networking support for up to 17 players, and an ambidextrous layout. It launched with four games: Blue Lightning, Electrocop, Gates of Zendocon, and California Games. The launch games were well received, but didn’t do much to make a case for a console that was priced double that of the Game Boy. In 1991, the Lynx was re-released with slightly different hardware and a much-reduced price, but by then Nintendo’s dominance in the handheld space was well established. Eventually Atari dropped support for the Lynx choosing instead to focus on the Jaguar, and we all know how well that turned out.
North American Launch: 1990
The TurboExpress was the Cadillac of handheld consoles, packing more hardware than any handheld on the market as well as a TV tuner, RCA inputs so that you could use the console as a video monitor and the ability to play games cooperatively. At $249.99 it was also insanely expensive. Heck, Doogie Howser had one of these, and everyone knew that kid was loaded. After all, he was a doctor. The TurboExpress launched with the ability to play any TurboGrafx-16 game, which meant it had a launch library that dwarfed that of other consoles launched that year. Unfortunately it was plagued with hardware problems, had a terrible battery life, couldn’t save progress to cartridges and was insanely freakin’ expensive. With that many strikes against it, the biggest launch library on the planet couldn’t help it.
Console: Sega Game Gear
North American Launch: April 1991
The Game Gear was Sega’s response to the Game Boy. Like the other consoles released at the same time, its biggest claimed advantage over the Game Boy was its color screen. Unfortunately, it also shared some of the drawbacks of the other Game Boy competitors, namely poor battery life and a higher price than the Game Boy. The Game Gear launched with six games: Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, G-LOC: Air Battle, Psychic World, Wonder Boy (Revenge of Drancon), Super Monaco GP, and Columns with Columns packaged with the console. The launch lineup was well received, with Castle of Illusion regarded as a standout launch title, but none of the games provided a unique enough experience to overcome the console’s weak points. The lack of 3rd party support didn’t help either, nor did Sega’s bizarre dead squirrel based marketing efforts.
Console: Neo Geo Pocket Color
North American Launch: August 1999
The Neo Geo Pocket Color was an update to the monochrome Neo Geo Pocket and was released to directly compete with the Game Boy Color. Sporting a more powerful hardware profile, a color screen, the ability to link via cable to another NGPC or a Dreamcast and an extremely high battery life; the Neo Geo Pocket Color was the only handheld at the time to provide any real competition to the Game Boy’s dominance. It launched with Pac-Man, Baseball Stars, Bust-A-Move Pocket, Metal Slug: First Mission, Fatal Fury: First Contact, and Samurai Shodown 2. While the launch games showed off the hardware’s capabilities nicely and showcased some of the most popular SNK properties, namely the Metal Slug, Samurai Showdown, and Fatal Fury titles; a combination of factors including poor 3rd party support, consumer anticipation for the Game Boy Advance, and the popularity of the Pokemon juggernaut kept the console from ever reaching its full potential.
Console: Game Boy Advance
North American Launch: June 2001
The Game Boy Advance was Nintendo’s first 32-bit handheld, a system that allowed for SNES level graphics in a portable form. The game launched with the largest library of games for a Nintendo handheld to date. The launch games of the GBA represented a wide assortment of genres with Super Mario Land, Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, and Rayman Advance provided to showcase the superior sprite based graphics of the console while F-Zero: Maximum Velocity and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 showed off the ability to simulate 3-D graphics on the hardware. More importantly, the launch line-up provided games across a number of genres meaning that people looking to pick up a console would have multiple games to choose from as well as more games to come back for. Despite having released two new handhelds and two consoles since the GBA, Nintendo never bested the launch library available for the Game Boy Advance.
North American Launch: October 2003
Back in 2003, the idea of having an all-in-one device to act as both a cellular phone and a games platform seemed ridiculous. The fact that the N-Gage looked like a taco certainly didn’t help either nor did the fact that the hardware was designed more for phone usage than gameplay. The N-Gage launched with Tomb Raider: Scion, Pandemonium, SonicN, Super Monkey Ball, Puzzle Bobble VS, Puyo Pop, and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, thereby continuing the trend that a Tony Hawk game be available on every console launched in the 2000’s. The launch library offered up enough ports of games currently available on other systems to look like there was plenty of 3rd party support, but it also didn’t offer anything to distinguish the console outside of the odd shape, $300 price tag lack of a pack-in game.
Console: Nintendo DS
North American Launch: November 2004
Rather than continue the trend of offering nothing but upgraded graphics with their new console, Nintendo decided to go an entirely different route with the Nintendo DS; offering not only two screens, vertically aligned in a clamshell design, but also a touchscreen. In addition to the new design and new input method, the DS also offered backwards compatibility with all Game Boy Advance games and the ability to communicate wirelessly with other DS consoles both locally and over the Internet. All of the launch game featured some sort of touch screen capabilities, but as the console was still in its infancy, many developers hadn’t learned how to best make use of the hardware. The only third party game to fully utilize the various hardware features was Feel the Magic: XY/XX a collection of dating minigames that had players using both the touch screen and the DS’s microphone to win the heart of the main character’s beloved. Minigames and frantic scribbling would go on to become hallmarks of many games in the DS’s library.
Console: PlayStation Portable
North American Launch: March 2005
While Nintendo was interested in innovative hardware over raw horsepower, Sony took the exact opposite approach and brought to market the most powerful handheld console to date. Packed with a suite of multimedia capabilities, including the ability to play movies and music as well as display photos, the PSP was designed to be a full multimedia device, as well as a handheld console that could give PlayStation graphics in a portable form. Twisted Metal: Head-On and Metal Gear Acid kicked off what would a steady stream of PSP outings for Sony exclusive franchises while many launch games such as Lumines, Twisted Metal: Head-On, and Ridge Racer allowed players to play against one another using the console’s wireless capabilities. Unfortunately all of the games all showed off two of the console’s biggest issues, namely long loading times and poor battery life, a side affect of the disc based UMD format, the only disc based handheld media ever brought to market.
Console: Nintendo 3DS
North American Launch: March 2011
For the 3DS, Nintendo carried on the legacy of the DS, adding increased hardware, but choosing to focus mostly on adding innovative features. In the case of the 3DS, that feature was glasses-free 3D visuals. Along with the innovative display, the 3DS had a suite of multiplayer and networking features that built upon the wireless connectivity of the DSi, allowing for 3DS owners to communicate wirelessly with each other, both actively while playing games and passively while carrying the system around. The 3DS also featured a more robust set of digital distribution options, offering up game purchases and various demos and 3D videos for download. A set of dual cameras, one on the inside of the unit and one on the outside gave players the ability to play augmented reality games as well as take three dimensional photographs.
The 3DS initially sold well but the lackluster games library and high price point caused sales to lag. Nintendo has since responded by releasing Super Mario 3D Land, a new Mario Kart, and lowered the console’s price, providing an uptick in sales. Whether or not this climb will remain in an increasingly iOS dominated market is anyone’s guess.
What was your favorite handheld launch title? Let us know down in the comments.