Gaming to Go

It was somewhere between midnight and 1AM when the craving hit, strong enough to rouse yours truly from a smashing dream about Gary Busey and the cast of What’s Happening Now.

Like a pregnant woman lusting for ice cream and halibut (albeit one with visions of Fred “Rerun” Berry running through her head), the urge swept over me: I simply had to play Burnout Legends.

Why the mood struck then and there in particular is uncertain, but I can venture an educated guess? Courtesy of some truly inspired titles, portable gaming is on my mind, as well as those of interactive entertainment enthusiasts around the globe, more than ever.

In an earlier column, I bemoaned the lack of quality of software for the PlayStation Portable (notwithstanding, of course, UMD copies of cinematic classic Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle). But the times, as you might say, they are a-changing. With 3.6 million units sold and developers finally up to speed on the console’s internal workings, we’re finally seeing some top-notch efforts on the platform.

As a game reviewer, I’m in an enviable position; dozens of titles arrive here monthly, sent by publishers in hope of garnering increased media coverage. Of the programs I’ve chosen to keep and peruse over the past eight weeks, with the rest going to Goodwill (inside shopping tip, should you live in the southeast), I’ve noticed an odd trend. Almost 90% are, ironically, for Sony’s sexy little handheld.

It’s alternately kept me company since January 1st on several business trips, one pseudo-vacation, and throughout several long evenings following monster workdays when the wife insisted on watching Dancing with the Stars. (I stopped tuning in after the popular favorite, Master P, was eliminated.) Quite a feat, that: As a married man, small business operator, homeowner and proud father of a 7 year-old mutt, spare time’s not exactly at a premium around here.

All of which leads me to a singular and interesting conclusion. Specifically, that mobile consoles such as this, the Nintendo DS and Game Boy Micro are a perfect match for today’s gamer, who’s grown up right alongside the industry.

I’m speaking to all you virtual geezers out there who’ve managed to inflate the average age of joystick jocks to 30. And possess a passion for Final Fantasy III, just not the endless hours to devote to it anymore. Regardless of reports about the “graying of the market” (referencing how yesterday’s NES owners are becoming today’s parents) on systems like PlayStation 2, I suspect more adults are hip to handhelds than would admit.

Of the 190 million-plus Game Boys purchased worldwide, chances are good I’m not the only one more concerned with mortgages and colonoscopies than who’s making out with who in the school parking lot.

It makes perfect sense: Titles for portable units are mostly frequently meant to be consumed in short spurts. You needn’t invest the same amount of hours in, say, Exit that you would Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence. Even those sporting considerable longevity, i.e. Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, are broken down into bite-sized missions, so you can play for ten minutes, save your game, and move onto changing diapers.

The state of the market is also in flux, with first-person shooters, massively multiplayer online titles, real-time strategy games and sports simulations dominating the headlines. Back in the day, many of us lived for a good arcade-style fracas, spunky platform outing, mind-bending puzzler, witty adventure, or blood-spurting fighter instead. However, all of these titles are now enjoying something of a renaissance on the portable platforms, with offerings like Tales of Phantasia, Mario Kart DS and Brain Age leading the charge.

Even those games that seem as if they’d be more at home in your living room (Star Wars: Battlefront II, From Russia with Love) are receiving workable mobile conversions. Several sport full wireless online multiplayer options to boot. So in most cases, it’s not like you’re missing out on much, except slightly higher-resolution graphics and price tags inflated by a sawbuck or more, by skipping their set-top renditions entirely.

These machines’ travel-ready nature is also a major boon. Often, half an hour spent waiting for a doctor’s appointment or oil change is the only free moment I’ll have all day to sit down and kill time splattering the walls with demon blood. You try cramming an Xbox 360 into the pocket of your jeans, let alone explaining to your general practitioner what the hell it’s doing there.

As an added bonus, game development is cheaper for these machines to boot. Publishers aren’t just happy porting their back catalogues over. They’re taking calculated risks, and introducing inspired series updates (Mega Man: Powered Up) and original content (Electroplankton, The Rub Rabbits!) that just wouldn’t fly on other platforms.

The upshot being that as a grown adult with responsibilities and commitments, I’m more excited by what’s happening in the handheld space than in the next-generation wars. To a point, you should be too.

Just a few of the titles I’ve ferreted away for personal enjoyment in recent months:

Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time (Nintendo, DS)

WWE Smackdown vs. RAW 2006 (THQ, PSP)

Street Fighter Alpha 3 Max (Capcom, PSP)

Castlevania: Double Pack (Konami, GBA)

Prince of Persia: Revelations (UbiSoft, PSP)

World Soccer: Winning Eleven 9 (Konami, PSP)

Metroid Prime: Hunters (Nintendo, DS)

I’d be curious to hear what’s getting heavy rotation in your collection. Not to mention which games you’re most looking forward to. And, for that matter, how you feel about the potential for these minute devices. (Sure to get even smaller, as evidenced by the impending debut of the Nintendo DS Lite.)

Because you know how the old saying goes; it’s not the size of the system that matters. It’s the motion in the Rumble Pak.

– Scott Steinberg

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.