Video game companies have always tried to replicate the concept of being able to have the full-fledged home console experience on the go. Nintendo themselves are at the forefront of this idea, beginning with the original Game Boy. It was a cartridge-based portable system that attempted to create a portable home console experience. Now, that’s not to say Nintendo was the first, but it was undoubtedly the most successful. Between its variations, the Game Boy line sold over 118 million units in its life. You can take a quick look at nearly any major video game company at that time, and they were all taking a crack at it. With Sony coming the closest. That said, its one thing to replicate the home gaming experience, and another to provide it by actually allowing the user take that same cartridge and use it for both experiences.
NEC & Hudson Soft
In 1987, in Japan, NEC Home Electronics and Hudson Soft developed a home console known as the Turbo Grafx-16. It used what was called a HuCard for its games that were cartridges in the shape of a card. In December 1990, NEC Home Electronics released the TurboExpress. The TurboExpress was a portable system with a similar form to the Game Boy system. It sported a color screen and, well, it’s major draw? It used HuCards. The TurboExpress used the same exact cartridge you inserted into the Turbo Grafx-16. Unfortunately, due to the home console, the Turbo Grafx-16 itself sold poorly outside of Japan and paired with the TurboExpress, having high hardware failure rates, neither iteration saw commercial widespread success.
This wasn’t the first time this was attempted, as SEGA themselves were working on the same idea. In October 1985, SEGA released their home console the Mark III/SEGA Master System which was also cartridge based. In October 1990, SEGA released the Game Gear. The unit itself had a landscape orientation with the direction pad to the left, screen in the center, and 3 remaining buttons on the right. The Game Gear shared many similarities with the SEGA Master System from a technical standpoint. As a result, developers found porting the titles from the Master System over to the Game Gear to be fairly simple. The Game Gear received a slew of ports which although, gave the impression that you able to recreate the experience from the Master System on the go, it still used its own cartridges. That is until an adapter known as the Master Gear was released which enabled the use of Master System cartridges on the Game Gear. However, the use of a hefty adapter limited the accessories that could be used on the Game Gear. The Game Gear suffered from a lack of original titles and although technically superior, the Nintendo Game Boy dominated the market and it never looked back, resulting in the Game Gear selling poorly.
This didn’t prevent SEGA from trying again. In October of 1988, the successor to the Master System, the Sega Genesis was released. The Genesis went on to become SEGA’s best-selling home console. So, from a business perspective, it would make sense to try and build on that success. In October 1995, the Sega Nomad was released. The Nomad had a similar form factor to the Game Gear but had additional buttons to accommodate the Genesis controller’s inputs. The Nomad, however, was never sold out outside of North America and was region locked. It also had limited compatibility with titles due to not supporting all of the consoles add-ons. SEGA was also too focused on their next home console, the Sega Saturn. As a result, it was never fully expanded on and saw poor sales. This was SEGA’s last attempt at a portable system.
Nintendo always seemed content with having their two handheld and home consoles sharing the market separately. They did however, take the opposite approach. The second Nintendo home console, the Super Nintendo had a cartridge called the Super Game Boy which allowed the use of Game Boy cartridges to be played on the Super Nintendo. Nintendo’s fourth home console, the Nintendo GameCube also had an add-on called the Game Boy Player, which allowed Game Boy Advance cartridges to be played on it. The Game Boy line of systems did regularly receive toned down ports of home console games. But, outside of that use, the most Nintendo did to connect their consoles was limited to single, select game connectivity options such as a Game Boy to be used as a controller or to unlock additional items in-game.
Nintendo did attempt to recreate the portable home console in November 2012, however, with the release of the Nintendo Wii U. The home console’s primary controller, called a GamePad sported a 6.2 inch screen which allowed the Wii U to be used independently from a television. Not exclusively though, certain games and features required both screens to be used, a television and that of the GamePad to function. Though most of the Wii U’s library enabled the user to play without a television, it still had to be within range of the console and thus, not a true portable experience.
When Sony entered the Video Game market they enjoyed success with the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 home consoles which were released in 1994 and 2000 respectively. In December 2004 Sony released the PlayStation Portable, also known as the PSP. The PSP was a disc based handheld that gave the option to add flash memory that enabled the user to download games digitally. The PSP, in sense, set that stage for what was to come in clearing up the blurred lines between home console and handheld. The PSP did have its own library of games, and it even had the ability to play PlayStation One games by downloading through the digital shop, the PlayStation Store. It did also get ports of PlayStation 2 games that were full featured for the most part and held up to their console counterpart. The PSP even had features for certain games such as Madden NFL where you would be able to play on the PlayStation 2 and transfer your save file to the PSP and continue your progress on the portable version of the game.
When the PlayStation 3 launched in November 2006 is when Sony began getting very ambitious with the PSP. Over time more features between the PSP, the handheld, and the PlayStation 3, the home console, were added via firmware updates. Sony was even able to add a feature called Remote Play to the PSP and PS3 where you would be able to access your home console through the handheld via wireless internet or a local wireless connection. The user was even able to play a very select number of PlayStation 3 titles through this feature. The PSP sold 82 million units worldwide and was the best-selling console to not carry the Nintendo brand.
Riding the success of the PSP, in December of 2011, the successor to the PSP was released. It was named the PlayStation Vita, also referred to as the Vita for short. The Vita and PSP shared similar functionality with the PlayStation 3 and it wasn’t until the PlayStation 4, which launched in November of 2013, that Sony made it mandatory for developers to accommodate the Vita and make their games compatible for use with Remote Play. Sony also released a device called a PlayStation TV, which allowed the use of certain Vita titles to be played as long as they didn’t need features specific to the Vita hardware as the PlayStation TV used a standard Playstation 3 controller. This allowed a way for Vita games to be played on the go and at home. The Vita was also backward compatible with the majority of digital titles that the PlayStation Portable offered. And in January 2015, Sony officially released a program called PlayStation Now which was a cloud-based gaming service that offered PlayStation 3 games which would eventually be offered on PC as well. The Vita also had support for this digital product until February 2017, where it was announced it would be dropped to better enhance and focus on the PlayStation 4 and PC versions.
To put this in perspective, the PlayStation Vita had the ability to play PSOne, PSP and PSVita titles. When connected to the internet, the Vita could also be paired to a PlayStation 4 and gave the user access to their library of games. Additionally, before February 2017, the Vita was able to stream PlayStation 3 titles via the PlayStation Now service. When all of that is taken into account, the Vita had a massive library of games to choose from. This would be the closest a gamer could get to having that true, home console ‘on the go’ the experience. Of course, that meant a lot of different pieces had to be put in play for this experience to be upheld. But then, Nintendo sought to take this experience and make it simple.
Coming Full Circle
In March 2017, Nintendo released the Nintendo Switch. The Switch is a hybrid console that doubles as both a home console and a portable. The Switch itself is just a 6-inch tablet that can be inserted into a dock that outputs video to a television, and has attachable controllers that allow it to be taken on the go. As of writing, the system lacks many features as it only currently provides games that are developed for the system itself. However, any game that is currently on the Switch can be played on the go. In true Nintendo fashion, it’s as simple as inserting the tablet into a dock to play on the TV, or just pulling the tablet out and taking it with you to resume play. The Switch does not currently have the ability to allow gamers to play older Nintendo platform games via downloads or in any other way. But Nintendo has said that the Virtual Console, Nintendo’s shop for older platform games, is coming.
Going back to the early days of gaming, the experience of being able to play on the go or at home, has been sought after by many companies and, well, the PlayStation Vita came close. But being limited to requiring an active internet connection to access it’s home console games, that could not be acquired independently like a cell phone would, is the biggest difference. All those attempts have come full circle and it seems like Nintendo has finally figured it out. Everything that I hoped my favorite handheld, the Vita, could do I see possible in the Nintendo Switch. Once Nintendo releases all of the Switch’s features and it has a robust library, I can see the Switch being one of the, if not THE greatest console of all time, Handheld or home console. Just based off the potential of the library alone, but considering the convenience and the simplicity on how you can Switch between modes, it’s an exciting time to be a gamer.