Growing With Gameboy
With the release of Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, I’ve been thinking a lot about how far the handheld has come. I remember being a kid and getting yelled at for having my Gameboy out at the table during dinner or sitting in the back of the car, headphones on, zoning out to whatever I was hooked on at the time. Back then, there were no real mind blowing graphics or elaborate stories, gameplay was simple and stories were secondary. Actually, for most games, I didn’t have any motivation at all besides simply beating the game. I guess I’ve always had an affinity for handheld games because in a way, handheld games and I have grown up at the same pace. When I was very young, I had my Mario, Tetris and Double Dragon; but the more I developed, the more my handhelds did. I didn’t need a story as a kid and for the most part, my Gameboy wasn’t compelled to tell me one.
Oddly enough, just when I was old enough to start enjoying a good book, Pokemon Red and Blue were launched. We all know the story of how Pokemon took the world by storm and we all needed the cards, the games, and the video tapes (…heh, video tapes) We were socially shunned and sent to caves to live out our childhoods in exile. Pokemon had everything I already loved about my handheld games and was even my first RPG experience, so the fact that it took me weeks to beat was fantastic, but there was something else there that I fell in love with. While playing Pokemon, things seemed simple enough, but beyond taking down Team Rocket and going from gym to gym, I found some nuggets of a story and a rich world within the game that you couldn’t fully grasp by just battling to the end. To truly be immersed in the world, you had to take the time to read the notes, pay attention to the subtle hints in dialogue, and actually think about the world of Pokemon. Although I didn’t fully grasp it, after reading the story of Mewtwo in the game, I knew Pokemon was something special because of this effect it had, I didn’t just want to beat it, I wanted to know it.
While getting a story from a game wasn’t completely unprecedented, getting one out of a handheld felt revolutionary to me. It somehow made the experience feel more legitimate. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying a game MUST have a story to be great, but experiencing that on my Gameboy for the first time made me take another look at what could be done with the little machine I always carried around in my pocket.
So time passes and graphics improve, new systems are launched and the Gameboy Advance makes its appearance into the world. While games with an elaborate story became more common place; they were still spread fairly thin and restricted mostly to RPGs. Castlevania and Zelda games showed us how a story could enrich an action game on a handheld and still be accessible. No matter where you were, you could pick up your GBA and have a grasp on what was going on without feeling like you were missing anything by gaming on the go. I think that was important and taught us that with handhelds there is a very fine line to tred between giving the gamer motivation and keeping the game accessible. After all, these games were meant to be played on the go, not to be sat down with like a home console game… right?
The next big milestone that hit me was Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. I was already a raging Kingdom Hearts fan at this point and the prospect of a sequel had me foaming at the mouth. Seriously, I was mistaken for a rabid dog while walking out of the mall with that thing. At the time, I didn’t see the significance of the game other than a continuation of the series; it didn’t dawn on me what that actually meant. This game, a handheld, was an integral piece to a series and story. This wasn’t something that could stand alone and make no difference to the plot of the next title. Sure, you could play Kingdom Hearts 2 without playing Chain of Memories, but something integral would be lost in the process. This was something I had never seen before in a handheld, and it was groundbreaking.
However, KH: CoM had one major problem; it was too much like a console game. This was not something that could be played casually; you either had to throw yourself into it or the game became frustrating. I know many a gamer that put this one aside for one reason or another. While most did not like the gameplay, they all seemed to agree that the game was just too much of a venture for them to play casually. After numerous conversations, ending with that line of reasoning, I understood; while I was crazy to sit down and play a handheld game all day and night, that wasn’t really what the casual gamer was going for, and there needs to be a balance for a handheld to succeed.
Kingdom Hearts got better at this with titles like 358/2 Days and Re: Coded, but not every game learned from their mistake. Assassin’s Creed was another series that incorporated a handheld into their canon, making Bloodlines an official story in the saga. Many people couldn’t get behind this game because it didn’t have that basic principle; balance between accessibility and story. In fact, even I had trouble following what was going on after putting the game down for a couple days, it basically became, “Oh I have to kill this guy… hell if I remember why but here I go.”
So at this point in handheld gaming we’ve got story, much better graphics, and even online play getting in on the mix. Handhelds were becoming harder and harder to discern from their console brothers. In fact, the Nintendo DS was steadily making more money than the Wii. But at this point, there was still a clearly defined line between your handheld and your console… until the launch of the 3DS and Playstation Vita.
We’re pretty much up to speed at this point but it’s important to note where we are now. Our handheld games are telling elaborate stories while still trying to maintain that feeling of being able to pick it up and play at any time without feeling lost. However those games we started with, that don’t need the story or the motivation, are still alive and strong as well. Today our handhelds mirror our consoles, and yet still maintain that charm of yesteryear. Many say that the rise of app based gaming is going to kill our handheld consoles, but I believe that for those of us who grew up on our Gameboys, there will always be a market. I know for a fact that as long as there are quality games on my 3DS or PS Vita, I’ll always be carrying one of them around in my pocket.