At one time, dedicated handheld systems were a major force in gaming. The PSP sold as many units as the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The Nintendo DS surpassed it by leaps and bounds, second only to the PlayStation 2 in the console market. The message for publishers was clear: Handheld gaming was a major market, one the Triple A space could do well to invest in.
Then the mobile gaming market surged past everyone’s expectations, including Sony and Nintendo’s. A generation later, the PS Vita and 3DS are lagging far behind their handheld peers. It’s reached the point that Nintendo’s NX was rumored to feature Android support. In other words, if you’re going to market a new dedicated gaming handheld in 2015, you’re either insane or have an incredible edge.
Enter the SMACH Z, a new dedicated gaming handheld whose Kickstarter launched last week. What does it provide that other mobile platforms cannot? As it turns out, the SMACH Z is a third-party Steam Machine, automatically unlocking entire libraries of PC games for anyone with a Steam account. That’s the kind of edge that just might work – if it can secure its Kickstarter funding.
“We’ve been working on the project for almost two years, and in this process we have built several prototypes,” SMACH Z co-founder Daniel Fernandez told The Escapist. “To pass to the next development phase, where the final industrial prototype will be manufactured, we need a bigger investment; that’s why we’re running this Kickstarter campaign.”
Fernandez first announced SMACH Z under the name “SteamBoy” in June, 2014. It’s obviously undergone a rebranding, and the hardware specs have been tweaked slightly, but the concept remains the same – bring SteamOS to a mobile device complete with a trackpad control scheme. If it works as advertised, any Linux game meeting its hardware requirements will be playable, including those which traditionally use a mouse and keyboard. But while the SMACH Z will use SteamOS, it’s not a first-party Valve product – and as such, is being produced independently.
“SMACH Z is a third party,” Fernandez said of his team. “For the moment Valve only has provided information and access to the Steam Machines developers site. Also, they asked us to change our original name SteamBoy to [not] include the word Steam. Of course, we hope to have more support from Valve if the Kickstarter campaign succeeds.”
On paper, it all sounds fantastic. What gamer wouldn’t want to access their Steam library while traveling, connecting to online matches using built-in WiFi support? Even if you’re starting a new Steam account, having access to hundreds of games at launch is a major selling point, something Kickstarter consoles like the Ouya couldn’t achieve. Even keeping to handheld examples, the PS Vita suffered from a lack of backwards compatibility, and a less-than-stellar launch library. Ideally, the SMACH Z can focus entirely on hardware without worrying about any problems on the game development front. And if you’re not a fan of trackpads, SMACH Z even features optional D-Pad overlays used to replicate classic gaming controls.
But the SMACH Z is not without some valid concerns. Certain advertised games, such as Bioshock Infinite and SOMA, have benchmarks that already push this hardware to the limits. By the time backer models arrive in 2016, its AMD chips will be over two years old, and would need to be upgraded further for the consumer model. Outside of future proofing matters, SteamOS reportedly performs significantly worse than modern Windows systems – something the SMACH Z team couldn’t address on its own. And that’s not even getting into overly optimistic features like its five-hour battery life. Most gaming laptops are lucky to last for two without a plug nearby.
Yet this is only a problem if we think of SMACH Z as a closed handheld system. The device is being developed with ImasD, whose ClickArm program specializes in custom modular devices. ImasD engineers are also working closely with SMACH Z on some of its biggest issues, including power consumption and cooling systems for a platform of this size. According to ImasD CEO Pedro Pelaez, that means SMACH Z parts can be replaced and customized just like any traditional gaming PC. “The device will be the first, modular handheld console, and has a big difference than the competitors,” Pelaez told The Escapist. “It will allow the possibility to be upgraded in the future for new games.”
In other words, the SMACH Z is effectively being produced like a PC, albeit one with a different control interface. “The SMACH Z is an small computer with 5″ display,” Pelaez continued. “We have focused special attention in the development in [issues like] battery performance, power consumption, temperature running. We will use for this device a new cooler system taking the best performance without increasing the weight and the power consumption.”
Outside of hardware, the SMACH Z is also looking into secondary operating systems. The Kickstarter campaign markets Windows compatibility as a stretch goal, but ImasD is already considering several possibilities. “In the first step Smach Z will use SteamOS, but it will allow the use of a lot of Linux platforms,” Pelaez explained. “The Android and Windows support will appear later, because we need more time to develop the controllers. Maybe Android will appears before Windows. And we’ll have the option of dual-boot, for sure.”
We won’t know how the SMACH Z turns out until next year, and that’s largely dependent on investments and Kickstarter backing. It certainly wouldn’t be the first console to fade away at the last moment. But all the same, it’s hard not to feel cautiously optimistic for a Steam-based handheld, especially one with features its developers have described. It’s the kind of platform I didn’t realize I wanted until reading about it, and now I just want my hands on it to play for myself. And I’m probably not alone in that.
“I think many people are waiting for a device like SMACH Z,” Fernandez said, “and it’s a great opportunity for Steam to open a new way of playing Steam games.”
With a little luck, maybe that day will come to pass.