Traditionally speaking, one company has dominated the world of portable gaming since the birth of medium in the ’80s: Nintendo. Kicking off with the LCD-based Game & Watch range, the Japanese company has been at the forefront of the mobile industry, pushing out million-selling devices like the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance and the Nintendo DS.
Throughout these years of triumph Nintendo has fought off challenges from a wide range of rivals, including Sega, Atari, NEC, Bandai and SNK. More recently, Nintendo has gone toe-to-toe with Sony’s PSP – easily its most successful competitor – and as a result the playing field is a little less easy to read. The PSP is gaining traction in Japan and the DS appears to be losing its potency at retail.
One thing the PSP has proven is that Nintendo isn’t unbeatable – should the right machine come along, the public will support it. That’s why now is the ideal time for a rival firm to take to the field in an attempt to steal away market share from the incumbent parties.
Who will it be, though? Many point to Apple as being the natural successor to Nintendo’s throne, but despite the astonishing success of the iPhone and iPod touch, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that a portable gaming device which doesn’t possess a traditional “pad and buttons” interface can ever truly become the market leader. Besides, Apple’s products arguably reside outside the videogame arena; they play games, but this is a bonus feature which falls outside of their usual remit.
It’s been rumored for some time that Microsoft is looking to release some kind of portable console, and this would certainly make a great deal of sense given the enduring appeal of the Xbox brand. However, with Zune and Windows Mobile already on the table the firm may see adding another portable format to the mix is overkill. At the moment Microsoft appears to be adopting Apple’s approach and is trying to break into the mobile gaming market via other, less conventional delivery methods.
Who else does that leave? Long-time Nintendo opponent Sega still has a limited involvement with hardware thanks to its arcade division, but it has long since abandoned the notion of pouring millions of dollars into potentially risky console manufacture. Other notable rivals – such as NEC and SNK – are unlikely to rise to the challenge after being so badly burned previously.
Perhaps then – as we hypothesized a while back in this very same column – cloud gaming could represent the future of portable entertainment? Should OnLive and Gaikai experience successful domestic launches of the tech, surely there’s a solid argument for the same infrastructure to be used in mobile devices? In fact, such a platform could become the gaming system of choice, offering cutting-edge visuals with portable versatility and comfort.
Whatever happens in the handheld industry over the next few years, Nintendo is unquestionably going to be at the heart of it – the real question is how much of the pie will the Japanese gaming veteran be left with?
Pocket Gamer is Europe’s leading source of news, opinion and reviews on mobile and handheld gaming.