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Get out your handheld
Edge #149, May 2005
So here we are again. As the last generation of hardware is brutally clubbed to death barely moments after ditching its training bra, we face yet another brave, new dawn in the history of interactive entertainment. This time around things are a little different from the usual console slugfest. This time it's a whole new battle for Nintendo, whose handheld family hasn't faced a genuine threat to its existence since Sega choked its Game Gear to death on batteries and Atari's Lynx was laughed out of the auditorium for wetting its pants in the middle of an ill-judged rap about how cool it was to be left-handed.
I have to confess that I've always loved the idea of handheld gaming more than the reality. Admittedly, I signed up for Tetris mania along with everyone else and their grandmother, but that was a rare example of software and hardware complementing each other perfectly.
Since then, technology has struggled to play catch up. I've lost track of the number of Game Boy games I've wanted to play, or tried to play, but given up on because the screen was too blurry, or there wasn't a 4,000-watt light source directly overhead. In the end it just became too much of a hassle, and - GBA Scrabble aside - it had been years since I picked up a Game Boy of any configuration. Heck, even the SP's underpowered frontlight tended to bleach out the visuals into insipid pastel shades. Of course, that's all changed now. Just before Christmas I caved in to the voices in my head, and bought a DS. I immediately fell in love - here was a simple, unpretentious games system upon which I could play several years' backlog of Game Boy Advance games, with no blurring or a need to sit beneath a giant halogen bulb. I could see the graphics in their unfettered glory, and finally experience the gameplay as it was meant to be played. And that's before I even got to the touchscreen. Yes, it's kind of under-designed and functional-looking on an aesthetic level, but it has such glorious, hidden depths. Super Mario 64 DS may have given me erotic pangs of nostalgia, but it was the minigames that set me reeling. That thing where you have to pull back on the catapult with the stylus? Genius - a better demo of what the DS is capable of than any 3D animation of poxy swimming fish. Doubtless we're only just experiencing what touchscreen gaming is capable of. And this comes from someone who initially dismissed the stylus as the stupidest idea since Scented TrampSheaths™.
Some of you may be nauseated to note that this was the first time I'd ever bought a game or piece of hardware on import, but you'll doubtless be glad to hear that by now I had the bug. The minute Sony's PSP was out in Japan, I was on to my nearest import Johnny to secure myself a machine. It arrived with a copy of Everybody's Golf and Ridge Racers. Very nice it looks too. Slick, great graphics, large, crisp screen, funny wobbly button thing on the left-hand side... It's just not very friendly, is it?
The difference between the DS and the PSP is the difference between a slightly dumpy, scruffy feller who tells the best jokes, and is kind-hearted and considerate, who you could take home to your mother, and a flash city boy who has zero personality, but works out at the gym every day, wears a sharp suit and would probably spit champagne in your mother's face then call her a 'working class whore'.
While I'm sure there will be some splendid games eventually released on the PSP, there's something about it that's sterile and off-putting, like a pre-Star Wars sci-fi movie. Of course, because I'm a ludicrous idiot who enjoys spending money he doesn't have, I possess a Nintendo DS to compare it to, and to give me a hug, and whisper reassuring words in my ear whenever the PSP cruelly knocks me to the floor, and forces me to kiss the dog.
It seems somehow inevitable that the DS will be outsold by the PSP - and it has nothing to do with content, or Sony's considerable marketing clout. To all intents and purposes the mainstream media has made up its mind as to which of the two will be the biggest seller. Even before we know a release date it's already being tipped as the 'must-have' gadget of 2005. But of course the PSP looks better in photos. Who wouldn't prefer to 'enjoy' a photograph of a naked Caprice than one of Stephen Fry stripped from the waist down and squatting above a mirror? But I think we all know which one would offer the best conversation over dinner.
It's a lesson Nintendo has never learned. Compare the swollen stomach of the SNES to the sleek, black lines of the Mega Drive, or the freakish Nintendo 64 to the original PlayStation. The GameCube almost got it right, but spoiled things with its absurd controller, which was a bit like releasing a new model of Porsche, with a giant, luminous potato stuck to the roof.
People are always going to judge books by their cover. We celebrate the beautiful, and slap down the ugly. I'm just hoping against hope that for once people can look beyond the mere cosmetic and realise that the DS is the true future of handheld gaming.
Mr Biffo co-founded Digitiser, Channel 4's Teletext-based videogames section, and now writes mainly for television
Do you know of any important moments from the annals of Digi history that have been omitted? If so, then mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) right now, man. Credit will be duly given for anything that gets put up.