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Left behind: The sad state of portable gaming devices at E3

Andrew Hayward | June 13, 2014
With the latest gaming consoles out in the wild, this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo is all about big games--and there's a vast selection of them for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. Heck, there's even a solid array of Wii U titles, albeit mostly at Nintendo's own booth.

With the latest gaming consoles out in the wild, this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo is all about big games — and there's a vast selection of them for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. Heck, there's even a solid array of Wii U titles, albeit mostly at Nintendo's own booth.

But when it comes to gaming-centric handhelds, both Sony and Nintendo seem remarkably hands-off this year, adding to the perception that such devices and their $40 games are being seriously marginalized by low-cost and increasingly excellent smartphone and tablet games.

As mobile devices become faster and more powerful — and thus better able to run more ambitious, richly-designed games — the only thing that helps the PlayStation Vita or Nintendo 3DS retain any appeal is original software. And while both have gems in their libraries and some potentially interesting initiatives on the horizon, the lack of attention being paid to either at E3 doesn't bode well for the future of dedicated handheld gaming devices.

Vita's odd evolution

The PlayStation Vita was first positioned as a handheld capable of delivering nearly console-quality graphics on the go — and 2012 launch titles like Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Wipeout 2048 largely delivered on that promise, even if they weren't as well-received as their console siblings. In the two years since, however, Sony has moved away from being the kind of first-party publisher that sets the tone for its own platform with significant releases.

When the company launched a revised version of the Vita hardware last month, its bundled "killer app" was a diminished port of year-and-a-half old console shooter Borderlands 2. Otherwise, Sony's only retail Vita releases thus far this year besides annual sports sim MLB 14: The Show are a God of War Collection, and The Sly Collection — the latter two are both compilations of older titles from other PlayStation platforms. Likewise, major third-party publishers have turned their back on the device, with only a handful of titles hitting retail shelves in the past few months.

Sony's press briefing took a moment to recognize the PlayStation Vita as a pillar of its platform strategy, but then failed to take time to showcase a single new game for it. And its upcoming lineup lacks broad, major releases, unless the kid-centric Invizimals: The Alliance fires up your engines.

On the plus side, Sony has done an excellent job of curating its digital offerings and encouraging indie developers to bring their games to the platform. There's a large bank of Vita demo units at the PlayStation booth; the vast majority of them are running exciting projects from small teams, like Hyper Light Drifter, Race the Sun, and The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. While not Vita exclusives, indie games like Fez, Limbo, and Spelunky are great handheld experiences, plus Sony has used its tri-platform approach — with the PlayStation 4, Vita, and still-kicking PS3 — to deliver cross-buy digital titles that work across the board.

 

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