I've recently been able to enjoy some "winter sun" thanks to one of these "last minute breaks" I keep reading about... which roughly translates as a miserable incarceration in a dilapidated peasant dwelling two hours from the nearest beach, shop or Wi-Fi connection. On the wrong side of a stagnant river bed. And a mountain. Figuring (correctly) that this would be the case, however, I was sure to stuff my bag with as much technology as Easyjet's weight limit would allow - and then it hit me. My exile was the perfect opportunity to compare my gadgets side by side in order to discover the best portable console of all time. Ever.
My (half-assed) task decided, I proceeded to pack a Game Boy, Game Boy Colour, Game Boy Advance, GBA SP, Neo Geo Pocket Colour, DS Lite, DSi, PSP and 3DS, along with a couple of
dubiously legal handheld emulators portable multimedia players for good measure.
Oh, and I also packed an iPad... which I've disqualified from the running since it isn't a designated gaming device. And, more to the point, I needed to take my notes on it.
- Winner: 3DS
- Loser: PSP
This is a fairly tough one to compare, since the first handheld consoles were designed as toys rather than high-end consumer electronics. However, the original Game Boy, GBA SP and 3DS easily top the list as solid, substantial and lasting pieces of kit. The 3DS does lose a few points for its flimsy hinges, however.
The PSP sadly didn't live up to its gorgeous good looks, with some deceptively loose jangly buttons, loose switches and wobbly UMD drive making it feel less solid (and much cheaper) than it really is.
- Winner: Game Boy
- Loser: 3DS
This one's a no-brainer. The original Game Boy is by far the most comfortable of the consoles thanks to its chunky form factor... with the 3DS and NeoGeo Pocket trailing at the end of the list thanks to their hand-cramping ergonomics. The GBA SP is also horrible for those with big hands, but personally, I cant get enough of it.
Big points for the PSP here... depending on the genre. FPS games inflict permanent arthritis within seconds, but racers feel fantastic.
- Winner: DS Lite
- Loser: 3DS
No surprises here. After booting up as powerful a game as I could find, the 3DS gave up the ghost a meagre three hours and forty minutes into the test (wireless disabled). After that, the PSP (7.5 hours), DSi, GBA SP, DS Lite and the original Game Boy followed suit - the latter taking so long to discharge its four Duracells that I got bored, switched off the timer and played Micro Machines instead.
The original Game Boy deserves to win, then, but I'm not giving it the satisfaction. Having to take cases full of Duracells everywhere is an aggravating and outmoded slog, and frankly, I'd much rather give kudos to the DS Lite that eschewed a camera and pointless Wi-Fi in favour of a stonking active battery life. It's my list, so there.
- Winner: GBA SP
- Loser: PSP
The original Game Boy took surprisingly little damage despite years of rough handling, though the fascia fell off after the glue melted in the sun. In contrast, however, the flimsy PSP will shatter into a thousand plastic shards if a butterfly so much as gently lands atop its screen.
It therefore comes down to the clamshells... and the GBA SP definitely comes out ahead. Big chunky hinges, a few millimetres of armour and a protective tribal tattoo ensure that the spirits are constantly watching over it.
- Winner: DS
- Loser: NeoGeo Pocket
The NeoGeo Pocket, sadly, needs to be taken out of the running at this stage. For the record, I really loved it... but the Japan-centric console just wasn't supported properly in the UK. Read: at all. Unless you love a handful of fighting games and a curiously addictive dungeon crawler called Dark Arms.
The original DS and DS Lite (NOT the DSi) narrowly takes home first place here thanks to its backwards compatibility with GBA titles. Sod Wi-Fi, I'd much rather play Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.
- Winner: GBA SP
- Loser: 3DS
This is essentially a summation of battery life, size, comfort and ease of use... and the SP takes the biscuit by a considerable margin. It can fit into a tight jeans pocket despite having a massive screen and enormous battery life. And a backlight - the first of its kind. Plus, it tends to shrug off all but the most grievous damage.
- Winner: PSP
- Loser: DS
In terms of getting extra bang for your buck, the PSP is definitely the best option (until the Vita hits the shelves, natch). Shoving a load of telly episodes onto your memory stick is easy with a freeware tool or two - and I actually used it as my primary computing device throughout a year of uni when my laptop melted.
Not so the original DS, which is a dumb slab of plastic. Great for playing games, but with the same added value as consoles made countless years before. Unless you count Pictochat.
The Emulation Situation
You might have noticed that I haven't discussed the portable emulators yet - and the reason is simple. They're pants. Even after you've spent an age dicking around with Frameskip options and compatibility problems, you'll still be left with a tatty, rubbish, distorted version of a game that you probably cant understand without an A-Level in Japanese.
Still want to grab a handheld emulator? Here's my pick. If you're looking for raw portability at a bargain price, grab yourself a Dingoo A320. Out of the box emulation is assured for most titles. Otherwise, hardcore users will be better off with the Canaoo. Avoid any emulator that takes regular batteries, as it will drain them within twenty minutes (especially the thirsty GP2X). If money is absolutely no object, try to blag a Pandora. It costs more than a PS3 and an Xbox 360 put together, and it has a waiting list of several months (even years), but it's a bit of a beast.
Emulation is bad, mmmkay? - Ed
So, what's the best handheld console of all time? What has this rambling diatribe been leading towards? The answer is simple:
It's a Tuesday. To Be Continued!
Yep. We always run our top ten lists on a tuesday... so I'm afraid that you'll have to wait for a few hours before finding out in ordered numerical style. I'll link the results retroactively.
But we can discuss an honourable mention: the iPad. Yes, this monolithic mobile device may be a directionless novelty, but it's also a fantabulous gaming platform. A gorgeous screen, incredible active battery life and a titanic selection of games that retail for thirty times less than their boxed counterparts ensure that tablet gaming is here to stay - and frankly, the smart money is on it eclipsing handheld consoles after the Vita and 3DS reach the end of their hardware cycles.