Portable game consoles sometimes get a bad rap with gamers who consider them to just be for kids, not for the hardcore gamer. Yet, if you’ve been gaming for a while, you know that handheld systems can sometimes have the best games of any generation, beating out home consoles, handily. As the gaming industry has grown with its audience the trend has turned away from just creating quality games and into creating “AAA” titles, the big budget blockbusters that are meant to sell millions of copies and call for press releases gloating about sales. We’ve gotten lost in a sea of games akin Michael Bay summer blockbusters, which is fine, but sometimes we forget that there is more to gaming than running and gunning with cutscenes telling us an overly-emotional tale, which is a departure from what we grew up with, which was Japanese video games that did things a lot differently.
This is where handhelds come in, though, as they aren’t as powerful as the home consoles, they also aren’t really made for some big screen, explosion-filled experience, either. Instead they are more fit for different kinds of games. Handhelds work perfectly for games that you can pick up and play for half an hour or so without feeling like you are neglecting it, or they are perfect for games that tell more intimate and subdued stories compared to their bombastic AAA cousins. Then, of course, they are perfect for re-releases of older games that might not of had as fair of a shake or were never released in certain markets.
So this holiday season I found myself in possession of not one but two handhelds; the PlayStation Vita and Nintendo 3DS, each one with their own set of strengths and weaknesses, as well as their own unique game libraries. Without a doubt the 3DS is the king of the handheld world right now with over 39.6 million units sold compared to the Vita’s 6.7 million, but the Vita is a powerful and beautiful piece of hardware with some really amazing features of its own, never mind the incredible PS4 remote play features.
I decided to delve into the strengths of each system’s game libraries and pick at what I thought would be some great games and honestly, it has really given me a newfound appreciation for the really well-made Japanese games that have been brushed to the wayside thanks to the AAA game movement. Sure, I messed around with Hotline Miami and Guacamelee on my Vita as I owned them on PS3 and could easily download them to my Vita for free. I also found myself playing Resogun via PS4 remote play and enjoying it (especially when discovering the rear touch pad for the L2 and R2 buttons), but when I delved deeper things just got better. The Vita-exclusive from Media Molecule, Tearaway, was an awesome experience that took advantage of every feature of the Vita without being too gimmicky, but that wasn’t my favorite, oh no.
You know what game really pulled me in? Persona 4 Golden. Persona 4 Golden is an updated version of Shin Megami Tensai: Persona 4 from the PlayStation 2. As is standard for Atlus, this was released well into the death throes of the PS2’s lifecycle in December of 2008 when I was already sitting around comfortably with my Xbox 360 while my PS2 was off to the side and pretty much only booted up to play Fire Pro Wrestling R. So having Persona 4 Golden released early on in the Vita’s lifecycle sure does help, as it is a damned fine game.
Japanese RPGs are some of the games that I miss the most, as there are still fine releases like the PS3 version of Ni No Kuni (which was originally a DS title from Japan in 2010) and a select few others, but a lot of the focus tends to be on companies like Square-Enix that have been trying to adapt to the Western world of AAA titles with their games and just failing miserably when compared to what they used to churn out. Yet, on a handheld putting in dozens of hours into a Japanese RPG feels natural and fun.
On the 3DS front, as tempting as the new Zelda really is, for some reason I decided to instead immediately pick up the new Phoenix Wright game, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies and my god, it just feels like putting on a pair of your favorite shoes that you haven’t worn in years. You could argue that the Ace Attorney games haven’t evolved much over the years, but the quasi-point and click adventure game, quasi-Japanese visual novel style works as well as ever and is executed almost to perfection.
Playing both of these games really made a lot of things stand out to me; the first being how refreshing it is to play games where the main mechanics aren’t shooting mechanics, the second being that Japanese games have taken a backseat to Western games, but that a well done Japanese game can still feel magical, even if it isn’t revolutionary. In a way it is a shame that you have to turn to handhelds to find these kinds of experiences (never mind how easy they make digital distribution), but then again, it only adds to the experience to be able to take games that can span 30 - 80 hours with you in your pocket and play them anywhere.
In the past I’ve complained that it seems like we’ve moved so far away from the roots of home gaming that we came from in the 80’s and 90’s, the classic Japanese-styled games. It makes sense that as we, the Western world, grew up and started making our own games that we’ve have our own take on it and that it would appeal to more people here, but the fact that Japanese games have had such a struggle capturing broad audiences has been a difficult pill to swallow. While on home consoles it has felt like for every quality Japanese game there has been a few that try too hard and miss the mark, it is nice to know that on handhelds these games are alive and well.
Dave Walsh is a writer residing in Albuquerque, New Mexico who is best known for his work as a Kickboxing and Mixed Martial Arts journalist. His work has been featured on a number of publications, including BloodyElbow.com, MiddleEasy.com, CageSideSeats.com, Heavy.com as well as his own site, LiverKick.com.
His first novel, The Godslayer, is on sale now.