These are the Top 8 Handheld Game Console Devices of All Time
There was a time when video gaming was tied only to stationary systems. Arcade machines, consoles, and PCs, all were the only ways in which a player could engage.
While we were content with these choices, we never knew what we were missing. Eventually, developers would branch out to create the first mobile system; a true handheld game console.
Suddenly, we had the joy of video games anywhere we went. Some of these handheld video games would even challenge the quality of their home-based cousins.
Over time, this handheld game console market would grow and evolve, turning from what was a niche curiosity into a major market force.
Have you ever wondered how we got to where we are today? Let's take a look back at the history of handheld console systems and how they changed.
As for what counts as a handheld, in classic terms, a handheld game console is a video gaming device portable anywhere. While doing this, it also must keep the display in your hands.
At first, this meant something like a Game Boy, though over time the definition expanded. Today, handhelds include mobile phones as unofficial entries among their ranks.
In the Beginning
The idea of handheld video gaming consoles was around since the advent of grounded home systems. It seemed a natural change, to bring an already popular form of entertainment into an untapped marketplace.
After all, companies in the 70s were already spending millions to develop the best home systems. From this perspective. making the best handheld game console was a simple extension of this concept.
The reality was that, before the 1980s, the technology to make a great handheld game console wasn't there yet. Handhelds needed tiny computer chips that were both powerful enough to run, and cheap enough to sell at a profit.
Additionally, the battery drain for these systems could make them problematic in the long term.
Early on, systems like 1979 Microvision would attempt to make ground on this front. It wasn't until the Game Boy was released in 1989, however, that technological reach finally met its grasp.
The Game Boy was powerful, it was cheap and for many, that enshrined the system as the best handheld game console of all time.
Competitors and Decline
As handheld video games on the Game Boy began to sell like hotcakes, other major manufacturers tried to enter the handheld console market.
During the 90s, such efforts were hardly as complicated as they are today, with famous names like Atari, Sega, and even Bandai trying to make their mark.
Eventually, all failed in the face of Nintendo's momentum and established franchises. Only one developer managed to put up a real fight. This developer was Sony, which released the PSP in 2004, after gaining experience making the PlayStation 1 and 2.
Entering the handheld game console market, they released the PSP, and seven years later, the PSVita. Both of these machines were well regarded, but even they folded before Nintendo's might.
Possibilities for the Future
The last major dedicated gaming console offering handheld play has been the Switch, which hit shelves in 2017. As a console/handheld hybrid, the Switch superseded the New 3DS line.
This consolidated their handheld and grounded titles into a singular whole. As of 2020, this is the only traditional handheld game console left, but tradition is changing.
Gaining momentum in the background of the handheld gaming market is the growing success of mobile phones. Originally far more limited than the Game Boy, modern mobile phones today have come a long way.
Today, they're often more powerful than the PlayStation 2, with some even surpassing the power of the Switch.
Such potential presents a considerable challenge for Nintendo and its handheld game console fame. This created massive potential implications for the future of handheld gaming.
Needless to say, it's going to be a difficult few years for Nintendo if they want to maintain their place in the handheld game console arena.
Before going on, it's important to note there is debate over how we define consoles and handhelds. To some players, the term handheld is the only correct term, which should differentiate it from consoles (like the PlayStation), and PC.
Ultimately, there isn't one right answer, so the terms handheld or handheld console are both acceptable.
The Top 8 Handheld Video Game Consoles
There's a lot of crossover between financial success and handheld game console influence. That said, going straight for a list of the best-sellers is a bit dry. This is especially the case when you consider how Nintendo's offerings would then completely dominate this list.
Of course, we can't deny how much Nintendo has driven the handheld game console industry forward. We'll also focus on offerings slightly more unusual.
As a top-eight list, the following are presented in no particular order. This is because there isn't just one "best handheld". Handhelds are a matter of taste, with no right or wrong answers. Heck, you can even choose the Virtual Boy as the best if you want to.
- Launch Price: $89.99
- Launch Date: September 1989
- Developer: Nintendo
- Total Games Released: 1,046
The grandfather of them all, the Game Boy was the system that set the stage for decades to come. With a green and black monochrome display and only two buttons, the system struggles by today's standards.
Then, at the time, it was a technological marvel. Here, titles like Tetris and Pokémon would find their legs. From humble beginnings, they then became some of the most popular handheld game console titles ever developed.
Ten years later, in 1998, the Game Boy hardware would see its first major update in the Game Boy Color. With up to 56 colors on screen at a time over the original system's two, the GBC was a strong follow-up, but it couldn't compare to what Nintendo had in store next.
Game Boy Advance
- Launch Price: $99.99
- Launch Date: June 2001
- Developer: Nintendo
- Total Games Released: 1,534
As the name suggests, the Game Boy Advance was a full handheld game console upgrade to the GB and GBC. About as powerful as the Super Nintendo, the GBA updated the button count to four.
It also supported hundreds or thousands of colors at once, depending on the graphics mode, and was a handheld powerhouse.
The GBA would see its hardware refreshed with the SP and Micro models. These addressed the system's main complaint of a non-backlit screen.
Though the system would struggle with 3D graphics, its capacity for 2D has left many to consider the GBA the best handheld game console on the market.
- Launch Price: $149.99
- Launch Date: November 2004
- Developer: Nintendo
- Total Games Released: 2,048
When it was announced, there was a lot of confusion about the direction taken by the DS, or Dual Screen system. Players were confused about the need for an extra screen and the necessity of a stylus for touch control on the lower display.
Many feared the DS would end up a gimmick system like the Virtual Boy, but the DS came out swinging.
Though few games made full use of the touch feature, players praised the use of the bottom screen for puzzles, maps, and inventory management. Less messing around in menus made for more active play, and a huge library of titles meant DS owners never missed out.
Even better, the DS had full backward compatibility with the GBA, making two handheld game console systems in one.
Though not just one product, the DS line would become the second best-selling system yet. Selling 154 million units, a mere one million fewer than the PlayStation 2, the DS has been Nintendo's most successful console.
- Launch Price: $299.99
- Launch Date: March 2017
- Developer: Nintendo
- Total Games Released: 3,800+
The latest entry from Nintendo, the Switch took a radical approach from the efforts of Microsoft and Sony. Rather than pushing grounded hardware to its limits, the Switch understood that Nintendo had near full control of the handheld video games market at the time.
Leaning on style over raw polygon count, the comparatively slow device was almost guaranteed success.
This was also the first Nintendo console to embrace the company's otherwise poor online systems. This meant that in addition to casual games, many offerings in the MMO and PVE spheres were finally playable on Nintendo.
It might have taken Nintendo a while, but with the Switch, they're finally competing in the online console space.
- Launch Price: $249.99
- Launch Date: March 2005
- Developer: Sony
- Total Games Released: 1,370
With Sony leading the sixth generation of home consoles with the PS2, hyped players awaited what they could do in the handheld space. With hardware more powerful than what Nintendo offered, PSP games looked great.
The console also boasted a broad library of both original titles and PS1 ports to choose from.
Followed by the PSVita, the PSP series would eventually fall into obscurity. Before this decline, they showed the handheld world that competitors could exist too. Who knows, we might even see a new Sony device one day if we're lucky.
Sega Game Gear
- Launch Price: $149.99
- Launch Date: April 1991
- Developer: Sega
- Total Games Released: 300+
During the late '80s and early '90s, Sega was one of the biggest names in the console market. With the Master System and Genesis, they offered the same potential as the other big names in the space.
The only downside was fewer developers leveraging their system's power. When Sega released the Game Gear, the hope was that their performance in handhelds could match that of their console counterparts.
Though the Game Gear sold well, it was also considered a misstep for Sega. Many of the games ported didn't fit the screen's lower resolution, and the device earned a reputation of being a major battery eater.
If you could get around those limitations, however, the Game Gear had a charm to it.
- Launch Price: Varies
- Launch Date: Varies
- Developer: Varies
- Total Games Released: 10,000+
While hardly a dedicated gaming device, gamers can't ignore the modern size and scope of mobile gaming. Today, many games released on consoles are ported to mobile, and some that start on mobile make their way to other systems.
Add onto this the capacity for mobiles to host game streaming systems like Microsoft's xCloud and Google's Stadia, and the mobile phone gaming space is definitely one to watch.
Plus, there are various browser games you can play, many of which are not accessible on dedicated handheld gaming devices.
Nvidia Shield Portable
- Launch Price: $299
- Launch Date: July 2013
- Developer: NVidia
- Total Games Available: 10,000+
The NVidia Shield Portable was a step away from traditional forms of handhelds. Instead of only hosting games directly on the system, Nvidia also used streaming to bring titles to the system's display.
Performed over the internet or home networks, latency was the Shield's biggest concern.
Though there were a handful of games released on the system, most interesting to players was the Shield's streaming ability. With this ability, the Shield could access anything your PC could.
Since PCs can access tens of thousands of games, this provided a significant title library.
A More Mobile Future
Whether looking at a direct game console like the Switch, or a more unofficial system like a mobile phone, the handheld market is bigger than ever.
With the arrival and acceptance of 5G and the potential this technology brings, new handhelds could mirror the power of grounded systems, with continuously new games becoming available.
As the long-time power gap between static and handheld game console systems diminishes, the advantages of handhelds mark them as a more convenient way to play.
As for whether this could mean fewer people playing consoles and PC, that much we would doubt. The gaming town is big enough for everyone, and for a broader environment, that's a positive thing.