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A handheld video game is a video game designed for a handheld device. In the past, this primarily meant handheld game consoles such as Nintendo's Game Boy line. In more recent history, mobile games have become popular in calculators, personal digital assistants (PDA), mobile phones, digital audio players (e.g., MP3), and other similar portable gadgets.
In the past decade, handheld video games currently have become a major sector of the video game market. In 2004 sales of portable software titles exceeded $1 billion in the United States for the first time, an 11% increase from the prior year.
Handheld video games grew out of handheld electronic games that were popular from the 1970s through the mid-1990s. The key factors in contributing to the advance of handheld video games were the increase in processing power, technological advances in liquid crystal displays (LCDs), and the reduction of power requirements. Handheld video games grew immensely in popularity, thanks to the Game Boy released in 1989. Tetris was considered the killer application for the console, and popularized the action puzzle genre.
Due to the portable nature of the platform, the game genres that are popular on video game consoles are not necessarily the same genres that are popular on handhelds. This is partly due to a constant game of technological catchup for handhelds; they are usually about 1-2 generations behind in graphic abilities than alternating current (AC) powered games. Further, there is a demand to keep the device small, so there are much fewer controls on handhelds than on other systems; this results in games that cannot be as complex. Typically due to the limited time that most users have when on the go, the average play duration is much shorter. Hence games that are quick to play, such as sidescrolling platform games and action puzzle games are very popular. It is important to note that there is solid-state storage for handheld titles, whether it be in the form of a memory card, or EEPROM. On the whole, even with the ability to save games, consumers prefer less time-consuming titles. More complex game types, such as adventure or first person shooters, are less popular.
Due to the low technical demands of the turn based, menu driven role-playing video game, they have often found homes on handheld systems, often based on a console RPG. Those games that have met with the most success have been collection-centered or anime-based RPGs such as:
The Pokémon series has met with so much success that Nintendo has released special editions of the Nintendo DSi, Nintendo DS Lite, Game Boy Advance and Game Boy. These bundles had the game systems in exclusive colors (such as Pikachu yellow) and were bundled with the popular game of the time. Nintendo has reported that over 15 million dollars in sales have been generated by the Pokémon franchise.
The simplicity of the video games of the 1980s has allowed many classic titles to be re-released in handheld form. For example, the Nintendo e-Reader for the Game Boy Advance allowed a small library of classic NES titles to be played on the handheld. e-Reader titles included Excitebike and Ice Climber.
Classic games have also been released for cellphones, such as the Intellivision game library and arcade classics including Galaga, Afterburner and Pac-Man. The Apple iPod features two games from the late 1970 and early 1980s: Breakout and Parachute.
Since the release of the GP32; homebrew and emulated gaming for games formerly only playable on living room consoles have magically transformed standard video games from the past into handheld ones. Later, the GBA Movie Player was released to allow Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) games to be played on the Game Boy Advance (GBA) via PocketNES emulator. Subsequent to that, the GP2X has been released. Since many emulators and interpreters for classic video games have been written for GP2X, classic games have gone handheld; even old DOS games have gone handheld on the GP2X on GP2X's version of DOSBox. The PlayStation Portable (PSP) however, only supports homebrew and emulation to a minor extent. And that its market share in the homebrew community has been slashed after the release of GP2X.
Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, a tactical role-playing game (RPG), and the Advance Wars series are examples of strategy games that have shown popularity for the genre on handhelds. Other games such as Luminous Arc, Heroes of Mana, and Age of Empires: The Age of Kings popularized strategy games for handhelds even further on the Nintendo DS thanks to its touch screen interface.
Most handheld systems can link to others of the same type via a cable that connects two or more handhelds, usually to a maximum of 4. This feature allows both multiplayer gaming and other uses such as item or data transfer between cartridges. The Atari Lynx supported connectivity for up to 17 units at once.
The Game Boy Color introduced wireless multiplayer to handhelds with its infrared port. The N-Gage introduced wireless connectivity via Bluetooth, allowing multiplayer games between handhelds with no cable. Wireless gaming was also a feature in the Nintendo DS and PSP, using the Wi-Fi standard.
Nintendo's Transfer Pak allows transfer of data from compatible Game Boy cartridges to their Nintendo 64 counterparts: e.g. allowing Pokémon from the Game Boy game to be used in Pokémon Stadium for the N64. Similarly, the Game Boy Advance can be linked to the Nintendo GameCube with the Nintendo GameCube Game Boy Advance cable, which allows the GBA to be used as an extra controller with a second screen. The Nintendo DS can wirelessly link with the Wii console. Likewise, the PSP can connect wirelessly to the PlayStation 3 and to the PS2, but only with a cable.
The Neo Geo Pocket Color can connect to the Dreamcast via cable to unlock secret characters in specific games.
On non-dedicated gaming platforms, such as Cellphones, it is important for the game running to not be the highest priority of the hardware/software system. On these devices, the operating system will interrupt the gaming session with something like an incoming call, a scheduling alert, a low-battery warning, etc.
As with traditional video game systems, there are dedicated and console systems. Dedicated handheld video games have a specific set of software are almost always bundled with the hardware unit. However, the release of the GP2X has blurred the difference between "dedicated" and "handheld" since high-capacity user-rewritable solid state memory cards (e.g. SD card) can store ROM images to emulate on emulators ported to the GP2X and that TV-out can be done with the GP2X.
Two subsets of handheld game consoles exist: re-engineered portable versions of a set-top console that are compatible with extant cartridges, or new systems and platforms that are exclusively designed and use portable media types.
The Genesis Nomad, the PS one, and the Turbo Express are good examples of re-engineered portable systems, however the PS one is only semi-portable (i.e. cannot fit in a person's pocket). The Game Boy Advance, the Game Gear, and Neo Geo Pocket are examples of entirely created platforms. However, the Game Boy Advance was built largely upon the Super NES hardware architecture and that the Game Gear is a retooled version of the Master System. The GP2X on the other hand, emulates popular consoles entirely through software and connects to the TV for unsurpassed versatility as a handheld/console.
With the increasing convergence of electronic peripherals made possible by rapid technology advancements, handheld video games are now available on a wide variety of platforms, not just exclusive gaming ones. PDAs, although not a gaming platform, had many games, ports or exclusively designed, for the devices. All modern cellphones include and run gaming software, usually Java or Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless (BREW) based. Graphing calculator gaming is popular among college and high school students. The popular Apple iPod mp3 player includes several bundled games, allows users to download new games from the iTunes Store, and clever enthusiasts have been modifying the software to allow for further gaming uses. Apple's App Store along with the iOS SDK, has created a much larger market for gaming on iOS, the common operating system for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. Game publisher and developer companies such as Tapulous and Ngmoco have created their themselves with the specific focus of gaming on the platform. Some mp3 players that do not play games out of the box could be made to do so by installing Rockbox or other alternative firmware. Even some watches, such as the Timex Datalink can play games. The website It Plays Doom (now no longer online; link goes to an archived page) was dedicated to listing all the portable devices then able to play the popular first person shooter; this ever-growing list includes PDAs, digital cameras, and cellphones.