Having owned the first fat Gameboy back in the heyday I can safely say that hand-held gaming has come a ways since those dark, monochrome, 8 bit days.   After few minor revisions of Nintendo’s hand-held wonder I was excited for some progress.  Sure there was that brief stint with SEGA’s little black hand-held that could… but I didn’t really own one, nor could I afford the massive upkeep in batteries to keep that bad boy running.  The Atari Lynx, a technical marvel at the time, never really garnered too many developers or sales and eventually leaving its place in history as a collector’s item.   My Pokemon addiction certainly did not help wean me off of Nintendo’s allure of inexpensive portable heaven.  Like many young gamers of the Pokemon era, Nintendo had me hook line and sinker.  And then came the DS, a first month purchase no doubt, but something was different. Either I was growing long of tooth or short of imagination – something was missing.

In 2005 Sony met it’s naysayers head on with the release of the PSP, an incredible device and one that has inadvertently shaped my views on what a hand-held gaming device is and what one could be.  In a response to the lackluster games library arose an enormous community of homebrewers and coders to bring emulators and other apps to a new audience.  PC gamers, myself included, have toyed with emulators and mods long before the PSP’s release; but now it was portable fit in your hand goodness for $200. Barring the inevitable and unfortunate side effect of piracy, the PSP is a gateway drug for not just hand-held gaming, but hand-held computing as well.  After some research and a few hundred dollars in pocket I set out in a journey to rediscover portable gaming.

The first stop was the now infamous Gizmondo, run almost quite literally into the ground by it’s mobster CEO, the device had powerful hardware yet a limited library.  The homebrew community never quite took off the ground as it mostly adopted the projects of other windows based devices.  Tapwave’s Zodiac, Gamepark holdings’ GPX, and their later GP2X were other homebrew centric devices that never quite caught my eye due to their lack of commercial games. Never quite attaining the level of success that Microsoft billed, the Ultra Mobile PC initiative called the origami project never quite took off.  Two particular devices stood out due to their portability/gaming potential:  Sony’s UX series – in my case the UX180p – and Samsung’s Q1 Ultra.  Aside from the many PC games released over the past 20 years, emulators up until the 128 bit Dreamcast era stand out as a feature surpassing the likes of the PSP and other dedicated homebrew devices. Having a fully featured version of windows really helps.  Unfortunately price is another issue altogether.

One of the most portable – with a 4.5″ screen – UMPCs, the handheld UX series cost a fortune at $1500-$2500 depending on the model.  Luckily the prices of used models have fallen to nearly $300-500 on auction sites.  Mostly ergonomic and quite capable at running many PC games of the early to mid 2000’s, the device remains one of the best UMPC’s to this day.  Micro PC talk is a community forum dedicated to the UX and featuring How-to guides and game/emulator compatibility lists.

Samsung’s Q1 series began its life unsuccessfully as one of the first UMPC’s under the Origami project; Bulky, difficult to hold and short on battery life the original was not a success.    Luckily Samsung quickly revised their product and re-released it under the name of Q1 Ultra.  Still an imperfect device it was a major improvements and featured and analog nub/face buttons along with a blackberry styled keyboard.  Barring the top end $2000 model, the ‘mainstream’ Q1 Ultra was not the powerhouse that is the Sony UX series, yet was available at a much more reasonable $1000 – still an astronomically high figure for portable gamers, although is available now at auction sites for about $300 used.

Other UMPC’s capable of portable gaming exit, their makers all hoped that the UMPC’s would catch on in the public eye and eventually become mainstream.  Apple had other ideas, and it’s their innovations with the iPod, iPhone, and the recent iPad that really took the market, and gamers by storm.

Nintendo has recently announced the price point of its 3DS’ software: $40-50.  This would fall completely in line with their competitor’s – that is Sony’s – pricing strategy.  Unfortunately in the year 2011 things have changed thanks to apple – for better or for worse.  The app store launched with the iPod touch and iPhone devices, and features much of its software library at $ .99.  Arguments of quality aside the game has changed. (pun intended) The devices themselves are no slouches either; receiving yearly revisions the hardware has come to rival the psp in performance. A homebrew community exists on apple devises provided they are jailbroken.  The lack of buttons can be off-putting but not deal-breaking since many developers have optimized the onscreen controls to emulate real buttons as best as possible.  Still, the incredible portability and inexpensive (or often free) software has proven to be appealing and very lucrative for both gamers and would-be-developers.

Worth a mention is the completely open source by gamers for gamers Pandora hand-held gaming system.  Running similar innards to that of the iPod and iPhone the system sets out to be a successor to the GP2X and is running on open source Linux distribution.

Stepping away from the mainstream portable gaming devices one can find a plethora of gaming possibilities on the go; some requiring deep pockets- both figuratively and literally – others can be found cheap on the net.  There is a world beyond that shelf one’s local Gamestop.  It may not be for everyone but whoever embarks on that journey to seek to Holy Grail of portable gaming goodness will find that it’s an immensely rewarding journey…most of the time at leastIf all else fails, you could just make your own 🙂