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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, MP3 players, 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 previous year.[1]

For dedicated handheld games that do not have interchangeable cartridges, disks, etc., or are not reprogrammable, see handheld electronic games. For games on mobile phones, see mobile games.



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 app" for the console, and popularized the action puzzle genre.

Popular genres

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 terms of graphic capabilities than their AC-powered brethren. In addition, 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 gametime duration is much shorter. Hence games that are quick to play, such as sidescrolling platformers 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 capability 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 RPG, 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 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.


Due to the simplistic nature of the video and arcade games of the 1980s, many classic titles have been 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 previously only playable on living room consoles have magically transformed standard console games from the past into handheld ones. Later, the GBA Movie Player was released to allow NES games to be played on the GBA via PocketNES emulator. Subsequent to that, the GP2X has been released. Since many emulators and interpreters for classic computer 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 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.

Card games

While not particularly popular on handheld game consoles, card games such as Texas Hold 'Em, Blackjack, and Solitaire are extremely popular on cellphones and PDAs.

Strategy games

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (a tactical RPG) and the Advance Wars series are examples of strategy games that has 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.

Features unique to handheld gaming

Linking to other handhelds

Most handheld systems are capable of linking 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 N-Gage introduced wireless connectivity via Bluetooth, allowing multiplayer games between handhelds with no cable. This was also a feature in the Nintendo DS and PSP, using the Wi-Fi standard.

Linking to console games

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.


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.


Gaming platforms

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.

In terms of handheld game consoles, there are two subcategories of systems; ones that are a re-engineered portable version of a set-top console that are compatible with existing cartridges, or new systems and platforms that are exclusively designed and use portable media types.

The Sega Nomad, the PSOne, and the Turbo Express are good examples of re-engineered portable systems, however the PSOne is only semi-portable (i.e. cannot fit in your pocket). The Game Boy Advance, the Sega Game Gear, and Neo Geo Pocket are examples of entirely created platforms, although it should be noted that the Game Boy Advance was built largely upon the Super Nintendo system architecture and that the Sega Game Gear is a retooled version of the Sega 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.

Multipurpose gaming platforms

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 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 utilization. Apple's App Store along with the iPhone SDK, has created a much larger market for gaming on the iPhone OS. 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 are capable of playing games. The website It Plays Doom (now no longer online; link goes to an archived page) was dedicated to listing all the portable devices currently capable of playing the popular first person shooter; this ever-growing list includes PDAs, digital cameras, and cellphones.

See also


  1. ^ "U.S. 2004 Video Game Annual Report". Retrieved 2005-09-26.  


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