Handheld games have come a long way since the cabbage-colored days of Game Boy titles. Portable game systems are no longer tethered by cartridges and link cables: we can buy games online and play with friends from around the world. We can also take pictures, watch movies, download demos, and access social media. Unfortunately, all these features command an additional price beyond the initial price tag: battery power.
Nintendo, a company that arguably seized hold of the handheld market by prioritizing the original Game Boy’s battery life over flashy features like a color screen, surprised handheld gaming enthusiasts when it revealed in 2010 that the Nintendo 3DS’s battery would provide a mere three to eight hours of gameplay before sputtering out. Nintendo kept its word: though there are ways to conserve the 3DS’s battery power, 3DS owners can’t stray too far from the charging cradle before the system demands a power nap.
Therefore, Sony’s recent revelation that the PlayStation Vita’s battery will have an even shorter lifespan than the 3DS’s didn’t spawn nearly as much grumbling as Nintendo’s initial announcement. After six months of adapting to the 3DS’s short battery life, few of us entertained any fantasies about the Vita running for ten hours before needing to sit down for a break.
The lackluster battery life for the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita might be regarded as another strike against dedicated handheld game systems in the smartphone war. After all, we can’t get hours and hours gaming out of our smartphones, either: they’re multifunction devices, and we more or less depend on them to get us through our day. When battery life must be preserved for an important phone call, Angry Birds play sessions fall off to the wayside. But the Nintendo 3DS and PS Vita exist primarily for gaming, and while the battery life for tablets and smartphones is generally improving, the battery life for handheld game systems is gradually declining.
At the same time, handheld game systems aren’t in danger of reverting back to the dark ages of the medium, when we had to buy expensive disposable batteries for our systems and ensure that we had some extras on hand. The lithium ion battery has been a game-changer, so to speak, and the nature of the portable game system is still shifting. It seems that the current generation of handheld game systems is less suited for a commute, and more ideal for the fixed aspects of travel–say, downtime in a hotel room or an airport, where you’re not far from a wall socket, but still need to pass the hours. Smartphones, by comparison, are well-suited for brief bus trips or quick flights, where a couple of hours with Harbor Master will melt away time.
Once again, we see a situation where smartphones and portable game systems appear to be in direct competition with each other–but further study reveals that the machines are ideal for different purposes. Even so, Sony and Nintendo should return to ensuring that long battery life for their portables is a priority. Not everyone wants to leave their portables at home when taking a bus trip, and nothing pulls a player out of a game faster than seeing that dreaded red light begin to flash next to the half-word “BAT.”