Handheld gaming's golden summer

The Vita and 3DS are enjoying a fantastic few months.

I can't blame it on the sunshine (and I'm certainly not going to be casting any accusations towards the moonlight or the boogie either), as handheld gaming's really come into its own these past few months, and it's done so in the face of early adversity. When Nintendo's 3DS launched in 2011, it did so at a time when entering an iPad-saturated market seemed like a suicidal folly. When Sony's Vita launched later that year it was a more foolish proposition still, its concept of triple-A games shrunk down to fit in your pocket working against so very much common sense.

And for the first year of both handhelds' lives the naysayers were proven more than right. The Vita and 3DS' baby-steps were awkward enough to make you wonder if either was ever going to truly find its feet, Nintendo hastily slashing the price mere months after release while Sony's device slipped into obscurity as fast as its sleek lines would allow. As both approached their first anniversaries it wouldn't have been much of a stretch to ponder if that would be the only birthday either would enjoy.

Something's changed though, ensuring an upturn in fortunes that's been quite remarkable, and one that's encapsulated the individual strengths of Sony and Nintendo. The release of Fire Emblem: Awakening, Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Luigi's Mansion 2 on 3DS has been a gutsy reminder of Nintendo's strength in depth when it comes to its first-party offerings, and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate has tipped the handheld towards being the real star of the first half of 2013. The eShop's been on scintillating form, too - Kokuga, Hiroshi Iuchi's first game as director since Gradius 5, launched quietly last week, while on Thursday, the West has its first chance to play one of Millenium Kitchen's brilliant games with Attack of the Friday Monsters. If any console can boast a finer line-up come the year's end I'd be genuinely surprised.

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Kokuga's not Iuchi at his best, but its release is still worth celebrating.

The only serious contender I can see right now is the Vita itself, which is slowly coming into its own with what's shaping up to be a fine summer. Hotline Miami's already found an unlikely home on the device, the stuttering neon violence bursting beautifully on that brilliant screen, and it's the first of several top-tier ports that have found in the Vita a perfect home. Vlambeer's Luftrausers has designed its blend of WW2 dogfighting and Eugene Jarvis aesthetics for the Vita's panoramic screen, and Spelunky feels like it was always destined to be played on the move, in bed or just about whenever you can find an excuse to enjoy Derek Yu's masterpiece.

And even as Sony's been smart enough to move away from the Vita's original premise, positioning it at the heart of its warm indie embrace, there are still big-hitters on the immediate horizon such as Tearaway, Rayman Legends, Killzone and the Final Fantasy 10 remakes, with Gamescom due to reveal more that's in the works.

With the current generation winding down and a couple of new consoles waiting in the wings, both the Vita and the 3DS are playing on a stage that's muted, of course, but they're still putting on star turns. There's more to it too, I think. As audiences get older - or rather read as I get older - there's been a shift in playing habits, and a step away from epic all-night couch sessions. Gaming time's a precious commodity, all the easier to be grabbed with both hands on a morning commute or in that drowsy half hour in bed before falling asleep. As someone who bounced off the sugary snacks of mobile gaming after a couple of years, the chance to play the best of Nintendo and indie gaming on the move is irresistible right now.

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Game of the summer? Game of the year, more like.

It bodes well, too, for the home consoles, and they're both timely reminders that hardware launches aren't always showered in glory, and that they often take some time to come good. The Wii U is obviously in dire need of support, but the 3DS is proof enough it should eventually come. Even without the support of third parties, Nintendo's handheld has built up an enviable library, and by filtering curios and smaller first-party offerings onto the failing console there's no reason the Wii U can't have done the same in 12 months time.

The PlayStation 4's likely to have a less turbulent birth later this year, but it could well share some of the problems of its portable sibling for a while: there's yet to emerge a game in the launch line-up that's truly worth buying a new console for, and right now the PS4's asking people to invest in a hollow next gen dream. Software sells systems, a lesson that Sony's surely learnt all over again this past year with the Vita. The release of Soul Sacrifice, Phantasy Star Online 2 and, more recently, Toukiden have seen the Vita scrape its way to respectable hardware sales, but there's got to be some doubt that it can repeat the trick over here; as much as I love Spelunky, as fantastic as Luftrausers looks and as excited as I am by Tearaway it's hard to see their release having a similar effect in the West. The PS4 may suffer likewise. I wish we did live in a world where Galak-Z sold consoles, but I don't believe we do.

They're concerns for a later time though, and ones that may be overcome. Right now, it's just worth relishing the scope of what Sony and Nintendo are achieving with their handhelds, and basking a little longer in their warm and brilliant light.

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