Transition is part of life, a process that takes various different forms, and occurs at different points in our lives. As of writing I am still in the process of moving house, although more specifically the “post-moving” stage, in which the new property is a building site and everything is still in boxes three weeks after moving in. And to make matters worse my ISP keeps losing the engineer that is supposed to install the internet connection, meaning I am largely disconnected from the outside world.
However, this piece is not about the misery that is moving – well, only partly – instead it is about my renewed appreciation for handheld consoles. Coincidently I am also in the process of putting together a presentation and accompanying paper on the significance of handheld consoles and its impact upon an individual’s interaction within a given space. When I started putting the whole project together I was approaching it at a distance, focusing on the literature and the physicality of the devices in question (in particular the significance of Nintendo’s Game & Watch series and the subsequent Game Boy line of handhelds also by Gunpei Yokoi). The project had no personal element to it, even though the inspiration for my topic were the two Game & Watch units that I played with frequently when I was four years old. Since my move, during the few opportunities I have had to add to and edit my presentation document, the focus has shifted to one that is personal in tone; I have become part of the research.
The reason for this shift is that as all of my consoles are still in boxes (having been packed in their original boxes and then carefully secured in another box). Due to their ultimate destination – my new house – still requiring work I have been unable to play any recent releases on a home console, such as The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD which remains unopened, taunting me. Thankfully though I do have access to my handheld consoles, which I had packed in my suitcase (that I am still living out of) and have been my main escapism from my immediate surroundings. Despite tending to choose Nintendo’s 3DS as my preference of handheld, it has been Sony’s PS Vita that has been my saviour for the past fortnight.
Sony’s original brief for the Vita (similar to the original brief for the PSP) was to provide “console quality” games on a handheld, except this time with a twist, via its front and back touch screens and gyro controls. At first Sony was keeping up with its intended aim, but by 2015 this had been completely abandoned, with the system providing a source of Western indie games and niche Japanese titles that (some of which manage to make it to the West). Yet one game has managed to utilise the latter strength whilst partly following the systems original brief: that game is Bandai Namco’s Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth.
Digimon might not fit the norm of something ‘niche’ having been a huge part to many who grew up during the late 90s and early 2000s, but the West has not seen a new Digimon video game in many years, whilst its native Japan sees a new release almost annually. Digimon Story was just another instance of this, having never been meant to receive a Western release (there is already another Digimon game release due in Japan later this year; Digimon World: Next Order). Digimon Story received a Western release (subtitles only, without dubbing) after significant interest from people in the West who raised their desire for the game. When it arrived in the West, in addition to the Vita version it was also accompanied by a new PS4 version, which peculiarly still remains exclusive to the West.
The rationale behind this is due to the differences between the Japanese market and the overarching Western markets. Handheld gaming is still very popular in Japan, more so even than home console gaming. One only has to look at both the hardware and software charts in Japan to see the clear distinction, with handheld software dominating the charts. Unlike in the West, however, the PS4 is struggling to gain momentum in its home country. It is because of the dominance of the PS4 in the West, and the considered failure of the Vita, that Digimon Story received a PS4 version in the West in order to be accessible to a larger audience.
I did hesitate over which version of Digimon Story to get, but being one of the few people in the world that actually purchased a PlayStation TV (Vita TV in Japan) prior to it now being discontinued already by Sony (not surprising given the sheer lack of support) I went with the Vita version. This meant I could play it on the PlayStation TV when I wanted a “console” experience, and then play it on the Vita when I was on the go or unable to access a TV – the situation I find myself in now. And yes, I know it supports Cross-Save, but it doesn’t support Cross-Play and I am not paying for both versions.
Digimon Story might in fact be a perfect balance between what can be expected of a home and handheld video game. The environments are 3D as are the battles, but the camera is fixed (aside from being able to change the degree of camera zoom) and there is a considerable amount of menu navigation when managing your Digimon outside of battles. Digimon has always been compared to Pokémon and it is hard to avoid comparing Digimon Story to a Pokémon game, given that it is a turn based Role Playing Game that involves training monsters and fighting them against other monsters. Given the Pokémon series’ association with handhelds makes it more difficult to disassociate Digmon Story with handheld gaming as well. But Digimon Story is a game that stands on its own merits and provides its own take on the Japanese RPG genre (which is distinct from Western RPGs) and does not let the fact that it is handheld game get in the way of its scope or the experience it is trying to provide.
One reason why people play video games is for escapism. There are different motivations behind wanting escapism, but in my situation it is to get away from the current confinement I find myself in, to feel a sense of accomplishment during a time where in the real world that is in the hands of contractors/builders/painters/engineers, and explore a digital space where at present I am unable to do so. There is also an irony for me in playing Digimon Story due to the game largely taking place in cyberspace, a space that I am currently unable to properly access. In Japan part of the reason behind handhelds continued relevance and success is that for many physical space is a premium, and the resulting limitations on living space means that many do not have the space for a large TV and a console or two to sit alongside it. Furthermore many also have to deal with long commutes, requiring something to both pass the time and also to provide an escape the cramped privacy adverse environment that surrounds them. A similar fate could potentially befall many in the UK and for many it already has; with house prices continuing to rise more people are having to share the little space they have, and still have to endure a lengthy commute as well. Mobile games might provide a quick fix for a short bus/train/tube journey, but as commutes get longer and space continues to reduce the benefits of a handheld may become more pronounced.
It is partly because of these reasons (including my current situation) why many others and I are excited by the potential premise of Nintendo’s forthcoming NX as the rumours (and that is all they are at this stage) suggest a system that is essentially a handheld device, but one that connects to a dongle or docking station connected to a TV turning it into a home console. In a sense, it’s kind of like a reversal of the Wii U controller and the ability to play off-TV. With Nintendo having combined its hardware development divisions this is not entirely far-fetched, and with Nintendo’s current focus on finally providing a truly unified account system could be the additional back end support required for such a device to exist and compete effectively.
For now I will return to the cyberspace of EDEN found in Digimon Story, for the Vita is my sole escape from the physical world. Conversely the original brief for my project was to reclaim the physical of technology, art, and science, which I began to feel like I was achieving via the tactility of having a whole gaming system in my hands. But the great thing about handhelds is that they are not confined by the space around them, they are flexible and free to exist in many given spaces. That flexibility transfers to the player who can in turn escape their physical confines, if albeit briefly. These benefits are still appreciated in Japan; I just hope they are not overlooked in the West until it is too late.