Portable Gaming’s Siren Song

I’ve finally been able to sink some time into the God of War: Origins Collection for the PlayStation 3 after picking it up last fall. The package contains remastered versions of Chains of Olympus and Ghost of Sparta, the two PSP God of War games. I’m an unapologetic fan of the series, but I had my doubts going in. Could a portable version of God of War even work? Such fears were quickly laid to rest. Both games are great. Feelings of doubt were replaced with feelings of regret. These games are great and I should have bought a PSP! And since the PlayStation Vita is basically Sony’s attempt at doubling down on the PSP philosophy (traditional console game experiences on a high-tech handheld), maybe I should make the trip to Vita-ville?

Thankfully, a little more time with the games and their unique take on Greek mythology brought me to a realization: much of the traditional handheld market is under the spell of a siren’s song, one that distracts us from the strengths of mobile platforms.

Both God of War PSP games are exceptionally strong character-action games. Ghost of Sparta in particular is one of the series’ best entries. It features huge set pieces and action sequences that dwarf most other games, handheld or not. It adds novel elements to the series’s flowing combo system and unique enemy weaknesses. The story is simple but true to the melodramatic (and downright nasty) spirit of many of the Greek myths. Regardless of how you feel about Kratos and his constant rage issues, few games marry mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics as elegantly as the God of War games. It’s an angry and violent world, where even opening a simple door requires furious button presses. Kratos communicates through destruction and so does the player.

I’m amazed by what Ready at Dawn Studios originally created for a portable console. At the same time, much of the enjoyment that I’m getting from the game is helped by the fact that I’m playing it on a home console. The consistant frame rate and high-definition display do justice to the game’s art and animation. My TV screen and speakers help me see and hear more than a portable console could offer. The DualShock controller lets me play for extended time periods without suffering vicious hand cramps. I could have played these games on the PSP, but I’d be making compromises that detract from what I enjoy about the God of War series.

The PlayStation Vita and (to a large extent) the Nintendo 3DS are offering the promise of home gaming on the go. It’s an attractive prospect, but one that neither system fulfills. Uncharted: Golden Abyss lacks the visual impact as well as the character depth of its bigger brothers. The 3DS struggles to maintain a consistent framerate on Metal Gear Solid 3, a game that’s eight years old. Three-dimensional action games are hard to pull off without a second analog stick, and the Circle Pad Pro is a kludgey solution that adds inelegant bulk, power management, and calibration issues. Having the traditional living room experience on the road sounds nice in theory, but the compromises necessary to make that happen ultimately undermine the games and the platforms.

This focus by Sony and Nintendo is a shame because the strengths of mobile gaming are by no means secret. Thanks largely to iOS, portable gaming is home to both the rebirth of the arcade game and the proving grounds for innovative design philosophy. In a world where the web is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, the act of putting a mobile gaming device in your pocket is akin to having access to a world wide arcade. Virtual crowds of friends gather around on-line leader boards. People joke and taunt each other (usually on Twitter) about high scores and achievements. Browsing through app stores and taking a chance on a game that you don’t know anything about costs you a handful of quarters, the same price that you paid the first time that you saw a Virtua Fighter machine at your local movie theater.

Outside of the independent PC space, portable games are the most experimental form in the medium. Whether it’s Angry Birds, Sword and Sworcery, or Ziggurat, developers are trying new approaches to design and blurring the lines between different genres and styles. Instead of chasing big screen blockbuster experiences, the best portable game designers are playing to the novelty of the their medium. Titles like Game Dev Story take advantage of the mobile platform while making astute commentaries on the medium itself without leaning on flashy 3D graphics or hours of cutscenes to do so.

More fitting portable experiences exist on the Vita and 3DS, but titles like Lumines and Pushmo don’t fit the flashy message Sony and Nintendo are pushing. The promise of “triple-a” blockbuster experiences on a handheld console is alluring, but the realities have yet to match up with the messages. While Sony and Nintendo try to seduce us, the portable revolution is happening off in another direction entirely.

Perhaps someday technology and design will converge to erase the boundaries between the home and mobile gaming experiences, but it won’t happen during this generation. Until it does, it’s best to tie ourselves to the mast and resist portable gaming’s siren song.