December is a historic month for handheld gaming. Sony released the PlayStation Portable in Japan on December 12, 2004, and then debuted the Vita in Japan on December 17, 2011. Both consoles were hits with players, critics, and developers, but a disorganized marketing plan and failed cloud ambitions held Sony back from investing in handheld gaming after the Vita. RIP, etc. Basically, we’ve spent the last decade (very patiently, mind you) waiting for a breakthrough mobile device to finally bring this industry back to viability.
Finally, in 2022, the handheld market is even. The Switch has paved the way for mobile play in recent years, and big companies like Valve are finally getting in on the action. Cloud gaming has gained a foothold and the Android and Linux portable device market is bustling with big names like Razer involved. Meanwhile, more underground companies like Analogue, Ayaneo, and Panic are quietly producing high-end handhelds for retro, PC, and indie gaming.
But of course from Valve Steam deck dominated the portable conversation in 2022. The Steam Deck is big, it’s heavy, it doesn’t have great battery life – and it’s apparently everything PC players have been waiting for. Valve began rolling out the Steam Deck in February, and it shipped by October more than 1 million of these beasts in the western world, with plans to expand to other regions. Steam Deck comes in three flavors ranging from $400 to $650, making it cheaper than existing portable PC devices from companies like Ayaneo. It comes with Steam pre-installed, but it will also run Windows if you really want to spend an afternoon screaming Why? at the machine in your lap.
As imperfect as it may be, Steam Deck proved that there is heat in the portable PC market in 2022. It’s a relatively accessible way to play PC games on a portable screen, and it successfully combines the Steam software with decades of hardware research at Valve. The Steam Deck is a great start from a company that’s known to lose focus easily, so hopefully it doesn’t all end here.
Even if Valve is too distracted to make a Steam Deck 2.0, plenty of other companies are eager to pick up the thread in the mobile PC space. The most prominent name is Ayaneo, a brand that took off in 2021 thanks to an Indiegogo campaign that raised more than $2 million. Today, Ayaneo continues to iterate on its original PC device with streamlined Switch-sized machines capable of running titles from Steam, the Epic Games Store, Game Pass, and other hubs. The Ayaneo Air Pro starts at $700 and can technically handle high-fidelity games, though you’ll probably need to lower your framerate, resolution, and expectations. The most powerful Ayaneo, the Next Pro, starts at $1,500 and can handle everything a Steam Deck can, but without the extra bulk.
Ayaneo makes extremely cute gadgets and the company is emerging as Valve’s main competitor for portable PC glory. The Ayaneo 2 is about to pack even more power into a streamlined package, though it will have a price tag of at least $1,000. The exciting thing here is that there’s real competition in the handheld space – companies are investing more than ever in mobile hardware, and not just when it comes to PC gaming. Recent upgrades in mobile processors are powering a bunch of new devices built specifically for retro and cloud gaming.
By late 2022, the retro handheld market is lush, covering every era from NES to GameCube at relatively affordable prices. On the NES-to-PSP side, this year we got the Miyoo Mini and Retroid bag 3: The Miyoo Mini costs around $60 and has a modern dual-core processor that can even handle some PS1 games, while the Pocket 3 is an Android handheld that costs $120. For more modern emulation experiences, there’s the Odin by Ayn, which can run PS2 and GameCube titles at 1080p on a 5.9-inch screen. The Odin costs between $200 and $290, depending on the model. For retro handhelds, the general rule is that the hardware gets more expensive as the era progresses.
In the honorable mention, we have the Analogue Pocket, which plays actual physical cartridges from the Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance, and is unsurprisingly about the size of a classic Game Boy. Analogue began shipping the Pocket in late 2021 and it was a sold-out year, with more orders and accessories coming in 2023. Pocket is a special little handheld that breathes new life into classic cartridge libraries, and it comes with a price tag of $220 – which is about is what a Game Boy would cost in today’s currency.
OK, that’s enough about the past. If 2022 has proven anything, it’s that portable gaming has a strong future, including cloud and phone play. Cloud technology has finally become so reliable that even Sony found out this year, and Microsoft has continued to expand its massive cloud network, which is intrinsically linked to Game Pass. Our slowly advancing subscription-based future has created a rich environment for Android and Linux-based handhelds that don’t need much built-in processing power, like the Steam Deck. Logitech recently released the G Cloud Gaming handheldwhich costs $350, while the Razor edge is an Android-based handheld starting at $400 and expected to ship in January.
This year Razer also released the Kishi V2, a $100 gamepad that basically turns your smartphone into a cloud gaming device. Backbone makes a similar product for iPhone and Android players, and this year the company rolled out an officially licensed product PlayStation gamepad only for iPhone. As mobile processors continue to evolve and cloud technology continues to stabilize, smartphone gaming will only grow as an industry, and mainstream entertainment companies like Netflix are already joining the fray. In particular, Netflix has critically acclaimed games such as Kentucky Route Zero, In the break and spiritfarer on mobile devices this year, and it has introduced gems like Poinpy and Hello Kitty Happiness Parade.
Finally, I want to take a moment to honor Date. This brilliant business card-sized indie gaming machine came out in April; it costs $180, it has a crank, and it doesn’t fit into any existing video game category. Playdate is an example of innovation. It’s an open-source, crank-driven piece of magic that delivers some of the most unique experiences the video game industry has to offer distilled onto a minuscule, monochromatic screen. Playdate is pure joy in a little yellow package, and for me it is the standout handheld of 2022.
Done. To you, handheld gaming. Thank you for a fantastic year, and may the momentum of 2022 continue to generate creative ideas in this space. Cheers to the years and competitions to come.
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