Throughout my life as a person who plays videogames on the regular, and made it a career somehow, one thing has been consistent. My favorite way to play games is with handhelds. Consoles are great and all, but from the Game Boy to the Nintendo Switch Lite, having the game in my hands and playing in whatever physical space I want has been the ideal.
So while handheld gaming today has its ups and downs, I always have my ear to the ground for anything happening in that space. And I’m not just talking about new Switch games. I mean, I’m talking about those too, but there’s more to this list than Nintendo drops! 2020 was a huge mess of a year, but playing videogames off-TV was surprisingly hype. Here are my favorite things that happened for handheld gaming in 2020, from the technically impressive to the new generation platforms.
The Switch. Just, the Nintendo Switch Exists Still
Since it dropped in 2017, the Nintendo Switch has been a game-changer for me. I wasn’t quite as into the launch model as much as I thought I’d be, but once the Switch Lite dropped it was a wrap. So many games that pinpoint my wheelhouse have appeared on the Switch this year, from out of nowhere No More Heroes ports, the Sam and Max Ave the World remaster, and a brand new Pokemon Mystery Dungeon game (and a Shiren 5 port!).
Emulation Hardware Levels Up
Something I really got into this year was following the predominantly Chinese retro emulation handheld market. I’ve seen bootleg console clones forever, but lately some super well-made and shockingly powerful original handhelds have been gaining tremendous traction. I discovered RetroDodo, an outlet almost entirely dedicated to tearing these things down every time a new iteration appears.
From custom Linux to Android-based software, not only do some of these devices come out with legit build quality and controls, they’re also growing in power fast. We’re talking up to (in-progress) Dreamcast emulation here, which is unfathomable to me. Some even have wi-fi and are capable of running Steam Link and similar apps. They all have their pros and cons, but each new iteration from the more well-known companies feels like an event in the community.
Emulation is a controversial subject for sure. But even if you don’t want to actually use one of these things, watching the advancements and unique applications coming out of homebrew and community efforts is beyond impressive.
Xbox goes hard on mobile
Mobile gaming has had its ups and downs, despite things last year looking really great. Apple Arcade seems to have been a swing and a miss after a strong debut, and Stadia… well it’s hard to tell with Stadia. But things have started shifting, especially with the new consoles and especially with Microsoft.
It’s all still actively in development, but not only does the new Xbox app allow streaming for both mobile platforms, a pure streaming wing of Game Pass also launched to great success. Apple has been a big roadblock for that and similar services, but progress is being made there (with Amazon Luna as the tip of that spear).
Frankly, sometimes when I’m playing my PS5 or Series X, I’m doing so on my phone instead of the living room TV. That’s the kind of person I am, and why this article exists.
Backbone Makes iOS Gaming Rad
Apple’s gaming space has been controversial for various reasons, but there is a shining beacon that stands out now, and will stand out even more when the other drama is ironed out. I’m talking about the Backbone, a hardware/software solution designed to make mobile gaming a good “experience.” We’ll have more on this curious device and platform in its own individual coverage soon, but as someone who has an iPhone, and (tries to) use it for gaming, this thing feels like a masterpiece. If you have an iOS phone, don’t bother with a bunch of plastic controller mounts. Get one of these bad boys instead. Trust me.
Evercade Brings Retro Back to Retail
This is the more niche part of this list, but perhaps the wildest at the same time. The Evercade came out earlier this year, and frankly I can’t believe it’s a real thing. Blaze Entertainment’s Evercade is a handheld gaming device primarily made to play retro games. But it doesn’t just play games off a microSD card or on-board emulator.
This Device takes actual physical cartridges, which come in multi-game compilations based on things like genre or console themes, or individual publishers. We’re talking a massive range from the obvious (Atari and Data East) to stuff I know y’all wouldn’t expect (Technos and Piko Interactive).
Evercade isn’t some fire and forget gimmick, either. Since it launched earlier this year, the number of available cartridges has almost doubled, and continues to include some amazing surprises. Check out the set for yourselves on the official website.
End of the year content is always a great way for writers like myself to loosen up a bit and explore topics that would have no space otherwise. So having the chance to look back and remember all the rad handheld gaming news from throughout the year was a real treat. Hopefully 2021 and on will be even better, with more impressive hardware, software, and more surprises. Until then, hit us up on the Prima Games Facebook and Twitter with your own thoughts and opinions!