Dedicated Handheld Gaming: Nintendo 3DS vs. PlayStation Vita

By April 5, 2015
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Chances are that if you play a video game on the go today, it’ll be on a mobile device like a smartphone or a tablet. Just as the smartphone has revolutionized how the world can work and connect, it’s also revolutionized how people play and have fun. The truth of the matter is that you often hear about games like Candy Crush Saga in daily life a bit more than you hear about the latest installment in the Call of Duty franchise, or a new Super Mario platformer.

Even with this being the case, though, two video game titans — Nintendo and Sony — stepped up a few years ago to introduce new, dedicated handheld gaming consoles to a market that had already been saturated, even by that point, with a ton of free games you play with your finger instead of a controller. As most video game enthusiasts will likely tell you, though, the vast majority of games you can download on a phone or tablet are just awful. Good games do exist on these formats, but by and large the mobile gaming market is filled with what gamers call “shovelware:” quantity is a priority over quality.

So, that brings us to the devices from Nintendo and Sony. The reason that we’re doing this kind of roundup now, years after these devices were first introduced to the general public, is more an issue of timing. At this point, both Sony and Nintendo have released — conceivably — the final hardware revisions on their two current handheld gaming devices, so we’ll be taking a look at each device, what they bring to the table, and why a dedicated handheld gaming console is going to give you a better experience every time than playing a game on a phone or tablet. So, let’s kick things off with the underdog in this fight.

Sony's PlayStation Vita Slim is very well-designed, and will be your PS4's best friend. Sales-wise, it's lagging pretty badly, though.

Sony’s PlayStation Vita Slim is very well-designed, and will be your PS4’s best friend. Sales-wise, it’s lagging pretty badly, though.

Sony’s PlayStation Vita Slim

Although they’ve basically been the undisputed champions of console video games on a nearly uninterrupted basis since the 1994 premiere of the original PlayStation, Sony’s two major efforts to get into the handheld gaming market have been met with only a moderate amount of success. They first entered the space in 2004 with the PlayStation Portable, or PSP. While the PSP was initially well received upon release, issues with its peculiar UMD media format and a plethora of hardware revisions greatly worked against its overall reception. With that, their next effort is the incumbent handheld PlayStation device, the PS Vita. Originally released in Japan in December of 2011, the Vita clearly took lessons from it’s predecessor as to how exactly the handheld should be designed, and it’s certainly a slick looking device with a lot of interesting features.

While the original PS Vita has a more vibrant display and stronger overall build quality, the Slim is easier to charge and features a substantially longer battery life.

While the original PS Vita has a more vibrant display and stronger overall build quality, the Slim is easier to charge and features a substantially longer battery life.

The original Vita featured an extremely vibrant OLED display, a finish comprised of metal and glass, and a button layout featuring ovular start, select, and home buttons. Working against it, it also featured a proprietary and finicky power and recharge port, and no internal storage memory onboard, necessitating the purchase of a proprietary — and significantly expensive — memory card.

In late 2013, Sony first released the current iteration of the handheld, the PlayStation Vita model 2000, otherwise referred to as the “slim.” While the build quality uses more plastic than it does the premium metal and glass, the new Vita is 15% lighter and 20% thinner than it’s predecessor, and has replaced the proprietary power port with a far more reliable and accessible micro USB port on the bottom. Perhaps working against it, though, is the switch from the powerful OLED display to a more conventional LCD screen, but that change also has managed to increase the system’s battery life pretty considerably.

As a gaming device, the Vita Slim is very well laid out, with a lot of very nice online features and control options to make for a satisfying experience. The touchscreen on the front is very responsive in addition to the buttons, and the system is also equipped with a touch pad on the back, but not very many games have taken advantage of this in any significant way. The design philosophy seems to follow the familiar layout of the highly popular PlayStation DualShock controller very well — and it’s a definite plus to have two actual, authentic analog thumbsticks flanking both sides — though it’s thinness makes it not quite as ergonomically friendly as the input for it’s console-based cousin.

To date, the game I’ve spent the most time with on my Vita is Uncharted: Golden Abyss, which has managed to successfully bring a flavor of the immense production value of that console franchise to the handheld in grand fashion. It looks, sounds, and plays great.

Still, if you own Sony’s PlayStation 4, then the biggest feather in the cap of the Vita will be in its Remote Play functionality. You can directly connect your PS Vita to your PS4 and play any of your console games on your handheld screen, as long as your wifi connection is strong enough. In a way, the Vita can act in very similar fashion to a PS4 in the way that Nintendo’s GamePad controller acts for its Wii U console, except that you can play dedicated games on your Vita and take it with you wherever you go.

Recent years have seen big budget, triple-A game releases on the Vita diminish pretty significantly, but it’s an absolute haven when it comes to the hottest new independent games. On top of that, with a PlayStation Plus membership, you’ll be given instant access to new games every month that you can keep for free as long as you’re a subscriber to the service. Overall, the Vita is well designed and powerful for being so small, and will be a terrific accessory to have with your PlayStation 4.

The New Nintendo 3DS XL is the "Big N's" latest revision to its dominant handheld console, with amazing new 3D display technology and a much faster processor.

The New Nintendo 3DS XL is the “Big N’s” latest revision to its dominant handheld console, with amazing new 3D display technology and a much faster processor.

New Nintendo 3DS XL

Easily the most dominant handheld gaming console of this generation, the Nintendo 3DS was first released in 2011 as the successor to the highly popular Nintendo DS family of consoles. Initially struggling due to a high price tag and a limited game library, a price drop and flood of new software eventually saw 3DS sales increase pretty significantly.

The summer of 2012 saw the release of the Nintendo 3DS XL, a larger version of the console that featured a screen size increase of a staggering 90%. This on top of the already impressive glasses-free 3D effect afforded by the top screen’s stereoscopic display made for a device that was very attractive to younger and older gamers alike, and in the era of smartphone gaming the 3DS has managed to carve out a very solid niche in an era that most common sense analysts would likely say it has no chance in.

The New 3DS sports an improved button layout, 3D effect, and processor, but takes a step back with ease of access to storage devices and a painful data transfer process.

The New 3DS sports an improved button layout, 3D effect, and processor, but takes a step back with ease of access to storage devices and a painful data transfer process.

The 3DS XL would not be the last hardware revision, though. Nintendo also introduced the Nintendo 2DS, a more economical option that allows gamers to play the same extensive 3DS software library on a slightly more affordable device without a 3D display.

Then, this year in the U.S., they released the big one: the “New” Nintendo 3DS XL. Featuring an all-new button layout — including the addition of an analog pressure nub called the “c-stick” and two additional shoulder buttons — the New 3DS XL also features a faster processor, and an enhanced 3D effect that allows gamers to view it from multiple angles. While not a massive jump in the overall quality of the device, it’s significant enough to be noticeable, and after playing on it for awhile it would be difficult to go back to the original version of the device.

It’s not without it’s drawbacks, though. Thankfully when compared to the PS Vita, the models of the 3DS family of handheld consoles have opted to use much more common — and much less expensive — SD cards for storage purposes. Where on the original 3DS and 3DS XL you could simply pop out the stock 4GB card in favor of a larger standard SD card, the New 3DS XL has switched to microSD cards and placed the port for it underneath the console’s bottom panel, which can only be accessed by using a screwdriver to pop the panel off and expose the battery. On top of that, transferring from an existing 3DS to a New 3DS is kind of a nightmare, largely because Nintendo’s online ecosystem and tying of game and content licenses is simply not where it needs to be in 2015.

Still, the gameplay on the 3DS is still oftentimes a premium experience, largely due to the software. First-party Nintendo games are always a joy to play, with standouts on 3DS including the likes of Super Mario 3D LandMario Kart 7Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, and successful ports like Star Fox 64 3D and Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D. The game I’ve likely spent the most time with recently is Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS, which we also reviewed upon its release last October.

Although the control area on Nintendo’s handheld is a little more tightly packed than on Sony’s PS Vita, there’s generally better positioning and more overall familiarity with the way that the 3DS has approached their setup. While the 3DS doesn’t feature dual analog thumbsticks like it’s direct rival, the circle pad is highly functional, and the addition of the c-stick definitely gets it closer to the fuller range of control you can feel on the Vita. There’s no real console connectivity here outside of a couple of specific games, so if you get a 3DS, expect to keep your gaming confined there. Thankfully, this isn’t a problem if you’re looking for an on-the-go gaming device in the first place.

3dsvsvita

Overall

If you’re thinking of jumping into handheld gaming with a device dedicated to do just that, then you have a pretty tough decision to make if you’re going with one of these devices. If you’re already a PlayStation gamer and own a PS4, then you’re already embedded in Sony’s PlayStation ecosystem and it should be pretty easy to go with the Vita. While the game library is largely limited to some older major PlayStation titles with games like Uncharted: Golden AbyssLittle Big Planet for PS Vita, and PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, it has an impressive and growing list of indie games that will both expand your gaming horizons and give you fun, unique experiences.

If you’re not exactly concerned with being connected to the PlayStation ecosystem and just want a good, solid gaming device, the 3DS will be able to give you old Nintendo favorites, as well as notable JRPGs and other, specialized experiences. Mario Kart is fun wherever you play it, and being able to take it, or Super Smash Bros. with you in your backpack wherever you go is definitely an exciting prospect.

When looking at the newest iterations of both consoles, the more economical option is the Vita, which is $30 cheaper than the New 3DS XL. Unfortunately, that $30 price difference will likely be eaten up by the required proprietary memory card, where a 16GB card will cost you about $36, with other sizes being even more expensive. Current sales figures show the 3DS being the far and away leader between the two, with estimates from VGChartz putting the Vita’s sales totals at about 10 million units, while the 3DS has sold over 50 million.

Don’t let dry sales figures fool you, though: both systems are wonderful gaming platforms, and the Vita certainly has the edge in raw power. Software and games is the most important element when deciding between the two, though, and you should definitely look into what kinds of game experiences are available before deciding on which platform you want to go with. Both of these systems are great, and for gaming on the go, it’s hard to go wrong with either one.

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.
  • Thomas Kelly

    I much prefer the Vita, and I currently have both.