2022 was an incredible year for handheld gaming
The past year was fantastic for handheld gaming, no matter the size of your hands. Between Steam Deck, Playdate, and an explosion of retro consoles, we received an embarrassing amount of mobile gaming goodness in 2022, and cloud gaming only encourages more innovation. Although Sony still hasn’t revived the Vita, it feels like the handheld market is in for a renaissance – so let’s celebrate this year’s milestones here.
December is a historic month for handheld games. Sony released the PlayStation Portable in Japan on December 12, 2004, and then debuted the Vita in Japan on December 17, 2011. Both of these consoles were hits with gamers, critics, and developers, but a disorganized marketing plan and failed cloud ambitions held Sony back from investing in handheld games after Vita. RIP, etc. Basically, we’ve been waiting (very patiently, mind you) for the last decade for a breakthrough mobile device to finally make this industry viable again.
Finally in 2022, the handheld market is in flight. The Switch paved the way for mobile gaming in recent years, and massive companies like Valve are finally getting in on the action. Cloud gaming has found its footing, and the Android and Linux portable market is buzzing, with big names like Razer getting involved. Meanwhile, several underground companies like Analogue, Ayaneo, and Panic are quietly churning out high-quality handhelds for retro, PC, and indie gaming.
But of course, Valve’s Steam Deck dominated the portable conversation in 2022. The Steam Deck is big, it’s heavy, it doesn’t have long battery life – and it’s apparently everything PC gamers have been waiting for. Valve began rolling out the Steam Deck in February, and by October it had shipped more than 1 million of these beasts across the Western world, with plans to expand to more regions. The Steam Deck comes in three flavors ranging from $400 to $650, making it more affordable than existing handhelds 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? by the machine in your lap.
Although imperfect, Steam Deck proved that there’s heat in the handheld PC market in 2022. It’s a relatively accessible way to play PC games on a portable screen, and it combines the Steam software with decades of hardware research at Valve . Steam Deck is a great start from a company known for losing focus easily, so hopefully it doesn’t all end here.
Even if Valve gets too distracted to make a Steam Deck 2.0, many other companies are eager to take 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 sleek, Switch-sized machines that can run 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 gaming, though you’ll probably have to lower the frame rate, resolution, and expectations. The most powerful Ayaneo, the Next Pro, starts at $1,500, and it will run 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 laptop glory. The Ayaneo 2 is poised to pack even more power into a sleek package, though it will carry a price tag of at least $1,000. The exciting thing here is that there is actual competition in the handheld space – companies are investing in mobile hardware more than ever, and not just when it comes to PC gaming. Recent mobile processor upgrades are powering a slew of new devices built specifically for retro and cloud gaming.
At the end of 2022, the retro handheld market is thriving, covering every era from the NES to the GameCube at relatively affordable prices. As for the NES to PSP side, this year we got the Miyoo Mini and the Retroid Pocket 3: the Miyoo Mini costs around $60 and has a modern dual-core processor that can handle even some PS1 games, while the Pocket 3 is an Android -powered handheld that costs $120. For more modern emulation experiences, there’s Odin from Ayn, which can run PS2 and GameCube titles in 1080p on a 5.9-inch screen. 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 section, we have the Analogue Pocket, which plays actual physical cartridges from Game Boy, Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance, and is unsurprisingly the size of a classic Game Boy. Analogue began shipping the Pocket in late 2021, and it had a sell-out year, with more orders and accessories expected in 2023. The Pocket is a special little handheld that breathes new life into classic cassette libraries, and it comes with a $220 price tag – which is roughly 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, and this is going to include cloud and phone gaming. Cloud technology has finally become reliable enough that even Sony figured it out this year, and Microsoft has continued to expand its vast cloud network, which is intrinsically tied to Game Pass. Our slowly encroaching subscription-based future has created a rich environment for Android and Linux-based handhelds that don’t need a ton of onboard processing power like the Steam Deck does. Logitech recently dropped the G Cloud Gaming Handheld, which costs $350, while the Razer Edge is an Android-based handheld that starts at $400 and is expected to start shipping in January.
This year, Razer also released the Kishi V2, which is a $100 gamepad that essentially turns your smartphone into a cloud gaming device. Backbone makes a similar product for iPhone and Android gamers, and this year the company rolled out an officially licensed one PlayStation gamepad for iPhone only. As mobile processors continue to advance and cloud technology stabilizes further, smartphone gaming is only going to grow as an industry, and already mainstream entertainment companies like Netflix are joining the fray. Netflix has specifically ushered in recognized games such as Kentucky Route Zero, Into the breach and Spirit danger on mobile devices this year, and gems like Poinpy and Hello Kitty Happiness Parade.
Finally, I want to take a moment to honor Playdate. This brilliant business card-sized indie slot 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 open source, crank-powered magic that offers some of the most unique experiences the video game industry has to offer, distilled onto a minimal, monochromatic screen. Playdate is pure joy in a little yellow package, and for me it is the unique handheld from 2022.
And it’s a wrap. Here’s to you, handheld gaming. Thank you for an amazing year, and may the momentum of 2022 continue to generate creative ideas in this space. To the years and battles ahead, hooray.