You don’t need a giant console, a bundle of HDMI cables, and a big-screen TV to enjoy a good video game.
Maybe a few years ago, you did, but today’s portable consoles are gaming powerhouses. And — perhaps even better — tablets such as Apple’s iPad and Sony’s S Tablet have opened the door for a wave of cheaper but incredibly fun alternatives.
The grip of the iPad and the rise of all those Android tablets was truly profound, pushing aside Nintendo’s 3DS and forcing outlet after outlet to recognize the legitimacy of tablet gaming.
So here, we take a bold step: We’re combining tablet games with traditional portable console games in our year-end portable gaming roundup:
BEST OVERALL GAME: Super Mario 3DS Land
Until 3DS Land came around, Nintendo’s new portable lacked a defining title. And then Mario saved the day. His first 3D foray doesn’t try too hard to prove that it’s 3D, instead focusing on old-school Mario gameplay, and that’s the key to a good portable title. Truth is, Nintendo’s 3D tech is more gimmick than anything; the finest titles on the 3DS play well in both 2D and 3D.
Mario’s latest adventure captures all the fun nostalgia of his past entries, while blending in plenty of omigod moments. And yes, it’s a great way to pass an eight-hour plane ride.
BEST TABLET GAME: Jetpack Joyride
The gameplay of this iPad hit was simple — just get some nerd with a jetpack past obstacle after obstacle after obstacle — but developer Halfbrick added plenty of intrigue, letting you pick up creative upgrades, keeping track of coins and including a bevy of achievements to motivate you to keep playing. And just for good measure, there’s a slot machine, too. In a year full of great iPad games, this is far and away the very best.
An added bonus? At the moment of this writing, the game was available for free on Apple iTunes.
MOST UNDERRATED: Shinobi
Sega’s quiet ninja received little acclaim when he landed on the 3DS in November, and that was a mistake. In an era when games get easier and easier, Shinobi is a throwback in the same way that Dark Souls was, blending ultra-challenging gameplay with a few new conventions to keep gamers from getting frustrated.
At its heart, this is an old-fashioned side-scrolling-on-your-tiptoes slugfest past enemy after enemy, but new scoring options keep things interesting, and an underrated story holds your attention. Don’t go get Shinobi unless you’re prepared to die often. But if you’re up for the challenge — or that last person on your Christmas list is — this is well worth your time.
MOST VISUALLY STUNNING: Dead Space HD
EA’s iPad take on its survival-horror series isn’t quite as scary as its major-console counterpart, but the blood spews, and the dark rooms are surprisingly detailed. Along with the next game on this list, Dead Space HD serves as further proof that the iPad is a tremendously powerful gaming tool, capable of churning out great framerates on graphically intense games.
BRILLIANT AND DISAPPOINTING ALL AT ONCE: Grand Theft Auto III: 10th Anniversary Edition
Once upon a time, I ran Grand Theft Auto III on my PC, and it chugged along. Now, the game runs like a dream on the iPad. Rockstar Games’ rerelease looks just as good as it once did on your PC. It’s slightly disappointing, though, that the driving and movement controls don’t fully translate to tablet. Sure, you can change the size of your buttons and tweak the on-screen controls as you see fit. But driving is still wonky at times, and targeting is iffy. If it’s beauty you’re looking for, though, look no farther.
MOST ADDICTIVE: Tiny Wings
Move over, Angry Birds. Over the summer, Tiny Wings fever took hold on the iPad, and no game this year manages to be as addicting as this repetitive game that has you piloting a chubby little bird up and down hills with exactly one button, the screen. Complicated? Not at all, but flawless physics, a great ambiance and nice achievements lead to an experience that you will never put down. Just wait until the dolls and the cartoon series inevitably come out next year.
MOST DISAPPOINTING TREND: Lackluster sports titles
Madden 3DS was a launch title for the 3DS console. And it was utterly broken. NBA 2K12 was a hit on the PlayStation 3 — and a massacre on the PSP.
As brilliant as many sports titles were on major consoles, their portable cousins were abysmal. It’s a trend that has gone on for years now. Essentially, devs slap some new rosters and skins on an old PlayStation 2 game, then pawn it off as a real sports title. There’s hardly a need to stop, either, not with the big-boy versions building a title’s brand and coaxing at least a few people into assuming that the portable version is equally solid.
It’s a trend that continued on portables this year and hit an even lower mark on the iPad. Madden NFL 2012 lived up to none of its series’ hallmarks. Where the PS3 and Xbox versions feature pinpoint controls, the iPad version was slippery and inaccurate. Where the major-console versions were teeming with options, the iPad version offered no franchise mode. It was rushed and hurried, and it offered only one original idea, that of drawing plays on-screen.
Can we get a real development team on a sports game instead of some leftover EA interns? We’ll find out next year. On the bright side, Sony’s working on a PS Vita version of MLB 12: The Show that showcases potential, with Vita-PS3 connectivity.
GREAT DEBATE: Does the iPad sit atop the portable gaming market heap?
The answer is yes. And just in case you were wondering, yes, the iPad and traditional portable consoles do now overlap.
And traditional consoles are losing.
Here’s the problem with traditional portable consoles: At the moment, they’re too limiting. They provide stellar gameplay experiences, but little else. Yes, that makes them great gaming machines, but it also means that somebody has to actively want to play a Nintendo 3DS game to ever think about booting up a 3DS.
The iPad has leaped to the fore because of its and-gaming-too approach. You watch movies on your iPad, you email on it, you surf the web on it. Oh, and you do some gaming, too. The iPad is in your hands so much more frequently than your portable console, so when it comes time to game, well, why reach for a console when you’re already messing with an iPad? Add in the extremely friendly prices of so many iPad games, and you suddenly have a brilliant alternative to some overpriced $40 game for the aging PSP.
Developers realized that this year, which is why gaming giant EA acquired iPad-savvy Chillingo, and why more and more console games were remade onto the iPad (check out The Bard’s Tale). And why else do you think more and more major-console games saw iPad releases? It’s telling that Rockstar’s re-release of GTA III landed on the iPad, isn’t it?
All of this places a great burden on the PS Vita next year. Sony’s new portable will have to deliver that topnotch gaming experience that serious gamers want, a complex, immersive experience that will separate it from an iPad gaming market that still caters to flighty and simplistic.
But the Vita must also force its way into gamers’ hands and emerge as a device that people just can’t put down.
Because once they put the Vita down, they just may reach for that good old iPad.
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