Keitai Vs. Game Handhelds

Back to Contents of Issue: May 2001

The cellphone wants to be a gaming platform. The makers of handheld game machines are reacting accordingly.

by Max Everingham

gameFOR THOSE FOLKS SMART enough to stay away from the video gaming scene in Japan (it sucks you in and makes you a slave forever, beware!), your days of freedom could be numbered. However far, or fast, you run, recent developments in the mobile industry will practically guarantee exposure, one way or another, to gaming content.

The main culprit is i-mode. In its youthful exuberance (and bid for world domination) DoCoMo is eagerly making friends with anyone and everyone it meets on its meteoric rise to stardom. The entertainment category accounts for the vast majority of billable content on the service, so inevitably DoCoMo has established cooperative agreements for i-mode with a slew of companies, including Sony Computer Entertainment for its PS2 home console, Palm for PDAs, Sega for arcade games, Casio, Bandai, and a host of other digital entertainment providers. Companies traditionally associated with home console development are also keen to get in on the act: "Java-capable i-mode phones have more than 20 million users and therefore great potential," says Tsuyumi Toyoda of leading game developer Namco, "and we're watching closely how the market develops."

One way handheld game makers are fighting back is by adding more connectivity to their devices. Last December, Bandai launched the color-screen version of its portable game machine WonderSwan. One of its most attractive features is its expandability, both in terms of optional peripherals and connectivity. The WonderWave I/R transmitter can communicate with Sony's PocketStation enhanced memory card, there's a cable for linking two machines together for head-to-head battles, and, using the phone adapter, the WonderGate software adds Web browsing, email, and uploading/downloading capabilities to the machine. (And for something entirely different, the WonderSwan acts as a programming interface for the WonderBorg, a robot beetle from Bandai.)

Hot on the new WonderSwan's heels comes the Game Boy Advance from Nintendo. Not quite as versatile as the WonderSwanColor, the GBA has two other aces up its sleeve. For one, it represents the update to the world's best-selling gaming platform, Game Boy, sales of which consistently outstripped the total sales of the three big home consoles combined. This alone practically guarantees an effortless leapfrog over WonderSwan in the sales stakes. The second ace is something its competitor cannot even dream of: connectivity to a big brother. GBA will hook up to Nintendo's forthcoming next-generation console, GameCube, either for the up/downloading of games and games information, or to be used as an extra controller for the bigger machine. Gamers will be able to download simplified versions of GameCube games, as well as various other gaming functions, into their GBA units for entertainment on the move. Nintendo is alone in being able to boast products with this much mobility (Sony's and Sega's barely functional PDA-cum-memory cards excepted).

By offering all these connectivity options, the handheld game machines are at least attempting to keep pace with the runaway i-mode train, and their greater emphasis on graphical prowess should woo hardcore gamers. But as DoCoMo's influence spreads, the traditional boundaries for mobile devices are becoming increasingly blurred, and for the consumer, tough decisions lie ahead. Previously, if you wanted to play games on the move, you got Game Boy. If you needed to organize your life, it was a PDA, or PocketPC for the Web. And to chat, a simple phone.

But with i-mode and the competing Au and J-Phone services, you can do all this and more on a single unit. And now that Java has been thrown into the mix, some of the software rivals Game Boy, at least for entertainment value. This kind of convergence will only intensify as manufacturers race to produce the ultimate multifunction unit.

Some developers, at least, don't anticipate any problems with serving both camps: "We believe that core keitai users and users of the existing mobile game platforms are fundamentally different," says Namco's Toyoda. "And we think that the gaming will probably evolve separately." For developers like Namco, it's a win-win situation: they'll be selling software either way. For us, all we need to do is choose between Sonic, Mario, or Gundam. Can't be that hard.

Illustration by Eiko Nishida

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