Handheld Multiplayer: A Comprehensive History
Get schooled on this lengthy (and interesting, we promise) history lesson by resident handheld historian Cody Musser...
"What a magnificent piece of technological shit." This is what I exclaim as I retire from my efforts in hoping to get my unpackaged WiFi Max USB device to make anything resembling a connection with my DS. This ridiculously designed dongle was what I thought would be the solution to delivering the online capabilities my Wii was lusting for, and more importantly, the multiplayer that my DS has so rarely been privy to. I've spent the odd hour at Panera Bread, or my breaks at Barnes & Noble hopping onto multiplayer services when I was able, but I was ready to make the leap and bring said online functionality to my home. I felt pretty much sufficiently late anyways. As I place the WiFi Max back into it's practically torn to shreds plastic packaging in preparation of a swift return to Best Buy, (Quick review: Don't buy this.) it dawns on me that I'm actually making desperate attempts to play a handheld gaming system with other people. I'm going against everything the platform was originally created for, and so are the companies these days. That relieves my initial rage. It also makes me laugh for a few seconds. Well, until I start to feel slightly old and lonely, then the laughing stops.
Portable gaming has always been looked upon as a fairly singular pastime. Although there were the occasional blips throughout the history of early devices, the platform was built around a single screen, and a single set of button inputs. This was the build for the very first handheld devices, the Game & Watch series of handhelds made by Nintendo. Gunpei Yokoi created the Game & Watch collection as a diversion for those who were interested in video games, but were apart from the arcades or there home consoles. The handhelds were essentially time wasters, and due to their fairly limited design, they were basically limited in their evolution. Nintendo flirted with introducing multiplayer into the Game & Watch series with their Micro VS. set of devices. Three titles: Boxing, Donkey Kong 3, and Donkey Kong Hockey (All 1984) allowed for players to compete with each other. It's interesting to note that even the Nintendo Entertainment System at that time, used multiplayer mostly in the form of Player 1 and Player 2 taking turns at completing the same objectives, and then comparing scores. The Game & Watch Micro VS. series may not have been the first example of competitive gameplay (cough ... Pong) but they were easily integral in proving to Nintendo that the idea was something to explore.
Regardless of the Game & Watch's early deviations from standard, lonely, portable gaming, the Game Boy came to be and for the most part embraced the same ideology: Portable gaming isn't multiplayer gaming. Nintendo was wise enough to realize the sway that multiplayer gaming could bring, and included in their design a port for the very first link cable. The Game Boy Link Cable allowed for two systems to share gameplay experiences while each player played his own handheld. The Link Cable was a noble idea for Nintendo and a creative option for developers who were interested in adding multiplayer to their titles. Yet, it was mostly ignored by developers because players were never too fond of buying outside hardware in order to play their games. That was until one particular piece of software basically demanded that Game Boy players maintain a link cable with them at all times. Any ideas? ...Pika?
The advent of Pokemon brought about the advent of the link cable, as the millions of players embraced the separate version nature of exclusive Pokemon, and the very compelling idea of battling friends and their lineup of creatures. Even still, Pokemon remains one of the only worthwhile reasons to own a link cable for the original Game Boy, despite Nintendo proving that it could be a fairly important tool for development.
As Nintendo mostly ignored multiplayer gaming for their console, their competitors at the time were doing their best to embrace it. The Atari Lynx, released in 1989, included networking support for up to 17 players through a cable-based network known as ComLynx. While Atari may have had the jump on handheld multiplayer, the other faults of their handheld proved too mighty to even scratch the mighty machine that Nintendo had become. The Lynx gasped its last breath in 1994, and with it died the ability for anything more than the link cable for years to come.
It would be four years from the death of the Lynx until Nintendo would release the Game Boy Color in 1998, and even then multiplayer gaming would be as rarely supported as it had always seemed to be. That doesn't mean that Nintendo wasn't making strides to make multiplayer available, as the Game Boy Color featured an infrared wireless capability, making connections without the link cable a possibility for the first time. Proving that they could occasionally be ahead of their time, the wireless nature of the Game Boy Color was rarely explored throughout the entire timeline of the GBC, and Pokemon remained its most popular benefactor. Unfortunately, the low-rate of data transfer (Think television remote.) over the infrared wireless system made co-operative gameplay basically impossible, and developers once again left handheld players to amuse themselves.
The last game released for the Game Boy Color, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in 2002, was also the last game to make use of Nintendo's early adopter wireless. The little support for wireless left Nintendo to continue embracing the link cable, and the increasing rates of data transfer speed it was capable of, for actual multiplayer on the Game Boy Advance.
Upon the launch of the Game Boy Advance in 2001, the air surrounding multiplayer gaming had begun to change, and Nintendo, still not ready to fully embrace the idea, did at least make serious efforts to explore what handhelds were actually capable of delivering. While no sort of wireless was initially available for the GBA, the platform allowed for up to four players to engage in multiplayer, and was the first to truly deliver gamers a "multi-boot" experience. This allowed players to play against others using a single cartridge, for the first time on a portable console. The link cable had finally begun to become an item that players could really explore outside of the Poke-world, and titles like Advance Wars, Kirby: Nightmare in Dreamland, Mario Kart: Super Circuit, and Bomberman Tournament all featured multi-booting to help promote that. Unfortunately, as the Game Boy Advance progressed, the games that offered multi-boot grew limited, and even then, the modes offered to players using the multiple boot function grew stale and uninspired. Nintendo itself used the exact same multi-boot mode, a recreation of the original Mario Bros. battle game, on Super Mario Advance, Super Mario World, and Yoshi's Island.
Luckily, Nintendo delivered more multiplayer to the GBA than what was offered in the multiple booting experiences. The link cable was still the selected method of allowing players to share experiences, even if many developers saw fit to under use, or ignore the feature altogether. Scores of titles saw release on the GBA that gave the link cable plenty of use, and Nintendo for the first time, truly began to understand what multiplayer gaming could become on their handheld platforms. Pokemon would once again serve as the catalyst to reinvent handheld multiplayer, and the franchise remakes Pokemon: Fire Red and Pokemon: Leaf Green were the cause. Shipping with Nintendo's GBA Wireless Adapter, Pokemon served as the first true wireless experience for handheld players. Multiplayer was essentially reborn in this particular moment, and would, for the most part, never look back.
Before Nintendo was ready to move on to the full-on delivery of wireless handheld gaming, and even before the wireless adapter, it should be mentioned that they took a slight deviation from the path by exploring "connectivity." The term coined for using the GBA to unlock items, quests, and occasionally play entire games through the GameCube was an important component to the history of handheld multiplayer. The game experiences provided by games like Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, and The Leged of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures showed that at least Nintendo understood handheld multiplayer didn't have to be quite as portable as it was originally intended to be. Connectivity never actually became the behemoth that it could have been, but while the platforms might not be the same as they once were, the connection between handheld and console is obviously coming of age more now than ever.
Now, is exactly where the next succession of handheld consoles leaves us, and it is undoubtedly a particularly good place to be for those who are interested in multiplayer gaming on handhelds. The Nintendo DS, released in 2004, and the Sony PSP, released in 2005, are both Hallmark Moments in handhelds built around technology specifically to promote multiplayer. The stigma of some of the original handheld multiplayer experiences is practically nonexistent, as is the clutter of link cables and additional hardware pieces that originally drove many players away from the hassle. Well, that and the ultimate truth that the reward was essentially little more than a few extra Pokemon.
The DS shattered the boundaries of the entire Game Boy platform with the adoption of the Nintendo WiFi service, and the included local wireless feature proves that the Game Boy Color served as somewhat of a premonition for what was soon to come. Nintendo's WiFi service went live in 2005, with the launch of Mario Kart DS, and players could, for the first time, enjoy wireless multiplayer on a Nintendo handheld device as it was truly meant to be. The service has grown considerably since that time, and now over 50 titles, between North America and Japan, are available for some sort of gameplay experience over the WiFi network. The DS' local wireless is also supported on numerous cartridges, as well as the multi-booting established by the Game Boy Advance. Games like Animal Crossing: Wild Word and Tetris DS have quickly made handheld multiplayer on the DS into, basically, a phenomenon. Nintendo's only sacrifice through the adoption of their new technology was actually forsaking the old. While few gamers have actually saw fit to complain, the link cable and games that required it, can no longer be experienced through backwards compatibility on the DS.
While Nintendo may be enjoying the success of the DS, and the portable throne they've domineered for soon to be 20 years, their current competitor, Sony, has at least delivered to them one blow. The Sony Playstation Portable, upon Japanese launch in 2004, was the first handheld to deliver online gameplay. The PSP's online multiplayer catalog is slightly slimmer than that of the DS, but it is an impressive list nonetheless. Some games, like Infected, were built specifically around their online component. "Gamesharing" as it was dubbed by Sony, is another feature of the PSP; it is comparable to the single cartridge multiplayer of Nintendo consoles.
Ending my lengthy history lesson and returning to my desk, I see what spawned this idea in the first place: My desire to play my DS through what is probably the most pathetic USB dongle ever created, and even more importantly I suppose, is my desire to be ready for what's next. The time for handheld multiplayer is obviously now, and recent trends in console sales are proving that handhelds are obviously more than the time wasters they were originally intended to be. Gaming from Point A to Point B isn't necessarily the purpose of a portable device at this point, as it's now pretty chic to be gaming at Point A, Point B, and everywhere in between. Multiplayer is here to stay, connectivity with the new consoles is soon to be next, and everything here? Just a quaint reminder as to where it all began.