ROG Ally and Steam Deck have lost sight of what makes the Switch great
OPINION: Handheld consoles are getting more popular each year, but it looks like the recent releases have lost sight of what made them so accessible.
Even if you’re not a gamer anymore, most people will have very fond memories of handheld gaming consoles from the eighties, nineties and even the early noughties. Whether you were a Game Boy kid or owned the revolutionary PSP, almost all of these handhelds had something in common: they were incredibly accessible.
When I first picked up my Nintendo DS to play Nintendogs, I couldn’t tell you anything about the hardware I was using, and I don’t think many other people could either. Obviously, adults in the gaming space were likely a lot more clued up than I was, but I don’t think that many people were too fussed about how powerful the processor was, or if they could achieve Full HD gaming on a 7.62cm screen.
Nowadays, we’re living in a completely different world. Companies make a point of letting consumers know that their products are capable of 4K, have a processor that can run every game without a hiccup and come with the brightest screen known to man. And that’s definitely a good thing. If you’re going to invest in a next-gen console like the PS5 or a brand new Nvidia RTX 4000 series GPU for your gaming rig, you’re going to want to know that it can perform well for many years to come.
But I always put handheld consoles in a different light. To me, the point of them is that they’re incredibly accessible and you don’t really need any gaming knowledge to use them. The Nintendo Switch (and Switch OLED) is the perfect example of this; other than the storage, you don’t really need to know anything about it. Simply slot in your triple-A game and enjoy a refined experience, with all the benefits of being able to take it out on the go.
Handhelds from smaller companies have mastered this too. The Playdate is my personal favourite, bringing retro gaming back into the 2020s with only a crank to control what’s on screen. It’s definitely not perfect — with no backlight or Bluetooth in sight — but I love how simple it is to use.
But now, handhelds are going the way of dedicated consoles, with more focus on screen resolution, graphics cards and how many games it can play at once. The ROG Ally is the latest handheld to enter the space and is essentially a stand-in for a gaming PC. And, Steam isn’t the most accessible platform for those after a streamlined handheld experience.
The price is a key factor too, with the highest-end Steam Deck coming in at a crisp £569/$584 (the entry-level is, admittedly, a more appealing £349.99) and the ROG Ally rumoured to have a price around $699.99 (~£562). Even if you take the price out of it — which is a roadblock on its own when compared to the Switch’s £259/$299 price tag — they’ve become incredibly intimidating machines.
Casual gamers that just want to play some games on the go may feel like their mobile phone is the better option. Why shell out for something that’s the same price as a dedicated console when you’re not entirely sure of what specs you need, how much storage is adequate or what screen resolution you prefer? Devices like the Switch are filling that need, but it looks like companies are moving further away from casual gamers and instead focusing on those who know what LPDDR5 RAM or a discrete GPU is, which can make the market feel a lot more isolating.
Innovation is a good thing, and looking back on some of the first handhelds it’s amazing how far the technology has come. But I don’t want the juggernaut power of the ROG Ally to deter people from trying out new consoles and getting involved in the gaming space. Handhelds will always hold a very special place in my heart, but I think I’ll always be more concerned about how quick — and affordable — they are to use and get into, rather than if they can play Elden Ring in 4K with a 120Hz refresh rate. I’m just not sure if gaming companies feel the same way.