[Gamasutra news editor Eric Caoili examines the year's tumultuous times for handhelds, as well as its top five portable games, from PSP's standout RPGs to DS/3DS's unique offerings.]
This time last year, the future of dedicated portables seemed in jeopardy as smartphone gaming gained mindshare. Some even went so far as to declare upcoming consoles like 3DS and PS Vita would be dead on arrival.
Most would have agreed with those doomsayers by the time summer rolled around, as 3DS sales slumped, system-selling games for Nintendo's new hardware were nowhere to be found, and the DS' well of exciting titles began to dry up.
The past few months are a different story, however, as must-have titles like Mario Kart 7 and Super Mario 3D Land, paired with a deep price cut, have reversed the 3DS's fortunes (Monster Hunter 3G's release in Japan didn't hurt either).
Iterative firmware updates, recent fantastic eShop releases (Freakyforms, Swapnote), free NES and Game Boy Advance Virtual Console titles for early adopters, and quality mid-tier games (Nano Assault, Cave Story 3D) also helped turned the tide for 3DS.
The PSP, though much quieter this year as many listened for news on PS Vita, enjoyed its share of compelling releases, too, like Corpse Party, Patapon 3, Dissidia 012: Final Fantasy, and The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky.
Thus, while I won't quite predict that handhelds have a long life ahead of them, I will say that as long as developers put out great games for them, we'll keep carrying them with us when we go out, along with our smartphones.
So cross your fingers that companies will continue to produce portable titles in 2012 that are just as fun as our top 5 handheld exclusives of 2011:
5. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (Capcom, Nintendo DS)
While Investigations: Miles Edgeworth 2, the latest from the popular Ace Attorney games, is M.I.A. as far as a U.S. release is concerned, Capcom more than made up for it with this original title from that series's creator Shu Takumi.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is a well-crafted delight with its humorous script and unique concept -- you play a spirit that can possess and interact with objects, manipulating scenes to get living characters out of harm's way.
And, great Scott, that animation! Ghost Trick's animation is the best you'll see in any portable game. Actions as simple as characters swiveling in an office chair or skipping down the steps are a marvel to watch in this adventure title.
(Side note: This was eventually ported to iOS in Japan last year as an episodic release. Capcom has not yet announced plans to bring a localized version of the iOS game to North America.)
4. Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together (Square Enix, PSP)
It's not a completely new game, but Square Enix totally overhauled Quest's beloved tactical RPG, improving much on the decade-old Super Famicom release and the PS1 port that was plagued by loading times at every turn.
With the original game's director Yasumi Matsuno (Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy XII) once again taking the reins, the remake adds new chapters, characters, classes, music, graphical effects, and more.
Add on the changes to skills/leveling that make combat less tedious and difficult, as well as the the end-game World system allowing you to investigate alternate outcomes, and you get the definitive version of this SRPG masterpiece.
3. Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars (Ubisoft Sofia, Ubisoft, Nintendo 3DS)
This 3DS launch title was easy to ignore -- a top-down, turn-based re-imagining for a franchise not really known for its portable entries, and one with graphics that appear rushed from the last handheld generation to the current one.
Even if you knew Julian Gollop, co-creator of the original X-Com games, served as producer on Shadow Wars, you still might have had your doubts, but the strategy veteran spectacularly updated the formula he helped define here.
Picture X-Com's combat portions with terrain height/cover advantages, suppression fire, command powers (call in an airstrike!), deployable turrets, optical camouflage, and a more advanced return fire system.
All of that, plus the subtle stereoscopic 3D that makes the battlefield look like a living board game, is enough to make you forget about the corny G.I. Joe-inspired story of rogue Russian groups destabilizing Eastern Europe.
(An iOS port for this is on the way, too, though presumably without that neat 3D effect.)
2. Solatorobo: Red the Hunter (CyberConnect 2, Xseed Games, Nintendo DS)
In the tradition of under-appreciated games released in the twilight days of a console, in this case the DS, Solatorobo is one of the best looking and most characterful titles on its system -- thanks in no small part to character designer Nobuteru Yūki.
Solatorobo is set in a Castle in the Sky-esque world of floating islands, forgotten technology, and whimsical characters (played by a cast of talking -- some speaking in French -- animal people) piloting mechs and eager for adventure.
It's a masterfully created and varied experience full of quests that drop you into gladiatorial fights in which you'll pile-drive other mechs, and that send you flying in Diddy Kong Racing-style air races complete with attack items.
Xseed should be applauded for bringing this risky game to the States (and for packaging it in a high quality embossed box with a soundtrack CD), especially during a time when most publishers shifted all of their concentration to 3DS.
1. Super Mario 3D Land (Nintendo EAD Tokyo, Nintendo, Nintendo 3DS)
Maybe it was lowered expectations brought on by unenthusiastic previews, or the general malaise that permeated anything 3DS-related earlier this year, but hardly anyone seemed too excited about Super Mario 3D Land.
When the title hit, and once everyone got past the initial pushover worlds, though, gamers found that Nintendo EAD and producer Yoshiaki Koizumi created the missing link between Mario's 2D games and Super Mario 64.
Featuring compact stages dense with new gimmicks and hidden treats around every corner, it melds the approachability of the original NES and New Super Mario Bros. titles with the open areas and complexity of the 3D games.
Super Mario 3D Land also feels like the first 3DS game to really show off how stereoscopic 3D can enhance gameplay -- something the system desperately needed to prove Nintendo's gambit with 3D was a worthwhile one.
Kirby Mass Attack (HAL Laboratory, Nintendo Nintendo DS) The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (Nihon Falcom, Xseed Games, PSP) Mighty Switch Force (WayForward Technologies, eShop) Pushmo (Intelligent Systems, Nintendo, eShop) Where Is My Heart? (Die Gute Fabrik, PS Minis)