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Do gaming handhelds have a future?

Chances are, if you own a phone, even if it's not a smartphone, you've probably played the games on it. Maybe out of curiosity or boredom, but you've tapped away on a keypad or a touchscreen, passing the time with them because you find them fun, or at least interesting, and they can be played on a device you carry around with you all the time anyway. A device that can also play music and video, display maps for navigation, browse the web, and yes, even make calls and text your friends and family. So why would you buy -- or carry around -- a separate device just for gaming?

That's a question that's especially important to Nintendo, a company responsible for some of the bestselling systems in the world -- both at home and portable. The Game Boy and DS lines of handhelds sold millions, gave birth to franchises like Pokémon, and made countless plane and car rides a lot less boring. Now they face increased competition from mobile gaming, and their latest handheld, the 3DS, faltered in its initial release due to being more inconvenient to carry around, and with a seemingly higher price point -- the system was $250 at release, and new 3DS titles can go for upwards of $40 each. Compare that to smartphones that might be below $100 on contract or even free, and games that are as little as $0.99, if not also free.

A system that only does one thing is a tough sell. But the 3DS and its chief rival the PlayStation Vita don't just do one thing. Building and improving on their predecessors, they have more robust options for playing music and movies, can browse the web, have built-in cameras, and for the Vita, it can even come with 3G, courtesy of AT&T. But even with all these added features, there is still the question -- why buy a dedicated handheld when a smartphone can do all the same things and is cheap?

Nintendo must constantly ask themselves that question, because today they unveiled the 2DS, a handheld that lacks the 3D capabilities of the standard 3DS and 3DS XL, but can still play 3DS games, access downloadable content, and even take 3D pictures -- though you can't view them in 3D. It doesn't fold like the other dual-screen handhelds, but it does come at a much more attractive price point of $130.

By leaving the 3D out and changing the form factor Nintendo can cut their manufacturing costs, but there's another reason to release the 2DS. The 3DS was recommended only for players older than seven, due to concerns about the 3D harming the eyesight of younger children. But take out the 3D, and you create "an opportunity for five-year-olds, six-year-olds, that first-time handheld gaming consumer," according to Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime.

Creating a device with kids in mind has its benefits. For starters, it's much more durable than your standard cellphone. Nintendo products can be banged around in a bag, dropped on the ground, and, in the case of a Game Boy during the first Gulf War, even blown up, and they'll still work. It's hard to trust a kid -- and even some adults -- with a smartphone that might cost hundreds of dollars to replace. But at a price of $200 (for the 3DS XL) and $130 (for the 2DS), and a good repair policy, the risk is easier to manage.

Photo: Christian Oliviera

As for the gaming experience, it's generally considered better. The 3DS and the Vita have D-pads and thumb sticks, better for controlling the action on the screen, and you don't have to worry about your thumb blocking anything, nor do you have to worry about smudging the screen as much (the 3DS and 2DS both include styluses for those times when you do need to touch the screen, though). And the screen is bigger, which is great for games with great graphics and lots of detail. The benefits of physical controls and large screen certainly weren't lost on NVIDIA, who recently debuted their Shield, an Android handheld that includes both and earned high marks from reviewers. And while the battery life of today's handhelds isn't great and can be as little as 3-5 hours, especially compared to the 8-12 hour marathons that the Game Boy and DS were capable of, your smartphone wouldn't fare much better under the stress of heavy gaming, and at least when your gaming handheld dies, the only thing you lose is your ability to game -- not your email or phone calls.

But ultimately, the biggest advantage of any system is the games available for it, and in the case of the 2DS, Nintendo is banking on a solid library of titles like Mario Kart and Animal Crossing, games which still haven't been successfully replicated in mobile form -- partly because Nintendo won't license them, looking to control both hardware and software to provide what they believe will make the best gaming experience possible.

So should you buy a gaming handheld? If you're happy playing mobile games on your phone just to pass the time, and it's not something you really give a lot of consideration to, then it really doesn't make any sense to spend the money and carry around another device. But if you like the feel of solid controls in your hand, you appreciate good graphics, and you spend hours at a time immersed in the worlds and gameplay of a great title, buying a handheld is still worth considering, and Nintendo just made it a little easier with the 2DS.