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Grate.

 

 

There are moments I stop playing video games.

I can recall each moment because they are all defined by an exploration of something new.

Lost somewhere in the fog of high school, I walked away from games for the second time.

It was never clear what triggered this.

Freshman year I was playing Grand Theft Auto on the Game boy Color.

Sophomore year my brother and I pooled our money together for a Playstation 2.

Junior year and something shifted.

I turned to music.

I explored vinyl records.

I pulled my parents’ old Sanyo floor speakers from the basement.

I bought my first pair of Sony Stereophones.

Sound became important.

The first car I owned was a 1986 Saab 9000 Turbo.

Its stock stereo system had a visual equalizer.

I spent hours tweaking frequencies and audio presets.

When I came back to games I had developed an aural palate.

I knew what I wanted to hear.

I picked up my Game Boy Color and played Dragon Warrior for the first time since its NES release.

Its music stuck with me long after I had forgotten about it.

I asked a friend if he could copy specific songs off the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack.

I listened to it everyday driving home from school.

I began to pay attention to what I once considered passive elements.

Soundscape. Music. Sound Design. Lighting. Art.

My only focus had been on plot and mechanics.

I revisited games from my past.

Lion King. Aladdin. Super Mario 2. Guerrilla War. Super Street Fighter II Turbo. Contra. Jackal.

I experimented through them all.

I played with the fluid sprites of Aladdin.

I realized how deep Jackal’s music had dug into my past.

 

Coil.

 

When the original Playstation hit, it occupied a strange place in sound.

The PS1 rendered an insinuation of orchestra.

Everything from Final Fantasy VII to Metal Gear Solid to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night had soundtracks that landed between what was and what was to come.

With better hardware, it was a matter of time before game music became orchestral and real.

I wasn’t looking forward to that.

Most film soundtracks use orchestral variation and most film soundtracks are forgettable.

With each consecutive hardware generation, games became less immune to being forgotten.

Designers dropped simple, tight, engaging melodies for large, sweeping waves of sound.

Final Fantasy X was my first exposure to this.

I cannot recall a single FFX theme.

When everything is drowned in realized, emotional music, it has no impact.

It has no force.

The most recognizable themes in games today are those that understand how to use boundary and limitation.

Halo and its haunting, simple, choral opening.

Crysis 2 and Hans Zimmer’s dissonant, driven theme.

Armored Core V and its awkward, shifting, stuttering soundscape.

Transistor and its somber, tense, contemplative anthem.

Game music succeeds when it does new things with mathematical elegance.

As games shift further away from their origins, as they become more complex, more rooted in an approximation of reality, they can only strengthen their identities by reexamining the technical boundaries of their past.

By trying to forge identity through deliberate misremembrance.

 

Sea.

 

Until 2011, the last piece of Nintendo hardware I owned was a first-generation Game Boy Advance.

I skipped the N64, GameCube, Wii, and DS.

The 3DS was the first Nintendo console I bought in ten years.

I was annoyed at myself for ignoring the DS in favor of the PSP.

I was interested in experimenting with the parallax display.

It took time to get reacquainted with Nintendo.

I disliked what they did with the Wii and the 3DS was their initial attempt to rediscover the ‘core’ gaming audience.

Super Mario 3D Land shocked me. Its music was simple and memorable.

It was the perfect evolution of sound.

The music was experienced and enhanced the game’s bright art.

Nearly every first-party game on the 3DS had a thorough, crafted approach to sound.

The 3DS was the first handheld console where I couldn’t just mute the games.

I needed to hear what was going on.

In 2013, I bought Animal Crossing: New Leaf to cope with my wife leaving for a month.

It was the first Animal Crossing game I played.

The wholeness of its soundscape was captivating.

The music was light, crisp, and warm.

The sound of the rain, the waterfalls, the shore was thick and meditative.

The sound of footsteps on sand, grass, cobblestone, wood was mesmerizing.

More than any other element, the sound design stuck.

Listening to New Leaf was just as much a pleasure as playing it.

I bought a Wii U not long after launch.

I waited for the first-party games. I waited for the extension of the 3DS’ promise.

Super Mario 3D World was just as beautiful and whole as 3D Land.

Mario Kart 8 infused pop and joy into nearly every track’s theme.

The thoroughness of Sonic’s sound design in Super Smash Bros. Wii U is nothing short of a loving tribute to a dying friend.

Nintendo is often attacked for being slow to adapt, to change.

Nintendo is often accused of thriving in their own bubble and calling it success.

While these criticisms are fair, it is important to examine what it is they get right.

They understand how to build games.

They understand that sound and music aren’t just aural skyboxes encompassing their worlds.

They consider and entwine sound into every step, every inch.

Nintendo’s approach to sound is simple and profound.

Soulful and considered.

 

Grinning and whispered.

 

 

 

 

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Low.

 

 

“Rain woke him, a slow drizzle, his feet tangled in coils of discarded fiberoptics. The arcade’s sea of sound washed over him, receded, returned. Rolling over, he sat up and held his head.

Light from a service hatch at the rear of the arcade showed him broken lengths of damp chipboard and the dripping chassis of a gutted game console. Streamlined Japanese was stenciled across the side of the console in faded pinks and yellows.” – William Gibson, Neuromancer

 

Sub-I:

 

We were in a basement somewhere in Beirut. We were shooting pool.

Mid-90’s summer and there was no air conditioning. Slow fans and fluorescent lights.

The walls were covered in cracks and ripped up, yellowed flyers with pictures of dead men.

‘Martyrs’.

I become bored, I look around for something else to do.

A row of arcade cabinets in the distant corner. I put my cue down. I walk over.

I watch the demo looping bright neon animations.

A puzzle game. A friend comes over.

He watches the demo.

We stare at the flashing pictures of naked Asian women that pop up behind the solved puzzles.

He sits down at one cabinet. He drops in the coins. Tries to play.

He only manages to uncover a woman’s face locked in orgasmic fury.

As he gets up to leave, I lock eyes with one of the dead men hanging above the grimy arcade machine.

He looks determined. He looks ridiculous.

Either nationalism or religion killed him. Electric sex keeps his memory alive.

We step outside into the sticky night. We walk past a bombed out theater.

Lights reflect in the ruin.

It looks ridiculous.

It looks determined.

 

Sub-II:

 

We lived in southern California. 45 minutes outside of LA.

We drove to Vegas once a year for vacation.

90’s Vegas tried to market itself towards families.

Every hotel had massive, expensive arcades my brother and I would bury ourselves in.

A few years ago I went back there with my father for the first time in over a decade.

The arcades died there too: Vegas dropped the family act.

Walking down the strip at sunset, I realize how much I had forgotten about this place in the winter.

I notice how cool the air is, how dark the sky.

Standing at a crosswalk, I hold a cigar to my mouth and look down.

I laugh.

Cards with mostly naked men and women had been cast all over the corner.

I grind my foot into their polished, gutted faces.

So this is what Vegas wants to be now?

Must have lost money betting on the American family.

The 90’s lied to this city the same way it lied to all of us.

I crossed.

I watched the fountain go off in front of the Bellagio.

I felt like a ghost in its towering white light.

I felt like the dead man and his sex machine.

 

Sub-III:

 

 

Someone turned nostalgia into its own virtual world.

I was upset the first time I saw this.

It’s all lifeless.

The player touches everything and experiences nothing.

This isn’t an arcade: It is a funeral pyre.

In a world where digital media is highly consumable, we have forgotten how to act around things of value…

including our memory.

 

III.9: 

 

There was a line around the entire arcade.

Word was out they bought a VR machine.

$20.00 bought you five minutes.

I wait for the line to die down. It takes a few hours.

I walk up to the attendant. Give her the money.

She wraps the giant, plastic headpiece around my eyes.

I am anxious about becoming nauseous.

The game starts.

I look around the room. I am in a warehouse.

Everything is low-poly. Poor framerate.

Things shoot at me and I have no idea what to do.

My five minutes are up. I leave unimpressed.

More than a decade later Oculus Rift gains traction.

Sony announces Project Morpheus.

I download PolyFauna on my phone.

I put on headphones and stand in my living room.

I hold my phone close to my face and turn with it to navigate.

I am in two three-dimensional places at once and this realization shocks and thrills me.

I see a future defined by both cheap and expensive VR.

Bright colors. Dark spaces. Heat. Intimacy. Distance.

Eroticism.

VR’s arcade inheritance.

 

Sub-IV:

 

We were standing by the beach, watching the roaches skitter along the shore.

It was night. Everything was lit up by small shops and looming towers crowding Beirut’s shoreline.

I catch the lights of an enormous tanker parked in the sea.

I daydream about its machinery.

Coffee in hand, I turn to watch the taxis speed by.

A friend of my cousin walks up to us and pulls out his phone.

He asks us if we want to see something funny.

He cycles through the menus. Pulls up a video.

He holds the phone up to our faces.

It’s a video of a naked woman doing illicit things with a lit cigar.

I look up from the video.

I see gutted phones and computers in the window of a repair shop across the street.

I tell my cousin I’ll be right back.

I cross the boulevard.

I watch the guy work by his window.

I notice his limited selection of pirated games and vast quantities of Chinese knockoff consoles.

Lebanon has a strange relationship with technology: Everyone wants it, but only a few understand it.

Years later, the iPhone 4 would sell here for $1400.00 USD.

 

Sub-V:

 

At a bar just outside downtown Madison, WI.

Waiting for a live show to start at a venue down the street.

The bar has one arcade machine and one video poker machine.

I watch the poker demo.

I enjoy the crispness of the cards and their fluid animations.

I enjoy its bright glow.

It reminds me of all the machines in Vegas.

The rows and rows of digital and mechanical vice.

The UI flashes my mind with the basement and its dying porn games.

I never found gambling interesting.

But I enjoy the technology and aesthetics of seductive manipulation.

The running thread beneath it all is to focus the user, to isolate a person without giving them to the space to understand the illusion.

Arcade machines. Virtual Reality. Slot machines. Mobile phones.

My favorite types of mobile games are the ones that capture this illicitness.

Monster Strike. Terra Battle. TNNS. Dice Jockey. Zenonia.

They are inheritors of the arcade as filtered through Vegas.

They are products of and a celebration of vice.

Bright colors. Money. Chance. And the sensuality of being alone with others.

The modern drives as sold through slick, minimal UIs.

The modern drives as the bonfires of the synapse.

 

Pit.

 

“There was a place near an airport, Kowloon, when Hong Kong wasn’t China, but there had been a mistake, a long time ago, and that place, very small, many people, it still belonged to China. So there was no law there. An outlaw place. And more and more people crowded in; they built it up, higher. No rules, just building, just people living. Police wouldn’t go there. Drugs and whores and gambling. But people living, too. Factories, restaurants. A city. No laws.”

—William Gibson, Idoru

 

It is early.

We shamble out of the club.

I am shocked to see the sun.

Red Bull and vodka still coursing through us.

We make our way to the shore.

Beirut is an ugly city in the light of day.

It thrives through the night.

My cousin buys some coffee. He hands me a cup.

I watch the sun hovering just above the mountains.

I wonder about how we’re going to handle the hour-long trek back to the village.

We still had to drop off my cousin’s friends.

They meet up with us.

We walk over to the car and take off.

They both live in the hyper-religious slums of Beirut. Hezbollah territory.

We drop them off and I look around as my cousin says goodbye.

The buildings are close. The streets are narrow.

Sunlight blotted out by a thick, complex spiderweb of black cable.

I think about the infrastructure of access.

I see the faces of martyrs hung up on electrical poles.

I watch a man smoke a cigarette with an AK-47 slung around his back.

This is a place of violence. Of drugs. Of religion. Of money. Of power in the most classical sense.

My uncle once told me that in the city you have to pay for things that should be free for everyone: Access to sunlight and air.

I imagine who might live at the top of all these buildings.

What do they do with all their access?

I look at the cut sky through the dirt on the windshield.

I pull out my phone and check for messages.

Nothing.

I lean my head back. I close my eyes.

I think of Midgar. Of Kowloon. Of Neo-Tokyo.

I think of vice and violence.

And I smile.

And I bask in the mute, dark heat of our hearts.

 

And I drown in the polluted glands of this city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Supercar.

 

 

One day, they reorganized the last arcade I went to.

I went there every Friday. It was attached to a cinema.

The House of the Dead was my game: I had every high score on the list, even when the gun broke.

This arcade went through phases.

At first, it was driven by families and birthday parties. People thought of it as a ‘cooler’ Chuck E. Cheese’s.

When that business began to die off, they pivoted focus to bringing in bigger, stranger arcade cabinets.

Dance Dance Revolution. Guitar Freaks. MoCap Boxing. Flash Beats.

F355 Challenge.

Anytime one of the new cabinets came in, I dove into them.

I became most proficient in DDR and Flash Beats as secondary games.

I only played F355 Challenge once.

F355 was designed by Yu Suzuki and released in 1999.

It released in different cabinets, but the true nature of the game emerged purest in its largest iteration.

The game had three screens powered by four NAOMI units: one for each screen, one to link them.

The center screen was the windshield, the two outer screens were the side windows.

It had a realistic H-Shifter and three pedals.

It was considered by many to be the most accurate racing simulation possible at that time.

This arcade managed to pull in the large cabinet.

One day, I came in and everything was moved to make space for F355.

The owner made sure it was visible to everyone.

It was intimidating: Large. Complex. Dark.

It took $4.00 each play.

When I decided to jump in, I didn’t know if I would have fun with it or not.

Getting into the cab felt like you were attending some adult cocktail party full of glances and covered mouths.

The cab had curtains to keep other people away.

When it came time to drive, the formality didn’t dissipate.

This was a cold, raw simulation.

It was confusing and awkward.

In a place where you were primed for hot, fast action: F355 felt muted.

It felt empty. It was boring.

I only played F355 one time.

I moved on.

 

Litre.

 

Coming from Yu Suzuki, F355 was a disappointment.

Suzuki proved himself as an auteur of immersive action games throughout his career.

Super Hang-On. Out Run. After Burner. Space Harrier. Virtua Fighter. Shenmue.

F355 possessed none of the excitement his games typically exploded with.

F355 interpreted attention to detail as love.

This trend of equating detail and adoration began with Gran Turismo.

When the first game released in 1998 (one year before F355), the entire gaming community was floored.

It was a sign that we were now on the cusp of significant technologies, that the world had begun to blur.

Gran Turismo was a technological achievement.

Kazunori Yamauchi and Polyphony Digital had made an affordable, pure racing simulation for the home on a piece of standardized hardware.

Gran Turismo was a crowning achievement for the racing genre then.

Gran Turismo was also the end.

Before GT and F355, the genre was dominated by arcade racers.

They mainly used cars and driving as filters of action and momentum.

A few months before GT, EA released Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit.

I played NFSIII for a year.

Hot Pursuit wasn’t about accuracy or simulation, it was about capturing the thrill of slamming on the accelerator.

It was about laughing at the police as you ram them into a guard rail.

It was about the daydreams people have while stuck in traffic or pulled over on the side of the road, glaring at the officer in the rear-view.

NFSIII was about rediscovering that time you rode your bike down the longest hill you had ever seen and wondering whether you trust yourself to hit the brakes at the right time.

It was wild and honest and young: The original face of racing.

The following year saw Namco‘s best entry in the genre: R4: Ridge Racer Type 4.

Where Hot Pursuit was about aggression and fantasy, where GT was about simulation, R4 was about finesse and exploration.

Vehicles in R4 fell under two general classes: Drift or Grip.

It came down to what you, as the player, wanted.

Drift cars were ‘loose’ and allowed you to powerslide with a slight tap to the brake.

Grip cars were tighter and powersliding was done by balancing brake and gas.

R4 was about style.

Everything from the car selection, to the tracks, to the driving, to the UI: It was all about style.

R4 was about Japan and its love of motorsport.

R4 was bosozoku and Kunimitsu Takahashi.

R4 was Keiichi Tsuchiya drifting every turn of the Tsukuba Circuit.

It asked: ‘What would you like to do? Who do you want to be?’ and let the player run free.

 

Metal.

 

This balance between racing games didn’t last.

Gran Turismo’s dominance in the racing genre went unchallenged for its next four iterations.

It wasn’t until Forza Motorsport appeared in 2005 that GT had any real competition in racing simulation.

Need For Speed kept pushing more aggression, especially after Burnout‘s success with its emphasis on heavy, hard crashes.

This led to Criterion being tasked with developing the latest entries into the NFS franchise, making the last few entries the most aggressive in the history of the series.

Ridge Racer became a parody of itself.

What was once a series defined by a Japanese love of motorsport and style is now flailing in a sea of strange experiments and half-finished ideas.

Ridge Racer’s latest entry, Ridge Racer Unbounded, was never even released in Japan.

It is in this environment that Driveclub released.

It is in this toxic mess the racing genre has become that Driveclub tries to reclaim the identity of the middle and the vast expanse of the margins.

Driveclub has not been well-received.

Most gaming media outlets share similar sentiments that Driveclub has no soul or passion or heat.

Driveclub is compared to Gran Turismo, Forza, NFS and is found to come up short.

And I have never seen the media so inept.

Gran Turismo destroyed the diversity of the racing landscape.

Like some hegemonic amoeba, it devoured the imagination.

It devoured subtlety.

To compete, racing games now either had to be pure math or pure rage.

Either a game competes in the same arena (Forza) or it rejects everything and creates a new paradigm (NFS).

Ridge Racer tried and failed to find some sort of synthesis and has lost its identity in the process.

There is no longer any proper lens through which Driveclub is accurately interpreted.

There is no longer a language for it.

Driveclub is a classic arcade racer.

It has inherited the best traits of R4, NFSIII, and GT.

Driveclub is about finessing through powerslides, healthy aggression, and maintaining driving lines.

Driveclub is about rediscovering the fun and beauty of driving.

The tracks are stunning and inspiring.

The races are exhilarating and frustrating.

Though Driveclub’s greatest success is that it gives the player the space to approach the game how they would like.

It has shown itself to be more malleable than any other racing game ever made.

It can be a simple simulation or an intricate arcade game.

How the player chooses to drive influences its tone.

Drifting on turns and the sheer force of momentum on straightaways is incredible and fricative.

Drafting, precision cornering, and avoiding collisions are fulfilling in ways that Gran Turismo and Forza never were.

It incorporates objective and points-based elements from Project Gotham Racing so that it isn’t just about winning races.

Driveclub is more than a racing game, it is a driving game.

Its focus isn’t just on competition and winning, it’s about appreciating the art of driving.

Driveclub is like sitting at the Musee d’Orsay in the early morning, drinking coffee, and letting your vision blur the steam and the painting in front of you.

It is a warm experience coalescing and exploring the mastery of the past.

It is a confident game.

It has none of the insecurity with which Gran Turismo protects its cars.

It feels no need to subvert the racing genre by making it more extreme.

While Driveclub is currently suffering from technical issues, it has more than enough potential to become one of the best racing games out right now.

Driveclub is what the gaming community and the racing genre needed: A step back. A reexamination and rediscovery of a love that has slipped further and further into schizophrenia.

I missed the world Driveclub emerged from.

I missed its warmth.

And it feels strange going back now, realizing how much has been forgotten.

But while remembrance can be embarrassing, it is liberating, even if its language has been lost…

 

Even if its value is ignored.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orpheus.

 

 

1) Nintendo Wii U Gamepad

 

The gamepad is bloated plastic.

It is expansive.

Even with all its technology (touchscreen, console streaming) it feels empty. It feels like a pastry puff.

The face buttons have a deep, low click when pressed and a higher-pitched, muted release.

There is stiffness to them that both speaks to the solid build of the device and of over-engineering.

Everything on the device presses like a face button except the analog sticks.

The D-pad is enormous, making it difficult to use, and clicks hard on presses, tiring the thumb.

It is nice to have triggers that snap rather than melt against your finger, but the ability to gauge force is gone.

The gamepad is not a subtle device.

It is gaudy, heavy, and tight.

It is empty, but with the right amount of friction.

A friction born from Nintendo’s first-party games.

It lacks subtlety, it lacks the hidden finesse Nintendo games demand from the players.

It’s almost as if the gamepad is a reaction to the Wii controller’s light weight.

But there wasn’t any subtlety there either since the Wii depended on inaccurate motion-control.

Nintendo gave up the sword to build the tank.

 

2) SNK Neo-Geo X

 

The Neo-Geo X is a gorgeous machine to look at.

It is a contender for the most beautiful handheld ever made.

Everything about it is understated: A black and gold color scheme and a layering of texture.

The face buttons are tighter than the Wii U gamepad, but not as audible. The buttons make the same noise being pressed as they do being released.

This lack of noise from the face buttons is offset by one of the few innovations the Neo-Geo X possesses: The joystick.

Catering to arcade/action games, Tommo built the Neo-Geo X with a microswitch joystick.

Any tap in any direction creates a loud, audible click.

The NGX has great density, but lacks the puffiness of the Wii U gamepad.

It doesn’t sit comfortably in hand.

One of the best features of the system is the split shoulder buttons.

Rather than have two long shoulder buttons at the top of the console, Tommo cut each shoulder button into two, making the NGX the only portable console with four shoulder buttons.

The PS Vita could have benefited from this feature with PS4 remote play.

The downside to Tommo/SNK’s approach to the shoulders is the difficulty in curling fingers to tap L1/R1 since they are stunted to make room for L2/R2.

The NGX has a soft rubber back that feels sticky and decadent.

This is a texture more hardware manufacturers ought to use.

In spite of its problems, this is one of the best handheld gaming devices ever made.

Even better than the Neo-Geo Pocket Color.

 

3) Xbox 360 Controller

 

The Xbox 360 controller is pretty. Its lines are both direct and subtle.

It has a better silhouette than the Sixaxis.

Between the travesty of the original Xbox controller and the success of the 360, Microsoft learned quick.

Borrowing design elements from the Sega Dreamcast, the 360 controller has one of the most unique faces of any modern console.

One analog stick positioned high on the left, bottom left sits a rolling D-pad, and further to the right the second analog stick.

The setup does seem obtuse at first, but the obviousness of its design begins to show when moving around three-dimensional spaces.

The controller itself has a nice heft and sticks in the hands.

By far the 360 controller is the most stable to hold.

It just fits.

Though the buttons are not exceptional.

Even the NGX has better face and shoulder buttons than the 360.

Its face buttons require quite a bit more force than the PS3 or the Wii U and stick out much higher than they need to.

The face buttons are too stiff.

This is strange to me when combined with the presence of a well-made rolling D-pad.

The rolling D-pad is part of what made the Sega Genesis controllers so wonderful, perfect for fast-paced action games.

Why combine a tool used for quick, fluid movement with slow, stiff buttons designed for something like inventory management?

The shoulder buttons are also difficult to press.

They are both small and require exceptional force at strange angles.

They feel almost as stunted and difficult as the NGX, but where SNK/Tommo made their decision based on space conservation and utility, Microsoft has no excuse.

The trigger buttons are actual triggers and have a strange arc to them that doesn’t work on a controller.

They are uncomfortable.

The 360 controller is an elegant, confused piece of hardware that is trying too hard to be too many things.

 

4) Sony PlayStation Vita

 

While the NGX is a product of subtle, layered design, the Vita is a powerhouse of interaction.

It has an enticing weight.

It is a very dense machine and that density is justified by the overwhelming amount of technology within.

An OLED touchscreen on the front, a touchpad on the back, two analog sticks, and front/rear cameras.

The D-pad is near perfect. It feels like a flat, rolling D-pad. Each directional press has a very subdued click that is felt more than heard.

The analog sticks are short, but responsive. They have a balanced tension that sits somewhere between the 360’s tightness and the Sixaxis’ give.

I enjoy the NGX because of its combination of textures.

Its joystick is a matte, rough plastic. Its face buttons are a clear, smooth plastic. Its case is all gloss on the front. Its back is a sticky-smooth rubber.

The Vita would have benefited from more experimentation with texture.

It would have been better without any of the gloss, like the 3DS XL.

Sony already used matte plastic around the D-pad and beneath the face buttons, they should have extended it to the whole system.

It is slippery.

It is too thin to hold comfortably and manipulate all input options.

It puts enormous strain on the wrists and hands.

While making the system larger would have been questionable, it would work better with some grips built into the back of the system rather than the two large dimples it does have.

The Vita’s highlight is its face buttons.

They are tight and responsive. They don’t feel cheap.

They have two clicks each when pressed and released, felt deep in the bones.

Pressing buttons on the Vita is a joy.

The face buttons alone are enough to make someone find reasons to play with it.

It draws you in with its innate experience.

 

5) Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP

 

The Game Boy Advance SP is one of my favorite handheld consoles of all time.

A console that drips with intimacy.

When closed, the SP is appealing and understated.

It feels good to hold and to look at: A slight rectangle with rounded corners.

It has an appealing thickness as well. It doesn’t suffer from the hyper-driven thinness of most handhelds today.

On opening the console, the proportions are less appealing.

When open, the SP looks worse than the Game Boy Pocket.

It does maintain the intimacy: The screen is small and bright and the controls are simple and obvious.

On its face the SP has only two buttons, D-pad, backlight adjustment, and Start/Select.

The whole console is matte plastic, which gives it the right amount of friction.

Nintendo positioned the Start/Select buttons near the bottom, making pausing awkward.

The SP D-pad feels similar to the Vita D-pad.

There is more space between the directions on the SP, but it has a great rolling effect. Otherwise, the SP D-pad has the same tight click as the Vita’s, without feeling difficult like the Wii U gamepad.

What’s amazing about this is that the SP predates the Vita by almost a decade.

Not only is the D-pad ascendant, but the A/B face buttons are also as good as the Vita: Dense, heavy clicks that reverberate in the thumb.

The GBA SP does have two shoulder buttons as well and while they are tight and loud, they are just as awkward to press as the NGX and the 360.

This doesn’t affect the SP as much as the other two since the shoulder buttons are not utilized in critical situations.

It’s inspiring to see what Nintendo is capable of when they get things right.

The SP came out on the back of one of the worst-designed handheld systems in history: The Game Boy Advance.

Much like with the PSV, the SP is so satisfying to interact with, it makes you find reasons to play it.

In 2014 it still doesn’t feel dated.

This is a portable device that continues to hold its own, almost 10 years later.