What makes a great handheld game? Is it an expert synergy of on-the-go portability and fun? Or is it a game that takes the thrills of a console experience and utilizes them on the smaller screen? If the years since the Game Boy have taught us anything, handhelds and their games are not in the least bit limited. For the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita, 2013 was a stellar year. Nintendo’s 3D successor to their DS juggernaut had two years of games, a price cut and a bigger model under its belt. With only a year on the market, Sony’s struggling Vita was finally coming into its own (PS4 connectivity helped reignite interest). Despite a healthy library on both portable systems, the three nominees for 2013’s Handheld Game of the Year fought tooth and tiny screen to earn their places at the top.
Guacamelee! – Though also released on the PlayStation 3 and PC, Guacamelee! truly felt at home on the Vita. Developer Drinkbox Studios used trademark humor and visual style to craft a tale about Juan, a luchador who uses his wrestling skills to fight evil and rescue El Presidente’s daughter. The game’s loving depiction of Mexican culture seeps through every screen, character and conversation. Gorgeous and colorful visuals that pay homage to other game franchises are packed into a very refined experience. Guacamelee! takes advantage of Sony’s Cross-Buy/Save program so players can take the experience from their PS3 to the Vita. The ability to take Guacamelee! anywhere on the Vita was the biggest perk, turning it into a handheld must-have with a 91% review score.
Tearaway – A handheld game should always try to make the most out of being contained into a machine that fits into the palm of user’s hands. That was possibly the biggest issue most had with games on the Vita. Either a game made no use of the handheld’s touch capabilities, multiple cameras and motion control or it poorly implemented it as a quick gimmick. Then came Tearaway. From Media Molecule came a cute platformer that incorporated every piece of the Vita’s tech. Tearaway is cute, the papercraft world looks incredible and acts realistically. Upon release, it received a 93% review score and an Editor’s Choice award. But perhaps its greatest achievement was how You (the player) were constantly interacting with the game’s world, using your fingers to push on the touchscreens to create platforms, or take pictures of objects from your world and bring them into the game. Its conclusion turned the notions of storytelling on its head and did so in such a heartfelt and sincere way.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds – If there is one thing Nintendo has always managed to do, it’s playing gamer’s heartstrings like a nostalgic fiddle. A Link Between Worlds is the first original Zelda game for the 3DS but it also acts as a sequel to A Link to The Past for Super Nintendo. Initially, many thought A Link Between Worlds would act as a reskin of its SNES brother. Once it got in player’s hands though, the differences were apparent. No longer was a dungeon-by-dungeon journey required to obtain Link’s familiar arsenal of weapons. Players could instead purchase or rent them for a price. The updated visuals and incorporation of 3D didn’t mask the fact that some characters and locations were reused, but they were still fun. A Link Between Worlds was full of clever puzzles, challenging boss fights and the same fight between good and evil.
The Winner – Tearaway
Putting it simply, Tearaway is the reason to own a Vita. It uses Sony’s handheld in every way possible and brings the player into the experience like few games have done before. Everything about Tearaway feels unique and fresh but remains rooted to the fundamentals of gaming. While the other nominees were entertaining titles, the language of handheld gaming wasn’t as crucial to their mechanics and enjoyment. Tearaway is more than just an incredible handheld game, it is one of the best titles of 2013.