Parents Video Game Buying Guide: The Portables


Note: A great place to start is our Parents Guide to Video Games which can be found here.  It covers our philosophy on kids and games and will hopefully give you a new perspective on approaching the medium.  You can also read our guide to video game consoles here.

Gift giving season is upon us.  I’ve seen more than one parent approach it with tense shoulders and a lingering dread.  Your kids are telling you they want such and such video game console and it either sounds like they are just spouting random consonants or they are asking for the playtendostation or the sony-sixtyfour-genu-super-saturn and you are not sure what to tell the store clerk.

The folks at Serious Play / Giant Japanese Robot are here to help.  We have extensively tested all the current video game options in our virtual, simulated labs and are ready to show you what you can do, what your options are, how much it costs and what we would do in your situation.

Portable game systems are easy to carry and are useful for shorter play sessions.  The bulk of games are simpler in scope than their console counterparts and are designed to be played in relatively small chunks.  As time goes on and these portable systems get more powerful these lines are starting to blur.  It is completely possible if not the norm yet to have a rich narrative gaming experience on a portable platform. In most cases though you will find games on portables that are more casual, more whimsical and easier to play making these systems approachable for a wide variety of ages and video game expertise.

Portables are fantastic for long trips and drives and people occupying themselves when nothing else is going on.  I often used my portables during my commute or traveling.  Smart phones have taken a chunk out of this market in the last couple of years, but they still do not provide the wealth of entertainment experiences that a dedicated device can.

From Nintendo:

Nintendo 3DS


The DS is the base platform from which all of Nintendos portable lines spring from.  DS stands for Duel Screens, a larger screen on the top and a smaller screen on the bottom that is touch capable with the provided stylus.  The ‘3’ in the 3DS stands for 3D cleverly sharing the ‘D’ with the rest of the acronym.  Games that are specifically made for the 3DS have a remarkable ‘no glasses needed’ 3D ability that is pretty impressive.  The fact is though that just about every gamer I know (including myself and my own children) shut this feature off after a few weeks of using it.  It is kind of a novelty and doesn’t really add anything to the system in the long run.  The cost of these systems are around $170 and the advantage is that they have a wealth of games available.  About 200 3DS specific titles and about 1300 DS titles that it is backwards compatible with.  This is the largest amount of playable titles for any current portable system and shows no sign of slowing down.  There are generally some excellent bundles with a popular game around the holidays to get you and your child started on day 1 without having to purchase anything else.

The 3DS has an online marketplace where you can buy digital games without having physical media, but I am leery to recommend this option.  The digital games are tied to your DS and if you lose or break it (as kids tend to do) then the games are lost forever and you have to repurchase them.  This is not the same on the console versions of Nintendo products and in my opinion is a serious flaw in the line.

Issues with the DS tend to be broken hinges, scratched screens and the games are small and can be easily lost.  This can be solved with screen protectors and implementing a check in/check out process for devices and games.  I would also pop over to a play like eBay and buy a metric ton of styluses if you or your children are prone to losing small items.



About $20 – $30 more expensive that the above model they can usually be found for $200, less during holidays and when newer models come out.  The XL designation means that it is big, the screens are about 90% bigger than the original model.  I also feel like these units are better built and sturdier, making that extra bit of cash worth it.



The oddly named 2DS is a newly introduced model that dumps the traditional clam shell design which probably makes it a bit sturdier.  There is no 3D, but it still can play all of the 3DS and DS games.  They can be found for around $150.  Personally, I am not sure if these are worth it yet.  Removing the hinge may prevent younger children from doing horrible things to the device like rapidly opening and closing it, stressing the hinges till they fracture, but it just isn’t that much cheaper than a fully featured model.  I will completely change my mind when these get closer to the $100 price point.

DSi and DSiXL


These were the models before the 3DS came out and as a consequence do not play 3DS games removing a few hundred of the newer and more sophisticated games from the list. They follow the same form factor of the 3DS and 3DSXL.  These retail for about $100 – $120 but since they are nearing the end of their manufacturing lives I expect deep discounts for the holiday season and beyond.  This is one of the best options if you are on a strict budget.  I would wait for a good sale when they drop to under $100.

From Sony

PS Vita


The Vita is an interesting piece of hardware.  Sold as a successor to the somewhat beleaguered PSP systems it has a beautiful large screen, twin analog sticks and a solid build.  It was expensive when it came out almost two years ago and hasn’t taken off like I feel it deserves.  A newer model is currently being produced in Japan that some have nicknamed the PS Vita Slim, but no North American release date has been set.

These are powerful systems that are not as well supported by Sony as they should be.  With the impending release of the PS4 though things may change.  You will be able to use the Vita as a second screen and stream  your PS4 games from within your house to your Vita.  You can play console quality games on a portable device.  Most PS4 titles that do not depend on specialized peripherals will support this feature.

As of right now I am only really recommending the Vita to teens and older, and those that will be purchasing a PS4 or are more of the dedicated gamer and fan of Sony products.  Until they turn around their game library  (Which while officially listed at about 400 games I am having a hard time thinking of more than a handful of worthy ones) this is not going to be the best option for most.  It is still possible that they will pull this out and the Vita will become a strong contender, but I waiting this out to make a stronger recommendation.  Vita and Vita bundles can be found for around $200.


Outside The two big players above the choices become a little thin.  There are your iPhones and Android devices.  These are powerful gaming devices, but in my opinion not as satisfying as a dedicated device.  There is also the issue with handing your nine year old a $500 smart phone.  Tiny, expensive and children are not always the best combination.  Included in this mix are iPads and Android tablets, interesting devices like the MOGA Controller which essentially attaches a real gaming controller to your Android device, highly specialized devices like the NVidia Shield which streams games from your computer to a itself and plays Android games, but at a cost of $300.  There are also smaller specialized devices like At Games Ultimate Portable Games Player which for $50 gives you 80 old school Sega Genesis games, not a bad deal overall.

I think we covered the bulk of options in the portable space.  Keep checking back as we will cover the main consoles and my recommendations for games over the next few days.

As always come chat with us and ask questions over at our Facebook page, Serious Play.

Photo: Some rights reserved by bochalla