I Watched Portable Gaming Evolve Through a Decade of Anime Conventions, and That's Awesome

I Watched Portable Gaming Evolve Through a Decade of Anime Conventions, and That's Awesome

A convention crowd's portable preferences can tell you a lot about the state of handheld gaming.

I'm not as steeped in anime culture as I used to be, but I still very much enjoy the convention scene. I believe our brains benefit from a little sensory overload from time to time, even if our bodies don't benefit as much from the inevitable onslaught of the uniquely mutated germ strain that causes "con crud."

The term "anime convention" is a bit of a misnomer these days, however. Even Otakon, my con of choice, has slowly shifted form across the past 11 years I've attended. As anime and comics continue to permeate mainstream culture, conventions become more generalized, more family-friendly. Now, even the convention named for otaku culture (right, Hal?) is rife with cosplay and merchandise from Marvel movies, Western-made cartoons like Adventure Time and Steven Universe, and adult-oriented TV shows like Game of Thrones.

Games have also become a huge part of so-called anime conventions, and we're not talking about a handful of Sonic cosplayers. Besides merchants peddling niche titles and accessories, many cons also boast huge game rooms and tournaments.

But games have long been a major part of anime conventions, albeit in more subtle ways than giant photoshoots based around Nintendo, Undertale, and Final Fantasy. Attending a single con for over a decade has given me a chance to watch portable game tech evolve, and it's been quite a ride.

I first attended Otakon in summer 2005. The Nintendo DS was a thing by then, but people were a bit slow to abandon their Game Boy Advances. I spotted many Game Boy Advance SP units, which is unsurprising: To this day, the SP is, in my opinion, still one of the most attractive handhelds ever released. Pokémon Ruby, Sapphire, FireRed and LeafGreen were the games of choice in the long line-ups for autographs and the dealers' room. Battling other players meant toting around a link cable, which in turn meant raising your arms high up whenever someone needed to scootch under you.

PictoChat: A bastion of class and cleverness.

At Otakon 2006 and 2007, I noticed that the Nintendo DS had finally clamped down on the Game Boy Advance's territory, and it had no intention of letting go. The handsome DS Lite convinced many con-goers to make the switch, especially when Pokémon Diamond and Pearl came around and introduced the convenience of wireless battling.

PictoChat, the DS's all-but-forgotten built-in chat / scribbling app also proved popular in line-ups. We already know a roomful of monkeys at typewriters will eventually belt out the works of Shakespeare, but be assured hundreds of nerds with styluses will eventually draw every possible variation of the human male phallus.

Otakon 2010 had its usual line-up of artists and voice actors, but the Nintendo DS was the real star of the show. Several built-in features for popular DS games gave us a taste of how social gaming would become in the near future. It seemed like everyone at the show had a copy of Dragon Quest IX, which let us exchange treasure maps and Inn guests in a kind of wild digital orgy.

The cat's like, "Oh, good. People."

The excellent Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver also gobbled up our time and attention, and Lord knows the PokéWalker – that little PokéBall-shaped accessory that let you level up your favorite Pokémon while walking – got tons of use from Pokémon fans darting between panels.

The sun gradually set on the Nintendo DS as the Nintendo 3DS started occupying more pockets and bags from 2012 onward. StreetPass and puzzle-collecting were a hit, even if neither activity inspired the giddiness of Dragon Quest IX's more intimate social features. That said, StreetPass is a great way to forge temporary kinships with other con-goers. On day one of Otakon, their Miis scream "OTAKOOOON!". On day four, the same Miis offer a downcast "Goodbye." These farewells don't do a lot to alleviate post-con depression, but at least you get more warm bodies for your StreetPass games.

(Psst – would've loved to see that upgrade for the 3DS Mii Plaza years ago, Nintendo. When you're at a game-focused gathering, all 10 queue spots get filled up faster than you can say Yabba Dabba Doo.)

Light up the night.

Now the Nintendo 3DS is nearing the end of its life, and it's unclear what's going to take its place (probably the NX). The 3DS still made a strong showing at Otakon 2016, but the real MVP was a little mobile app called Pokémon GO.

While the app's numbers are reportedly levelling out, there's no lack for players in densely-populated areas bristling with PokéStops and Gyms – a description that fit Otakon 2016 to a tee. Every single night and day saw nearly every stop lit up with lures, and there was hardly a moment when the teams weren't clashing for supremacy across the Gyms. Even over the general roar of convention traffic, I had no problem picking up the telltale "Swish! Ting-ting!" of a Trainer attempting to reel in a wild Pokémon with a PokéBall.

Otakon's moving from Baltimore to Washington DC in 2017, and I have no doubt our mobile phones and handheld systems of choice will follow the con down the I-95. I'm excited to continue watching the evolution of portable gaming from behind the too-small eyeholes of some clumsily-built cosplay.

Oh, and before it comes up: Yes, the PSP and PS Vita also make appearances at Otakon. Sony's handhelds have a very diminished presence next to the Pokémon and Nintendo juggernauts, but God love 'em, they are there. Praise.

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Nadia Oxford

Staff Writer

Nadia has been writing about games for so long, only the wind and the rain (or the digital facsimiles thereof) remember her true name. She's written for Nerve, About.com, Gamepro, IGN, 1UP, PlayStation Official Magazine, and other sites and magazines that sling words about video games. She co-hosts the Axe of the Blood God podcast, where she mostly screams about Dragon Quest.

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