Seriously, How Unimportant Is Sound in Handheld Games?

I’ve been playing my shiny new 3DS (well, it’s new to me) long enough to determine that, at its heart, it’s really just a better DS. It’s not trying to reinvent the wheel; Nintendo just stuck with what worked, and gave it better graphics, a simply terrific analog stick, and some 3D-ness. One thing in particular I had hoped they would improve, however, is the audio. The speakers are much better, for sure (have a listen on Nintendo Video or Netflix and compare it to any DS game if you don’t believe me), but I still have exactly zero qualms about playing nearly any game with the sound off. When I think back to some of the incredibly catchy melodies from the original NES – over 25 years ago – this lack of advancement in the sound department is simply unacceptable.

This is one area in which Sony has always excelled – the PSP and the Vita have some pretty great speakers, and the games on those systems recognized that fact, so much so that investing in a decent pair of headphones to play games is actually recommended. (I’d expect nothing less from the creators of the Walkman.) The higher-capacity UMD format helped too, I think, as did the ability to play PSOne Classics on the systems. The CD format and the original PlayStation is when game technology finally made it possible to do sound design, spoken dialogue, and full orchestral soundtracks by real full orchestras justice, and the disc format has helped every console since do more with their games’ sound and music. But the 3DS and DS aren’t disc-based.

Even DS games where music is central to the gameplay have historically suffered due to handheld’s shortcomings. Take Elite Beat Agents, for example. The music was central to the rhythm-based gameplay, but the tinny cover songs sounded pretty horrendous whether you were using the DS’s built-in speakers or decided to make your ears bleed with headphones instead. The spiritual successor, Rhythm Thief & the Emperor’s Treasure on 3DS, is better (you’ll feel less like dying), but it’s still not perfect. Another DS game I’ve been sinking a lot of time into recently, Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol, also features a very important rhythm-based flower-growing minigame that just sounds so, so awful, both on paper and when it stabs into my eardrums while I endure it to advance the plot.

All is not lost, however. Strangely, the only place that the average handheld gamer can play games with great sound today is on their smartphones (the average handheld gamer does not own a Vita). Between Super Hexagon and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, there are already twice as many iOS games in this sentence worth plugging in your headphones for than 3DS games. Seriously, all I can come up with on the 3DS is Bit.Trip Saga Complete. That’s not great. The Vita, with some amazing new experiences like Sound Shapes, is holding its own on the audio front, but there just isn’t enough to choose from on the Vita that isn’t already playable on the outdated PSP.

Here’s something to consider: the iPhone/iPod Touch does sound in a lot of games very, very well, and the iPod started out as “just” a music player. On the other hand, the Game Boy/Advance/DS/3DS have always been about games first, while the PSP/Vita tried to do multimedia games/movies/music simultaneously right off the bat (which is why these things have always been far too expensive at launch). Is it any wonder that the gadget that was originally solely a music player is doing music in games best, while the multimedia system comes in second and the pure gaming handheld is bringing up a distant third? I think not. This is actually lucky for me, though, not having to keep my volume slider turned up. I play most of my handheld games silently on slow work nights at the office, or I listen to Pandora on my iPhone while I play my 3DS on the too-l0ud BART train into the big city of San Francisco.

I guess we’ll just have to keep waiting for the indie guys like Terry Cavanagh and the fine folks at Gaijin Games and Capybara to take our handheld gaming audio seriously, because as long as sound budgets continue to be pushed to the back room where they keep the game story writers, there isn’t a lot of literal music to my ears to look forward to.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Seriously, How Unimportant Is Sound in Handheld Games?

  1. I usually play my handheld games while watching TV or something online, and, when I do that, I have my volume off. Unless it’s a rhythm game, of course.

    You make a good point, though: Why did soundtracks kick so much ass back on the NES, but they seem to be just “there” nowadays? I don’t know. It could be that we only had so many games as a kid, and their soundtracks became etched in our head, and we began to love them. Kind of like a Manchurian Candidate type thing? Maybe not, but something to think about.

    • I think it might also be because the technology wasn’t all there yet, so they HAD to get catchy and creative with their soundtracks. Otherwise it’d just be grating beeps and synth guitar all night, and nobody wants that. Melody, dude! But now in 2012, the Mario soundtrack still hasn’t really evolved beyond the little ditties it had going in the 80s and 90s.

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