An Ode to the PlayStation Vita: Sony’s Little Handheld That Couldn’t (but Really Should Have)
There have been a handful of handhelds in the past thirty years that have truly risen to prominence. The original Gameboy is perhaps the most famous, with hangers-on like the Sega Game Gear never able to match it. Then there is the Nintendo DS which, along with the Wii, catapulted Nintendo to success it hadn’t seen since, well, the days of the Gameboy. Not content to let Nintendo have all the money in the handheld space, Sony dove in with the PlayStation Portable, or PSP, in 2004, offering an experience that was pretty darn close to home consoles on the go. But despite Sony’s superior technology and a great selection of games, Nintendo DS still won the battle. Undeterred, Sony prepared a follow-up to the PSP. It would sport near-PlayStation 3 levels of graphical fidelity. It would have not one, but two thumbsticks for twitch gaming and easy camera control. And it would have more bells and whistles than any one developer would know what to do with–camera, microphone, front touch panel, back touch panel. It was the PlayStation Vita, and it had it all.
The PlayStation Vita was an enormous flop.
So what happened? Histories have been written about the failures of the PlayStation Vita, extensive histories, so I’ll try and sum it up quickly. Releasing in 2012, the system had the unfortunate luck of being birthed at the dawn of the free-to-play and cheap phone game market. Suddenly, everyone had a portable computer in their pocket that could play games. Who needed a dedicated handheld console anymore? Couple that with Sony’s ill-advised decision to go with expensive, proprietary memory cards, and you have a product that not many wanted, despite its quality. (Seriously, the memory cards? A 32GB PS Vita card is going for $59, today. A 32GB micro SD card is $8.)
The Vita didn’t deserve this. The Vita is perhaps the greatest handheld gaming machine ever created. Even with its flaws (most of which Sony could have easily done away with), it tops everything Nintendo has made — except for the Switch.
See, the Nintendo Switch is really the full realization of the PlayStation Vita’s promise. Vita provided console-quality experiences on the go. Switch takes that step further, making it easy to pause a game on your TV and throw it in your purse or bag to snag some game time while waiting for the bus. PlayStation Vita tried something similar a few years ago with the poorly selling PlayStation TV, a set-top box that has its own list of problems (no Netflix, seriously?), but is essentially a PS Vita you can play on your television. However, rather than grabbing your console and seamlessly taking it on the road, you’ll need to physically transfer a game card from your PlayStation TV to your Vita, then download your save data from the cloud. It’s doable; it just ain’t great.
So while the Vita had great promise as a hybrid home/portable console, it didn’t quite stick the landing. What it did do, however, was just as important.
The Vita is a home for indies and other quirky games with more limited audiences. While the Switch is rapidly overtaking it in this, as well, many people will fondly remember the Vita as the place they played games like Thomas Was Alone, Home, and Gravity Rush. It’s top-tier exclusives, like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, are super cool and should have been system sellers, but the indies were really what have kept the Vita boat afloat for so long.
Quirky titles, too, anime-heavy games and visual novels, feel comfortable on the Vita. Games like that would be less likely to see a full console release in North America, but on the Vita, publishers were guaranteed a small but dedicated fanbase.
Oh, and don’t forget RPGs. On top of console exclusives like Tales of Hearts R, you’ve got a giant selection of PlayStation 1 and PSP RPGs to purchase from the PlayStation Store (and those systems’ libraries were full of great RPGs).
The social features never caught on. Big publishers left it, sometimes failing to deliver even the big titles they promised (whatever happened to Bioshock Vita?). And Sony set the poor thing adrift years ago, offering little more than lip-service support. But the Vita has trudged on, thanks to relentless support from its fanbase and smaller publishers like Limited Run Games. With physical game production ceasing very soon for the Vita, collectors won’t be able to line their shelves with quality Vita games for much longer. And as the Switch continues to gain momentum, more and more publishers, even the small and Vita-faithful, will start to turn toward it to make ends meet.
Still, the Vita should be remembered for what it started. The Vita was ahead of its time, perhaps to its detriment. It would be a shame if Sony ceded the portable market fully to Nintendo, because a Switch-like Vita that eliminates the need for a PSTV-style solution would be tremendous.
Time will tell how Vita has truly shaped the gaming industry. It was a pioneer that did not get the respect it deserved from its creator. Hopefully, Sony will take one more crack at the handheld market, and this time, they’ll see it through to the end.