The Risk of Ignored Excellence Threatens the PlayStation Vita

It used to matter whether a portable video game machine could fit in your pocket. The Game Boy was a brick, but you could jam it in your jacket pocket. The Atari Lynx was a small log, but ridiculous ads on TV showed it too could fit in a coat—probably as well as a smuggled carton of milk, if they were being honest.

We had the Game Boy Pocket, the Game Boy Micro and the ever-slimmer line of PlayStation Portables. The DSes were mostly pocket-compatible, until the Nintendo DSi XL emerged to threaten any tailor's best seams.

Today I believe we're past the pocket question. There are more dire matters of fit over which to worry. The PlayStation Vita, the most impressive handheld gaming machine I've ever touched, may squeeze into my coat, but I'm not sure it fits into my life.

I've played the PS Vita twice, once in Los Angeles last June and again last week in New York. Both times, I cradled the surprisingly light Vita in my hands, admired the device's extraordinary screen, marveled at the system's graphics, thought about how much I'd enjoy having one and realized how little I might play it.

The Risk of Ignored Excellence Threatens the PlayStation VitaS

I can't fault the Vita's engineering. The Vita feels great and runs well. I like that it has two, comfortable analog sticks. I am gratified that it has a touch screen. I'm pleased it has a gyro sensor and I'm intrigued by the rear touch panels. I'm amazed that Sony will sell the Vita for $249 when it comes out late this year or some time next, given the quality of the machine and the look of the games already running on it.

Let me tell you what it's like to play the Vita. Last week, at a PlayStation showcase in New York, I slipped through a small forest of Vita demo stations to a corner where one of the new Sony wonder-machines was running a seven-minute demo version of Uncharted: Golden Abyss.

The screenshots for the game do much of the labor of selling the Vita's value. Touching the game helps, too. I played the Uncharted demo under supervision of a lady from Sony who suggested which of the game's controls I should use. She was giving me a tour of the hardware's capabilities, really, in the disguise of a fun Indiana Jones-style game. I used the Vita's control sticks to run the game's hero Nathan Drake through jungle ruins. I tried tracing my finger on bricks on the ruins' walls, to guide Drake's climbing and clambering over them. I tilted the Vita and tapped the screen to make him jump from one hanging ruin to another. I moved the Vita through the air to aim a sniper scope, tickled the touch-sensitive back of the Vita to make Drake climb a rope, tapped on unsuspecting bad guys to perform stealth attacks, and swiped my finger on the screen to toss grenades.

The Risk of Ignored Excellence Threatens the PlayStation VitaS

I was, occasionally, disobedient, ignoring the Sony lady's exhortations to tap or tilt the Vita. To get the same results, I discovered, I could usually press buttons or flick sticks. Thank goodness. If the only way to make Drake swing on a rope is to rock the Vita back and forth, then we'll have a ridiculous problem, but in the demo I played, there were two ways to do most things in the game: the World Without Buttons Way and the There Was A Reason Buttons Were Invented Way.

Throughout the demo I was dazzled by how good the game looked. I'd never seen a portable game look this lovely, not in the realism style whose reigning champ is iOS game Infinity Blade. The demo did its work and the thought was in my head: I want this.

I never owned a Game Boy but as a formerly-suffering owner of only 1990s Nintendo home consoles and PCs that were too primitive to run the latest hot games, I discovered an end to gaming scarcity via the Game Boy Advance. One decade ago, I was valiantly angling my GBA to catch sunlight and actually see what I was playing. I was having a great time. I learned that there was room in my life for Advance Wars and handheld Castlevanias. I played a lot of GBA but even more DS. I played a lot of PSP when it first came out, especially Lumines.

About a year ago, however, as I was marveling over the then-prototype Nintendo 3DS, I realized I'd all but ceased playing DS games. My PSP rested in a perpetual state of powerlessness. I'd gotten an iPhone, discovered the joys of listening to podcasts (shout out to the audio version of the PBS News Hour!) and stumbled across the fact that a man can listen to chattering about video games, pro wrestling or This American Life in his ears while playing the thinking man's Tetris, Drop 7—all on his iPhone—and pretty much fill his subway ride up. The DS stayed in my bag. A year later, the 3DS stays in my bag too.

I really should go back to Ghost Trick or play some more Professor Laytons, but it took me a year to find the time to play through the last DS Zelda and the most recent DS Mario & Luigi. And I loved those games... just not as much as I loved staying informed by listening to the News Hour.

The pocket test used to matter for portable game machines, but so too did the the flight test. Could a DS or PSP hold enough battery juice to last a cross-country flight? I don't think my 3DS can, but I don't know if I'll ever test it because I'm perpetually re-running that experiment in 2011 on my portable TV/book/comic/gaming device called the iPad. Planes were my favorite place for binging on handheld games. Not any more.

The Vita is sharp, but I just dont' know if it can wedge into my life, not while other portable gaming machines I have are already struggling to do so. And then there's what happened after I finished playing Uncharted on the Vita. I walked over to Uncharted 3 on the PlayStation 3. That game was running on a big TV. A Sony rep was playing a portion of the game set on a storm-rocked ship. I was looking at something extraordinary. The ship swayed, the enemies inside stumbled, water spilled into rooms realistically. The action was big, fast and exciting. It blew away the little Uncharted I had just played in my hands. If I had to choose one Uncharted to play in the next year, I'd go with the PS3 one.

As an avid gamer I'm familiar with the concept of ignored excellence. Any of us who play games surely are. We find a game we love, a game we know is wonderful but that we also know is being shunned. We shake our heads at the fools who don't recognize the glories of the games we play. We might deride their ignorance or their bad taste, but in a generous moment we might consider that they don't have room in their life to learn just how superb our favorite hidden gem is. I've had this experience with games many times before, but never with gaming hardware. I've also never had this feeling about myself, never knowingly been that guy who was doing the foolish ignoring of something great, the guy who didn't have room in his life for excellence. With the Vita, the amazing, amazing Vita, I fear I may be that guy.

I've played the Vita twice. I love the machine and I do have some jackets with big pockets, but I don't see a Vita-shaped hole in my life.


For some equal-opportunity skepticism about the Nintendo 3DS, click here.