The PlayStation Vita is a contender.
I know a lot of people aren't taking it seriously, because there are so many reasons not to. (See: Apple, 3DS, PSP "failures" and more.) But they should. You should, too.
Two days ago, at a Sony showcase last week, I played four PlayStation Vita games and watched a bunch more. My opinion of Sony's next handheld is, all of a sudden, much improved.
I've been on a Vita roller-coaster all year.
UP: In January, I was amazed when our man in Japan, Brian Ashcraft, reported back that the machine, then called the NGP, had the power of a decent home console and a big, dreamy screen.
DOWN: Then I remembered that Sony's PSP was equally dazzling back in 2005 and, well, I lost interest in that machine a while ago. It promised console-style games that I discovered I didn't want or need. The ceaselessly interesting Nintendo DS line-up edged it out of my bag. My PSP stayed home, and for months at a time, I'd forget where I put it.
UP: E3 2011 happened and I discovered that Sony's portable would only cost $250. My interest surged again. Sony often sends me their systems, so that price doesn't do for me what it might do for you, but what it might do for you matters to me. If people actually bought this thing—and why wouldn't they for that price?—then more games would be made for it. Therefore: the Vita would be a better system for me to play.
Around E3, the Nintendo 3DS hype balloon was deflating anyway, pierced by a poor launch line-up and even less thrilling follow-up.
DOWN: But my Vita excitement dipped again as my iPhone and iPad got more play and as my 3DS, through its downloadable games and the gem of Super Mario 3D Land got more play.
UP AGAIN: And now I've played the Vita a bunch. As I wrote above—and as you can see in the videos at the bottom of this story—it's a contender.
The hardware is very good. This is no shock. The screen is big and bright. The sticks feel good and have all the range you'd want other than an L3/R3 thumb-squeeze click. The front touch screen and the tilt sensors are standards at this point and better to have than miss. The touch-panel on the back of the unit is surprisingly accessible and finally lets a person's middle fingers or ring fingers add more input to a portable game.
The Vita will be out in Japan in less than a week, and when it does we'll find out if there is some secret hardware flaw. We're all bad at predicting what hardware problems might crop up. The 3DS, for example, didn't have eye-killing 3D, and even its bad battery life has become tolerable for gamers like me who have adjusted to tossing it in a charge cradle whenever they get home.
The worst blemish on the Vita now is its rumored memory card pricing. The leaked prices range from the affordable to the ridiculous. Thirty bucks for four GBs, $120 for 32, according to GameStop.
Those memory cards are as close to mandatory as it gets, because, while some game cards will support save files, many won't. And all downloadable games and add-ons will have to go on those pricey little memory sticks. The Sony line on these cards—I heard it from multiple reps this week—is that the rumored prices aren't official, that we should stay tuned and that this isn't a hidden cost after all. That last bit is because they didn't want to jack up the price of the unit by including a stick that might not be the size the player wants, but, let's be serious here, an essentially required card ensures that the Vita won't really cost any sensible shopper $250. It'll cost that plus the cost of the card they want… possibly more than $100 more.
It's the games. Did you notice how dead PSP development has been for more than a year? That must have been the price for what looks like one of the strongest software launch line-ups we've ever been able to look forward to for any gaming machine. I care about what will be out for launch in North America in mid-February, and by then we're supposed to get a new Uncharted, a new WipEout, oddballs like Sound Shapes and Escape Plan that might show those bigger games up and just so much more. The portable Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 looks console-spectacular. The new Katamari Damacy feels good.
The best thing I can say about the "launch-window" line-up of Vita games that I saw this week is that I didn't even have time for Little Big Planet and forgot Lumines was there. I was at a Sony showcase for four hours and spent most of my time in the Vita section. I had so much to play—and so much to discuss with Vita developers—that two of the games I'd probably be delighted by didn't even fit into my schedule. I'm sure that Vita showcase was at least partially an optical illusion. Hardware makers always make it seem like they'll have a ton of games for launch and then start pushing their Gears of Wars and Kid Icaruses so far down the road that you find yourself starting some "launch window" games around the same time you're blowing out the big number-one candle on the system's birthday cake.
Maybe some of these games will slip. It doesn't matter. Half of these games could slip and the Vita will still start with a stronger line-up than Nintendo's 3DS (ok, ok, some could even say the Tapwave Zodiac did, too). I'm in awe of the range. We've got big brands and quirky indies. We have download-only games, games that heavily leverage the system's online functionality. We do have some gimmicky touch and camera-based games, but even most of the touch controls I've experienced in these first games feel good.
A lot of people are predicting third place, at best, for Sony. I am, too. Apple is on a roll, and yes, they count, because they've got machines that are running better and better games by the week. Nintendo is resurgent as the 3DS' software library firms up, Nintendo's designers remind us that their Marios are unparalleled and even the networking options coalesce to make it feel like a heavily social machine. Sony comes in with the smallest foothold, less buzz than Apple on hardware and fewer killer franchises than Nintendo, which also has the advantage of being cheaper.
But what a third place Sony can have for itself. This is the thing: even if they lose, we win. The machine is a stunner. The games are very good from the start. Should the Vita be an expensive flop, it'll be an enjoyable one. If it succeeds, it'll be because this system isn't coming out hobbling. It's set to charge, to start strong.
If you're warming to the VIta, you should wait for the shoes to drop. Pay attention to how the Japanese launch goes this month (don't worry, we'll be covering it). Listen for details on the memory card prices and the launch line-up, to say nothing of that data plan if you want the pricier 3G model. Pay attention, but don't ignore it.
The Vita is a contender. This is going to be good.
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