When I fired up the PS Vita for the first time this past weekend, I couldn't help but think back to Dec. 2004. So much has changed. I had a one-year-old son, who is now eight. I hadn't started writing for the blog you are reading right now. Sony entered the handheld fray, with the battlefield littered with fallen portables, with the goal of not only holding its own against mighty Nintendo, but succeeding. Sony wanted to build a better handheld.
In its day, the PSP was the prettiest handheld there was—something Vita, with its stunning OLED screen, clearly retains in its DNA. There are key differences. The PlayStation portable used chunky discs called UMDs and was made in Japan. The Vita uses tiny cards and is made in China. The Vita is loaded with a completely different user interface. It may carry the "PS" branding, but is a radical departure from the PSP, sporting dual thumbsticks, front and back cameras as well as front and back touch. This isn't just a PSP on steroids, this is a successor in the truest sense of the word.
In the West, the PSP is, perhaps, viewed as a failure of some sorts. More and more developers ceased supporting it, and the PSP fell by the wayside. In Japan, the handheld has been a rousing smash, thanks to a series of hit franchises, especially Monster Hunter. In Japan, owning a PSP is a rite of passage: little kids might gravitate towards the DS, but it's junior high and high school students who desire the PlayStation Portable. It's cool.
With that PSP momentum, no wonder Sony decided to launch the PS Vita in Japan. The Vita is an easier sell to Japanese gamers, because so many of them own the PlayStation Portable. It should be an easy sale to Western gamers, looking for a different portable experience than what's available: namely one with a large, beautiful touch screen, buttons, and dual thumbsticks.
For years, gamers have been saying the PSP needed dual thumbsticks, that the PSP's biggest shortcoming was that there was only a circle pad, and that one reason why Western developers didn't make games for it was the controls. Sony listened. Sony made a portable device, which, out of the box, has two thumbsticks. You don't need to buy an add-on. You don't need to wait for an inevitable hardware iteration. Bam, here you go, dual thumbsticks. Finally, a company that listens to people.
The thumbsticks work well. Yes, I wish I could press them down like I can with the DualShock 3's thumbsticks. But, perhaps, that will come in a feature iteration—maybe not. If not, that's okay, because these thumbsticks do the job.
The Vita did pass the doofus test in that I did not feel like a doofus, while playing it out and about.
The face buttons and the direction pad are nice and clicky. Personally, I hate pressing gummy buttons. Some don't like clicky buttons, and these are slightly more clicky than the 3DS's buttons.
Like so many electronics these days (and like the original PSP), the Vita's front is shiny. In direct sunlight, there is glare, but for regular use, indoors and outdoors, I didn't experience anything that was not manageable. Since this is a shiny device, you bet it's a fingerprint magnet. I found myself constantly polishing and wiping down the Vita. And I don't think I leave more prints than your Average Joe. However, the portable's front-and-back touch seemed to handled fingerprints as well as any Apple device.
One of my favorite things about the Vita is just how easy it is to hold. The back of the PS Vita has two groves to comfortably hold the portable. Smartly, Sony gave up on trying to get the Vita to fit in your back pocket, and the Vita screams I AM A GAME MACHINE. It's not a phone that need tweezers to game with or a large tablet that requires a stick-on joystick. It's a game machine. It's large, and, thus, I found it easy to hold. Granted, the thumb sticks are right below the face buttons and the directional pad. I had no problems accessing them. Maybe others are. Maybe you will. I dunno.
Besides the face buttons, the directional pad, and the dual thumbsticks, there's a PS button, a select button, a start button, and one of the two cameras as well as two speakers. It't not cluttered, and the button positioning is instinctive. The speakers are directly to the side of each thumbstick. The positioning is interesting, and no doubt to save space. I did not notice interference with game music or sound while playing.
The right and left shoulder shoulder button are made from a nice tinted plastic. The plastics used throughout the machine are tactile and high quality. With the Japanese yen so strong, Sony cannot make the Vita in Japan and expect to turn much of a profit on it. While the company is, no doubt, skimping on manufacturing costs, the device feels solid and well made. That being said, I would not chuck this handheld in my bag like I would with Nintendo's seemingly indestructible handhelds. If you are going to get a PS Vita, do get a case. The Vita's screen looks like it could get scratched, and the portable is a dust magnet.
Smartly, Sony gave up on trying to get the Vita to fit in your back pocket, and the Vita screams I AM A GAME MACHINE.
Unlike the PSP, the Vita does not use UMD, but rather, a proprietary game card format. The game cards are small—the memory cards are even smaller. If you are not careful, game cards are going to get lost, memory cards are going to get lost, and there will be tears. Likewise, either carry around your game boxes or get some sort of holder. And, with the PS Vita, you cannot bite your nails. Now is a good time to stop! Getting game and memory cards in and out of the Vita is incredibly fiddly. Part of me wishes Sony made them slightly larger on purpose. Though, if they were larger, I'd probably be bitching right here, right now about how Sony should've made them smaller.