The PlayStation Vita: New Life For Gaming Handhelds?

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It’s easy to be skeptical about the PlayStation Vita. “Vita” means life, which is an optimistic name for Sony’s new handheld gaming system. You don’t need to crunch any numbers to see how smartphones are slowly strangling the life out of portable gaming consoles. Just look around the subway or airport next time you’re in transit and compare the number of Nintendo DSs or Sony PSPs you see to smartphones and tablets. Even kids, the stalwarts of the handheld realm, are increasingly glued to their parents’ iPhones, hooked on Angry Birds and Doodle Jump.

In a way the Vita is already a dinosaur, a $300 instant relic from a time when handheld gaming consoles existed in blissful isolation and mobile phones were merely how people who wore suits for a living talked to one another. It seems like Sony might even think this way, considering how lightly they’ve promoted the Vita’s launch. For weeks leading up to the official release the only television commercials touting the Vita were for a Taco Bell contest and not for the system itself. In the ad, a frightening digital homunculus based on Boston Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez struggles to steal a piping hot box of Z-grade synthetic Mexican food away from a menagerie of PlayStation characters. It’s a commercial for nightmares.

The problem facing portable gaming systems is that, no matter how many other things they can do, they still exist almost exclusively for gaming. Games are the only reason to buy a Nintendo 3DS or a Vita. Our phones, a mandatory part of modern-day life, can do all the other things a Vita can, like download music, stream movies and swallow up our free time with Twitter and Facebook. But those phones can also play games as beautiful as Infinity Blade II. They can monopolize our time with easily understood but endlessly enjoyable diversions like Jetpack Joyride. They can help us relive our past with ports of classics like Final Fantasy Tactics and Sonic the Hedgehog CD. On the surface the only thing a gaming handheld has over a phone are buttons and a joystick or two.

We’re in the middle of a massive change in how we consume our media. These omnipresent digital devices are rewriting how we receive information, and thus rewriting how we interact with culture on the most basic levels. Print has been withering away for years, and tablets might strike the killing blow. How can gaming handhelds, with their high price tags, expensive games and overpriced peripherals ($99 for a 32 GB Vita memory card?), avoid the same fate? Launching the Vita in 2012 is almost like launching a new nationwide newspaper that costs three bucks a copy.

So yes, it’s easy to be skeptical about the PlayStation Vita. It’s easy to make fun of it when you haven’t held one in your hands. It’s easy to dismiss the Vita as superfluous when you’ve never actually played one. Spend any time with the Vita, and you’ll realize that Sony’s new system could fill the dwindling niche for dedicated gaming handhelds better than any other device on the market.

The most crucial feature on the Vita is the second joystick. The PSP only has one, making it extremely difficult for designers to create satisfying action games for that system. The standard approach to motion, with one joystick controlling the character and the other controlling the character’s point of view, is rendered impossible on the PSP. Makeshift solutions like using the shoulder or face buttons to move the camera never felt natural, lacking both the ease and tactility of the analogue joystick. Home consoles condition us to play games a certain way, but the PSP forces a frustrating alternative upon us. The Vita’s second joystick lets us play games the way we’re used to.

Beyond that joystick, the Vita boasts all the features you expect from a modern day handheld. The graphics are almost as good as what you see on your TV at home, with a high definition screen displaying surprisingly vibrant visuals. Like the 3DS or a smartphone, that screen is also a touchscreen, and a second touchscreen on the back of the unit opens up intriguing play possibilities. Accelerometers and gyroscopes sense when you move the unit around. A camera provides for altered reality games that use your surroundings as the playing field. The standard model comes with wi-fi, and a more expensive version boasts 3G and a built-in GPS. A geolocation app called Near acts like the 3DS’s Street Pass, utilizing those abilities to track the distance you travel and to automatically communicate with other nearby Vita units, unlocking perks for certain games. The PlayStation Store sells downloadable games and movies. It comes with all the internet and social network bells and whistles standard to 21st century technology.

Of course the games are what matter, and on that front the Vita launch squanders the potential opened up by the impressive technology. The best games at launch are Rayman Origins, a top-notch port of a 2D platformer that already exists on almost every other platform, and Lumines Electronic Symphony, a musical puzzle game that doesn’t incorporate any of the Vita’s unique properties in any meaningful way. Both games could exist in roughly the same form on the PSP. Other titles that couldn’t exist on the PSP range from inessential to ineffectual, from competent portable riffs on console favorites (Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3), to minigame collections that serve as glorified tech demos (Little Deviants), to awkward attempts to recreate known properties with Vita-specific control schemes (Touch My Katamari, Michael Jackson The Experience HD).

Even if the Vita arrived with the greatest launch line-up in history, its software prices would still be ridiculously out of line with the iTunes and Android marketplaces. The most egregious examples are two ports of one dollar iOS games that are currently on store shelves for $30 and $40 (Asphalt Injection and Dungeon Hunter Alliance, respectively). Pricing decisions like that make publishers look oblivious to the current realities of the marketplace, and could keep interested customers away from the Vita.

That brings us back to the iPhone and the iPad, to the Evo 3D and the Galaxy Tab. By focusing primarily on games the Vita can provide what those multipurpose devices can’t. But what it currently provides might not be compelling enough, either financially or experientially, to justify a purchase for all but the most dedicated of traditional game fans. It’s way too early to count the Vita out, even if Japanese sales have flatlined since last year’s launch, but will there be an audience left for this type of device when its “killer apps” inevitably arrive? It’s easy to be skeptical.

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