“Vita means life,” then-Sony Computer Entertainment Head Kazuo Hirai explained during an E3 2011 press conference. It would be his last E3 before being promoted to President and CEO of Sony proper and, with the presentation of Sony’s newest handheld, it seemed he was leaving on a wave of strong momentum. The Vita was announced for the same price as Nintendo’s ailing 3DS, packing far more under the hood, and promising major new installments in hit console series like Uncharted, Little Big Planet and Killzone. Sony was planting their flag into the soil of the handheld war, defiantly expressing that they have no intention of losing again. The Vita seemed poised to finally wrest market leadership from Nintendo’s iron grip.
Four years later, all of that feels like a distant, forgotten dream.
While the PlayStation 4 soars to worldwide success, especially in the West, the Vita itself never really caught on. The optimism that accompanied the handheld’s announcement slowly dissipated as the mass audience seemingly rejected it, leaving a small contingent of dedicated owners to champion the Vita’s virtues to all that would listen. With an advanced OLED screen, PlayStation 3-like graphics and dual analog sticks, the Vita’s qualities were evident to anyone shopping for a new system, but it failed to spark a flame suitable for long-term warmth. Sony’s second handheld had stepped blindly into their worst case scenario: no one was sure who the Vita was actually for.
Despite its reputation now, the PlayStation Portable was a smashing success in raw numbers. By the best data available, the PSP’s install base ranks ahead of even Nintendo’s Gameboy Advance and ended up barely below the PlayStation 3. Sony had assured the world that they were, in their marketing vernacular, “elevating portable entertainment out of the handheld gaming ghetto.” A series of missteps with software security cut these lofty plans short—the PSP rocketed to incredible sales despite its higher price, but only as an emulation machine, or a device on which every game could be downloaded for free. Software sales cratered and major third parties like Square-Enix were hesitant to even localize flagship titles, such as Final Fantasy: Type-0, because they wouldn’t make their money back. The PSP is maybe the most successful disaster in gaming history, a situation Sony was hoping to avoid with its heir.
From conception, the Vita was a reaction to what worked and what didn’t about the PSP. Sony hoped to kill two vultures with one stone by pricing the Vita relative to its nearest competitor, the 3DS, and ward away potential piracy. The solution to this came in the form of the Vita memory card, a proprietary storage device sold at a massive margin to make up for any losses on the system. This ended up forcing the Vita into the awkward pose of being a primarily digital platform where storage was at a premium, while simultaneously failing to acknowledge the shrinking size of the retail market for handheld games. In trying to fix two problems, Sony created one huge problem.
Most bafflingly, Sony also failed to get behind developing for their own platform in any committed way. While Uncharted launched alongside the system to generally favorable reviews, it wasn’t in the same league as the titles crafted by Naughty Dog. Sony made good on their promises for major series representation on the Vita, but they were often produced by studios other than the ones that earned those games acclaim on home consoles. When original titles from their MVPs finally came off the bench, such as Media Molecule’s Tearaway, it was too little, too late for the handheld. Sony themselves gave up on original software for the Vita not long after, focusing their muscle behind mobile endeavors instead.
In 2007, three years after the release of the PSP, Apple introduced the iPhone to the world. While the sea change from handhelds to smart phones was not immediate, by the time the Vita released four years later, the market for games had well and truly revolutionized. The casual players that the Nintendo DS and Wii had brought into the industry eventually questioned the wisdom of carrying external devices for entertainment when a phone, a necessary accouterment for a 21st century population, served just as well and was easier to use. New handhelds were unable to repeat the success of the previous generation and became mass market inconveniences rather than gateways. To put it simply, the smartphone ate the Vita’s lunch before it ever came out and Sony hadn’t realized it.
All of this is a very roundabout way to get to where the Vita did find an audience: its home country of Japan. As a successor to the PSP, the Vita was expected to do quite well in the island nation, but many of those predictions turned sour shortly after release. In an effort to rehabilitate the wounded 3DS, rival Nintendo held a press conference at the Tokyo Game Show, announcing that Japanese mega-hit Monster Hunter would find its new home on the Nintendo systems. It is no exaggeration to say that Monster Hunter held the PSP’s head above water, proving that Sony’s freshman handheld could still provide fertile soil for third party games, even if only regionally. The Vita was offered no such salvation and, having lost Monster Hunter, its success in Japan was no longer pre-destined.
The market was changing across the globe and Japan proved no exception. As the population aged and a staggering decline in the birth rate spurred on a national panic, there came a growing concern from the Japanese videogame industry about the transforming demographics. Children, once guaranteed money-makers, were no longer quite so guaranteed, leaving a slightly older group of male gamers with disposable income to fill the void. This group is likely to not only buy certain kinds of games, but will pay for the more expensive versions, purchase associated figures, and ignore any social stigmas about what they are playing. This shifting demography breathed life into the Vita, giving it a renaissance as a home for titles like Criminal Girls, Bullet Girls and Monster Monpiece.
In the West, the Vita continues to receive a steady stream of indie titles, keeping owners satisfied even without steady AAA support. Despite that, it is difficult not to feel that the promise of the Vita was never truly met. Standout titles like Persona 4 Golden and Tearaway have all but dried up, leaving games scraping the bottom of the barrel for ways to appeal to an audience with certain expectations. Even games I love, like Spike Chunsoft’s seminal Danganronpa series, occasionally become uncomfortable with what they are willing to do to command attention. The hopes of the Vita being an international system were dashed when it failed to find an international identity.
For my own part, I purchased a Vita at launch and don’t regret that decision. There’s a handful of games in its library that I would count among my favorites of the generation and some others I simply enjoy having on a portable. Those with the desire to look will probably find much the same, an eclectic repository of games that offers a little bit of everything and a bit too much of some things. After four years, however, I still don’t know who the Vita is for, and it is damn clear that Sony has no idea, either.
Imran Khan is an Atlanta-based writer who can be found occasionally tweeting Vita screencaps. He also doesn’t mean to offend anyone. Like what you want!