So far, so good: Why the Vita rises where the PSP fell

When my PS Vita arrived the middle of last week, I had no intention of buying any games for it.

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. As soon as I got my Vita all set up, I logged into the PlayStation Store to download some PSP games that I had already purchased. Moments later, I had Rayman: Origins and Super Stardust Delta as well. It was the rare triple whammy: a credit card, a new game system, and an easily accessible online store.

Originally, the Vita was an impulse purchase. A system that I could use for work and write off on my taxes. Now though, I wonder if Sony might finally be on to something here.

To better understand where the Vita is today, it would help to look back at the PSP’s launch.

Seven years ago, I walked into a store and asked if I could see one of the then-new PlayStation Portables. I had been skeptical to that point, but I’m as much a technophile as any gamer. I needed to hold a PSP in my hands. Finally I had my chance to get hands-on at a retail store. If I had tried out Lumines or Wipeout Pulse, I might have been more impressed. Instead, I was playing Twisted Metal: Head-On, a muddy brown game with irritating load times that looked like it was trying but failing to be a PS2 title. I put the PSP away and never looked back.

In retrospect, Sony had the PSP all wrong. It was a handheld device on the cusp of the smartphone and one-off download era, but it was inextricably tied to a physical medium.

The PSP’s greatest strength also proved to be one of its biggest downfalls — it was just too expensive to develop for a handheld with ostensibly modern graphics. So while the launch line-up was solid enough, new PSP games arrived at a trickle compared to the flood of new Nintendo DS games that same year. In 2005 alone, the Nintendo DS had heavy hitters like Advance Wars: Dual Strike, Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time, Animal Crossing, Phoenix Wright, and Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan! — games that would help define the system’s library for years to come.

Nintendo never pushed the DS as a state-of-the-art platform, so its games were cheap, easy to develop, and plentiful, making its reliance on physical media a complete non-issue. The PSP desperately needed that same kind of content early in its life cycle, but its own high-end specs were working against it, and there was no online channel available for quick and cheap releases. Download speeds and wireless availability being what they were, it was probably too much to ask that the PSP be a download-only machine. But Sony would have done well to feature any sort of built-in online platform for the system, even if it had only been for music and movies.

Would it have been enough to push the PSP ahead of the DS? We’ll never know now. But it’s clear that Sony had a content problem lasting all the way to the end of the system’s life cycle. There just wasn’t enough to do on the thing.

The question is: Will the Vita be any different?”

Behind the scenes, I’m told, Sony is doing everything in its power to get more independently developed content like Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack on PSN. These are the sorts of games that can quietly drive a system — the impulse buys. Think about how long Geometry Wars carried the Xbox 360, then consider that Tales from Space is only $7.99 — impulse buy territory.

The PSP took years to get anything resembling quick, cheap handheld games because Sony had no real way to deliver it without an online storefront. The PSP Go attempted to remedy this problem, but ended up being a miserable failure. Again, content — in this case regular PSP games — was an issue.

So far, that has not been the case on my Vita. Every game released to this point is available front and center in the PlayStation Store, and I constantly have to stop myself from downloading yet more games. And it helps that the Vita is lovely — even playing PSP games on the thing feels like a treat with its screen. But content is the thing, and if the Vita wants to hold its own in a market saturated with handheld devices, it will need even more games like Tales From Space. Because in the end, it will be those games, and not games like Uncharted, that carry it.

The Vita has left me with the impression that Sony has learned somewhat from the mistakes they made with the PSP, but the Vita has at least one major issue that needs to be corrected soon — memory.

Put simply, for a handheld driven so heavily by downloadable content, the Vita’s memory is much too expensive. I can almost live with dropping $30 on an 8 gigabyte memory card, but Vita games are big, and they’re only going to get bigger. You would think Sony would have learned after the PS3, where an off-the-shelf hard-drive can be swapped in without breaking a sweat. There’s a lot more competition in the mobile gaming than there was seven years ago. Miss a beat, and they will find a lot of people saying, “Forget it” and sticking with their iPhones and Androids. But then, that’s a danger for every handheld device these days, not just the PS Vita.
Sony appears to have a much better foundation in place than they did with the PSP. The online store in particular has potential to put the Vita well ahead of its primary rivals, and open the floodgates for a huge array of cheap, easy to acquire games.

As for me, whenever I sit down and watch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, I soon find myself playing either Rayman or Super Stardust Delta. And seeing as I hadn’t planned to buy any games at all as recently as a week ago, I think that’s a victory for Sony.
Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.


About contra

Film maker. Video game historian. Will put more in here this section soon!
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