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 world.
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 OK, 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 shinny. 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 shinny 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 favourite 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 are 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.
Portable game hardware requires a different kind of commitment than home consoles do. Portable game hardware has a "be seen" element to it that doesn't quite exist with home hardware. The Vita did pass the doofus test in that I did not feel like a doofus, while playing it out and about. The unit I've been using is 3G, which is a godsend in Japan if you actually leave your house, because WiFi if often more scarce than it should be. The WiFi model should suit most people just fine, though.
The one area that feels like a letdown is the Vita's camera. It's a bit crap. Compared to the Sony who crammed everything under the sun into the original launch PS3, things like this just shows how sensible Sony has become. The Vita doesn't really need a better camera -- this will do just fine. That doesn't mean I wasn't slightly disappointed to go from the images on the stunning OLED screen (it really is stunning) to look at the seemingly grainy Vita photos I'd taken. I was.
The screen is something else. At home, I have a Panasonic television from 2005. It's starting to show its age, and it's not full HD, but it works OK. Whenever I play video games in controlled environments, such as at studios or trade shows, I get to experience them under optimal visual conditions. At home, because of the set-up I unfortunately have, there's a slight dip. But on the Vita, there isn't that dip. You get that optimal experience all the time, no matter how old your television is.
PlayStation Vita Features:
• 5-inch OLED Multi-Touch Touchscreen
• Dual Thumbsticks
• Rear-and-Front Cameras
• Rear Touchpad
• Sixaxis Motion Tech
• Three-Axis Electronic Compass
• WiFi (3G for the 3G Model)
• 4 core SGX543MP4+
• 512 MB RAM, 128 MB VRAM
• Dual Speakers
And since chez Ashcraft only has one television, the PS Vita's Remote Play was one of the features I was most excited about. It could free up the TV to allow my kids to watch their kiddy TV and my wife to watch whatever Japanese drama she's into. Unfortunately, the feature is not yet fully ready at launch, and, as far as I know, you cannot play any PS3 games via Remote Play. When using Remote Play, I did notice a slight drop in picture quality when accessing my PS3 via the Vita, an understandable drop, given the network and hardware limitations. Because the Vita's OLED screen is so pretty, the slight drop might be even more noticeable.
Even more beautiful than the OLED screen, is the user interface Sony has running on it. For years, I've used Japanese electronics, and I've found the interface on so many of them to be maddening. For a country and a culture that values simplicity, the user interfaces are often anything but. They're clunky, clumsy, and often don't make a lot of sense. Sony's XMB interface for the PSP and the PS3 is quite good. The Vita's interface is much better. Previously, I posted a walk-through on Kotaku, which you can check out here. This interface, along with the rear-touch, were the two things that really sold me on this system. Both are simple and both are clever. Yet, neither are gimmicky.
And gimmicks have become such a part of gaming hardware. I remember sitting in the audience at Sony's infamous 2006 E3 press conference and hearing Sony exec Kaz Hirai talk about how the PSP could be used as a rearview mirror; it could run images showing what's behind you, and you could put it next to your text while playing Gran Turismo. I remember sitting there thinking, "This is the stupidest thing ever."
There are stupid things about the Vita, such as restrictions on how many PSN accounts you can use. But, so far, the blunders seem so small, and the Vita appears well-thought out and well executed. There are a bunch of games already out for the machine, and if this is going to be a success, there should hopefully be a bunch more. With the Vita, Sony didn't only build a better handheld, it built one of the best.
The PS Vita is currently available for purchase at many retailers across Japan. Manufacturer's suggested retail price is ¥24,980 (US$320) for the WiFi model and ¥29,980 ($384) for the 3G model. Review loaner unit provided by Sony.