The PlayStation Vita turns four today in North America, which makes for a good excuse to look back and reminisce about Sony's much-criticised portable console. Come join some of Kotaku's staff for a chat about the Vita and what we've done with it over the past few years.
Jason Schreier: Hi guys! Four years ago today, the Vita came out in North America — not counting that "early bundle" bullshit — and it immediately made a... splash? Sorta? Although Sony's PSP successor might not have lived up to expectations in any way, it did resonate with at least a few gamers, including some of us. So let's talk about it: the good, the bad, the memory cards... For starters, do you guys have any favourite memories of Vita playing?
Evan Narcisse: My favourite Vita games so far have been Roll7's OlliOlli titles. Something about the weight and feel of the handheld makes the gameplay feel more immediate. OlliOlli 2 came out on the PS4, too, and felt more disconnected to me. It's a tough thing to put into words but there was more snap to play the same exact levels on the Vita.
Stephen Totilo: Ain't no bullshit getting a piece of hardware a week early, Jason! Unless they delayed it for everyone else. I can't remember. I enjoyed a bunch of games on the Vita but can't say I ever felt that warmly about the machine. Tearaway was my favourite Vita game. It used the front-facing camera (to put your face into the game as the watchful sun in the sky) and the rear touch panel (to let you poke holes in the ground) so well. Least favourite: that Resistance game with the fireman, one of many ill-conceived attempts to put console-style games on the handheld.
Michael Fahey: My favourite memory of Vita playing was that one week of early access given to folks who picked up the early adopter versions of the console. For that seven day period I felt like I was part of a select group privvy to something special. A meaty piece of hardware, a handheld that didn't feel or play much like a handheld. I remember playing a lot of golf. A ton of golf. That wasn't a very good launch lineup, was it?
Jason: It was bullshit because the "early" bundle was terrible, Stephen: It was $US350 ($490) for the 3G version, which was a punchline even then (remember all the booing at E3 when they announced it'd be AT&T?), a useless 4GB memory card (you need at least 16GB if you actually want to get digital games) and a copy of Little Deviants. The standard Vita cost $US250 ($350), so it was an extra $US100 ($140) to get a bunch of nonsense and the console seven days early.
In retrospect, looking back at all of the dumb decisions they made, it's amazing that Sony sold ANY Vitas.
Fahey: I justified the extra $US100 ($140) as a work expense. Besides, I was with AT&T at the time. I can't count how many times those 3Gs came in handy. Or I didn't use them at all. Probably that last one.
Jason: Do you think anyone ever used 3G, Mike? Do they even still sell Vitas with 3G? It's like they looked at mobile gaming and thought "Hmm, why do so many people love playing games on their phones? Got it: monthly data plans!"
Fahey: Holy crap, they do. Guessing those are leftover. It was pretty pointless.
Stephen: Ah, the AT&T 3G Vita announcement. A classic E3 memory!
Jason: Yep, I vividly remember sitting in the audience for that. I was sitting next to Tina Amini (RIP), and neither of us had any idea we'd be working together at Kotaku in six months.
Stephen: Neither did I.
Fahey: Still not sure here.
Jason: I should say, though, as hard as Sony tried to kill the Vita, it's miraculously become one of my favourite gaming systems over the years. Stephen, we've talked about how the Vita's left your gaming rotation a few times, but it's actually always been part of mine, thanks mostly to all the JRPGs. You should see how many of the titles on my Vita's home screen start with "Legend".
Evan: Yeah, the Vita's become a weird little platform as far as catalogue . It's become a home for quirky indie games, the kind that often roll out on PC and garner modest but devoted audiences. I'm thinking of stuff like Murasaki Baby.
Fahey: It's a platform where Japanese developers unsure about Western localisation aren't afraid to take a chance. My Vita home screen is covered with anime girl faces.
Stephen: Sony didn't try to kill the Vita. What they did is, really, what Nintendo has done for a long time as well and prove that it's extremely difficult for any game machine manufacturer to run two successful platforms at once. As much success as Nintendo has had with the Game Boy and DS and 3DS lines, it's been a rarity for any of them to have thrived with great first-party support at the same time that their consoles did. And Sony had the same issue. They tried to jumpstart the Vita with their own first-party efforts, and they certainly made a lot of Vita games of their own, but they always seemed divided about whether to push quirkier small creations or console-wannabe games. And once they had a PS4 to get ready to launch, they just backed off the Vita.
Two platforms is too much. Even Nintendo seems to be realising that as they push for a new handheld-console paradigm with a unified OS. It's been great to see the Vita get support from Japanese publishers and Western indies, but I think the moment for there being distinct, non-overlapping home and portable gaming hardware from the same company is coming to an end.
And to that end, one of the best things the Vita gave us was the standardisation of the "cross-buy", the idea that buying a game for one machine should get you it on the other, if the other can also run it. Good on Sony for that.
Fahey: Not only the Cross Buy, but the Cross Save as well. I've been playing Digimon Story Cyber Sleuth for review and I've been swapping back and forth between PS4 and Vita like crazy. During my recent trip to New York I put in a lot of time, uploaded it all the Sony's cloud, then came home and picked up where I left off on my PS4.
Jason: I'm snarking a bit when I say that they TRIED to kill the Vita, Stephen, but while everything you said is true, you're also leaving out the massive list of missteps that could have been avoided with a smarter strategy. The massively overpriced proprietary memory cards, for example — how could they ever think they'd be able to get away with selling a 32GB SD card for $US100 ($140)? The whole 3G/Wi-Fi confusion that just muddled the Vita's brand in some baffling ways. And to your point about them being divided on indies/AAA — that wasn't the case at first. During 2012, Sony pushed the Vita as a place for "console-quality gaming on the go", then released the likes of Resistance: Burning Skies and Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified.
Stephen: And that BioShock game...
Jason: Yeah, I enjoyed that one. BioShock: E3 Announcement.
Fahey: The closest they came to fulfilling that promise was Killzone: Mercenary, and after that it felt like they stopped trying.
Stephen: I hear what Evan's saying, though, in praising games like Murasaki Baby. There have been a lot of fun little curiosities and oddities on the Vita. I quite enjoyed the minimalist RTS Rymdkapsel, which was part of the ill-fated PS Mobile effort.
Jason: And Steins;Gate, and Virtue's Last Reward, and Danganronpa.
Evan: The Vita feels like a place where the late, lamented mid-range category still has a chance to eke out a humble existence. That's both its biggest success and failing, probably. Riskier, left-of-centre creations that would just get ignored by bigger publishers can land here and find an audience. Not a huge audience, mind you. I've got to think if anybody's buying a Vita nowadays, they do it knowing what kind of games show on the platform.
Fahey: Really it's only been over the past year and a half that I've come to love my Vita, largely due to these smaller, obscure games. For nearly two years I barely touched my launch console. Now I've traded up for a lovely blue second generation version. For Christmas I even got a 64 GB memory card ($US80 [$112]), something I would never have purchased on my own because proprietary memory is so f***ing stupid.
Stephen: The Vita also gave us Gravity Rush. Thank you for that, Sony!
And it gave us a bubble-based interface. No thank you for that. So ugly. So much wasted space.
Jason: I like the bubbles!
Fahey: Gravity Rush was definitely a cause to dust off the expensive handheld, nod appreciatively and then put it back in the drawer during the early years.
The bubbles are life, Stephen.
Stephen: Moving bubbles from one "page" of the Vita to another is the second-worst Vita experience, behind that aforementioned Resistance game.
Evan: Maybe it's because I turn it on so infrequently, but it feels like I ALWAYS need to download firmware updates!
Fahey: You should see them on the big screen with the PlayStation TV... nope, memory's faded. Nevermind.
Stephen: Evan, they're just trying to make things more stable.
Jason: I think accidentally pressing the back touchscreen is the worst Vita experience. Seriously, why is there a back touchscreen? Has there ever been a game that was made better because you could control it using the back of the Vita?
Fahey: No, but there were definitely games made worse. The DJMax game for the system, Technika Tune? Was impossible because of that stupid rear touch pad. Tearaway is the exception to every rule.
Stephen: Where do we stand on Remote Play? Good feature or fool's gold?
Evan: The thing about remote play for me is that my hands get used to the Dualshock for console games. Even if the remote play is good, I spend more time thinking about finger placement and it's not as smooth or natural to me.
Fahey: I know folks who love it. Folks named Kirk. I don't believe I ever used it for more than a few minutes at a time. Remember when we thought we'd be able to remote play any game from anywhere? We were so stupidly marketed to back then.
Stephen: Is "minutes at a time" code for "while taking a shit"?
Fahey: Shitting is event gaming, minutes won't do.
Evan: There's a reason Mike has a Wi-Fi extender in the bathroom.
Stephen: The true limits of 3G revealed.
Jason: How many of you guys have used the Vita to re-buy and re-play old PS1 and PSP games? Am I the only one?
Stephen: Jason, does it count if I used it to buy Final Fantasy VII but still not play it? I guess I'll just wait for the remake at this point. I did grab Persona 4 Golden, though and will play it someday! I swear. I hear it is a quality video game.
Jason: Persona 4 Golden is a Vita game, so that doesn't count
Stephen: Oh, Patapon 2! I bought that for my Vita. Man, remember Patapon? They need to bring that back.
Fahey: You are not the only one, Jason. The first thing I did with my Vita was download some older PSP games I'd played on my PSPGo. Then I deleted them to make room for something else. But I've got most of the available FFs on mine right now.
Stephen: Would the Vita be the dominant gaming platform today if there had been a Patapon 4 for Vita? Discuss.
Fahey: One of my biggest worries as the Vita slowly peters out is that the games I have for it will disappear. We had the Vita to take up the slack when Sony bungled the PSP. What will play Vita games when the Vita is gone? PlayStation Now? God help us.
Jason: NVIDIA Shield, obviously
Fahey: Oh good, I'm covered then.
Stephen: It sounds insane, but I guess they could come up with a crazy way to make the Vita and any other old handheld work in VR? You'd be holding a generic controller but would look down and it'd look like you were holding the given classic handheld, with the game displaying on the virtualized screen while running on an emulator. Ludicrous, of course!
Evan: Same, Mike. It'd be great if Sony let it live as a well-specced legacy device that could access their back-catalogue. But that would require better pricing for hardware and services.
Jason: So yeah, it's been a wild four years. Obviously if Sony could go back and do it all again, they'd handle things differently — maybe they wouldn't even make a PSP successor to begin with? But I love my Vita, and I'm glad it exists. Any final thoughts from you guys? Anything else you'd like to see from the Vita before it dies for good? (I guess it's been dying since 2012.)
Stephen: A new Metroid game! No one else seems to want to make them. More seriously, just some sort of smart sunsetting of the machine in the next few years that keeps games available to download from Sony's servers, maybe opens up the full back-catalogue for a nominal fee and, given the unlikely prospects of Sony making another handheld, just a fitting goodbye. But, hey, it's still got life in Japan and makes plenty of people happy in the rest of the world, so no need to put it in a museum just yet.
Fahey: I'd love to see Sony drop a final, massive, low-cost proprietary memory card as a thank you for folks that have stood by the Vita over these past few years. That, or a Vita Mini with SD card support.
Jason: Don't you think folks who have stood by the Vita already HAVE memory cards?
Evan: I have never bought a Vita memory card.
Fahey: Not 128GB memory cards.
Jason: Evan, I don't understand how you've used the Vita for four years without a memory card.
Evan: Jason, I hate to break it to you but I don't really play JRPGs.
Jason: I was already aware of that character flaw. But don't you need a memory card to download any game?
Fahey: That only leaves one or two titles, he's good.
Jason: On that note, I think it's time for us to go. Happy birthday, Vita! We love you. Even though you're dead.