The PS Vita was ahead of its time. But the major challenge of the Vita wasn’t its popularity, it was a lack of unique games and support from developers. In 2020, the gaming landscape has changed dramatically, maybe enough to say the Vita might just survive in the PS5 era.
The obvious comparison here is to the success of the Nintendo Switch. Since launch, Nintendo has sold over 70 million consoles worldwide. Statistica’s report cites exclusives as a major reason for this popularity, and it’s fair to say the Switch has thrived due to the sheer amount of quality titles available on the platform as well as its convenience as a portable, high-powered device.
In the case of the Vita, excellent exclusives like Uncharted: Golden Abyss were an anomaly. Gravity Rush, Persona 4 Golden and Tearaway also come to mind, but all these titles wound up on other platforms eventually. While creating accessible games is important, so is creating a reason for a console’s existence. The PS Vita provided a unique way to play, with touch screen capabilities and a new rear touchpad for interacting with games. But many of the games released for the Vita never took advantage of this technology.
The launch lineup never really grew, either. Golden Abyss and Gravity Rush, arguably the best entries on Vita, were launch titles. But the Vita was floundering by the mid-2010s due to a major lack of game support from Sony and other developers. Indie games found a temporary home on the PS Vita during the console’s later years, with the Vita limping along thanks to hybrid PC-Vita indie hits like Spelunky, Hotline Miami and others. So in lieu of any actual exclusives, PS Vita owners continued to use the console as a substitute indie machine.
But then the Switch came along.
The Switch had an incredibly robust indie line-up, but these games were joined by a hearty lineup of exclusives. Nintendo poured its soul into the Switch, churning out fantastic AAA adventures for all of its major franchises including the highly-acclaimed The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and other hits like Splatoon 2, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, Yoshi’s Crafted World and Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle.
These games were quickly joined by a who’s-who of indie publishers as support grew for the console.
Beyond leading to a runaway success for Nintendo, the Switch proved there’s still a major appetite for handheld consoles in the modern era. While the Switch is technically a hybrid and features both handheld and docked modes, more Switch users play the console in handheld mode due to its ease of use.
When you look at just how popular the Nintendo Switch has become over the last three years, particularly with mainstream audiences, the plummet of the Vita is flabbergasting. Post-2015, support for the console mostly dropped off the map. New game releases slowed to a trickle, and many users began to abandon the console in favour of PC or console gaming.
But the Vita should have been a success. Outside of having its own ‘docked mode’, it resembles the Switch in every way. From its design, to its functionality and even its indie game lineup, the Vita is basically a proto-Switch. One that never quite got off the ground.
Still, not all hope is lost.
The continued growth of the Switch provides a unique opportunity for Sony: to bring back the PS Vita, reimagined as a companion to the PS5. Technology has moved along at a blistering pace since the original PS Vita launched. Beyond advancements in video game quality and performance, we’ve also seen leaps in console hardware.
One of the reasons the PS Vita suffered is because it was incapable of playing higher-spec games. Features like Remote Play were also mostly unusable because internet speeds and bandwidth requirements just weren’t there in the early 2010s. But now, games like The Witcher III and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus are running natively on Switch. While there are some caveats to graphics quality, this could be an issue already solved by the rumoured Switch Pro.
A Sony-developed handheld in the years ahead could push the limits of what handheld consoles can achieve. It could also let you play your PS5 on your bed, or on your couch, or at the beach. Xbox has mostly beat PlayStation when it comes to Remote Play, but that doesn’t mean the company shouldn’t have a horse in the race.
Beyond making a new Vita a PS5 companion, a new console could also serve a purpose the PS5 doesn’t: game emulation. Sony has been notoriously stubborn when it comes to allowing backward compatibility of their titles. Sure, remasters and ports mean many of the best PlayStation games are already available on PS5 but there’s still many iconic titles like the original inFAMOUS series which have yet to make the leap to a new generation.
There’s countless PS3, PS2, PSOne and PSP games sitting in limbo simply because backward compatibility hasn’t been integrated into Sony’s ecosystem. But if there’s one flagship feature the Vita’s known for, it’s the console’s capacity to run older games. While the console’s library isn’t complete, it does feature a bunch of PSP and PSOne games you can’t play on any other modern Sony console. PSOne support ended with the PS3, and the PS2 is the only console that can play games of that generation. In short: it’s a mess, and Sony has the potential to fix it.
Sure, the argument’s there that the PS5 should be backward compatible in the first place, but a new console designed for this purpose is an easy win.
A new PS Vita solves a big hole in Sony’s existing appeal — but importantly, it shouldn’t be an afterthought. The lessons from the PS Vita should be learned. Support is essential, as is a continuous lineup of good-to-great games, whether they’re indie ports or AAA developments. While it doesn’t appear these plans are in the works at Sony any time soon, it should be on the cards for the future.
There’s a lot of potential in a PS5 Vita, but it’s essential the console gets the love it deserves.