Playstation Vita (Helpless in the Face of New Technology II)

I didn’t go back and look, but I think I mentioned the Playstation Vita in three posts and in all three I said I wasn’t going to get one at launch.  I had purchased a 3DS at launch last year and it didn’t turn out to be the best purchasing decision of my life.  The software at launch was terrible and the entry price pretty steep.  Roughly six months later Nintendo would slash the price of the unit by a significant margin.  As an early adopter, dubbed a Nintendo Ambassador, I received ten free NES games and ten free GBA games but if given the choice I might have just chosen the cheaper unit.  And the 3DS isn’t a bad system at all.  I’ve enjoyed it now that the software has caught on and even purchased the new add-on.  It seemed unwise to be an early adopter again, especially for a Playstation product.  I’m not sure if any Playstation console has had a good launch lineup and they’re always expensive.

I could have said it until I was blue in the fact, but the simple fact of the matter is, when new technology comes out I can’t help myself.  And when I got a glimpse of what Uncle Sam was sending me as a refund I found it harder and harder to make excuses.  I lasted over a week, so I guess I can be proud of that, but as of March 4th I am an owner of a Playstation Vita.

Vita game cart. Pretty small, as you can see.

Now, I said Sony consoles tend to have expensive and poorly supported system launches and in one way the Vita is no exception.  The Vita is expensive.  There’s no way around it.  I’m a bachelor with a home and a good job.  I have no kids and my living expenses aren’t too cumbersome.  I have disposable income to throw at video games, but even so, it still didn’t entirely sit right to spend $350 on a new handheld system.  What did my $350 get me?  Well, it got me a Wi-Fi enabled Vita ($250), a 16 GB ($60) memory card, and one game ($40).  The price tag of the Vita itself isn’t awful.  It’s the same price the 3DS launched at but the Vita is the far more powerful system which makes it seem reasonable.  However, the 3DS came with a 2 GB SD card and most of the games save directly to the game’s cartridge.  There were also some pre-loaded games, nothing great but it’s something.  The Vita comes with nothing.  There’s a USB chord, an AC adapter, and some documentation.  There are some augmented reality cards that I admittedly haven’t even done anything with, but I’m not expecting much entertainment from them.  There’s no onboard memory though, and that’s the Vita’s biggest hurdle.

The memory cards are a joke.  Sixty dollars for 16 GB of memory?  That’s obscene.  And you need a memory card to play just about every game and there isn’t any onboard memory to download games to.  It looks like most of the games will require between 4,000 KB and 5,000 KB for save files.  This isn’t a scientific observation, merely what I saw on the back of each game case I looked at.  The packaging for the memory card itself says you can expect to hold 4 to 8 complete games on it, so if you’re planning on acquiring most of your games digitally you may want to go even larger.

Even smaller than the the games; the Vita's stupidly expensive memory cards.

Because of the costly memory, I suspect most will just buy game cartridges.  The cartridges are small, thumb-shaped cards.  Most will set you back $40, but there are some for $50 like Uncharted: Golden Abyss.  I picked up Rayman Origins and that cost me $40.  The cases are small but proportionately similar to a Blu Ray case.  In the case of Rayman, there was nothing inside the case except the actual game.  There is a clip for an instruction booklet, so maybe other games come with one, but this one only comes with an electronic booklet.  It’s kind of strange to have a case even this size for one tiny cartridge but whatever.  For Rayman, the load times are pretty minimal and I’m not sure how they compare with the PS3 version.  I would expect this type of medium would have pretty quick load times and would certainly be faster than the PSP’s UMD format.  I don’t know why they lack their own means of storage for game saves and have never seen it addressed.  It seems to me like they should be able to do that, but maybe I’m underestimating just how much space these games take up.

The Vita itself is an impressive piece of tech.  Which makes sense, because if it wasn’t I wouldn’t have bought it.  I’m going to skimp on the features since they’ve been covered elsewhere, but the screen is an OLED screen with touch capabilities.  There’s a second touch “panel” on the back of the system as well.  There’s cameras on the front and back and all of the buttons from the PSP are returned.  The biggest additions are the analog sticks.  The PSP’s nub is no more as the Vita features twin mini sticks that feel very similar to the PS3’s.  They do not double as buttons like the PS3 ones, which is unfortunate as that’s the only setback for the Vita.  Without the additional triggers and buttons the PS3 has, it will make certain ports trickier than others but the addition of a second analog stick is pretty significant.  And the quality of the hardware is exceptional.  The unit is larger than a PSP, but is surprisingly light.  It’s thin and very portable if you carry a messenger bag (or purse, if you’re a woman) but it’s probably not going to fit in most pockets.  And you probably wouldn’t want to try anyways without a screen protector or some kind of case.  I didn’t spring for one but I might have to eventually.

I mentioned earlier I got the Wi-Fi model.  For another $50 there’s a 3G one with service through AT&T that costs a monthly fee.  I have no interest in a monthly fee for my handheld gaming device so deciding which one to get was a no-brainer.  The device is also equipped with Blue Tooth and I assume it can be connected to certain headsets.  It also can communicate with the PS3 and the two can share a PSN account.  I checked out the remote play feature, as I never tried it with my PSP, and found it worked fine.  It basically turns your Vita into your PS3, but not all games can be accessed (for me, no games could be).  I think all of the PSOne Classics are supposed to work with the Vita, but might not yet.  Some games available across both platforms will be able to communicate with each other and some of the early releases include both a Vita version and a PS3 version.  Most of them will require a double purchase though.  It would be nice if buying the PS3 version of MLB The Show got you a discount for the Vita version, but I don’t expect Sony to go that far to please the consumer (edit: after publishing this I looked on both amazon and Gamestop’s websites and saw that if you buy both versions it will cost you $80, which is a $20 saving which is better than having to spend $100).  I’ll probably buy both versions of that one as I’m eager to test out the cross platform features with that particular title.

I spent multiple hours with Rayman Origins and found the Vita pretty comfortable.  Surprisingly, my left thumb is a bit tender which I would not have expected but it isn’t bad.  The buttons are all easy to reach though the shoulder buttons are slightly awkward, but not too bad.  Visually, the Vita (and Rayman Origins) does not disappoint.  The OLED screen is bright and vibrant offering a better picture than most plasma TVs.  It has to be seen to be truly appreciated.

The Vita, side by side with a Circle Pad Pro equipped 3DS. Neither is very portable.

It helps when the game is gorgeous too.  Rayman Origins is a direct port of the critically acclaimed PS3/360/Wii title from last year.  It’s an old school 2D platformer that will test your jumping abilities with lots of timing based challenges.  The gameplay is tried and true, and though I’m only a short way into it, I’m impressed.  Visually though it’s one of the most appealing games I’ve ever played and it doesn’t appear to have suffered one bit in being ported from consoles to the Vita.  It looks like a living cartoon.  Some cel-shaded games, like Super Paper Mario, came close to achieving such a feat but none have managed to pull it off like Rayman Origins.  The art style reminds me of 90’s era cartoons like Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life.  There’s a “zany-ness” to everything and a lot of the movements of the characters are exaggerated.  There’s more screaming than speaking, and the whole thing just seems crazy.  If you haven’t played it, and like platform games, definitely check it out.  It can be found for about $30 new for home consoles and is the type of game developers should be rewarded for making.

So for $350 I got an excellent game and a new handheld with (hopefully) plenty of memory.  I feel okay about it, but the other risk one takes on when buying a new system at launch is long-term support.  The Vita got off to an okay start in Japan, but shortly after launch sales were ground to a halt.  I haven’t seen sales figures for the US launch yet, but most of the stores I’ve been to over the last week or so are not over-flowing with units.  I’ve even seen a few sell-outs, so it would seem that the Vita is off to a good start.  I’ll be curious to see if it can maintain that momentum as the PSP wasn’t a huge success in the US, certainly not compared with Japan.

Whether it survives or not will depend largely on price and software.  The price is already out there and quite an obstacle, but if it’s moving units then maybe I’m placing too much emphasis on it.  That other problem most Sony systems face at launch is not an issue for the Vita.  There are plenty of good, and even great, games available right now.  Some, like Rayman Origins, are ports of console titles and some, like Uncharted, are all new.  For the system to flourish, developers will have to continue to support the Vita with both new titles and ports.  Some games are perfect to see ported to a handheld, especially sports titles.  If that’s all that’s out there though then gamers might get bored.  If given the choice, more often than not gamers will take a home console game over a portable.  A pick-up and play title like Rayman Origins is a rare exception, as I think that’s a game that works great for a portable.  A more in depth experience like Arkham City though is best on a home machine.

So I guess I’m happy with the Vita, for now.  I have so many games to play now, it’s borderline obscene.  It may actually be a week or more before the Vita even accompanies me on the train as I’m currently splitting my time between Tactics Ogre for the PSP and Resident Evil Revelations for the 3DS.  I will get MLB for the Vita though, and at that point I may not be able to resist playing it during my commute, but after that I have no idea what my next Vita game will be.  I guess I’ll have to start paying attention to all of these games.  I have a problem.

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