Tag Archives: portable gaming

Switch Thoughts Part II (and more Zelda)

Nintendo-20161123-ZeldaWhen I first posted my reactions to the Nintendo Switch I had only owned the console/portable hybrid for a few hours, many of which were spent asleep. It’s now been more than a week since then and I’ve been able to spend a considerable amount of time with the latest from Nintendo and I wanted to post some additional thoughts.

The Switch is both an under-powered console and an over-powered (if there is such a thing) handheld. The point is driven home each time I use my Switch. As a handheld, the battery life when playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild is around the two and a half hours Nintendo cited in the build-up to the Switch’s release. We don’t know if that will hold true for all titles, but I do wonder if that performance will represent the best Switch can do. After all, Zelda is a Wii U title ported to Switch and it’s reasonable to conclude it’s not fully utilizing the power of the console. Perhaps more demanding titles will drain the battery faster, or the opposite could be true if the games are better optimized for the Switch. Needless to say, the battery life isn’t very good and I’ll be curious to see how Super Mario Odyssey runs when it’s released later this year. The portable also runs pretty warm, and I guess that’s to be expected considering the tech underneath. The Switch is very thin, but it’s pretty well ventilated so I’m not worried about over-heating. The button layout is definitely not perfect. It’s so thin that the triggers aren’t particularly satisfying and they’re very close to the front shoulder buttons as well. The right analog stick is in an awkward position, as is the phony d-pad on the left. The small face buttons don’t really bother me at all though, perhaps because I’ve spent many hours with my 3DS, though the small plus and minus buttons can be tricky to find.

As a console, the Switch definitely struggles some with Zelda. I had read about framerate drops and can say they’re very real, and very noticeable. Sometimes the game gets really jittery, and it’s definitely not a good way to showcase the console. The transition from portable to television mode is indeed seamless, so at least that much works. I’ve played the game, and it’s still my only game, with both the joy con shell and a pro controller. I have never had the left joy con completely de-sync, as others have reported, but it still wasn’t seamless. Sometimes Link would keep running after I had stopped pushing a direction on the analog stick, and it did cause me to die at least once. Nintendo’s suggestions for people having the sync issue are pretty much a load of bullshit, wanting you to reduce interference from other wireless devices and so on. Most people probably have a bunch of connected devices at one time, be it game consoles, smart TVs, computers, tablets, etc and just reducing that type of noise is no longer realistic in 2017. The Switch also seems to struggle with its wireless connection to the internet at times, while other devices in my home experience no such issues. It would have been nice if Nintendo had included an ethernet port on the dock for a dedicated wired connection, but I assume they felt that would mess up with the quick turn-around from TV mode to portable mode. They still could have allowed the user to make that call themselves though if a wired connection was their preference.

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Somewhat to my surprise, the joy con shell makes for an adequate, albeit small, controller.

Aside from the input lag I experienced with the joy con shell, I was mostly content with how the “controller” felt in my hands. I was some-what skeptical going in, but if it’s performance was perfect it’s possible I would have had some minor buyer’s remorse about the pro controller I picked up. Since I did experience such lag though, I’m naturally happy with my purchase of the pro controller. It’s still too expensive, but it at least works well. The layout is definitely far better than what’s present with the joy con setup, and it’s more or less an Xbox controller. I do wish the D-pad was more comfortable to use, as I suspect fighting games will feel awkward with it. It still takes some getting used to, being a new console and all, and I found myself having to look down at it to find the plus and minus buttons since they’re grouped in the middle with the capture and home buttons as well. And since the controller is all black, the buttons could be hard to find in low-light settings. I was accidentally snapping pictures instead of bringing up the map screen in Zelda on my first go-around with the pro. Since then I’ve grown used to it, though because of the framerate issues (and also partly because the 2 and a half hour battery life helps to remind me to stop playing and go to bed) playing the Switch in portable mode has been my preferred method. If the performance on television was better I’d likely prefer TV mode with the pro controller.

The Switch is fairly large, though thin, making it a cumbersome handheld for actual on the go play. I still haven’t taken it out for my usual commute, as Gamestop has yet to produce the case I pre-ordered in January (apparently I arbitrarily selected the case that would appear in the lowest numbers, or they all got ear-marked for bundles. Some retailers list it as being in stock next week so I’m hopeful for the same), but it’s clear this will be the hardest portable to lug around, though not impossible. I carry a messenger bag and I’m sure I’ll be able to make room for it. I can already do so with a Vita in a case, and it only becomes challenging if I’m carrying a laptop and a tupperware or pyrex dish with my lunch in it. It gets a little cozy in there, but I find a way. I find myself comparing the Switch to the Vita often as I play either one. There’s no comparison with the 3DS. While the older Nintendo handheld is definitely the most portable of the three devices, it’s also the least impressive with its low-res screen. I have an original launch Vita, and its OLED screen is still the best I’ve seen on any handheld, but the Switch’s compares quite well. And like the Vita, the Switch feels like a high quality device where as most Nintendo handhelds feel more like a toy. If the Switch can attract JRPGs like the Vita has then it will definitely become my go-to portable even with the poor battery life (the Vita at 3 to 3 1/2 hours isn’t much better).

Zelda: Breath of the Wild has been a fun experience thus far. I’m not sure how many hours I’ve been able to sink into it, but it’s been a lot and yet I don’t feel I’m at all close to being done with the game. I’ve probably found around 30 shrines so far, but I’ve only completed one out of the four mythical beast dungeons and uncovered maybe half of the game’s gigantic map. That’s definitely been the one aspect of the game that was not oversold:  it’s massive and it’s time consumingly so.

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The vastness of Zelda’s world is imposing and its best feature. I just wish the Switch could keep up with it and reduce all of the pop-in present.

Otherwise, I find it interesting how Zelda is both held to high standards by gaming critics, but also graded on a  curve at the same time. As the first open-world, or sandbox game, in the series it does a lot of interesting things, but also could do others better. There’s a day-night cycle, which isn’t new for Zelda, that also includes weather effects. Much of the game requires Link to scale mountains and sheer surfaces, but climbing in the rain is pretty much a no go. It makes sense, but as a gameplay device can be really frustrating when you’re in the middle of scaling a large mountain but you have to stop when rain strikes. There’s also a moon cycle, that so far feels random, but it’s possible that it’s not, where a blood moon will rise in the sky and resurrect all of the enemies Link has defeated. It probably exists as a device to keep the game populated with enemies to kill and providing an explanation for why a fort you may have cleared hours ago is suddenly overrun by enemies once again. I’m fine with that part of it, but every time this blood moon rises the game pauses and shows a cinematic. It can be skipped, but the loading time it creates is brutal. I’m not sure why the load time even exists given this isn’t a disc-based game, but maybe it has something to do with the game being a port. I had three “days” in a row while playing last night that ended with a blood moon and it drove me nuts. The cinematic was fine for the first instance, but I don’t know why the game plays it every damn time.

Weapon durability is new to Zelda, well, mostly new as there was a sword in Ocarina of Time that Link could break. Now though that durability applies to every weapon in the game, and they break pretty damn fast. It’s one of those gameplay mechanics that definitely adds something to the game, but I’m left feeling that Nintendo took it too far. There are numerous enemies I just bypass because I don’t want to “waste” my weapons on them, and that’s not really a fun way to play a Zelda game. Otherwise, I very much enjoy the weapon variety as well as the armor variety in the game. Since armor doesn’t deteriorate like weapons (except for shields), the new pieces you find kind of feel like the dungeon rewards from the past games. Some armor simply ups Link’s defense, but most will have some other benefit like heat resistance or stealth.

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While some have claimed to have made it through the game without cooking, it’s still pretty essential and pretty cumbersome in execution.

Cooking is another hyped gameplay element from Breath of the Wild that is present with mixed results. I like it on principle, and Link is able to craft health restoring items as well as status-altering elixirs from fruit, nuts, meat, and monster parts. The interface is poor though, requiring you to fumble through your inventory that’s not organized in any logical fashion and have Link hold the items he intends to cook. You then jump out of the menu to view Link holding everything and you have to drop it into a cooking pot, which can be found all over the place in the game. You will probably screw it up from time to time and Link will just drop everything on the ground, forcing you to pick it all up, go back into the menu, and re-find the ingredients once again. Once you cook something, it will be available in your inventory along with the recipe you used to craft it, but if you consume it that recipe is lost to you. I’m not sure why Nintendo didn’t just include a virtual recipe book along with the Adventure Log. While you’re limited to how many melee weapons, shields, and bows you can carry around, Link has unlimited space for ingredients which is both good and bad. Good because you’re free to pick up all of the spoils, bad because it makes finding what you want that much harder when sifting through your inventory.

A lot of what I just wrote about is what I don’t enjoy about the game, and part of that is a reaction to all of the perfect scores I’m seeing being handed out. And while I don’t view this game as perfect, I can say I am enjoying it quite a bit in spite of those above complaints. One thing I really like is how the elements play a role, specifically with heat and cold. If Link goes to the top of a snow-covered mountain in standard equipment, he will literally freeze to death. You have a variety of ways to get Link through these areas, and that’s something that adds realism to the game without detracting from the fun-factor (unlike the rain). Lightning is also one of your most formidable foes and it’s best to avoid trees and metal when a storm is raging, though you may also find it possible to use it to your advantage too. That’s the aspect of the game I like best, so far. There’s just a lot of things for Link to do, and multiple ways to solve a problem, and the game just lets you figure that out yourself. I saw a video online of a player tossing a chicken at a moblin while the moblin was attacking. It struck the chicken, which summoned a bunch of other chickens to attack just like what happens when Link gets abusive towards the farm animal. Link can also ride on shields, which the game doesn’t explicitly tell you about, and jump on the backs of large animals and ride them around.

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Link can sneak up on an unsuspecting horse, mount it, and tame it. Don’t be shy about trying the same on similar animals. You may be surprised to find out what can happen, or not, since I basically just gave it away.

Mostly, I like that Breath of the Wild is trying something new, and it’s a throwback to the original Legend of Zelda. In that game, you’re basically dropped onto the map and given a sword. After that, it’s figure it out on your own. Breath of the Wild is basically the same thing, though the first hour or so of the game is a tutorial of sorts, but it’s done in a way that’s less boring than usual. This game doesn’t hold your hand and it will kill you a lot. Thankfully, it’s generous auto-save feature means death isn’t as big of a deal as it could be. I’ll hopefully eventually do a proper review of the game when I’m done, but I have no idea how long that will take. I’m pretty confident it will at least crack my top five as far as Zelda games go. While it’s refreshing, and I want to see Nintendo do more with this format going forward, I do miss the dungeons and the many shrines in the game aren’t really up to par as replacements. The shrines are mostly just quick little puzzles. They’re usually not hard to figure out, but execution can be tricky. Which is kind of funny, because they feel like a gameplay component that would be right at home on a portable adventure, which Breath of the Wild became when it was ported to Switch.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with my Switch purchase, though it’s also a bit of a luxury item for me as well. I could have just as easily picked up Zelda on the Wii U, where it’s performance is probably a little better than it is on the Switch. The only thing the Switch has going for it over the Wii U where Zelda is concerned is that it is a true portable. Aside from Zelda, the software is quite lackluster and is likely to remain so even through summer. I currently have no idea what my second Switch game will even be. There’s no Virtual Console service at the moment, so I can’t even turn there for additional games. The two games I’m most interested in right now are Super Mario Odyssey and Skyrim, and both of them are set to arrive in Q4 of this year. In other words, I could have very easily held off on buying a Switch until the fall and probably would have been just as happy. It’s also possible that by the holidays Nintendo will have better addressed some of the hardware issues and maybe will even smarten up and make a game like 1-2 Switch a bundled game. I personally have no interest in buying that game, especially at full retail price, but I’d welcome it as a pack-in. By the end of the year, we will also likely have a clearer picture of who’s supporting the Switch and what’s Nintendo doing with the online and Virtual Console. We may also know if the Switch is unofficially replacing the 3DS. Right now, there are still 3DS exclusive games coming our way, but maybe by the holidays we’ll know if Switch versions are coming or if future games will be available for both. That’s all just a long-winded way of saying that while the Switch is nice to have, you shouldn’t be kicking yourself if you didn’t get one at launch and are struggling to find any in stock. Don’t give Gamestop a stupid amount of money for one of their bundles they’re currently selling either, unless you really want everything in the bundle. I would guess the Switch will start becoming readily available during the summer and into the fall, where it could very well become scarce again around the holidays if its performing well. And even come then, it’s possible the only other great game available is Mario. At worst, by then most people will know if the Switch is something they have to have.

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A Few Hours with Nintendo Switch

img_1005It’s Friday, March 3rd, the launch day for Nintendo Switch, and I’ve had mine since the clock changed over to mark the day. By now, you’ve probably seen the system, read numerous reviews of it and the software, and maybe even have your very own. There’s a lot of information out there, and I’m not going to try and match the coverage of the Switch by professional gaming outlets who’ve had access to the system all week. The early returns on the system seem to be mostly positive, though not glowing with praise. The early returns on Zelda:  Breath of the Wild however, have been almost universally warm with many perfect scores getting tossed around.

My Switch experience so far can be summed up simply as painless. I pre-ordered the console, a carrying case, and Zelda the day pre-orders went up at the local Gamestop near me. The only hitch thus far has been the carrying case, which is MIA. On the day pre-orders went up, I went to Gamestop and placed my pre-order without the need to wait outside for hours for the store to open. The store is within a mile of my house so I was there and back in about 15 minutes. Last night after work, I went down to get my number for the midnight release. Basically, they just confirmed my pre-order and bagged it up for me so it was ready to go. Those who pre-ordered were also given access to games and accessories. I was the 10th person with a pre-order to go in. The manager told me Nintendo didn’t send everything they expected which is why my case is still missing. I don’t know if that’s entirely true, or if the 9 people who went there before me bought them up. Regardless, I’m not sweating it and he told me if I don’t hear from them by Wednesday to give them a call, as they expect more to arrive. At the time I went in, I also added a Pro Controller to my bundle as early reviews have indicated there may be some syncing issues with the Joycons when not connected to the Switch, and I figured I’d get a Pro Controller eventually anyways (as much as I hate that I just spent 70 bucks plus tax on a controller). At midnight, I hopped in my car and got to the store as number 9 was called to the counter, so I was back home with my Switch by 12:15. Pretty cool.

Unboxing the Switch and holding it for the first time really drives home the fact that this is a console/portable hybrid. The box is easily the smallest box a new console has come in that I’ve purchased, but the largest any portable has as well. The same can be said for the hardware. It’s light, but not cheap feeling, and the whole boot process and day-one update (for both the hardware and Zelda) took maybe 15 minutes tops, and that also includes setting up the dock and attempting to use the Pro Controller as well as syncing the console with my Nintendo Network ID. That’s a far cry from the hours it took to get the Wii U up and running.

The dock for the Switch is kind of interesting. It’s very light and the only part of the console that feels cheap. It has a hinged door on the back that grants access to the various ports on the dock, which is nice as it forces all of the cords through one opening, keeping things tidy. I’m concerned there isn’t enough weight in the bottom of the dock preventing the Switch from sliding out as easy as it could. It also has one of those giant plugs on the AC wall plug, which feels like a blast from the past, in a bad way. In defense of it, I was able to fit it in-between two other plugs on a surge protector so it’s not too cumbersome, it’s just a pet peeve of mine.

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Fuck this thing.

The Zelda packaging is essentially the same as Vita packaging, right down to having little clips inside for an instruction manual that doesn’t exist. The game card is roughly the same size as well, just a touch bigger, and the door on the Switch for game card access is also very reminiscent of the Vita. It has a clipped-in door that should never pop open by accident.

My Switch arrived roughly 50% charged, so I got some gaming in last night before I went to bed before recommencing today. The Pro Controller had no charge, so I was forced to plug that in and leave it initially. I wasn’t certain what the charge level of the two Joycons was at, so I elected to just test drive the Switch as a portable, only testing the dock to see how quickly the image was transferred to the television (answer: fast). Handling the Switch felt like a new experience, more so than any other new console, save for the Wii. The button layout is different enough to not feel as familiar as most controllers, and I found myself feeling not as confident playing Zelda as I probably normally would on a first try. The small face buttons didn’t bother me as I’m so used to playing my Vita and 3DS, but the placement of the pseudo-D-pad on the left side as well as the analog on the right feels weird. In Zelda, the D-pad (D-buttons is probably more appropriate) is used to swap weapons and I was reluctant to do so in combat initially, not knowing what would happen. Hitting one of the buttons brings up Link’s weapons and pauses the action, which I was very happy for. Then you have to use the right analog to select the actual weapon you want. Having that analog so far below the left one is what kind of trips me up. It’s not that different from an Xbox controller or even the Gamecube, but perhaps it’s not quite as natural as either one. I’m not sure why Nintendo didn’t just keep the same layout as the Wii U. Actually, I do know why and it’s so each Joycon can function as a stand-alone controller. I’m pretty confident that I’ll get used to it, but it still feels odd on the first few play-throughs. Another aspect of the Switch’s input that feels a little odd are the shoulder buttons. The triggers are in a fine spot, but the front buttons are so small and thin that they’re a bit awkward. Perhaps this is why Sony didn’t try to squeeze more shoulder buttons/triggers onto the Vita, though again, I think it’s something I’ll get used to.

Since I only have Zelda, I can’t really test out the Joycon controllers. My reaction to them is that they’re probably okay in a pinch as individual controllers, but I wouldn’t want to use them in such a fashion unless it was a very simple game. I think they work with the upcoming Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, but that strikes me as a pretty bad way to play that game, which is why I bit the bullet on a Pro for eventual 2-player games. I passed on 1-2 Switch as I just can’t view that as a full-priced game. If the game falls into the discount bin then I may take the plunge. In all likelihood, the next iteration of the Switch hardware will probably include it as a pack-in game.

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The Switch with the Wii U tablet behind it.

Zelda:  Breath of the Wild is so far pretty interesting. I’m way too early into the game to say anything definitive on it, but it’s definitely nice to have a more familiar Zelda experience than Skyward Sword and its forced motion controls. Visually, the game looks a lot like a combination of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword. It has that softness to it Skyward Sword had, which is apparently Nintendo’s go-to technique to cover-up for subpar graphical power. It does have a technological component to the visuals, which you may have seen, which I think will help differentiate it from other games in the series. The depiction of which kind of reminds me of Twilight Princess’s Twilight Realm, though without the pervasive darkness.

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Now with the Vita in front of the Switch.

I must say, it’s awesome to finally have voice acting in a Zelda title. Link may not audibly speak, but you are able to respond in text to NPCs so he basically talks, he just doesn’t have a voice actor or say anything you don’t tell him to say. It’s also great to not have a stand-in for Navi as I think that type of character is often everyone’s least favorite part of modern Zelda games. I’m not sure how I feel about the destructible weapons, as weapon durability is often not something that’s fun in other games, but I’m withholding judgement for the time being. I do wish Nintendo didn’t take these half-measures with the hunting and combat. It’s kind of stupid to see Link shoot some fauna and have it evaporate into a puff of smoke, leaving behind an item for Link to consume. Something more visceral would have really helped with the setting and immersion. I know Nintendo doesn’t want to risk alienating younger players with violence, but I think they could have done a better job and it wouldn’t have required gratuitous blood and gore.

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With the Vita.

I look forward to spending more time with Zelda and the Switch. Thus far I’ve really only experienced the console as a portable and plan on getting some TV time in with it this weekend. I’ll make it a point to try both the Joycon controller grip and the Pro Controller. I expect both to work just fine, and if I have anything substantial to add to that I’ll add an update to this entry (especially if I experience sync issues with the Joycon). I’ll also have more to say on Zelda at a later date and how it fits in with the other games in the series. Until I get my carrying case, the Switch will reside in my home as I don’t want to risk getting any scratches on the screen. For now, my Vita need not worry about being replaced as my main portable, but I suspect the quality of Zelda will force my hand eventually. New consoles are always a fun time to be interested in gaming, and the Switch has done a good job of keeping my enthusiasm high. Hopefully, Zelda is good enough to keep myself and other early adopters happy until the next batch of software arrives. I’m confident that the hardware is good enough, the games will determine how successful the Switch is from here on out.


The Vita Experiment

images-115It’s been over a year since I purchased a Playstation Vita.  I have made only two dedicated posts on the subject since which may lead people to believe that I have not enjoyed my purchase.  Far from it actually, as the Vita has been getting a lot of attention from me and has probably been played more than my 3DS over that same time frame.  Not all that long ago I made an entry about the Wii U and how it has been a disappointment for me since it’s launch last November.  The Vita has similarly been a disappointment at retail, though for different reasons.  And while I’ve enjoyed my Vita thus far, I’m not anymore optimistic about its future than I am of the Wii U’s.  If anything, I’m more pessimistic since Nintendo has a lot more riding on the Wii U and is further incentivized to make sure it does not fail.  While Sony similarly has invested a great deal in the Vita, I get the sense that Sony could afford to have it fail and move on (though such an admission would likely end Sony’s attempt at penetrating the portable gaming market via a dedicated gaming device).

Not much has changed regarding my opinion of the Vita as a piece of tech since its launch last year.  The device is quite nice and it functions really well.  I have had no problems with my Vita in the year-plus that I’ve owned it.  No game freezing, no glitching, no nothing.  The screen is large and beautiful, the buttons placed well, and the twin analog sticks much appreciated.  I’m not saying they don’t exist, but I have yet to encounter a game that makes annoying use of the front and rear touch panels as developers have, so far, resisted the urge to shoe-horn touch controls into their games.  Just judging the console on its own merits it’s fantastic and easily the best portable gaming device ever created.

Unfortunately, it takes more than cool tech to make or break a console.  The Vita’s biggest obstacle so far has been price.  The Wi-fi edition retails for $250, which is a lot to ask of consumers for a handheld game console.  And that’s not all, memory cards have been obnoxiously priced from the start and easily push the total cost beyond $300 for any new adopters looking to get just one game with their system.  Sony has put out bundles that help trim some of the costs but it’s still a pretty big investment to get into the Vita.  Especially considering that consumers can get a pretty solid gaming experience on the go via their cell phones.  While true that there’s no cell phone equivalent to Uncharted:  Golden Abyss, many consumers seem content to save the money and just play games like that at home.  Combating mobile gaming is not a problem unique to Sony, but Nintendo has done okay with the 3DS since lowering the price which seems inevitable for Sony if it wants the Vita to have a fighting chance.

Some titles have been promoted as a 2 for 1, in that buying one copy of the game earns the ability to play it on the PS3 and the Vita.

Some titles have been promoted as a 2 for 1, in that buying one copy of the game earns the ability to play it on the PS3 and the Vita.

Aside from price, the other make or break aspect of any gaming device is the software.  Namely, the games.  Vita had a respectable launch on that front with several quality portable versions of strong games being made available alongside the aforementioned Uncharted title.  Uncharted has been a successful franchise for Sony on the PS3, though it doesn’t move units like some of the other premier video game franchises and it apparently wasn’t enough to attract a lot of early adopters.  Ever since the launch, the Vita has been spotty on the games front.  Some Vita exclusives like Gravity Rush and Assassin’s Creed:  Liberation have come and gone, and have failed to impress critics.  It feels like every Vita exclusive has scored in that 6.0-7.5 range with reviewers.  They’re good games, but not exactly system sellers.  The rest of the Vita’s catalog has been reduced to ports of console titles.  Some of these ports are done well, like MLB The Show, and work with their PS3 cousins.  One such game, Sly Cooper:  Thieves in Time, even came bundled with the Vita version allowing basically free portable play while others offer discounts when buying both.  Being able to play a console game on the go is certainly neat, but is it worth the added cost of getting a Vita?  Other ports, like last year’s edition of Madden, were done poorly which is inevitable with this sort of thing.  Developers are going to spend the most time on the editions of the game set to make the most money-making the Vita port an after-thought.

This may lead you to wonder what I’ve been playing that has allowed me to enjoy my Vita as much as I have.  Well, I made entries on my first Vita purchases, Rayman Origins and MLB, and my experience with both was positive.  I have since added the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, which contains the first two Metal Gear titles along with Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3.  I also have Little Big Planet Vita, which is an all new Little Big Planet title created for the Vita and is just as good as the console games.  I also downloaded a PSN exclusive called Dokuro which is an excellent platform-puzzle game.  Lately, I’ve been player Persona 4 Golden, a port of the PS2 game with some added content.  I think my library of Vita games is a decent representation of the console.  Most of it is composed of ports with only two titles unique to the Vita.  Of them all, it’s tough to say what I’ve enjoyed the most.  Playing the two MGS titles in HD and on-the-go was pretty damn cool and I had not played either in quite some time so it was really enjoyable for me.  Rayman Origins is just as good as the console version, which I don’t own, and is a title that works really well on a portable, well enough that I may get the Vita version alone of Rayman Legends when that comes out later this year.  Dokuro was the nice surprise, and is so far the only Vita game I would tell all Vita owners they should get.  It’s fun and it’s cheap which is always a winning combination in my book.  It also sports a unique look with its chalk drawing graphics and the game is pretty meaty as well.  Persona 4 has definitely been the title that I’ve spent the most time with.  I’m currently at the 80 hour mark and still going.  I never played the original so that helps, but even if I had I’d like to think I still would have bought this.  It’s an excellent game, though it’s dated visuals mean it won’t be the type of game you would buy to show off the Vita’s capabilities.

Dokuro, a download-only title in which you play as a skeleton and try to lead a princess to safety, is perhaps the Vita's best exclusive.  And you get to shoot the princess out of a canon.

Dokuro, a download-only title in which you play as a skeleton and try to lead a princess to safety, is perhaps the Vita’s best exclusive. And you get to shoot the princess out of a canon.

I’m nearly finished with Persona 4 so I’m now looking ahead.  I may switch back to the 3DS for a while as I have some games for it to check out, but in looking ahead to my next Vita purchase I’ve basically settled on Muramasa:  The Demon Blade.  Muramasa is yet another port of a console title, this one being a Wii game from a few years ago.  It’s a side-scrolling action title with beautiful hand-drawn visuals.  I never played the Wii version so it will be a new experience for me.  Aside from that, I’m uncertain what’s in store for the Vita.  It had a fairly poor showing at E3 this year, and the only exclusives I’m aware of are a new Killzone and Batman title (with the Batman title being available on the 3DS too, though one would hope the more powerful Vita would be the lead console).  I’m not a fan of the Killzone franchise, and while I’m interested in Batman, I fear it will turn out like AS:  Liberations and just feel like a lesser version of the console franchise.  These games do not seem like they’ll be big system sellers for the Vita, which has lost the PSP’s biggest franchise (in Japan, anyway), Monster Hunter, to the 3DS.  Sony does have plans for the Vita concerning the PS4.  Right now the aim is to have every PS4 game playable on the Vita via remote streaming.  This is a feature the PS3 supports but never made good use of which makes me skeptical that it will be widely available with PS4 titles.  Even if it is, I can’t see it being something that gets a lot of people to buy a Vita.  It can’t hurt, but will people spend over two-hundred dollars for the ability to play their PS4 games on a small screen?  The Wii U can do that with several games but it’s something I’ve only made use of here and there (though I also only play the Wii U here and there to begin with).

The Vita really needs this game to kick some serious ass.

The Vita really needs this game to kick some serious ass.

All of this leads me to one question:  Can I recommend the Vita to gamers?  I feel as if the answer to that question is “Yes,” but with qualifiers.  If you want a good portable gaming device then yes, the Vita is a good and worthwhile system to have around.  I didn’t touch on it much, but there are quite a few indie developers out there making excellent games for the PSN that figure to be made available on the Vita.  There are some good exclusives, and there are console games out there that are the same, if not better, on the Vita.  And if you’re into playing remakes, the Vita seems to be home to many such titles with more to come.  There’s also a plethora of PSOne and PSP titles available on the PSN for download and play on the Vita.  However, anyone thinking about buying a Vita needs to look at the current crop of games and decide if it’s worth buying just for these games alone.  The future is murky and we may have already seen the bulk of Vita’s exclusive third-party titles.  I do believe Sony will support the system at least thru 2014, but if things don’t pick up third-party developers will just use the Vita as a dumping ground for inferior ports of their console games.  And since the Vita, which currently is at least on par with the PS3, will soon be lagging behind the major home consoles those ports will become more expensive to make and may be bypassed all-together.  Someone recently asked me if they should get a Vita for their kids this coming Christmas.  The question was actually phrased as an either/or between a Vita and PSP.  I told them the PSP is not worth investing in at this point, but also to hold off on the Vita since a price-cut may be imminent.  I also slipped in the fact that by Christmas the PS4 will be out and their kids may want that more than a Vita and the difference in price may make the PS4 less expensive if this individual was thinking of getting a Vita for each kid.  That will likely be my response for anyone who asks me if they should get a Vita.  Wait for a price drop, or get a PS4 instead.  The future is just too uncertain for the Vita to give it a full recommendation.


The 3DS XL: Nintendo’s Imperfect Update

Nintendo has an odd relationship when it comes to portable gaming devices.  The company has experienced immense success and great failure at the same time.  And even though the company rarely is ahead of the technological curve when it comes to its hardware, it still manages to dominate in sales.  The portable section of Nintendo’s portfolio is one the company can rely on to almost always turn a profit.  The only true failure was the Virtual Boy, a complete and total misfire.  The 3DS had a failed launch, but since a dramatic price cut and better software releases, the handheld has surged.  It may not have been profitable in 2011, but it almost certainly will be in 2012.

Nintendo’s approach to its main handheld units has been fairly consistent.  The original Game Boy was launched in 1989 and was Nintendo’s first true portable console.  The company had already made a name for itself in portable stand-alone games under the Game & Watch label, but the Game Boy operated like a home console and could switch out the software whenever the user wished.  The unit was fairly powerful for the time, though not on par with home console devices.  It had the same button layout as Nintendo’s home console, which made adapting games easy once accounting for the reduced tech.  Many companies tried to usurp the Game Boy as the market leader in portable gaming devices and all took the approach of releasing more powerful, color based systems.  Nintendo’s strategy of sacrificing power for better battery consumption proved correct as the Game Boy lasted for the entire duration of the 90’s while more powerful handhelds like the Game Gear and Lynx faded away (though the Game Gear was moderately successful in its own right, but sales for it amounted to about 1/10 of Game Boy’s).

In 1996 Nintendo introduced a new Game Boy to market, the Game Boy Pocket.  It was the same hardware, just shrunk down to a more portable style that required fewer batteries to operate.  This was the first major revision for the Game Boy, and the second would come in 1998 with the introduction of the long-awaited Game Boy Color.  The Game Boy Color did have the distinction of being slightly more powerful than the old hardware, but not by leaps and bounds.  Some games designed for it would not work on older Game Boys, making it arguably its own distinct handheld and not an actual revision.

The first revision to the Game Boy, the Game Boy Pocket, made the device more portable and more economical.

The Game Boy’s first true successor was the Game Boy Advance which was released in 2001.  While all previous Game Boys had a vertical format, the GBA had a horizontal one similar to the Game Gear.  It had a 32-bit processor but a lack of any 3D capabilities made it more comparable to a Super Nintendo than say a Playstation.  Aside from the enhanced tech capabilities, the only other major addition was the inclusion of two shoulder buttons.  Many fans were disappointed that Nintendo didn’t add two additional face buttons which would have made SNES to GBA ports near perfect.  Like the original Game Boy, the GBA would receive multiple revisions.  The first was the GBA SP, which made the GBA resemble an old Game Boy Pocket but with a hinge in the middle so it could be folded and stored away to protect the screen (and make it more portable).  The major addition to the SP though was the inclusion of a front-light, something gamers had been demanding for over a decade.  No additional buttons were added though, and the new design was less comfortable than the original but the inclusion of the light, rechargeable battery, and screen protection made it superior.  A third revision would follow in 2005, the GBA Micro.  The Micro removed the backwards compatibility of the SP with original Game Boy cartridges, but shrunk the whole thing into a tiny size that resembled a Famicom/NES controller.  The unit was also back-lit and provided a slightly better picture, though at a reduced size.   At the same time, a new GBA SP was released that had a back-lit screen instead of a front-lit, which was much more effective.  This was more of a running change than a true revision, but worth noting.

The Nintendo DS followed the GBA in 2005 and has been no stranger to revisions.  The original was bulky and unattractive, and a new model was released in 2006.  Dubbed the DS Lite, it was a more streamlined take on the console.  The DSi would follow the Lite and add better networking capabilities, an SD card slot, camera, and slightly larger screen.  The final revision to the DS came in the form of the DSi XL, just an over-sized DSi.

Which brings me to the 3DS.  When the 3DS was launched last year most gamers assumed a revision was inevitable.  I was a day one purchaser of the unit, and while I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit, there’s no denying there are some obvious short-comings that could be addressed with a future update.  The system is designed just like a DS, but Nintendo made some odd choices with the unit that do cause minor problems.  For one, the bottom screen is smaller than the top.  This isn’t necessarily an issue in and of itself, but there’s a raised border around the bottom screen that causes lines to form on the top screen when the unit is closed.  Mine hasn’t caused any permanent damage, but it is annoying to have to clean the top screen every time I use it.  The circle pad causes a similar issue on the top piece, but not on the screen thankfully.  And ever since the unit’s reveal, gamers have yearned for a second circle pad, which was addressed by Nintendo with the Circle Pad Pro attachment.  The attachment not only adds the desired second circle pad, but also adds two additional shoulder buttons to the unit putting it on par with home console controllers.  The attachment works, but is bulky as Hell and using the face buttons with it is some-what cumbersome.  The overall power of the unit, particularly the screen resolution, is not very impressive either.  Especially when compared with the more recently released Playstation Vita.

Most expected Nintendo to unveil a new 3DS at E3 this year.  Early reports out of China before the show seemed to confirm this, but come show-time nothing was seen.  In a questionable move, Nintendo chose to reveal the 3DS XL after E3 in an online developer conference.  The 3DS XL is the expected update to the 3DS, but is it the update gamers had been looking forward to?  In short:  No.

The 3DS XL is exactly what the name implies.  It’s an over-sized 3DS.  This isn’t a bad thing on its own.  While a larger 3DS is less portable, the original is pretty cramped and a larger one would work better for those who tend to play their 3DS in longer play sessions as opposed to quick bursts.  And even though it presumably requires more power to function when compared with the current model, the XL will reportedly have slightly better battery life (5-8 hours for 3DS games).

Congrats Nintendo! It only took you a few short months to render this attachment useless!

If the biggest issue gamers had with the 3DS were its size and battery life (a legitimate complaint), the XL would be well received.  And when it hits stores it very well may be.  For me, this update is fairly pointless.  The screen size has been enhanced, but the resolution remains the same.  The resolution on the current 3DS is underwhelming at best.  Games that look good on the unit do so in spite of the unit’s resolution.  A game like Resident Evil: Revelations is fairly impressive from a visual standpoint, but the low-res picture washes out the image and adds a blurry texture to everything.  Especially in the darker environments, I felt like I needed to wipe off the screen constantly even though there was nothing on it.  I played the game with the Circle Pad Pro, which as I mentioned, is a cumbersome add-on.  It does improve the gameplay though, but for some reason Nintendo did not incorporate it into the design of the XL.  The unit is bigger, one would think this would allow Nintendo to add the additional shoulder buttons, or at the very least, a second circle pad!  Nintendo chose not to, which not only seems foolish, but renders the Circle Pad Pro unusable with the XL.  A game like RE: Revelations will most likely play worse on the XL because of the controller configuration, and look worse because the low-res image is being blown-up beyond its intended size.  And perhaps just to add one last bit of insult to injury, the bottom screen is still smaller than the top and the raised border still exists so it’s likely the same screen line problem of the current 3DS will be prevalent here.

Obviously, I can’t pass judgement on a piece of hardware that isn’t even available yet.  It’s entirely possible that the 3DS XL is superior to the current 3DS based on the increased size and superior battery life enough to justify a purchase, or even an upgrade.  I’ll be surprised if that’s my opinion come August when the unit hits stores alongside New Super Mario Bros. 2 as it fails to address the real problems I personally have with the 3DS.  Plus if I were to upgrade it would render my Circle Pad Pro useless which is not something I am eager to do (but would have been willing to do if the new 3DS made it obsolete by incorporating its features into the design).  This just seems like a completely unnecessary update to the current hardware.


The Hyperkin SupaBoy!

The Hyperkin SupaBoy.

My interest in portable gaming has always exceeded the reality of how much time I spend with it.  From the very beginning, I’ve always been enamored with the concept of shrinking down a home console and taking it on the road.  I was positively thrilled the first time I saw a Gameboy cartridge and how it looked pretty much exactly like a miniature NES cart.  The Gameboy also had the same color scheme as the NES and boasted its own versions of Mario, Zelda, and Metroid.  However, while the physical game may have looked like a mini NES cart, the actual games were not on the same technological level.

I touched on this concept when talking about the new Playstation Vita.  The Vita has a cool cross-platform feature that allows gamers to share save files between Vita games and their PS3 counterpart.  It’s an expensive feature, but a cool one.  And while Vita games aren’t quite on the same technological level as PS3 ones, they’re fairly close and some less-demanding titles are nearly identical in looks and features.  This is pretty close to having the home console experience on the go.  Before the closest anyone had got to this was Sega when it released the Nomad in the mid 90’s.  The Nomad was a portable Genesis that could also be used like a home console.  It was pretty cool, but the system’s wretched battery life made it portable in concept only.  The thing basically went thru an entire package of batteries in one session.  Sure you could use an AC adapter as well, but sometimes a power outlet isn’t readily available when you’re on the go.

Apparently I’m not the only intrigued by the idea of being able to carry a console in my pocket as recently clone systems have gained in popularity.  For those unfamiliar, a clone system is a console created by a third party that mimics the original first party offering.  Since these companies that create these systems owe no allegiance to Nintendo or Sega, a clone system can be compatible with multiple systems.  One of the most popular ones is the Retron 3 which has a cartridge slot for NES, SNES, and Genesis games.  The quality of these machines is definitely not up to par with the originals, and often some software gives them issues, but for the most part they get the job done.  Lately, portable clone systems have started to show up in greater frequency which is what brings me to the subject of this post:  Hyperkin’s SupaBoy.

Super Metroid to go? Yes, please!

The SupaBoy is a portable Super Nintendo.  It is a true console for the commuting gamer.  Sure the technology is nearly 20 years old, but it’s a Super Nintendo, arguably the greatest video game console of all time!  It uses a standard SNES game cart and, as best I can tell, can play pretty much every game released for the SNES.  Now, that statement isn’t without some controversy.  When the SupaBoy was first released, several gamers took to youtube to review it and comment on what games worked and what didn’t.  The big culprits with any SNES clone system are Super Mario RPG, Star Fox, and Earthbound.  SMRPG and Star Fox cause problems because of the graphical technology needed to power the games (Star Fox, if you recall, famously made use of the Super FX chip) while Earthbound has a unique feature to prevent it from working on pirated consoles that causes the game to overload the screen with non-player characters and enemies, making it virtually unplayable.  The first batch of SupaBoys appeared to not work with these games, as well as others, though there was some confusion over Super Mario RPG and if it mattered where the game was manufactured.  Since Hyperkin released the second round, more videos have popped up of users getting these games to work.  I don’t at present have any of the games alleged to not work, so I cannot confirm anything.  Buyer beware.

Hyperkin wisely played to the nostalgic crowd when it designed the SupaBoy as it looks exactly like an oversized US SNES controller.  It has the same color scheme and the buttons and D-pad are in the same style.  Start and Select had to be moved but that hardly takes away from the look of the machine; it’s pretty cool.  Hyperkin also added two controller inputs to the front of the system so this bad boy can be hooked up to a TV with the included AV cable and used as a standard SNES.  The system is big, but feels good in the hands.  It’s made of hard plastic, and though it’s definitely not of a high quality in terms of feel, it’s better than expected.  On mine, the D-pad feels a little funky, it has more play on one side, but it works fine.  The buttons are very “clicky” which makes it kind of a noisy system to play.  There are games I won’t play on the train as they’d just be too noisy and would likely irritate the patron sitting beside me.  Because SNES game cartridges are fairly large, the SupaBoy has to be large to accommodate.  As a result, this isn’t the most portable system around as it’s not likely to fit in your pocket.  In a backpack sure, but it’s got nothing on the DS, for example.  And since the game carts are so large you’re probably not going to carry too many around, but beggars can’t be choosers.

Still the best TMNT game.

Enough of the specs, how does it play?  Quite well.  When plugged into a TV, it looks no different to me than my old SNES.  The picture quality is sharp, the audio is good, and I haven’t noticed any new glitches or slowdown.  On the go, it also looks and plays great.  The color palette on the system’s screen is perhaps slightly darker, but it’s just as clear as it is on a television.  It does take some getting used to, but after 10 minutes or so I found myself fully immersed in the gameplay experience.  So far I’ve only tried three titles on the system:  Super Mario World, Turtles in Time, and Super Metroid.  Of the three, I’ve spent the most time with Super Metroid as I work my way thru that classic title.  I’ve switched between playing with a controller and playing with just the SupaBoy and I don’t notice any change in how well I play the game.  The experience is fully realized when using the SupaBoy, which is exactly what I was looking for.

I suspect a fair majority of the hits I end up getting for this blog post will revolve around the hardware itself.  Specifically, the audio.  Take one look at the SupaBoy on amazon.com and you’ll notice several reviewers complaining about the audio.  On a lot of models there was a defect that caused a high pitch sound to come over the speakers.  There apparently was no fix and owners either returned their system in hopes of getting a better one or learned to deal with it.  When I purchased my SupaBoy I was told this had been fixed and the audio screw-up was isolated to the first batch of systems produced.  So far, this seems to be true as I haven’t had any issues.

Another common complaint with clone systems is that the pin connectors are inferior in some way.  This is a common complaint with another Hyperkin product, the Genesis portable clone the Gen Mobile, which became popular enough to even get Sega’s official branding.  On that system, many gamers have had problems removing cartridges because the pin connector is just too snug and the system ends up breaking.  The SupaBoy does provide a fairly snug fit, but it’s not too bad and I don’t feel like I’m doing any damage to the unit when I insert and remove games.  It would have been nice if Hyperkin could have included an eject button like the original console, but it seems fine.  Another concern some have is aimed at the battery and battery life.  The SupaBoy uses a rechargeable battery that comes with the system.  It’s removable too, so once it can’t hold a charge it can be replaced.  I’ve never gone longer than 2 hours with the SupaBoy and the battery indicator did not yet reach red status, indicating it would need to be re-charged soon.  Hyperkin says expect 2 and a half to 3 hours per charge, which isn’t great but is on par with current handhelds.

Not only is it a portable SNES, the SupaBoy is a fully functioning home console as well.

I purchased my SupaBoy from Game Swap USA, a Florida based retailer that sells on eBay.  My unit came with two clone controllers so I could easily play on my TV or invite a friend to play as well (haven’t tried that, but I assume it would be a bit weird sharing the tiny screen with one player holding the unit and the other playing via controller).  The system can use regular SNES attachments and can also use some other third-party devices like the Game Genie.  It does play Super Famicom games, which is pretty cool if there are any in your collection you would like to enjoy on the go.  Some PAL games work as well, but not all.

Now, it’s not all fun and games with clone systems, and unfortunately the SupaBoy is no different when it comes to that.  I found this out the hard way.  After pro-longed play the unit appears to be prone to over-heating which can cause freezing.  I had a game of Super Metroid freeze on me after I had been playing it for less than two hours.  When I turned the unit back on the next day, I found all of my save data had been erased.  Damn!  It gets worse.  I hadn’t re-charged the unit and started over my game.  After maybe a half hour the screen started to get buggy.  I hadn’t seen it do this before, but I knew I was probably running low on battery.  I immediately plugged the unit into a wall outlet and the screen corrected itself.  I turned the unit off and just for piece of mind inserted Super Mario World to make sure the unit was fine.  It wouldn’t boot up.  I figured it was due to the battery being run down so I tried it again an hour later and Super Mario World booted up fine, but with one problem:  no save data!  So, I lost my save game data that was around 20 years old.  I’ve read online some people have had this issue as well, and were able to avoid having their save data erased by reseting the unit before turning it off when it freezes.  I guess I’m going to have to be really careful and baby the Hell out of this system.

Hyperkin’s SupaBoy is not alone in the portable SNES gaming world.  Other companies have put out their own version of a portable SNES unit.  The SupaBoy appeared to get the most praise from the gaming community so it was the one I went with, but there are supporters for other devices out there such as the FC-16 Go by Yobo and the RetroDuo by Retro-Bit.  If you love classic games and think a portable Super Nintendo is something you would be interested in then I can safely recommend the SupaBoy, but do your homework first and don’t expect Nintendo-level quality.  It has its own strengths and weaknesses, but at the end of the day, it’s a freaking portable Super Nintendo, which says it all!


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.


Requiem for the PSP

The Sony Playstation Portable was first released in the US in 2005.

I was shocked when I realized that Sony’s Playstation Portable (PSP) has been on the market for nearly 7 years.  That’s quite a long time for any hardware to remain relevant, but then again portables have always had a longer shelf life than their console cousins.  The original Gameboy was around for a decade or so before Nintendo finally added color to it, and longer still before a true successor was released.  Handhelds do benefit from redesigns though.  The original bulky Gameboy was originally replaced by the Gameboy Pocket just as the PSP received multiple updates, including one radical re-design in the form of the PSP Go.  This post wouldn’t exist though if it wasn’t for the Playstation Vita, which is set to replace the PSP in less than two weeks.

I have always felt like the PSP was viewed as a failure by the gaming community, or at least only a minor hit.  It was crushed in sales when compared with its nearest competitor, the Nintendo DS.  The two systems have always been intertwined, and even though the DS beat the PSP to market it felt like Nintendo’s retaliation towards Sony.  Nintendo has always dominated the portable landscape.  While systems like Sega’s Game Gear and Atari’s Lynx failed to win over consumers Ninendo’s Gameboy steadily found homes in the back pocket of gamers across the world.  The Gameboy was not a technological marvel by any stretch of the imagination.  Even when it was first released it seemed little better than one of those Tiger handheld games.  When I was a kid, the only people who had Gameboys were those who had parents that weren’t willing to spend a bunch of money on a Nintendo Entertainment System or Super Nintendo once that came out.  It really didn’t become a truly viable system for me until Pokemon in 1998 and the Gameboy Color.  That’s when I jumped on board and I’ve owned every Nintendo portable since.

The PSP has not been a failure, but the redesigned UMD-less PSP Go sure as Hell was.

Sony has been the only real threat to Nintendo’s portable dominance.  Even though it failed to beat out Nintendo’s handheld, it’s actually done fairly well for itself.  Sony has sold approximately 17 million units in North America since 2005, but it’s in Japan where the system really did well as its sold 15 million units there.  It goes without saying, that Japan is much smaller than North America and its rare to see sales figures that are so close when comparing the two territories.  For the sake of comparison, the Nintendo DS has moved nearly 58 million units in North America, and around 33 million in Japan.  It’s those staggerring numbers for the DS that make the PSP seem like a failure.  The PSP has always been the more expensive piece of hardware, debuting at around $100 higher than the cost of the DS in the US, and it has mostly appealed to traditional gamers.  The DS also appealed to gamers, but Nintendo also had great success reaching the non gamers and children as well.  That and the Nintendo brand definitely helped move units.  And for the sake of objectivity, I’ll even go out on a limb and say the DS has the better software as well.  While I actually didn’t get a ton of milage out of either handheld, I did get considerably more out of my DS.

Despite that, I still have great affection for the PSP.  Technologically speaking, it’s the most impressive handheld I’ve ever owned, even more so than the 3DS.  Visually it’s quite the looker, and the weight and feel of the device just give it a aura of high quality.  And I have the original model, now referred to as the PSP-1000.  The subsequent redesigns have slimmed the unit down some and even increased the power of the screen, which to me is borderline shocking as the screen on this thing is beautiful.  Even when I fired it up for the first time in years last week to play Tactics Ogre I was impressed by the clarity of the image.  I never did watch a UMD movie on my PSP, but I imagine they looked just fine.  Sony wisely incorporated analog control for the PSP in the form of the analogy “nub” located under the D-Pad.  If there is one design flaw though, it’s that the nub wasn’t placed in the more prominent position as most games make use of it as the primary means of control.  Nonetheless, it’s textured and grips your thumb as you play and there’s plenty of resistance.  Because of its size and placement, I do consider the circle pad of the 3DS superior but this one gets the job done.

Pretty much the reason why I got a PSP to begin with, Twisted Metal: Head-On, which was basically a remake of the super popular Twisted Metal 2: World Tour.

The medium that the PSP used for games is one not likely to be seen or heard from ever again.  While Nintendo has always stuck with cartridges of some kind for its handhelds, the PSP used an optical disc format that Sony dubbed the Universal Media Disc.  UMD actually worked better than expected.  Yes there are load times, but aside from a handful of early titles, they’re not that bad.  Sony tried to get production companies to put movies out on UMD which mostly failed.  While a UMD disc can hold nearly 2 GB of data, that’s still far short of what a DVD can hold.  This meant most UMD movies came with fewer special features and yet still cost about the same as a DVD version.  Most studios abandoned the UMD format within the first year of the system’s life and never returned.  Utilizing UMD also meant that games lacked a save function and owners were forced to purchase memory sticks for game saves and any other media they wished to put on their PSP.  And since Sony loves going rogue with its devices, it forced gamers to use its own brand of memory sticks called the Memory Stick Pro Duo, instead of allowing gamers to just use any flash card.  Not surprisingly, Sony’s memory sticks were always more expensive than traditional cards which made the entry price of the PSP quite steep.

The UMD format proved adequate for games but never caught on as a film medium.

Short-comings aside, I still love my PSP.  I never acquired much of a gaming library on it, mostly because it just came at a bad time for me.  I really got into portable gaming in the last couple of years, and even though I’ve had a PSP since 2006, I rarely found a reason to play it.  Because the system was so powerful most developers just spent time porting their console games to the device as opposed to making new titles.  There was definitely a lack of truly compelling software to pull me back in.  Square-Enix tried pretty hard though with Crisis Core and the Dissidia franchise.  I have both, but never got into Dissidia’s frantic style.  I did play a lot of MLB The Show on my PSP, and though it wasn’t as good as the PS2 version, it was certainly playable.  I also never took advantage of Sony’s download service that allowed you to download PSOne games and put them on the PSP, though I was tempted to do so with Final Fantasy VII.

The Playstation Vita will arrive on February 15th for those who want the bundle version out there, and a week later for those interested in the stand-alone unit.  Like the PSP, it’s going to cost a lot.  When Sony first unveiled the $250 price point (the same price the PSP debuted at) most were actually pretty happy as that’s the same price the 3DS came out at.  And just like how the PSP far outclassed the DS in terms of raw power, the Vita wipes the floor with the 3DS.  The Vita should be a technological beast and the games we’ll see on it should be comparable in terms of visual quality with what we’re seeing on the PS3 and 360.  The Vita also adds a second analog nub, something gamers were disappointed the 3DS didn’t include, and even has a gimmicky touch pad on the back.  The Vita has also ditched the UMD medium and is opting for flash cards instead.  Prices range from $30 to $50 for games, with most looking like they’ll settle in the middle at $40 a piece.  The memory issue though is the big kick to the crotch that most gamers hate.  Just like how they did with the PSP, Sony has opted to use its own memory card device with the Vita and the prices are outrageous when compared with a standard SD card.  A 4GB card for the Vita will set you back $25.  I have no idea how big a game save figures to be, but 4GB seems awfully tiny considering my PS3 at 60GB is far too small.  A 16GB card will set you back $60 and a 32GB card a whipping $100!  Again, I have no idea what the ideal size will end up being, but if you’re looking to get a Vita with a 16GB card and one game in a couple of weeks that will set you back $350 which is a pretty step entry fee.

The Playstation Vita has obviously adopted the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach in terms of its general design.

And since it’s going to cost so much to be an early adopter, it’s a damn good thing that the launch games actually look pretty awesome.  There’s some first-party favorites like a brand new Uncharted game and the latest Hot Shots Golf game.  The following month Little Big Planet and MLB 12 The Show arrive with a new Resistance game following in May.  On the third party front, ports of Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom 3 and Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus arrive alongside new titles like Army Corps of Hell and Ridge Racer.  The Vita is basically the opposite of the 3DS when it launched, as the immediate future looks awesome but I don’t see anything truly compelling on the horizon (not that I expect future software to suck, there’s just nothing comparable to Super Mario 3D Land set for the fall) and I expect a lot of the game’s software to consist of ports.  That’s not the worst thing in the world as ports of sports games are worth owning alongside their console counterparts and some games, like Rayman Origins, almost feel better suited for on the go gaming.  The Vita will also (finally!) incorporate more cross platform features allowing players of The Show to take their franchise from the PS3 to the Vita when leaving the house.  For me, this is something I’ve always wanted out of a portable making it basically a new way to interact with my console.  I also want original content too, and hope the Vita can deliver.

Gameplay shot of Army Corps of Hell on the Vita, a Square-Enix strategy-action hybrid that figures to be interesting, if nothing else.

Because of the cost to be an early adopter though, and the fact that I currently have plenty of gaming to do on my 3DS and PSP, I won’t be getting a Vita this month.  I’ll hold off for now and maybe benefit from a future price drop or something as the Vita has failed to gain much traction so far in Japan and may meet a similar reception in the US.  With the economy the way it is I can’t see the Vita getting off to a great start here.  It will move some units, but probably won’t have a better launch than the 3DS which was pretty slow to start off (again, probably because of cost though the lack of games certainly didn’t help).  When I do eventually get a Vita, I’ll be a little sad to say goodbye to my PSP.  Even though it probably has been a commercial success for Sony, I feel like the PSP has been the most under-appreciated gaming device of the last 7 years, maybe even the most under-appreciated ever!  The device, in its original release, still holds up from a technological standpoint when compared with the 3DS and I think it was a great thing that Sony entered the handheld market and forced Nintendo’s hand.  Sony raised the bar and brought console gaming to a portable device, something even Nintendo and other developers have been more willing to adopt recently.  The soon to be released Resident Evil Revelations for the 3DS is basically a console experience on a handheld, and I find that awesome.  For a long time portable gaming did not interest me because it just seemed like a watered down version of what I could experience in my living room.  I didn’t care to do that and wanted a truly rich experience.  Portable gaming has finally caught up with consoles and it’s no surprise I’m playing more portable games now than I ever have before.  I plan to treat Tactics Ogre like a great encore for my PSP, and I’ll enjoy every minute of it.