It’s funny to me that I spend so much of my writing space discussing handheld games, considering how little I used to care about that area of video games. Yet in the last year I have catapulted my playtime with both the 3DS and Vita to nearly eclipse that of home consoles and PC games. Several key games have helped contribute to my newfound fascination with gaming on the go, and it’s likely that my current college student lifestyle easily facilitates this form of play.
That being said, I am clearly the exception to the rule, the rise against the norm. While I may be enjoying my Vita wholeheartedly, there appears to be a vast majority who find themselves disappointed by its slim offerings or disinterested in buying one altogether. That’s really too bad, because the Vita was and still in many ways is a console with great potential. But what’s ultimately true is that the Vita faces a substantial uphill battle if Sony truly desires to see it succeed. Conservative implementation, marketing, and game development will not save it from its many visible woes. No, the Vita will have to see some great changes if it wishes to do even marginally well.
As a scarce few of you may remember, my first article ever for this site was an enthusiastic defense of the console. Having spent more time with it, I’d like to take another perspective. I’ve done my rallying for people to get behind the Vita. Now it’s time to look to Sony and proclaim with a more jaded voice the action they must take to truly inspire confidence from developers and longtime PlayStation fans.
It’s true that the Vita’s timing into the market couldn’t have been worse. Sure, it’s a decisive release, firmly planting two feet into the soil in an attempt to halt the freight train that is mobile gaming. This, however, may merely be popular belief, as we’re finding that the train may not be on as strong or lasting a surge as some predicted it to be. That’s a whole other can of worms though, as I’m here today to argue that the Vita may not have as firm a grasp on the earth as Sony may pretend. On the whole, the system reeks of compromise and illusion. Compromise in that it attempts to take what we like about smartphones and home consoles and cram it all into an integrated gaming space. Illusion because on the whole, the build quality is noticeable inferior to smartphones. The iPhones, Galaxies, and Nexuses of our world have smooth, durable, smudge resistant glass and seamless build quality that far outshines the easily scratched plastic and visibly tumultuous seams that plague the Vita. Naturally, these comparisons like these aren’t technically fair as smartphones are sold at fractions of their actual prices due to heavy network subsidizing, which even the 3G enabled Vita isn’t privy to.
Yes, the comparison is unfair, but when most consumers nowadays have access to smartphones on a regular basis, the difference in build quality will be immediately apparent upon purchasing. I know it’s unrealistic to expect smartphone level design perfection from Sony especially due to the big reason I pointed out, but it’s still a shortcoming. Already, the buttons on my Vita, not even a year old, are beginning to wobble about in their hinges from overuse. The analog sticks are showing signs of wearing down and loosening.
What Sony needs to do is stop with the smartphone act. Yes, they can certainly make the Vita look shiny and presentable in marketing but in person it won’t fool a single attentive, informed consumeristic soul. Instead of vain attempts at copying design that takes much more money to develop, Sony should really focus on making the model sturdy and ergonomic, not shiny and fragile. And give the buttons and sticks greater longevity and strength as a bonus.
Now on to the games. This is perhaps the single most decisive shortcoming the Vita falls victim to. In most game enthusiasts’ careful, prying, judgmental eyes, the Vita has scarce few games. We were promised great things in the realm of console quality gaming on the go from the beginning. Yes, we got it. But utterly on technicality. Yes, there’s an Uncharted, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Resistance, but few would truly claim that these show comparable quality to their console brethren, even if they may be definable as enjoyable. Yes, there are a few exceptions. I hear very good things about the newest LittleBigPlanet, but quality should be the ultimate goal. Instead Vita owners are treated as second best. Did we truly pay an extravagant entrance fee to play inferior counterparts to our console games? No, we did not. Excellent remakes and ports like the incredible Persona 4 Golden to come out as of late may satisfy us temporarily, but no console can survive on rehashes and mediocre spinoffs alone.
What the Vita needs is more daring moves by developers. Make more independent IPs, take more risks. When a direct point for point port of a full console game like Need For Speed: Most Wanted sells less than 70,000 copies, it’s high time to look at what will truly be accepted into a theoretically successful lineup. In truth, people do not buy handhelds to play the games they can already play on consoles, and better. If Pokemon were developed for Nintendo’s home consoles, faaar fewer Game Boys and DSes would have been bought. Why? Because Pokemon is nearly entirely uniquely handheld. It always has been and it likely always will. Sony needs to give us a real reason to buy into the Vita. They need to make a game that really could not work anywhere else. And no, throwing touch and waggle into Uncharted does not count.
Gravity Rush was a game that got very close to this goal, and had it been given more polish and tighter mechanics, I would have called it a killer app. Even closer to what could be described by that elusive and hard-earned title was the astoundingly creative and poignant Sound Shapes. This game’s unique strength arose in its in-depth level creator which took full advantage of the Vita’s features (I’ve also tried it in the PS3 version, which doesn’t even compare in ease of use). But as a downloadable title, and a short one at that, it’s not quite an adequate reason to by a whole dedicated console. Remember: nobody buys an iPhone for Angry Birds, they buy it for all its nifty features. The Vita, and indeed all handheld consoles, is the opposite. It should be bought (or in this case not bought) for its games while the features come secondary.
The solution for this should be simple. Developers just need to make more games, of course, and then the audience would surely grow. But the issue comes with the immense risks a publisher takes on by funding a project for a struggling system. We’re not seeing big, explosively unique and console-defining titles because too many publishers fear abysmal sales. In essence, it’s the traditional catch 22. There are no truly great games because there’s no audience and there’s no audience because there are no great games.
And so how is this problem solved? Who do we blame? These are questions that would make me elegible for a high paying position at Sony were I to successfully provide answers. There’s no truly easy thing to recommend. Yes, Sony should prioritize experimentation and high-budget projects. Yes, they should redesign the Vita to have a sturdier, more unique build. Yes, they should encourage developers to believe that a strong audience will build once the system isn’t regarded as having half-way experiences designed to coax in unsuspecting gamers with higher expectations than they perhaps should. Sure, keep the solid remakes and cross-console ports (Virtue’s Last Reward was amazing, by the way). But what could make the Vita the desirable item it should be? That’s actually a tough problem to solve. I suppose any ordinary observer of trends and the like would recommend building a reputation for the handheld that makes it actually seem like a home to innovative design and interesting, unique experiences. As it stands, the Vita is a well-intentioned compromise between console and smartphone, and all those who bought into it are suffering for it, admittedly myself included.
Well, I may at least feel that way once I finish loving P4 Golden, which may be never. So I guess disregard everything and just play that (it’s kind of worth all the problems that accompany the handheld).
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