It’s been almost seven years since Sony launched the Playstation Portable in North America, hoping to steal away the handheld dominance that Nintendo has enjoyed for decades since debuting the Game Boy. It seemed poised for success, offering better graphics and sleeker design than Nintendo’s bulky (and at the time really confusing) touch screen clam shell monstrosity, the Nintendo DS.
But predicting the future is never quite so straightforward, and while the PSP wasn’t an abject failure (72 million units sold ain’t too shabby at all), the system was trounced by the DS in total sales, with Nintendo more than doubling Sony with 151 units sold. Still, Sony feels confident that their second go round will be even better, and this coming Wednesday here in America, we’ll get to see, as their Playstation Vita hits stores everywhere.
Whereas Nintendo once again hang their success on a unique feature (can I just say gimmick?) with the 3DS’ 3D screen, Sony is continuing their Daft Punk philosophy of “better, harder, faster, strong” with the Vita. Featuring a high speed ARM process, 512 MB of RAM, and a large, bright OLED screen, Sony has made it clear that the Vita is supposed to be a PS3 that can fit in your pocket. It’s an impressive prospect, and at least for a tech head like me, far more appealing that the 3DS’ tiny screens and 3D effects. But Sony had a similar tech advantage last generation and still failed to match the underpowered DS.
Sony’s biggest concern, though, is where exactly their system is supposed to fit in the microcosm of gaming. When I was younger (especially before I had a driver’s license), my Game Boy Advance was irreplaceable. Any long car trip consisted of me, hunched in the back seat, playing Castlevania, Advance Wars, or Golden Sun, for hours and hours on end. The system also benefited from not trying to look like my XBox or Dreamcast at the time. The graphics were throwbacks to the Super Nintendo, and felt unique enough that even when I was home, I’d sometimes choose my Game Boy over my consoles. Sony’s handhelds have tried so hard to be home consoles, that there’s increasingly little reason to play them when you are home. Why would I bother with Uncharted Vita, for example, when I can play the full games? With most of the starting line-up consisting of “lite” versions of games I already have on my PS3, the Vita doesn’t make a strong case for my day to day use.
Now that I am older, I don’t have time to kill in the car: I’m the driver. If I do have a slight wait somewhere, it’s much easier to pull out my Samsung Galaxy and play a few rounds of Fruit Ninja or Flick Football. In that regard, smartphones have changed the game. You can tell me it’s not the same, that $.99 app store games are ruining gaming, and all that, but the fact remains, if you can’t give me a clear selling point for your system beyond, “You won’t be bored when you’re away from your PS3”, I just don’t see why I’m going to pay $249 for yet another device I have to lug around. The Vita has to aspire to something greater than being a portable PS3, beacuse I’m not repurchasing my entire collection when 99% of my video game time occurs within 50 feet of my PS3 anyway. And with the Playstation really capitalizing on the 20+ crowd, I’d imagine a lot of users are in the same place. The Nintendo DS ultimately succeeded because it catered to children, the chief users of handheld consoles because of the car trip factor, and offered a few unique touch screen experiences. Sony can’t expect to just remake a console millions already own and expect us to fork over for the exact same experience, and with the Vita already looking like a sleek piece of expensive tech, I imagine most parents will be drawn to the cartoonish, toy-like 3DS, because it looks more like something for their 10 year old. So I ask again Sony, who is this for?
Nintendo already got burnt by a $249 price tag and had to slash prices to spur post-launch sales, and with Vita’s software prices of $40-50 complicating the matter, Sony’s asking a lot for what is still just a list of console games I can find for cheaper and play on a bigger screen. I want to be wrong, because I love seeing new game tech succeed; it benefits us all. But it’s increasingly hard for me to see where the business plan works here. The Vita has been out for almost two months in Japan and has only sold 500,000 million units. For comparison, the 3DS sold 1 million units within its first month in Japan, and 3.6 million worldwide.
We’ll find out Wednesday if the North America launch can kick some life into the system. But for now, I’ll be staying far away from the Vita until they start releasing original games that make the system stand on its own, not simply as a portable analog of a console I’ve already invested in.