At the time of writing, Sony has just announced that production of the PlayStation Vita will be ending in 2019, with no plans for a successor.
This follows news from earlier this year that we’re counting down the days until the last Western physical Vita release, with many of the last releases coming in limited form from boutique publishers such as Limited Run Games and Special Reserve.
With all that in mind, I think it’s about time we looked back over this remarkable and vastly underappreciated system’s life… and celebrated the things it did really, really well.
The Vita launched in December of 2011, with a Western release following a couple of months later in February of 2012. Initial response to the machine was positive; its gorgeous OLED touchscreen was unlike any other dedicated gaming device on the market; its graphical capabilities were noticeably superior to its main rival, Nintendo’s 3DS, released a year earlier; and it was looking likely that there would be a strong lineup of big-name games for the platform.
Some critics expressed concerns, however. By 2011, we were already well into the smartphone age — the iPhone launched in 2007 — and the assumption by many journalists, critics and analysts alike was that the dedicated handheld market was very much on the way out. People didn’t want to carry around multiple devices, the theory ran; they’d much rather have a single device that could do a bit of everything.
Sales for the new platform started strong thanks to the usual early adopters, but petered out surprisingly quickly, and even a swathe of high-profile first- and third-party games throughout 2012 didn’t do much to improve matters in this regard. The platform sold four million units in its first ten months, which might sound like a lot — but with how huge the games industry had grown by this point, this was just a drop in the ocean. This led to an unfortunate vicious cycle, where poor sales meant that large third-parties such as EA and Ubisoft didn’t want to support such a small userbase — and that userbase didn’t grow as much as Sony would have liked thanks to its lack of big-name games.
One of the biggest blows to the Vita was Capcom’s decision to move its immensely popular Monster Hunter franchise from Sony platforms to Nintendo. Monster Hunter had become a cultural phenomenon on the PSP, particularly in its home territory of Japan, but the 3DS’ popularity compared to the Vita coupled with the 3DS’ solid local communication features made it an ideal platform for the next generation of the series.
All was not lost, however. Sony’s Director of Strategic Content, games industry veteran Shahid Ahmad, decided he would try a new approach with the ailing platform. Rather than attempting to court the biggest names in the business, he would instead reach out directly to smaller, independent developers and publishers and encourage them to port their games to the handheld. This proved to be a solid decision; many indie developers in particular praised the Vita for its relative ease of porting their titles, and a number of “indie darlings” such as Spelunky, OlliOlli and Hotline Miami found a particularly strong and enthusiastic audience on the platform. Some games, such as FuturLab’s Velocity, even enjoyed such positive reception that what began as Vita exclusives ended up ported to a variety of other platforms at a later date; indeed, at the time of writing, a Nintendo Switch port of Velocity 2X, which is four years old at this point, is about to be released.
The situation was a little different in Japan. While the Vita still trailed somewhat behind its main competitor from Nintendo, it had somewhat stronger sales on its home turf — and more importantly, a great deal of support from Japanese developers and publishers. Big names in Japanese games including Koei Tecmo, 5pb, Compile Heart, Nippon Ichi Software, Spike Chunsoft and Atlus all supported the system, and some of the platform’s most well-regarded games came from these sources, subsequently localised for the West via outfits such as Xseed, Akysys, NIS America and Idea Factory International.
The support of these companies is the primary reason that this beleaguered little handheld, declared “dead” numerous times over the course of its lifespan, will have survived for an impressive seven years by the time Sony well and truly pulls the plug. The fact that these games are often regarded as “niche interest” also helped attract a small but dedicated, passionate audience keen to support the system how they could — because as years went on, fans of RPGs and visual novels in particular started to feel like the system was absolutely tailor made for them and their tastes. I know; I’m one of the people who felt this way! In other words, the Vita may not have had the numbers, but it certainly had the passion.
It has to be said that the games press really didn’t help matters with the platform, particularly in the West. Even when Sony had substantial Vita displays at trade shows such as E3 or PAX, you’d be lucky to read a single article about upcoming Vita titles when there were more clicks to be harvested from articles about this year’s Call of Duty. And when popular Vita games were acknowledged, they’d often fall foul of the growing trend for obnoxious and ill-informed so-called “progressiveness” — actually outrage clickbait designed to encourage “hate clicks”, which are as good as anything else so far as ad revenue is concerned. This is something that has been festering at the heart of the commercial press since about 2012 or so with the Mass Effect ending debacle, but Vita games have often caught the brunt of it over the last few years; they often have pretty girls and anime aesthetics, see, and that combination is a big red flag to self-styled progressives, inevitably triggering a torrent of buzzwords about all things “problematic”.
The frustrating thing about all this is, as you probably already know if you’re reading this site in the first place, the fact that these articles were typically written from a position of (usually seemingly wilful) ignorance. Any writer heaping scorn on Senran Kagura Shinovi Versus would almost certainly have not actually played the game anywhere near enough to recognise that it is a series with stellar writing, excellent localisations and wonderfully relatable characterisation. Writers claiming to be “freaked out” by the heaving bosoms of the Neptunia cast never once mentioned the clever allegories at the heart of the series — nor the fact that the series has become a minor cultural phenomenon in the online sphere since its inception. And don’t even get me started on Criminal Girls.
The silly thing about this situation is that it wasn’t even consistent. One of the most universally acclaimed series on the platform is Spike Chunsoft’s Danganronpa, which does exactly the same sort of things people complaining about any of the aforementioned titles do. It’s violent, it’s politically incorrect, it has pretty girls, it has provocative event artwork including “upskirt” shots, it has both a “trap” character and an apparently female character with exaggeratedly masculine-coded physical characteristics… it’s everything these critics should have hated. And yet somehow it slipped through the net. I guess we should be grateful for small mercies. Also those are fucking great games, play them now.
It became obvious over time that Metacritic scores weren’t important to the developers, publishers and localisation teams responsible for bringing some of the most popular titles to the Vita, however — and audiences were growing wise to outrage bait. What the creators very clearly did care about was a laser-sharp focus on an audience that had found a spiritual “home” for themselves; a platform that almost exclusively provided the kind of thing they really, really enjoyed. And so the Vita continued to survive, with many new game releases flying completely under the mainstream press’ radar, instead powered almost entirely by word of mouth and enthusiast sites.
This can’t be overstated enough: if you are a fan of RPGs, Vita is absolute heaven. Some of the absolute best examples of the genre and its numerous subdivisions can be found on the platform, be it something well-known like the remaster of Final Fantasy X and X-2, a sprawling strategic masterpiece like the entries in the Disgaea series, or a complex, challenging dungeon crawler like Dungeon Travelers 2. The Arland subseries of Gust’s Atelier games have their best versions to date on Vita, Neptunia long had an exclusive home on the handheld, and games specifically designed to attract newcomers to complex subgenres like dungeon crawlers blossomed on the platform, too, with great titles like Demon Gaze and MeiQ: Labyrinth of Death providing a great way in to a type of game typically regarded to have a rather steep learning curve!
Visual novels, too, found a strong home on the platform — and it’s particularly noteworthy that Vita has played host to a considerable number of otome visual novels specifically aimed at women. While Sony’s policies prevent 18+ versions of titles being released on the platform, many visual novel fans enjoy the freedom of being able to read some of their favourite, classic works “on the go” on the handheld — and localisation companies such as PQube, Aksys and Xseed in particular have been more than willing to bring these titles to the Western, English-speaking audiences, too.
Vita’s days may be numbered at the time of writing… but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth picking one up. On the contrary, you can grab either a handheld Vita or its less portable PlayStation TV incarnation for not very much money at all… and in doing so you gain access to not only the Vita’s underappreciated and surprisingly substantial library, you also have the entire digital PSP library to draw from, too. And many of those games look great on the Vita’s screen, it has to be said.
This console’s going to be a collector’s dream in a few years, so take the time to appreciate it while we still have it readily accessible. And if you’re a fan who is sad that it finally really is on the way out, definitely and for sure this time… well, you’ll probably want to pick yourself up a Nintendo Switch. Not only is that platform a proven huge success already, but the vast majority of the most active Vita supporters (including both indie developers and Japanese companies) are now calling that platform their home. Sony may not be releasing a Vita successor… but that doesn’t matter too much, because we already have a great one.
Thanks for the good times, little handheld. You’ll always be loved. Vita means life.
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