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TGS: Is the New Vita an Improvement?

We go hands-on with the new PS Vita, which is greatly improved in almost every respect.

Sony only announced its new PlayStation Vita model a week ago, but already a demo unit or two has trickled out into the wild, showing up in the storefront of a random gaming shop in Tokyo's Akihabara district. Therefore, checking it out in person unexpectedly ended up being my first "appointment" for this year's Tokyo Game Show.

It makes sense that Sony would debut the new system here, since the Vita 2 -- like the PS Vita TV that Japan will be getting this fall instead of the PlayStation 4 -- is meant to sell specifically to the Japanese gaming audience that Akihabara caters to (at least in some vestigial sense, anyway; Akihabara has long since ceased to be the shiny video gamer's paradise that it established a worldwide reputation for in the '80s and '90s). The PSP was a big deal over here, much bigger than anywhere else in the world, which means the Vita's failure to catch on in its homeland must be a crushing disappointment to Sony. Clearly they aim to rectify that failure.

After messing around with the new hardware briefly, I have to say it seems pretty solid -- a marked improvement over its predecessor in most respects. But will it change the Vita's sagging fortunes in Japan? I don't pretend to know or even guess that, because I'm not really clear what the PSP offered that the Vita doesn't. In just about every respect, the Vita blows away the PSP, and yet it still has very little trtaction here... so I'm not entirely confident that an even better Vita will help matters.

The one you buy probably won't have quite so many gross fingerprints on the screen. The hand-funk of a thousand Akihabara regulars is not a savory thought.

But better it is. Visually, you have to look carefully to spot the differences between the systems -- a mere glance might not be enough to notice the more narrow, more rounded case design, or its thinner form factor. A green LED visibly indicates active power (and presumably turns orange while recharging), and the terrible half-circle Start and Select buttons are now bigger and no longer require a precise punch with the tip of your fingernail to press. Even on the colored models I've seen photos of, the front remains the same glossy black, with color spicing up the back shell. What's more likely to catch your attention than the visual design is the system's weight when you pick it up... or rather, its lack of weight. The new Vita is preposterously lightweight, almost to the point of feeling flimsy; compare a DualShock 2 controller to the original Sixaxis and you'll get an sense of the difference.

It makes for an interesting contrast with Nintendo's new 3DS model, the aptly named 2DS. The 2DS is neither slimmer nor significantly lighter than the 3DS XL that most fans prefer these days -- not that it's meant to be, of course. That's not the point of the 2DS. But where the purpose of the 2DS takes some explaining before it makes sense to many people, the reasoning behind the new Vita revision speaks for itself. It's a sleeker, more portable console. It fits in the hand about the same as the original Vita, but it weighs almost nothing and slips into a case or pocket more easily. In short, it's simply a friendlier form factor for the same great technology, more akin to the DS Lite than the troubled, market-fragmenting PSPgo.

Sadly, the one area the Vita revision two falls short is in its screen. Sony claims to have snatched up standard LCD technology that rivals the original Vita's OLED display, but that's an exaggeration at best. The new Vita's features a screen that seems dark and grimy next to the luminous, high-contrast screen of the older model. Certainly it doesn't look terrible, but beside the first Vita it fails to impress. The Vita's wonderful screen has always been Sony's favorite marketing tagline for the system, so this setback disappoints. In that sense, I suppose the Vita 2 echoes the history of portable hardware redesign, too: It's better in every respect save for one awful, nagging flaw.

Will the improved portability of the new Vita compensate for its failure on the graphical front? Hard to say, but it's encouraging to see Sony making the effort after a year and a half of letting the system lie nearly moribund in Japan and elsewhere. Vita has a long way to go before it even begins to approach the success level of the 3DS anywhere else in the world, but especially here in Japan. This new model is no exclusive Monster Hunter or Dragon Quest sequel in terms of winning Japanese gamers' hearts and minds, but it's a start.

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