Last night I picked up my PlayStation Vita for the first time in months and commenced my annual pre-travel ritual: Downloading a handful of games for my long plane ride overseas.
For the past couple years, the Vita has been my constant companion on the road, entertaining me with games like Spelunky, Dragon's Crown, and Final Fantasy Tactics. Over the past year though, that has changed. The Nintendo 3DS library has gotten stronger while the Vita library has remained stagnant, pushing me more and more toward Nintendo's handheld. It's been bad enough that I've actually given serious thought to leaving the Vita at home for my month long trip to Europe.
This is after a year that began with some promise. Coming off a fall that included the critical darling Tearaway, the Vita picked up FInal Fantasy X/X-2 HD and Danganronpa, as well as smaller releases like Luftrausers, Dead Nation, and SteamWorld Dig. After that though, the well mostly went dry. Conception II was a disappointing Persona remix, Borderlands 2 was a critically flawed port, and Soul Sacrifice Delta was an enjoyable but ultimately niche proposition. E3 came and went without a major Vita announcement, as did Gamescom, and media outlets began to speculate that Sony had given up on the system in the face of sluggish sales. Finally, the PlayStation Experience came around and Sony announced a handful of new games for the Vita including TowerFall, Suikoden II, Octodad, and Banner Saga—almost all of them ports of existing releases.
Ultimately, Suikoden II (and the latest USgamer Club) is enough to spur me to dust off my Vita and bring it to Europe; but even with a new RPG to keep me busy, I just can't shake the persistent feeling that there just aren't enough games for the thing. I've owned the Vita pretty much since launch, and outside of Persona 4 Golden and Super Robot Taisen Z3, I've mostly used it to play old PS1 games and a handful of indies that I also happen to own on Steam. Japan is still putting out games like Danganronpa and Hatsune Miku, but otherwise the original software has all but dried up.
These days, the Vita's main source of nourishment are variants on Rogue Legacy and Thomas Was Alone—boutique games that are enjoyable for a few hours but rarely last more than a few weeks on my Vita's (rather small) proprietary memory card. For want of anything else to play, I've kept Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD and Persona 3 Portable—plus a physical copy of Muramasa: The Demon Blade—on my Vita, which I periodically supplement with a random PS1 game. For my upcoming trip overseas, I've picked up Suikoden 1 and 2, Child of Light, and a handful of old PlayStation 1 shooters, which should all keep me busy for a while. But despite my recent bounty of (mostly old) games, the pickings have been pretty slim over the past few months.
The frustrating thing for me as a loyal Vita owner is that I think Sony is mostly taking the right approach in positioning it against the Nintendo 3DS and Android/iOS. I like having a portable indie system, the retro selection is decent, and the limited selection of original content is really strong. But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, there's still not enough of it. If Sony are to rely on indie releases to keep the Vita going strong, then they need a Steam-like deluge to fill out their library, or else a more robust selection of games like Gravity Rush to help supplement them. Thus far, there have been too few of either.
All of which begs the question: What's next for the Vita? Does Sony hope to rely on remote play and indie releases going forward? Do they see the PlayStation Now streaming service—which makes it possible to play games like Mass Effect 2 on the Vita—as a magic bullet for the system's software problems?
I'm guessing Sony would say the Vita's future future encompasses a little bit of everything, but each approach has its flaws. Remote play—while an enjoyable novelty—is rendered all but useless by the lack of secondary shoulder buttons. PlayStation Now effectively tethers the system to a wi-fi connection. And as I've already discussed, the indie release strategy has been hampered by its limited selection.
Given that, it seems like any hope for the Vita's future lies with Japan. Fans of the PSP will recall that the system saw an impressive number of high-quality releases in its final years—Final Fantasy Type-0 and Valkyria Chronicles 3 among them—thanks to its large Japanese install base. Thus far, however, a similar bounty has not yet emerged on the Vita. Following Monster Hunter's defection to Nintendo, Japan has been mostly crazy for the Nintendo 3DS, relegating the Vita to also-ran status in that country. It's telling that Final Fantasy Type-0 has yet to emerge on the Vita, despite being a natural candidate for a release on Sony's platform.
I suppose I should mention that, for all of its issues, I still consider the Vita worth buying, if only to own Persona 4 Golden—a superb port and one of the best Japanese RPGs of the past 10 years. The past couple years have also brought with them the aforementioned Danganronpa 1 + 2, Dragon's Crown, Walking Dead, Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD, Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, Tearaway, Ys, and Gravity Rush to go with a nice run of indies. For all my complaining, the Vita has given me a lot of entertainment over the past few years. But having played almost all of the games that I just listed, plus the available PSP and PS1 games, I've lately had to dig deep into PSN to find a reason to keep playing my Vita. Hence why I almost decided to leave it at home on the eve of a long roadtrip—ordinarily the best time to indulge my love of handheld gaming.
I'd like to believe that things will get better next year—I am in fact looking forward to playing remastered versions of Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango on the go—but I doubt that will be the case. There will be more indie games, and maybe the odd port or HD collection, but the more substantial releases like Persona 4 Golden are getting fewer and further between. Even a last-minute deluge of high-quality Japanese imports seems unlikely in the face of Monster Hunter's departure for the Nintendo 3DS. Barring a massive turnaround, the Vita seems fated to limp along for another few years before finally leaving the mortal coil and taking Sony's handheld ambitions with it.
It'll be a shame if that ends up being the case. Absent a few weird design decisions like the rear touchscreen and the lack of additional shoulder buttons, the Vita is a beautiful system—a real joy to play—with a lot of potential. If I could, I would play it almost exclusively. But as Peter Main once said, "The name of the game is the game." Sony has done their best to shock the Vita to life with initiatives like the indie strategy, but the infusion of new games has thus far proven to be too little too late. And as much as I don't want it to be the case, I don't expect matters to improve anytime soon.