I had forgotten how much I liked Enter the Gungeon. I randomly found myself playing the indie roguelike shooter at a friend's house yesterday, and my first thought was, "This would be amazing for my flight tomorrow." I checked to see if it was on Vita and... no. Of course.
This is not the first time I've been disappointed by the absence of an indie on the Vita. Last year, I was spurred by the absence of Jamestown+ to write this article. To be sure, there are some great indies to be found on Vita, but also plenty of omissions.
I apologize if this comes as yet another Vita hit piece. I actually think that the group at Sony is doing the best they can to pitch indie developers on the machine; but let's face it, the Vita isn't exactly an attractive platform these days. Even at its best, its reach didn't extend much beyond the Japanese gaming fans that still form its core.
Observers have blamed the Vita's failure to catch fire on any number of factors: the emergence of the mobile market, the Vita's reliance on proprietary memory, the rear touchscreen, the lack of games (which is always a bit of a chicken and egg thing with struggling consoles). All of these observations have individual merit. Nethertheless, I think Sony was on to something when they started aggressively pursuing indie developers to fill the Vita's content gap, and I'd love for another platform holder to pick up the ball and run with it.
Indie-developed titles like Rogue Legacy worked on the Vita for any number of reasons. They made up their lack of graphical power with attractive art, which proved a good fit for a portable device like the Vita. Most were built around fairly simple concepts; which, again, were a good fit for portable. And they were competitively priced, which made them easier to swallow in light of $1.99 apps and free-to-play games.
The initial rush of indies took the Vita's weaknesses and turned them into strengths. Indies shone on the platform's beautiful screen, and its more powerful hardware gave developers more flexibility. Paired with the PlayStation 4, the two platforms made for a surprisingly formidable one-two punch in the indie space, even if they still lagged behind the more open PC.
Portable indie games eventually became one of the Vita's calling cards; and while some found them to be a poor subsitute for the more fully-featured experiences that were originally promised, they gave the platform a niche that it had previously lacked. In recent years, though, the Vita has faded, its library relying more and more heavily on Japanese imports. And from a portable perspective, it doesn't appear that any good replacements are forthcoming.
With Sony on its way out of the market, Nintendo will once again be left to carry the mantle of dedicated handheld gaming; and unfortunately, from an indie perspective, that's not good enough. There's a lot to commend the Wii U and the 3DS; but with few exceptions (Shovel Knight, Binding of Isaac)), Nintendo has mostly struggled to attract indie developers to its platforms. They may put on a stronger push with the NX (assuming it turns out to be the hybrid console we're all expecting), but their track record to this point is against them.
Mobile gaming, for its part, has evolved along its own distinct path. Plenty of indies have made the leap to mobile - FTL is a standout - but the flooded market and lack of physical controls are both major detriments. Frankly, mobile platforms just aren't a good replacement for hobbyists looking to fill the gap left by the Vita.
Personally, my ideal scenario would be for Valve to partner with a company like Alienware to make a portable Steambox that could sync to my Steam library. It wouldn't be a perfect solution - games would probably have to be tagged as Portable Steambox compatible - but it would be better than nothing. And at a minimum, I'd be able to play Firewatch and Enter the Gungeon on the road.
Whatever happens, I'm pretty sure there's still a market to be filled for gamers who dislike mobile but don't want really care for what Nintendo has to offer either. Sadly, I'm afraid that platform holders will look at the Vita and decide that mobile has won without accounting for that platform's rather substantial flaws. If that happens, it'll be up to Nintendo to pick up the ball in the portable indie space, and I don't have a lot of faith in them doing that. But at least I'll still have Fire Emblem and Pokemon, I guess.
Mostly, as one of those gamers who does still play on dedicated handhelds, I'm frustrated by the feeling that many of the games I really want to play will never be available on a portable platform. I'm afraid that mainstream developers are ready to give up on dedicated handhelds in light of the overwhelming dominance of mobile. And I'm disappointed at what a missed opportunity the Vita turned out to be. Maybe things will get better. But for now, I'm not holding my breath.