a review by crazypnut
This past year, having been a Playstation 4 owner since its debut, I often found myself with the same desire most gamers face everyday: wishing I had more time to play.
Being a public transit commuter to work, I thought portable gaming might be solution enough to get me by, but I found myself with an itch that just couldn’t be scratched during my trips to and from work. I tried bringing my laptop into the fray, but often found that being squeezed for elbow room on a crowded subway train or trolley would hinder my ability to play properly or even enjoy the experience at all, and those were on the days I was lucky enough to even grab a seat.
My iPhone, while delightful, just wasn’t cutting it either. For as long as I can remember, the mobile gaming world had always been a “nice to have” consolation prize for those of us with smartphones. There were games available, and plenty of them unique all their own, but they lacked the full and epic guts that a console game could deliver - and the ports just weren't delivering the same experience they did on their former consoles. These were “casual” experiences, easily thrown to the side at the end of each commute, and I would often find that my ant-farm of city-building apps would set fire to themselves from the neglect. My iPhone just didn't keep me interested enough to want to come back to these games over and over again.
A few years back, I had the pure common luck of stumbling into a Nintendo DS system. At the time, it did a good job of satiating my need to game for an increasingly hectic life where my only bastions of free time were during my trips to the bathroom or my commute. The library of titles was pretty good, and the touchscreen and stylus interface was kitschy and unique, but there was still something missing. Much like the majority of Nintendo console owners of today’s day and age, I couldn’t shake that indescribable feeling I was missing out on something else that was going on.
Years later, with the advice of a few friends, and after the reading of some lengthy reviews, I found myself with enough store credit to jump back into the portable console fray. With my PS4 at home gathering more unwanted dust than I’d like, I needed to scratch that very irritating itch, and everything was pointing to the one thing that could bridge the gap for me.
So, with that in mind, I bought the Playstation Vita.
And I have to say, this thing has really grown on me.
If you’ve ever hit yourself in the head in frustration and yelled “if only my iPhone/Android had buttons”, we have your solution. If you have been an avid Playstation user this past year or the many years prior, the Vita is practically begging for your attention.
While it normally retails at $199 for the WiFi-Only version, often times you can find it on sale rather regularly with a game included for roughly 15% off, and even less if you buy it used. While I probably wouldn’t have had the gumption to have saved up the cash to buy it outright, my trade-in credits made this reachable within the cost of a weekly discretionary purchase – and I had been hoarding every PS Plus free game offering since I became a member, which would give me a decent starting library for free - so I figured, what the hell?
Since purchasing, I find myself surprised to say that I actually look forward to my commute every day – and if you’ve ever traveled with SEPTA in the Philadelphia area, you’ll know that statement carries a lot of weight in light of this. It fits in my pocket or briefcase easily, doesn’t require me to be seated to play, and easy access to headphones allows me to be as discreet as the next person listening to music on their phones.
The console isn’t for everybody, but I would dare argue that it’s perhaps the underdog of gaming consoles on the market today. This is possibly the best console companion that you’re just not playing with yet, and perhaps some of you are on the fence wondering if it’s worthwhile. So, with that in mind, here are my arguments to you:
1 – The Hardware is Pretty Badass
Even if it does bulge in your pockets a bit, the size of the Vita is right where it should be. The 5” screen is pretty densely packed with a 960x540 resolution, roughly a quarter of a full HD resolution, but doesn’t feel like it is lacking in quality with what you see. The touchscreen functions well, and plenty of games have found creative ways to integrate it into the gameplay. But thankfully, it doesn’t rely on it heavily to the point of infuriation – most games I’ve played utilize it to promote the gameplay, not just as a required component.
In fact, there was one thing that always bugged be about gaming on a mobile phone: some games just don’t work with a touchscreen alone. The Vita fills that void perfectly with the hardware. Having a portable that has dual-analog sticks is actually a pretty big deal – opening the doorway for more than just simple “touch to play” mechanics and really introducing complex control schemes that allow for equally complex play – promoting the creation and porting of titles that don’t feel “wedged in” to fit a mobile gaming playstyle. The button placement feels right, and as I mentioned before, the touchscreen doesn’t ever seem like an impedance in gaming; while I admire my experience with the Nintendo DS series, something just never felt natural about the need to hold the console in one hand and a stylus in the other. The Vita almost feels like a mini version of the DualShock and fits comfortably in your hands. Quite simply, Vita plays like a straight-up portable console.
If I had one complaint on the controls, it would be the slight awkwardness of the rear touchpad. I’m sure that to keep the Vita’s slim profile, sacrificing a second set of L & R buttons was inevitable. However, the rear touchpad just doesn’t feel that natural as a replacement. Without tactile response, it suffers from the problems of most mobile phone gaming with the added problem of not seeing where you’re tapping – or if you’re even tapping in the right place. I’ve since learned that many of the Vita community point to a case manufactured overseas that implements L2 & R2 with their own triggering mechanism for the touchpad (which works great so long as the controls don’t demand for gesture-based input). Still, many games don’t seem to utilize it in a manner that makes it a necessitous annoyance – most games that require these buttons as “aim” or “fire” simply use the shoulder buttons of the Vita itself, relegating secondary functions to either sections of the touchscreen or rear touchpad instead.
Battery-wise, this thing pushes out a lot firepower, and I find myself surprised that the battery lasts as long as it does. Advertised at peaking around 6 hours of constant gameplay, that’s pretty darn good for the Vita’s battery, and my playtime seems to uphold that standard so far. Given that my commute is about 40 minutes each way, I find myself with more than enough power to last me for a few days between charges. Much like my iPhone, the console can sleep for about a week before needing a charge, and charging is super accessible as the Vita utilizes the same standard mini-USB cable that almost every portable non-iDevice uses, and charges just fine via a USB port on your computer or the included USB power adapter.
2 – The Library of Titles is a Console Gamer’s Dream
It’s easy to say that there aren’t a lot of original titles for the Vita, but I would argue that this is only as a result of the sheer number of games at the Vita’s disposal putting a heavy weight on the ratio. For the import-fanatic, you’ll find a vast majority of titles made originally for Vita will live in the JRPG range, but I don’t consider this a minus by any means. Rather, you’ll find that the majority of titles available for Vita are either ports from other platforms, cross-platform games by design, retro titles, or original games built on existing franchises – and this makes the Vita’s library one of the largest out there in terms of modern gaming in the last 15 years.
Having classics from Playstation, Playstation 2, PSP, and some cross-play titles available from Playstation 3 & 4 make the Vita a versatile gaming console granting access to a wide variety of high quality games. Having access to franchises like God of War, Metal Gear Solid, Uncharted, Sly Cooper, Castlevania, Ratchet & Clank, Killzone, and even MLB: The Show is an absolute kick for a portable platform. Throw in almost every Final Fantasy title in the book, and you’ve got yourself a winner in my humble opinion - the JRPG titles available for Vita are innumerable. I found myself playing my first Persona game with Persona 4: Golden and was absolutely astonished that I've managed to sink about 60 hours into it already - more than any single title on my PS4.
Being a fan of independent titles and development, the Vita gets access to a lot of smaller games that you would otherwise sit on your Steam Library shelf to gather dust. Titles like Limbo or Hotline Miami play as though they were built with the Vita in mind, and are great for on-the-go dips of game time. The games themselves play like console games, and that’s the best appeal I can make about the platform. You don’t feel like a gamer shoe-horning a lesser experience into a piece of hardware designed to be your pocket companion – you’re playing a game on a machine specifically designed to play games, and Vita lives up to that standard.
Being a portable platform, the games are also priced at a relatively reasonable price range, and with a consistent wave of Flash sales and free Playstation Plus titles (with subscription), you’ll find that the cost of doing business on a Vita stays pretty low for the most part. Most games can be acquired in either a flash-card retail cartridge format, or can be downloaded digitally via PSN to the memory card.
Which brings me to the only complaint I have on this end – digital games take up space, and while cartridge/flash-card versions of games help stave that off, many games are more convenient and available in digital format. This means burdening your memory card with more required space to run these games – which wouldn’t be that much of an issue except that Vita runs on a proprietary SD Card format. Perhaps its largest criticism as a system, the price per gigabyte of these cards runs over $1/GB – a point of ridicule in an age where one can get a simple 64GB Flash Drive for under $30. So unless you’re the type of person who doesn’t mind grinding on a game or three at a time, then swapping downloads off of your card, this is an unfortunate additional investment you’ll need to make to play.
3 – Remote Play is Absolutely Viable
An often underused feature, the Vita has the ability to remotely access your PS3 or PS4. While the PS3 notes that it does not support all games, I have yet to hit this wall with my PS4. Yes, lack of an L2 & R2 button can sometimes cause a bit of mild distress, but with the ability on most games to remap the controls for the Vita or that have the Vita’s Remote Play capability in mind for alternate control schemes, this doesn’t affect too much. With the latest software update this year, the framerates stay solid and the lag time is minimal dependent upon your connection. Often I found myself running bounties or even the Nightfall in Destiny during a quieter lunch break, saving me the extra grind when I got home to play later. My party chat seemed to suffer no consequences, as I could hear my teammates just fine and apparently they could hear me pretty well (and if there was any choppiness, the emotes in Destiny worked fine to communicate our needs as well).
Perhaps best of all is the Playstation community’s embrace of the cross-buy & play feature included in a lot of newer independent releases. Often times you’ll find a title available for purchase that grants you cross-buy – meaning if you buy it on one platform, you also get it on other platforms for free. Not only does this create a great bargain for the title itself, but you also get cross-play ability that allows you to start on one console, save your game, and pick it up on your other console to keep going. This means when Mighty No. 9 comes out later this year, I can play it on my Vita going to and from work, and be able to pick the game right up where I leave off when I get home to my PS4. This not only adds a connectivity element to your gaming experience, but also removes the guilt of those nights when you just don’t have time to get to your home console and jam out for a few hours – now you can just pick it up on the go when you get a free moment to yourself during the day.
The bottom line is this: if you’re an existing Playstation player, the Vita is perhaps the greatest accessory you’ll ever purchase for an on-the-go gaming lifestyle. For those of you not in the Playstation atmosphere, I’d still argue that it or the newest iteration of the Nintendo DS series is great if you’re into independent or retro gaming, and I’d nudge you a bit to remind you that Playstation has access to a LOT of RPG titles that Nintendo doesn’t. If you’re a franchise player, there’s games here for you as well.
So the next time you’re out at a big-box retailer, stop over in the game section and give the Vita a spin. It’s definitely a diamond in the rough, but a very shiny one nonetheless.
The crayzpnut grew up as a loyal Nintendo kid through the years but ended up trading his N64 to his best friend in exchange for his PSX and Final Fantasy VII. No regrets here. You can dispute the trade by following him on Twitter and Instagram @crazypnut, or just email him at crazypnut @ theemergentgamer.com and he'll tell you how wrong you are.