Feeling Pretty Psyched
In March of 2005, the PlayStation Portable sauntered onto North American shores, shook itself off, straightened its launch bundle wrist strap, and trotted into the DS-dominated handheld market armed with little more than a 32MB memory stick and a plucky disposition. While Nintendo is still the alpha dog in the ever-expanding pack of mobile mongrels, the PSP managed to score an unprecedented victory against the reigning champ; it clawed, it bit, it scratched, it sucked a little bit, but above all, it survived. And that’s…well, I guess that’s something.
So walk with me again. Down the block and up about seven years of stairs, we find ourselves in a vastly different universe, entertainmentally speaking; portable games have spliced themselves so thoroughly into the DNA of daily life that not even Geena Davis can spot the stiff black hairs protruding from its back, but if you’re Sony, and you hemorrhaged cash to the tune of $2 billion last year, whatever-do-you-do? Exactly how do you revive your once-mighty computer-entertainment juggernaut and restore profit and order to your galaxy? As the arrival of the PlayStation Vita has demonstrated, the answer to that question is simple: You build a near-current-generation console, shrink it to accommodate a delectable 5-inch OLED screen, make it more powerful than any other handheld on the market, and let Ponch and Jon fall where they may.
Otherwise known as the “fuck yeah” approach.
Offer Me Solutions
Handheld games have always been kind of admirable for their spunky, go-getting, ain’t-nothing-gonna-break-my-stride attitude, in much the same way that one might admire Peter Dinklage if he pulled on the ol’ purple tights and got into the ring with King Kong Bundy. Choruses of “isn’t that cuuuuute,” and “fool gonna get himself killed” can frequently be heard amidst bemused head-shaking and a perverse desire to see what might happen when some traditionally huge undertaking like an Elder Scrolls game is crammed into a dark, tight crevice like the N-Gage, or when something like Goldeneye makes a halfhearted, smile-at-the-hostess-then-split appearance on the DS. The result, as you might surmise, is never pretty.
Why? Because trying to shoehorn the mechanics of an Oblivion or Black Ops into a platform that’s designed to be carried around in your backpack or purse simply doesn’t work. The hardware’s specs are too damned limiting, and the control scheme always turns out to be some kind of face-clawing throwback to the late-90s era, when moving was accomplished with the four yellow C buttons and aiming was done with the lone analog stick and every game was made of pure light and cotton candy and rainbow bunny turds. (Try playing any first-person action-oriented shooter on the PSP without once thinking or yelling the words “holy fucking hell motherfucker!” and you’ll see what I mean.)
Such is no longer the case, as the Vita removes the most prohibitive hurdle to producing games of a scale similar to those found on its console forebears; namely, the aforementioned control input. Aiming with the second analog stick is smooth, for the most part, but using the gyroscope is even better, as it provides a much finer degree of control for tasks such as popping some machete-wielding maniac in the melon with a .357 round. In a game like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, if I have to sit through fifteen minutes of cutscene for every minute of non-platforming gameplay, I want that minute to be as enjoyable as possible, and there’s nothing quite as enjoyable as a well-placed headshot. Except maybe this. I’m not proud.
The first thing I noticed when I opened the Vita First Edition Bundle’s box-within-a-box wasn’t the First Edition Vita itself, but a stark expanse of manual, as the quickstart guide completely obscured the Vita as though Sony were ashamed to let their latest offspring be seen in public. Maybe they just wanted to heighten the suspense, giving you more and more layers of anticipatory detritus to excavate as you dig deeper and deeper into the box, but that wasn’t the impression that I got. Honestly, it just seemed like uninspired packaging, but whatever. I’m not going to be playing the packaging.
The first thing I noticed when I powered up the Vita was, of course, the screen. Taking everything into account, including pixel density, contrast, brightness, and color saturation, it’s the best screen I’ve seen on a handheld device; the iPhone 4’s display sports higher resolution and a similar viewing angle, but overall I prefer the screen on the Vita. The blacks are blacker, the whites are whiter, and everything in between is bright and vibrant as the first blush of spring as it creeps up on the complacent, slumbering late-winter frost and chokes the living shit out of it, Adam Jensen-style.
The second thing I noticed when I powered up the Vita was that I was unable to authorize it to use my existing PSN account until I installed the required system update; I had to download Vita Software Version 1.6 before Sony would permit my three-year-old PSN account to be activated on my three-day-old Vita, which points to at least one thing which might prevent the Vita from gaining the kind of market share that the hardware deserves; Sony’s piss-poor management decisions. Or, more specifically, Sony’s draconian policy of denying access to portions of their service unless users agree to a system update.
If the first thing the user sees when he juices up your spiffy new handheld is a message telling him that he can’t use your spiffy new handheld until he sits through an update (and how many quick and painless updates have you ever experienced on a Sony device?), something is wrong. As such, my initial experience with the Vita was one of blinding, abject frustration at the unmitigated arrogance of this company, since the very first thing I tried to do with their expensive device was met with a big fat “no.” To be fair, the update downloaded quickly, installed smoothly, and I was able to register my PSN account shortly afterward with no problem, but the entire process took twenty minutes longer than it should have, and the fact that it turned the setup into such a relatively cumbersome process definitely hurt the Vita’s out-of-the-box Cool Factor. Putting a layer of no between your device and your user is a monumentally stupid move, one at which Sony’s accountants might cast wry, accusatory glances, complete with pursed lips and raised eyebrows.
And I Feel Fine
Okay, so things still aren’t all sunshine and Cialis at SCE. Regardless of how well it sells, the Vita isn’t going to singlehandedly drag Sony out of their financial quagmire; they have many more problems than a single product can remedy, but if the Vita moves at all, it could provide a much-needed oasis on their long and dusty road to recovery.
Once the software got the hell out of my way and I fired up a real game, like Touch My Katamari (Welcome Park, the Vita’s interactive orientation software for people who’ve never before used a gyroscopic touch-screen device, doesn’t count), it became clear that the Vita has the potential to change everyth…well, a lot of things. As much as the PSP Go was a technological redundancy, an essentially unnecessary foray into an already crowded handheld arena, the Vita takes the better part of the current-generation console experience and places it wherever you want to be. The battery life is shorter than you might like (around three hours), and the long-term quality of the content remains to be seen, but as far as the hardware goes, Sony’s designers and engineers have proven that when they’re on the ropes, they can still throw a few haymakers of their own.
(Essential Update 1.1: In order to continue downloading a file from the PlayStation Store while the system is in standby mode, you must allow the Vita to enter standby on its own. If you put it to sleep manually, it will shut off the data connection and your download will stop. Found this out after much weeping and gnashing of teeth.)