The surprising second life of the PS Vita

As the PS4 lands, we look at how Sony’s handheld has found an unexpected second wind.

The PlayStation 4 arrives next week, but it’s not the only anniversary Sony’s marking before the end of the year. Next month, the PS Vita gaming handheld celebrates its second birthday.

A photo of a Sony PS Vita handheld console.
Sony PS Vita© thelittlebean_78

You might have forgotten about Sony’s attempt to put the power of a PS3 in your pocket, but it’s still alive and kicking – in September, a second-generation model was released with a thinner shell and lower price tag, the PS Vita 2000.

On paper though, the PS Vita has been a commercial flop. Its reported sales have been dwarfed by those of Nintendo’s cheaper 3DS handheldVGChartz estimates the latter has outsold it by more than 27 million units. In an age of free-to-play mobile games, few are willing to pay £170 for a gaming machine when they’ve just spent that much on one that makes calls too.

This isn’t the case of the terrible twos that you might think, however. With the arrival of the PlayStation 4 and a new wave of indie games and and HD remakes the PS Vita’s going to be sticking around for a while yet: here’s why.

A slow start

Jump back to early 2011: the PS Vita had just been announced, and the Nintendo 3DS was due to go on sale in a few short months. It was an uneasy time: it had been years since a new handheld system had launched, and in that time Apple’s iPhone had walked in the door, eaten everyone’s lunch and persuaded game developers to cook meals for it instead.

Sony had only recently tried and failed with the PSPgo, a smaller version of the PSP handheld that you had to download games to. But brick and mortar retailers baulked since they wouldn’t be able to make money from selling boxed copies of the games, and fans simply didn’t get it. It bombed, and was quietly discontinued in early 2011.

At first, it looked like the Nintendo 3DS had flopped as hard as the PSPgo. It launched in the UK on the very same day as the iPad 2. Initial sales reports were tepid, and critics were quick to crow that the age of the dedicated gaming handheld was over. “Nintendo faces end of era after 3DS flop,”declared Reuters in September 2011.

But Nintendo is nothing but determined. It cut the price of the 3DS and kept on plugging away, releasing more and more top quality games for the platform, from new Zelda and Mario titles to a next-gen Animal Crossing. Sales picked up, month on month. Two and a half years on, it’s a resounding success, and with its first Pokemon titles, Pokemon X and Y, it’s here to stay.

For a time, it looked like Sony might be able to repeat Nintendo’s performance. The PS Vita launched to much fanfare ("I feel cold and tired and I want to throw up," the first PS Vita owner told press after queuing all night in icy Tokyo to get one) and with an impressive line-up of Sony games. There was Uncharted: Golden Abyss, FIFA, Rayman Origins, even a new Wipeout speed racer. They looked nothing short of delicious on the Vita’s five-inch display, and reviewers loved them. These were games you’d expect on a PS3, available to play anywhere.

This time though, the slow start didn’t turn into a sleeper hit. Sales remained low, and Sony didn’t do much to alleviate gamers’ concerns that there just weren’t enough games on the system. International games expos came and went without word of any must have new PS Vita games, and two years on, and the line up of blockbuster titles is still meagre. The number of games on the way for the platform this Christmas can be counted on one hand, and the highest profile of them, The Amazing Spiderman, is simply a movie tie-in.

Indie games galore

Sony got one thing right though. The PS Vita doesn’t just play cartridges like a 21st century Game Boy with thumbsticks. It’s a multimedia machine every bit as powerful as your smartphone: it can play movies, fire up YouTube, surf the web, and yes, download games.

That gives indie developers another easy platform to target, and more and more Kickstarter game projects are being ported to PS4 and Vita courtesy of Sony’s embrace of self-publishing on the console, and its cross-play technology, allowing you to play the same game at home and on the go, and pick up where you left off.

None of them may tax the PS Vita’s hardware like a new Uncharted game would –but no one could argue they’re not lacking for imagination, and that’s more than enough. Joining classics like Limbo and Hotline Miami are games including Mighty No.9, the crowdfunded sensation from Mega Man creator Keiji Inafune, ambitious RPG Project Phoenix and Volume, the puzzle stealth’em up from the creator of the BAFTA award winning Thomas Was Alone.

Enter the PS4

A photo of the Sony PS Vita gaming console menu screen.
Sony PS Vita menu screen

When the PlayStation 4 arrives, the PS Vita will cease to be just a gaming handheld too powerful for its own good. Instead, it’ll become the ultimate high-end accessory for serious gamers, thanks to Sony’s smart integration with the next-gen console and the cloud.

Remote Play, a little used feature on the PS3, will work with all PS4 games, so you’ll be able to load up next-gen games on your PS4 and play them wherever you are in the world on your PS Vita –even in another hemisphere, so long as you have a Wi-Fi connection. You can even use the Vita as a controller for some PS4 games, providing you with a handy second screen, Wii U style.

Much of this is already possible in some form between the PS3 and the PS Vita, but Sony’s only made the technology possible so far –it hasn’t enforced it. With the PS4 however, it’s starting to make things mandatory. Remote Play will work with all games except those that require the PS4 camera accessory.

The PS4 isn’t the only console that’ll breathe fresh life into the Vita though. There’s another home console from Sony in the pipeline, and this one’s much more affordable. The PS Vita TV, which goes on sale in Japan this month for just 9,480 Yen (£59), doesn’t just play the same games as your PS Vita. It plays the very same game cartridges as your PS Vita –they slot right in to the front of the palm sized gizmo.

In a stroke, Sony could demolish the new breed of micro consoles such as Ouya and Mad Catz’Mojo system, and create a bigger market for Vita games overnight.

In other words, the PS Vita’s on its way to becoming an essential gaming handheld after all. Just not the one Sony set out to make.