The Curious Birth and Life of the PlayStation Vita
The handheld market has always been a fickle beast. It’s safe to say Nintendo had it on lockdown without any sort of level competition for a long period of time with the Game Boy series of handhelds. Sony had already thrown down a proper gauntlet on home consoles with the Sony PlayStation, but they wanted a piece of the handheld action as well. The PlayStation Portable was their first attempt at the scenario, but Sony truly came to push the boundaries of handheld interactivity with the PlayStation Vita. That said, interests were beginning to shift in the gaming world and time was not on Sony’s side for a new handheld. It was on this day in 2012 that the first wave of PS Vitas hit shelves, starting off a challenging road for Sony’s handheld department for years to come.
By the time the PlayStation Portable had run its course, Sony had proven that they were ready to play alongside Nintendo on the handheld front as well, but it was still nowhere near as popular as the Nintendo DS. Moreover, mobile gaming on smart phones and tablets was starting to become increasingly relevant. If Sony was to continue to work in the handheld world, they needed a new device that would more thoroughly fit the lives of the mobile gamer, but also give Nintendo a greater run for its money than ever before. This powerful little device wouldn’t just be Sony’s attempt to answer Nintendo’s DS. It was Sony’s attempt to get in before the growth of mobile gaming threatened to sweep conventional handhelds aside.
Rumors about a new Sony handheld circulated as early as mid-2009. Sony was shifting various departments to gear up for the support they would need to put behind their new device. Though everybody speculated for some time about what the new portable was and what it could do, it wasn’t until 2011 that the PlayStation Vita was officially revealed. Though not as powerful as the PlayStation 3, the PS Vita was certainly more powerful than the PlayStation Portable and sat in a comfortable space of quality and performance between the two. Moreover, Sony opted to allow digital games on the PS Vita. This would come to play an important role later in the life of the system.
When the PlayStation Vita was released, it initially flourished, but sales eventually stagnated despite a great number of significantly high-profile games like LittleBigPlanet and Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation coming to the handheld’s library. A number of tactics were used to boost the appeal of the handheld, especially for western audiences. One of the chief among these was Sony’s decision to pull back on big budget titles in favor of independent developer support for the system. The PS Vita saw some boosted success thanks to the likes of games like Fez, OlliOlli, and Hotline: Miami. Moreover, Sony moved to port various JRPGs and visual novel games like the Persona and Danganronpa series over to the PS Vita as well in order to capture various niche interest in the handheld audience.
The results weren’t perfect, but they worked. The PlayStation Vita saw more sales from indie games and otherwise unattainable JRPGs in both Japan and the West where it struggled to succeed. Even then, with the dawn of the PlayStation 4 home console, Sony opted to improve the functionality of the PS Vita to be able to interact flawlessly with various features of the PS4, such as Remote Play allowing players to play PS4 games on the PlayStation Vita. As Sony moved towards this new attitude of utility about the PS Vita, the company found that these various utilities and game styles sold the Vita hardware far better than the big-budget titles they had been trying to hit the bullseye with before.
Despite everything that Sony attempted to do to make the PlayStation Vita more appealing, it still suffered from a small following in the West. The handheld built up a vocal and passionate community and enjoyed some strong levels of attention, but it could never quite find the love it deserved. Sony eventually stopped making games for the Vita, citing that indie developers were building upon the handheld’s library just fine. Sony themselves turned those resources towards research on mobile gaming in the form of phones and tablets themselves, but the PS Vita still makes for an interesting snapshot and juncture of video game history. It stands in a curious place between Nintendo’s unchallenged dominance of the handheld market and the exponentially growing trend of mobile gaming that would sweep the world.