The first time I got my hands on a PlayStation Vita, I was frankly unimpressed.
It didn’t start well. The Vita event I was trying to get to started at 5:30, and my last class of the day ended at 5:45, so I knew that there was no chance of me getting the slick free t-shirts for the first one hundred people through the door. By the time I made it to the event, I was half an hour late- and without a press pass, I was stuck in the back of the line outside.
In the line, people chatted anxiously, voicing their anticipation: “will it be cool?”, “is it expensive?”, “what happens if I break one?”
Two girls were among a group being led out of the event- I later heard that the initial bunch allowed in were cycled out in thirty-minute shifts- and came over to a few people ahead of me in line. They had gotten to play some Vitas, and their critique was not a positive one.
“It’s too big to fit in your pocket,” one of them said.
“Yeah, it’s too big,” the other agreed. “And I tried the browser. It was so fucking slow.”
These were not the sort of people Sony employees would normally want hyping up the people waiting in line.
When I made it into the “Vita Hill” cafe, I found that employees had set up small areas for playing around with the Vita- some couches set up around a fake campfire, for example, or Vitas set up at a poker table- and in the beginning, it appeared that nearly every Vita was occupied. There were patrons taking photographs while holding them, some fumbling around with the controls and laughing to their friends, and others who were very still and focused intently upon the screen.
I was able to grab one rather quickly, and was struck with confused feelings.
The PS Vita is a wickedly powerful little monster, and it has just the right weight and shape to feel fantastic when held. The screen is bright and sharp, the thumbsticks are optimally placed, the buttons feel responsive, and it’s fair to say the thing has damn near the power of a PlayStation 3 under the hood.
But all of that, I soon discovered, didn’t mean a thing without compelling games.
The first game I played was ModNation Racers: Road Trip. I was dropped into a race and toyed around a bit, but there was no denying it: I was playing a kart game. A very pretty, very portable kart game, yes, but before my first race was over, I was itching to play something else.
I strolled over to the back of the cafe, and discovered as I walked that there were a number of Vitas going unused. This was quite a surprise. Years ago, people would be beating each other up in order to play the Next Great Thing; now, there were devices that didn’t even seem to catch people’s interest. I picked one up, and found that I was playing Little Deviants.
My Little Deviants experience wasn’t much better; my character glitched into the ground and refused to move. I decided to set that aside and move on.
The more I looked at the Vitas going unused, the more I realized what was wrong. The games jacked into them were boring for patrons. While hunting for a Vita with Uncharted: Golden Abyss so I could get a look at what the Vita was really capable of, I overheard two people talking about one which wasn’t being used.
“Hey, wanna try that one out?”
“What, that one? Over my dead body. All it’s running is Hot Shots Golf.”
That’s when the true importance of software dawned on me. These people weren’t even going to give the Vita a try because the game inside of it could not have been less interesting to them. I realized then how dead in the water the device would be without a killer app.
As I mulled this over, I ran into what appeared to be the one of the very few Vitas in the establishment running Uncharted. It was beautiful, ran smoothly, and appeared to control well; unfortunately, however, my time was short and the line to play it was long.
On the subway ride back to my apartment, I felt conflicted. My impressions of the Vita had not been positive, but this was tainted by uninteresting games. What if I had been able to play Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, for instance? Or Wipeout? Would my experience have been different?
I was going to leave it be until, a few days later, one of my friends declared that he was heading back to check out the Vita cafe again- it’ll be open for six weeks, he said- and asked if I was interested in coming along. I was, and once again went back to the establishment.
This time, the place was nearly empty and the mood lighting had been replaced by fluorescents. I wondered if this experience was simply going to be more depressing than the last, but I would soon find that this would be the optimal Vita-playing experience.
Instead of hunting for a Vita already set up, an attendant simply asked what game I wanted to play. Figuring that it had been the apple of my eye before, I went with Uncharted.
Needless to say, it was remarkable to have the “Uncharted experience”- you know, great presentation and burning buildings and climbing and one-liners- on a handheld device. The sniping controls were a bit iffy, as the game appeared confused on whether it wanted to aim with the Vita’s motion sensor or the right thumbstick, but I was still pleased with the experience and liked the touch screen implementation in such things as using a machete to slash through an obstruction or lifting a character up during a cinematic.
When my friend sat across from me and plugged in Reality Fighters, I asked if I could play the same. Then things got pretty crazy.
In Reality Fighters, you can take a photo of your face. It then maps your face onto a character model (not too mindblowing a technology; I remember using it in Tony Hawk’s Underground) and allows you to customize your character. As I had not shaved that day, stubble appeared on my character and frankly looked awful when mapped on to him- but I had a brilliant (read: not at all brilliant) idea.
I removed his pants, gave him a beat-up jacket, long hair, and a beard, and switched his fighting style to break dancing.
Enter Hobo Joe.
Reality Fighters is the kind of game which seems designed solely as a test demo and makes you surprised when it functions really well as a game. I was pretty impressed when I found that the Vita was detecting how I held it and adjusting my perspective on the fight accordingly; I was really impressed when the friend and I merrily played round after round of this would-be tech demo and slowly became convinced that this device might be worth the dough. Is it a deep game? No. Is it a competent fighter? Surprisingly, yes. My friend’s impression of the game matched my own perfectly: “fun, gimmicky, with a lot of potential.”
Software. It’s all software. And it’s up in the air whether or not the PS Vita can provide it. The launch lineup is strong, yes- I spot at least three launch day titles and one “launch window” title I would not flinch at picking up- but where I went to learn about the device’s potential, I instead learned about how everything that little piece of beastly hardware does won’t matter a damn without software. It seems “no duh” to say, but the Vita’s technological innovations make it awfully easy to lose sight of what is going to make this thing sink or swim.
Messing with the touch screen didn’t sell me; playing with the twin thumbsticks didn’t sell me; even seeing the pretty graphics didn’t sell me. But you know what did?
Thanks, Hobo Joe. This one’s for you.