If there’s one franchise that’s been a consistent presence on Vita – more than any other in fact – it’s the LEGO series. The first game showed up just after the console’s western launch (Harry Potter) and releases have continued well into 2016 (Star Wars); each bringing us a different spin on the core gameplay ideas. Ever since the appearance of LEGO Batman 2 in 2012, however, Vita fans have been left baffled – the powerhouse handheld has seemed more than capable of handling the full console version, yet owners have often had to settle for disappointing stripped-down ports.
In this article I’ll be looking back at a history of the franchise on Sony’s handhelds from its origins on the PSP right through the latest release on Vita, but in particular the quality of the ports on these consoles. Both handhelds have been (relatively) powerful in their time yet as we’ll see, this hasn’t necessarily translated to the games taking full advantage of their capabilities.
The birth of a franchise and full console ports on PSP
As with any good history lesson, it’s best to start at the beginning. The LEGO games had existed in one form or another since the mid-90’s, but it was 2005’s LEGO Star Wars that served as a breakthrough for the franchise, laying the blueprint for all future games as a collectathon platformer with light puzzle elements that adapts parts of the film series into a hilariously oddball retelling.
It wasn’t until the game’s sequel LEGO Star Wars II in 2006, however, that the series would make its debut on Sony’s line of handhelds. And what a debut it was – the game was a full port of the console release merely with toned-down graphics and sound effects; ported by the team who handled the main release.. It proved the PSP was more than capable of handling the console versions of the game and is well worth checking out as it’s a very enjoyable game (sadly, it’s one of the few titles in the series which is currently unavailable on PSN).
This period of home-console-version porting continued on PSP through 2008 with the arrival of LEGO Indiana Jones and LEGO Batman. Both offered a large amount of content alongside decent presentation and while perhaps not the most ambitious handheld games released at the time, it was still an impressive feat having the full console experience on the go especially compared to the rather watered-down DS versions releasing simultaneously.
Change of developer and DS ports on PSP
As with any good thing, eventually this run of excellent ports had to come to an end and that begun with LEGO Indiana Jones 2 on the PSP. You see, while Traveller’s Tales (the company behind all of the LEGO games) had been porting each title with care to PSP, their sister studio TT Fusion had been making bespoke titles for the Nintendo DS due to its lack of power to run the full console release.
For whatever reason, in 2009 Traveller’s Tales decided that the PSP versions should now be ports of the DS games , rather the home console games and TT Fusion were handed the reigns for all handheld LEGO titles. Starting with LEGO Indiana Jones 2 and running through LEGO Harry Potter Years 1-4; LEGO Star Wars III and LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, the PSP releases were now DS up-ports.
These games weren’t necessarily bad = they were still fun to play and retained much of the collectathon fun of the series and are were worth checking out if you’re a fan of the IP. Unfortunately, they lacked a lot of the features of the main versions and were notably graphically inferior due to the console they originated from lacking so much power the PSP. There was still fun to be had with them, but it was a sad mis-use of the console’s strengths and a massive shame to see after the brilliance of the first few titles on the handheld.
First Vita LEGO title but no shift in direction
So with the release of the much more powerful Vita in 2012 and the announcement that the games would continue their now-long tradition of arriving on Sony’s platforms, we could expect a return to the home-console quality LEGO ports on the go, right? Things didn’t get off to a great start, as LEGO Harry Potter Years 5-7 landed a couple of weeks after the console’s launch and was merely a continuation of the tradition at this point, being an up-port of the PSP release (which itself was an up-port of the DS version) and a particularly disappointing one at that, often looking like a blurry mess on the Vita’s screen.
However, with the imminent release of LEGO Batman 2 there was a glimmer of hope – there was no PSP version this time and some sites were reporting that the free-roaming open world had made its way into the Vita version. Sadly, early reports confirmed what we feared – the game was yet another DS port. As usual, while still a fun game in its own right, missing features like open-world; compressed graphics and audio and general lower-quality feel meant the game felt like a bit of a let-down.
The next title in the series – LEGO Lord of the Rings along with the following title (and the first non-licenced LEGO game on a Sony handheld) – LEGO Legend of Chima – suffered from exactly the same fate as the prior two games and it became clear at this point that DS porting was here to stay, especially with the Vita struggling in the west and Nintendo’s handhelds reigning supreme in sales.
Continued DS porting and isometric viewpoint
By October 2013 it was time for the next LEGO title to appear on Vita in LEGO Marvel Superheroes: Universe in Peril which TT Fusion promised to be a bespoke experience for handhelds that was entirely different to the console releases. Alongside the red-hot IP attached to it at the time, it was easy to wonder whether this was finally the handheld LEGO game people had been waiting for.
In fact, this turned out to be an even more pared-back version than ever (yet again designed for DS first and foremost) – an isometric viewpoint was chosen and levels were designed to be played in super-short chunks (in fact, a timer in levels to get bonuses actively discouraged exploration). Also missing were any hub worlds (the console release actually had a fully open-world city to explore), as well as the ability of many characters to jump, taking away most of the platforming challenges. Although the game was somewhat fun in its own right and still retained the core ideas of the franchise, it represented yet another missed opportunity to take advantage of the Vita’s hardware.
The isometric viewpoint and further watered-down mechanics continued in 2014 through the next two licenced properties (LEGO Movie and LEGO The Hobbit) as well as a second original game (LEGO Ninjago Nindroids). Particularly disappointing among these was sticking to the viewpoint for the LEGO Movie game – an IP which seemed to make a fantastic transition for the console release; but equally LEGO The Hobbit’s open-world version of Middle-Earth was completely absent on handhelds.
Beginnings of a new LEGO era
By the end of 2014, however, something pretty exciting happened – with the release of LEGO Batman 3, not only was the DS version finally dropped (which had actually happened with the prior release of LEGO The Hobbit) but the series finally returned to its roots as an exploration-based; platform/puzzler with hub worlds. Although the title missed some content from the console releases (and sadly removed the open-world sections of the Lantern worlds), it marked a stark increase in quality for the franchise as well as being an all-round solid game.
It was easy to wonder whether this was simply a fluke, but TT Fusion went on to impress again in June 2015 with LEGO Jurassic World. A combination of all 4 Jurassic Park films, the title proved a further improvement and managed to retain much of the content from the console release – chopping out only a few bits and pieces. It was followed by LEGO Ninjago Shadow of Ronin, notable for its big free-roam island hub-world which tooks steps to push the Vita further than any previous LEGO game had done. It seemed like – for once – these games were being developed for Vita first and ported elsewhere later.
The ultimate confimation of this seemed to finally come at the start of 2016 with LEGO Marvel’s Avengers. As TT Fusion’s game director documented, the biggest development goal for this title was to finally bring the open-world environment of Manhattan to handhelds, which arguably brought the console and handheld releases the closest they’d been since 2008’s LEGO Batman. While concessions had to be made – there’s a lot of fog in the hub to reduce draw-distance; content from the extra films (Captain America/Iron Man/Thor) had to be cut etc., it’s an impressive feat and a testiment to the team at TT Fusion to be able to take on the feedback they’d received over multiple entries to get the handheld games back on track.
Future of LEGO games on Vita
The most recent title on Vita – LEGO Star Wars The Force Awakens – returned to the winning combination of LEGO and Star Wars that won gamers over all those years ago; as well as adding new refinements such as blaster battles. Arguably the best LEGO game on Vita to date – while it still lacks some content from the console version, the game is the closest we’ve seen on Vita to date and a great omen for the future – but what exactly does the future hold for LEGO games on the Vita?
Well, at present – absolutely nothing. In September 2015 TT Games launched LEGO Dimensions exclusively on consoles, a toys-to-life franchise which seems to be constantly updated with level packs based on popular film franchises. While this doesn’t spell the end of dedicated LEGO games, it does suggest less resources devoted to individual titles going forward and as of right now, there are no future LEGO games announced for release (on any platform).
It seems a shoe-in at this point that we’ll get a game based on the LEGO Batman Movie, which is releasing in February 2017. There have been teases for other titles, of course – a small scene in LEGO Marvel’s Avengers hints at a future Guardians of the Galaxy game, although this may have just been a nice easter egg. There are other blockbusters out there just waiting to be adapted too – I’m half surprised we haven’t seen a Suicide Squad game (perhaps the source material is too mature for the target audience). 2017 will also see the release of new films in the Justice League; Pirates of the Caribbean & Star Wars franchises (plus who could forget Rogue One in December 2016) and any of these seem like easy picks for a LEGO adaptation (although it may be too soon for us to see another Star Wars game to tie in with Rogue One).
Will these games necessarily land on Vita? Well, who knows. While the system is undoubtedly winding down in the west, the games often dominate the UK Vita-only sales charts and they keep releasing (and increasing in quality), so must still be profitable for the time being. Personally I feel their future depends entirely on the 3DS – as long as that handheld is still selling well to kids, it’s still worth making dedicated handheld LEGO titles while Nintendo’s upcoming Switch will likely get the full console ports (just as Wii U did). It’s a precarious position to be in, but hopefully we’ll see LEGO continue strong onto Vita well into 2018 – something I’m very keen to see if the quality of the recent ports is any indication.
What I hope I’ve gotten across in this article more than anything is that although there have been some ups and downs along the way, the LEGO games on Vita are definitely worth checking out if you’re a fan of the franchise (or even if you’re not and just fancy a fun, easy platformer). There’s been a lot of rhetoric over the years about the quality of the games and it’s my belief that all of the titles from LEGO Batman 3 onwards are well worth your time due to the increased effort put in by TT Fusion.
Regardless of this, one thing’s for sure – if you’ve ever been interested in playing a LEGO game on Vita, there’s never been a better time than now!