It’s hard to believe that it’s been 5 years since the PlayStation Vita originally released in North America and Europe, yet here we are. Despite the console going through a slightly rocky journey to get to where it is, it has a stacked lineup for 2017 into early 2018 providing plenty of quality content for anyone still gaming on it.

However, the system has gone through a number of different phases to get to this point in its life and it’s these different sources of support that I’m hoping to examine in this article. Despite being a haven for Japanese games since about 2014, Vita had previously been an attempted powerhouse for AAA games as well as a natural choice for independent developers to port their games to; yet these titles have a lesser focus in 2017 and by examining the console’s history I hope to find out why.

 

2012 – “console quality gaming on the go”?

2013-05-01-000445When Vita launched in 2012, the big advertising slogan was “console quality gaming on the go” and indeed it was that mindset which Sony and third parties attempted to deliver during the console’s opening year. Many home-console franchises launched with the system – Ridge Racer; Uncharted and WipEout were all present with ports like Ninja Gaiden and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom filling out the lineup; while throughout the year many more portable-AAA games released ranging from Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty to Gravity Rush and LittleBigPlanet. Truly, Vita’s first year was a great time if you were a fan of bigger-budget portable games.

However, even in these early stages, the idea demonstrated a number of issues. The console’s flagship game – Uncharted: Golden Abyss – didn’t feel quite right, with graphics not quite being as sharp as the PS3 games (despite the title still looking gorgeous) and some features were missing such as co-op and competitive modes. Similarly WipEout 2048 – for my money still the best looking game available on the console – released at 30fps rather than the 60fps hit by WipEout HD Fury on PS3; while a port of Mortal Kombat managed to achieve a stable 60fps but took a massive graphical hit in the process.

gfs_224452_2_7Some games got the balance right – LittleBigPlanet was a perfect example of a bespoke experience that included everything from the console versions, looked gorgeous and felt like it truly realised the potential of the console; while PlayStation All-Stars was a fantastic port that kept everything in tact in the conversion. Other games didn’t fare quite as well – Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation managed to look the part but suffered in both storytelling and framerate departments while LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes took the 3DS release of the game as its base, rather than the much superior home console version.

Overall, it certainly seemed that the potential was there for developers to make Vita the portable AAA machine Sony wanted it to be, but the effort had to be put in and even then, it was evident there would be compromises due to the console’s nature as a handheld system with an inherent power disadvantage. And sadly consumers had noticed that the effort wasn’t being put in with these games – sales for the console and the software was lukewarm (although certain games like Assassin’s Creed achieved relative success), throwing the console’s future into jeopardy.

persona_4_golden-131In spite of the console’s advertising slogan and mixed response with bigger-budget development, it did also show flourishes of its future direction as a home for indie games and niche Japanese titles. A number of releases – ranging from Disgaea 3 to Persona 4, came across from Japan and were generally pretty well received in the west, although these were few and far between during 2012. Similarly, a small amount of download-only indie titles such as Sound Shapes and Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack hit the platform to rave reviews and positive sales, providing an incentive for smaller teams to start seeing the platform as a viable choice.

 

2013 – a crisis of identity?

soul-sacrifice-4Into the second year of the Vita’s life, the console begun to see somewhat of a crisis of identity as its previous reliance on portable-AAA became questionable. The year still saw somewhat of a focus on home-console quality games, with a near-perfect port of Dead or Alive 5 Plus in March followed by the long-anticipated Soul Sacrifice in April. The problematic ports were still coming too, with very questionable versions of Epic Mickey 2; The Jak & Daxter Collection and Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 seeing releases at various points throughout the year.

It’s worth noting that 2013 ended on a high though, mostly thanks to Sony – Guerrilla Cambridge’s Killzone Mercenary released to slightly disappointing reviews, but fans were amazed with the sublime graphics; solid performance and tonnes of content the game offered; while Tearaway released from Media Molecule which provided a unique use of the Vita’s hardware to create a memorable, whimsical experience. Third parties didn’t do quite as well, with Armature’s Batman Arkham Origins: Blackgate being a cut-back experience compared to its console counterpart and Telltale’s The Walking Dead seeing some choppy performance.

2013-10-19-145511Still, the shift towards a heavier indie focus was already well into motion by mid-2013. Four highly acclaimed games released throughout the year – first Guacamelee in April; followed by Hotline Miami in June; then Spelunky in August and finally Terraria in December. Each received glowing reviews for their Vita versions and seemed to sell very well, showing the console could make a great home for smaller games from smaller teams (and this isn’t even a full list, there’s plenty of other memorable indies that released during 2013).

It’s also worth noting that the end of the year saw the beginnings of the great Japanese push of Vita support too. North America saw the release of the latest game in the Ys series – Memories of Celceta, while Aksys brought across Sorcery Saga and XSEED released Valhalla Knights 3. It was definitely a sign of what was to come as localization houses soon committed to the Vita in full force from 2014 onwards.

 

2014 – Japan loves you, Vita!

2014-03-09-214439One thing that’s always baffles me is when people say Vita didn’t deliver on the promise of console-quality gaming on the go, then say that it just got a load of Japanese games, when these Japanese games are definitely of home console quality – and it’s even something I’m doing in this article by treating them as two separate things! Still, 2014 was definitely the year where Japanese game support exploded on Vita in the west, providing a new dimension for the console and drawing in a new group of users.

Leading the charge of this support was NIS America who brought the critically-acclaimed visual novel DanganRonpa: Trigger Happy Havoc to the west, alongside a stream of other titles including Demon Gaze and Disgaea 4. Joining them in February was Koei-Tecmo with Toukiden: The Age of Demons along with various other titles throughout the year such as Deception IV: Blood Ties and Warriors Orochi 3 Ultimate. Among these, both DanganRonpa (200k in the west) and Toukiden (550k worldwide) seemed to be major sellers for their publishers, helping to establish Vita as a premier console for games from the land of the rising sun.

2016-08-07-201301But this was just the tip of the iceberg – new publishers were joining the fray throughout the year, and new methods of delivering Japanese games to the west was happening all the time. Companies like Idea Factory International handled their first western game in Monster Monpiece before publishing the first release in their flagship Neptunia franchise – Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;birth 1. Meanwhile, Bandai Namco Games started what would be a growing trend of games getting physical English releases in Asia when Sword Art Online: Hollow Fragment was released in the region despite a slightly ropey translation. It certainly marked the beginnings of a golden age of localization efforts on the handheld.

And indeed, the indie games were keeping up too – gems like OlliOlliRogue Legacy and Velocity 2X were finding their way to the console with plenty more in between, many including cross-buy with the home console versions allowing play both at home and on the go. With the addition of many of these titles being added to PlayStation Plus, it seemed Sony were positioning the console as a companion device to the PS4 – play at home, then take your experience on the go, which certainly worked with drawing in new users.

borderlands-2-vita-4But this new direction came at the expense of other focuses and 2014 would be the last year Vita saw any substantial “console quality on the go” support. There was a decent effort from Sony themselves – their Japanese-developed titles Freedom Wars and Soul Sacrifice Delta tended to be fun experiences with good production values, but their porting efforts continued to run into difficulties. Games like God of War Collection brought two classic PS2 games to the handheld, but with compromises – graphics were muddy; performance was sketchy etc. Particularly noteworthy was Borderlands 2, the flagship title for Gio Corsi’s Third Party Production team that seemed a monumental effort which didn’t quite come together and was clearly a little much for the rapidly aging hardware.

Still, while early adopters may have been a little disappointed with the shifting focus, it seemed Vita was morphing into a niche but fantastic machine for those willing to dig underneath to find the real gems. And with two resigned pieces of hardware to game on (the slimmer ‘Vita 2000’ model and the microconsole ‘PlayStation TV’), alongside the game that would eventually become Vita’s best-selling title (a very solid port of Minecraft), it seemed like there was no better time to jump on board.

 

2015 – a troubling time?

2016-06-12-181958Personally, 2015 was the year of surprises for me – some fantastic games released throughout the year that I really wasn’t expecting to be as good as they were. Chief among these was Steins;Gate, 5pb’s brilliant visual novel about time travel gone wrong brought to the west by PQube; while Atlus and FuRyu’s Lost Dimension manage to transcend a meager budget to produce a brilliantly engaging SRPG. But unlike 2014, the majority of these noteworthy titles were of Japanese origin, as shifts were happening with other avenues of support.

One area that was definitely on its last legs was ‘console-quality-on-the-go’ idea – while Third Party Productions had another go with Resident Evil Revelations 2, this ran into many of the same performance problems as Borderlands and was generally quite a messy port. They had more success with Grim Fandango Remastered, a reworking of the classic point ‘n’ click adventure from the 90’s – but at this point, Sony were the only company bringing titles like this to the console, aside from a rather lazy port of Disney Infinity 2.0 from Disney.

0425d11cc060234b82681476c94bd96c545e3b94-1050976In addition, indie announcements were slowing down and the Vita’s promised new direction seemed to be hitting difficulties. While games were certainly still coming – Joe Danger 2; La Mulana Ex and OlliOlli 2 stood out throughout the year, but these went alongside a number of disappointing cancellations. Things like Galak-Z; Nom Nom Galaxy and Road Not Taken cited various technically difficulties and outright cancelled their Vita versions despite releasing on other platforms. While some of it surely owed to lukewarm console’s sales in the west, it was yet another occasion where it seemed the console’s hardware was holding it back – although ports were possible, they’d take too much effort to optimize and as such smaller developers were bailing out.

This was compounded, in September 2015, by Sony closing PlayStation Mobile. An initiative set up to allow developers easy ways to release their games across mobile devices while simultaneously being compatible with Vita, the service never gained any particular traction and in its latter years was flooded with low-effort Unity asset flips. Still, it represented a shift away from Sony attempting to get indie games on the handheld and frustratingly, completely blocked new purchases and downloads after the date the store was shut down. Brilliant games like Rymdkapsel and Tokyo Jungle Mobile were lost unless you’d bought and downloaded them previously.

2016-09-11-170229Still, a stream of great games continued to release for the system with titles like DanganRonpa Another Episode; Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel and Persona 4: Dancing All Night coming out and plenty more announced throughout the year. In addition, Asian-English releases were flourishing for physical collectors, meaning regarding of preference, there was plenty to enjoy on the console throughout the year.

 

2016 – a very strange year!

xcom-enemy-unknown-plus-vita_14Sony decided to kick off 2016 with the discontinuation of the PlayStation TV, which could’ve been seen as an omen of the impending twilight of the console – yet another lineup full of great games and surprises meant that wasn’t the case. Chief among these were three titles from publishers who hadn’t touched Vita for years – including Ubisoft, who brought their side-scrolling spinoff Assassin’s Creed Chronicles to the platform. Even more surprising was 2K Games, who released both Civilization Revolutions 2 Plus and XCOM Enemy Unknown Plus throughout the year, despite having never released a game on Vita prior (although they did provide the Borderlands 2 code for Sony to port in 2014).

But it seems like Sony themselves had moved on from their days of porting console games to handheld, instead opting to fund a ports of Hitman Go from mobile and The Last Blade 2 from Neo Geo (as well as continuing to fund Double Fine’s work in updating their older games – with Day of the Tentacle Remastered being next on the list). All games reviewed well and although it was disappointing to see Gio Corsi’s team no longer going for bigger games, the compromise of handling nostalgia-fuelled smaller titles was certainly welcomed by many.

preview_pcse00589_severed_screen_bIn addition, the console was still getting some bigger-name indie games, with titles like Axiom Verge; Downwell; Severed and Volume arriving throughout the year, meaning fans were always well-served with a variety of genres. Plus, surprise releases were commonplace – games like Claire: Extended Edition and Wanted Corp showed up out of nowhere without any previous fanfare. Unfortunately, for every great release there seemed to be another cancellation – with titles like Hyper Light Drifter; Moon Hunters and Not a Hero cancelling their Vita plans – the former two after successful Kickstarter funding which was particularly disappointing as Vita fans had surely helped them get the money to make the game in the first place.

For the games that were being released, however, an exciting new initiative had started. Fueled by the success of the release of their 2015 title Breach & Clear which received a limited physical release which sold out in seconds, the chaps over at Mighty Rabbit Studio honed their new label Limited Run Games. This allowed indie developers to see their games get physical releases through LRG’s website, with titles like Octodad: Dadliest Catch; Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty and Rainbow Moon quickly signing up. Although some fans ended up frustrated due to the often lightning-fast speed these games sold out, it provided a new and exciting way for Vita fans to preserve copies of their favourite games.

dqb_150723_02_web-mountain-valley_webThe situation with Japanese games remained a similar mix of ups and downs. For starters, there were some lovely surprise pockets of support – Square Enix finally re-committed to the console after what felt like an extended absence, with games like Dragon Quest Builders and World of Final Fantasy. Smaller localization houses were still thriving on the console with PQube bringing games like Root Letter and Valkyrie Drive; while Bandai Namco started a fascinating new initiative of releasing games with particular licencing difficulties as Asian-English only releases – chief among these were Gundam Breaker 3 and SD Gundam G Generation Genesis.

But at the same time, Vita was slipping in terms of its Japanese support. There were flat-out cancellations – Chronos Materia from Koei-Tecmo and Crows: Burning Edge from Bandai-Namco being the main offenders. In addition, we begun to see titles which had released for the console in Japan skipping it on western release, with titles like I am Setsuna and Nights of Azure not making it across. Technical issues were cited for both of those games and they were notably slated in Japan for being unoptimized for the handheld.

Overall, 2016 was a strange year for Vita – there were plenty of positives in terms of support, but for every thing that was going right the system, it seemed like something else was going wrong; and it was the first time since it released that I finally began to think about when Vita will reach the end of its life.

 

2017 – up for grabs!

screen_010But certainly, its time is definitely not coming in 2017. Another sea of games are releasing throughout the year – the Japanese localizations definitely aren’t slowing down, with bigger names like DanganRonpa V3; Toukiden 2 and Ys VIII coming at various points throughout the year; joined by nicher stuff like Collar x Malice; Narcissu and Tokyo Tattoo Girls. In addition, Asian-English exclusives still seem to be a thing, with Bandai Namco releasing Super Robot V in February, though their plans for the rest of the year remain unknown.

Plus, the indies are still rolling in, though at a much decrease rate than previously – loyal devs such as Mixedbag Games and 10tons released games like forma.8 and Xenoraid, with plenty more stuff planned throughout the year ranging from Banner Saga to Windjammers and even titles from publishers joining the Vita fray for the first time, such as Circle Entertainment porting their back-catalog to the platform. And other physical game publishers appear to be joining Limited Run Games in chasing the Vita owner – with Badland Games bringing Axiom Verge and Velocity 2x to the physical realm while the mysterious Special Reserve Games promise “hot stuff” for Vita fans.

the-banner-saga-1Whether all of these actually sees the light of day is another question. Among indie games, we’ve already seen some big delays – 2064: Read Only Memories released for PS4 in January yet was indefinitely delayed citing technical difficulties in porting; a similar fate hitting Ys Origin from Dotemu. Other games outright cancelled their Vita ports, such as Chroma Squad which had been promising a release on the console for years only to fall at the final hurdle.

Similarly, despite a great showing from the aforementioned localization houses, it’s also another year of disappointments with some Japanese games not making the jump to the west on Vita despite coming across on other platforms – namely Digimon World: Next OrderDragon Quest Heroes II and Puyo Puyo Tetris. In addition, we’ll be seeing cut-back ports of some of the games that are coming across – while some titles, like Accel World vs. Sword Art Online are simply technically inferior; others like Tokyo Xanadu and Ys VIII are actually missing content compared to their PS4/PC counterparts – due to them receiving expanded console ports in Japan. Although fans can be grateful that they’re coming across at all rather than being skipped, it remains a shame for anyone who wants the full experience.

 

Conclusion

Early adopters of the console who bought it on the promise of console quality on the go often cite the Vita as a disappointment for failing to deliver on that promise. Although it had two to three decent years of this support, it feels like the Vita’s original promise was a pipedream – from the start, the console was underpowered for the games it was receiving and even in the early days, ports were often compromised.

As such, this mantra didn’t last long, but new areas of support came in to replace this – first the indie invasion; followed by the localization houses picking up the many, many titles that are releasing for the handheld in Japan. Each of these faces difficulties going forward – both groups seem to now be using PS4/PC as their base for development, meaning porting to Vita is often difficult and in both cases can often be beyond the resources available to the developers.

Still, the Vita has secured itself a solid release slate for the rest of 2017 and even has games planned for 2018 – and while the handheld AAA dream may be long gone (possibly living on through the Nintendo Switch, although that remains to be seen), there’s enough variety and quality coming that any gamer willing to give the handheld a chance should be more than satisfied.

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