Released as a technological powerhouse among handhelds in 2011, Vita has always maintained a strong lead over its main rival – 3DS – in terms of visual fidelity and technical impressiveness throughout its life. This has been best showcased by a number of stunning games released at various points which I aim to examine in this article – games that pushed Vita’s hardware most while maintaining impressive graphics and performance (although this will be a lesser criteria as this is commonly sacrificed to push appearance).
In spite of Switch now dominating this niche and mobile/tablet games inching ever closer to console quality, Vita has a number of titles which were not only impressive relative to the time they released but still remain gorgeous to look at even to this day. In this article, I aim to examine these – what was impressive about them (and what could have been improved) alongside a conclusion on how well the Vita did as a high-end handheld during its lifespan.
Dead or Alive 5 Plus
Team Ninja’s efforts on Vita are very interesting to follow – they’ve only ever ported titles and these have flipped between the abysmal (Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus – which I’ll be examining in a different article) to the stunning – Dead or Alive 5 Plus. Fighting games have always seemed to transition well to the handheld, with plenty of high-effort jobs like Skullgirls and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3; yet Dead or Alive manages to shine even among these titles.
For starters, it’s one of the few 3D titles on Vita to run at 60 frames-per-second – and a fairly consistent 60fps at that, allowing for some silky-smooth fighting action. While other fighting games on Vita like Mortal Kombat managed this feat as well, they took a substantial hit in image quality to achieve it – for MK resolution was 640 by 384, well below the console’s native resolution of 960 by 544.. Things like character models were also substantially downgraded to the point the whole title looked like it was capable of running on PSP.
It’s through this comparison that you can see how Dead or Alive 5 Plus is such an impressive port. Framerate is maintained yet visual fidelity isn’t compromised, with the game providing beautiful looking character models fighting on gorgeous backdrops – that included fully interactive elements ranging from falling roofs to helicopter crashes. In addition, this mayhem happening in the background rarely seemed to compromise performance, unlike similar fighters like Injustice which struggled when there was a lot going on.
If there’s one downside, it’s that Team Ninja didn’t manage to hit native resolution – I haven’t been able to verify this myself, but reportedly the game is running at 720 by 408, which leads to a few sharp edges in the character models and backgrounds (noticeable in screenshots such as the one above). It’s a small blemish on an overall fantastic package however and a great example of how to optimise a Vita port well which is something many developers have failed at.
Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth
Making the list mostly due to the time it released, Cyber Sleuth was one of the handheld’s later-in-life titles – releasing in 2015 in Japan and 2016 in the west – that showed developers could still put the effort in to make beautiful games on the console. Made by Media Vision, the Wild ARMs studio who would go on to make a sea of content for Vita (ranging from Chaos Rings to Summon Night), their Digimon release stood out for being a fantastic realization of the digital world.
Character models of both the cast and the Digimon are impressive, retaining that anime look and feel during exploration and in combat as well as featuring some good shadow work. Environments are also great, taking cues from Persona 4 Golden yet in much more detail and it all runs well – although 30 fps, it’s mostly smooth throughout (despite the game being turn-based). It’s certainly a night-and-day comparison to put it next to something like Pokemon X & Y for the 3DS which – although impressive for a 3DS game – looked worlds apart from what Digimon was doing on Vita.
Of course, the later-developed PS4 version would trump the Vita original by running at a better framerate and higher resolution, but this really didn’t diminish the handheld’s achievements as being a fantastic looking portable game and a stand-out among its turn-based RPG contemporaries. The assets appear to be getting reused in a sequel – Hacker’s Memory – that may end up even trumping this game in the presentation department, but for now Cyber Sleuth stands high among its contemporaries as one of the prettiest games on the handheld.
Dynasty Warriors Next
The second Koei-Tecmo game on this list and the only one developed by Omega Force (one of the most experienced developers on the handheld), Dynasty Warriors Next was – like many of the console’s launch titles – a showcase for all of its hardware features. And like its contemporaries such as Virtua Tennis it was also a showcase for the Vita’s tech – showing third parties that games could look beautiful without sacrificing performance.
For starters, the title is native resolution so looks crisp and sharp on the Vita’s screen. Character models are top-notch featuring a great amount of detail and animations, all of them clearly pulled from the PS3 release of Dynasty Warriors 7. The amount of enemies on screen pales in comparison to its console counterpart, but is a massive step up from the PSP iterations of the series we saw in things like Dynasty Warriors 2 and – crucially – draw distance is massively improved allowing you to see far-off objects. And it all runs at a smooth framerate that rarely drops when action is happening on screen, something its sequels on the handheld could never lock down.
The experience isn’t perfect, as there is still a large amount of unit pop-in as you run around the battlefield in search of combat. Some of the skyboxes also remain unimpressive and level geometry and environmental objects can be somewhat disappointing, but you’ll be speeding past it all and focusing on the battles meaning this is rarely an issue.
Overall, the title was a great early example of how action games could run on the handheld – impressive character models and animations with a smooth framerate, something that a lot of later releases in both the Warriors series and its rivals failed to nail down.
Final Fantasy X/X2 HD
Despite Sony executive’s assurances that the Vita would be home to fewer home console ports than the PSP had been, over the years a large amount of its library has been made up by such game ranging from PS4 down-ports to PS2-HD ports. The latter category has seen very mixed success from the terrible (Jak Trilogy) to the stunning (Metal Gear Solid Collection) but thankfully Square-Enix’s effort to bring one of their most celebrated PS2 titles to the handheld – Final Fantasy X – was a resounding success (and they even threw in X-2 to boot).
For starters, the game was an updated version that was more than a simple HD port. Things like water effects and lighting received a full overhaul from the PS2 original becoming striking on the handheld, which were mixed in with some already-gorgeous pre-rendered backgrounds. Notably the Vita release went toe-to-toe with its PS3 counterpart in nearly every aspect, aside from minor scaling back of some of the more detailed environmental objects which of course wasn’t an issue on the handheld’s smaller screen.
Sadly, framerate didn’t quite hold up with the game dropping to the mid-20’s when many characters are on screen, but this was a rare occurrance and for the most part things hold steady. Of all the titles on this list, Final Fantasy is arguably the one which is least affected by this due to its nature as a turn-based JRPG meaning the dips rarely affected gameplay, meaning this was a sacrifice that seemed very suitable to make.
Eurogamer’s tech analysis notes that the Vita port is a “real success” and it’s a testament to Virtuous’ great work that things turned out this well. Among other ports it’s a standout and puts other HD Collections to shame (Jak & Daxter – I’m looking at you) showing just what the handheld was capable of, a future that sadly wasn’t quite realised full of fantastic portable versions of classic PS2-era franchises.
By 2014, it had become clear that Sony were done with delivering any console-quality experiences on the Vita (and soon after, any games on the handheld at all). Yet they still had one trick up their sleeves thanks to Freedom Wars, the Japan-Studio and Shift developed hunting game that had been worked on for more than three years that delivered a great dose of portable hunting action outside of some outstanding presentation.
To begin with, character models were great – mixing realistic proportions with anime-style design, all of which animated well switching between swords and guns on the fly while running around and attacking abductors. Environments were similarly stunning, ranging from post-apocalyptic cities to vast deserts, all featuring little flourishes of detail and – most impressively – nearly every building and area could be scaled with the game’s thorn mechanic allowing a fantastic feeling of freedom. Plus, it’s all presented at native resolution allowing for a smooth, clean look throughout.
Perhaps due to the graphical fidelity being pushed and the amount of things happening on screen – unsurprisingly – framerate is the disappointing part of the presentation. It’s never bad enough to be an issue and largely manages to stay at decent levels throughout, (as with all the games on this list) but it certainly stands out compared to all of the other aspects of the title which seem so well polished.
Still, it was nice to see one final high-effort title from Sony (even if it came less than 3 years after the console released) and Freedom Wars has plenty of graphical effects and tricks to be admired, making it a great game to show of the power of the handheld.
If Uncharted was the poster child of graphical fidelity during the Vita’s launch, then Killzone would be the poster child thereafter. A technical tour-de-force made by porting Killzone 3’s engine over to the handheld, the game looked absolutely jaw-dropping from first impressions showcasing character models; lighting and environments far beyond any contemporary handheld games, giving the same first impression that Ridge Racer on PSP did many years earlier (as described by Eurogamer).
A number of impressive effects were achieved that weren’t replicated with any other game on the handheld. In a blog post, the team pointed out that the game uses volumetric lighting and smoke, high-res environmental textures, gleaming metal and realistic-looking shadows. These were things that were being seen on decently-produced home console games, so it seemed obscene that they were making their way across to a handheld.
What was most impressive is that none of this came at the expense of performance. Although the game targeted 30fps rather than 60, it hit this 99% of the time allowing for a smooth experience on the console. The frame drops tended to come in the most action-heavy sequences when many things were happening on screen, but this rarely impacted gameplay enough to be an issue.
Plus, the game was rendered at native resolution – sadly something of a rarity among Vita titles, ensuring that it always looked as good as possible on the console’s screen (and scaled up rather well when used on the PlayStation TV). If I had to pick a criticism, it would be that the multi-player only offered 4 against 4 battles, but if this allowed smooth performance then it was well worth the sacrifice.
For me, it’s easily the most technically impressive game on Vita (tied with WipEout 2048) and a testament of what the handheld is capable of.
PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale
The first title released as part of Sony’s cross-buy initiative for Vita, PlayStation All-Stars was an interesting proposition as buying the PS3 version netted you a Vita copy at no additional cost. This could have led to a reduced-quality port as it was only being provided as an added bonus – yet thanks to the efforts of porting wizards Bluepoint Games we were provided with one of the most technically sound titles on the handheld.
For starters, the game targets native resolution AND 60fps – definitely a rarity among Vita titles – and for the most part it manages to hit both of these with only minor framerate drops during fights in more complex environments, As Digital Foundry notes, the game actually manages to remain v-synced no matter what resulting in absolutely no screen tearing, compared to the PS3 release which turns this off at points to attempt to have a smoother framerate (which is often far from the case). In addition, the team tailored aspects such as touch-screen controls to feel like natural additions rather than being shoe-horned in due to Vita’s lack of inputs.
Aside from minor dropped frames, the only other real oversight with Bluepoint’s port is that they opted to leave out any form of anti-aliasing solution meaning there are some occasional sharp edges- however, given the speed of the action and the game’s native resolution, this was rarely noticeable while playing.
If Killzone and WipEout are the high watermarks for how to develop a game specifically for Vita then in my mind PlayStation All-Stars is the shining example of how to develop a port. Containing all the content and features of the home console version without sacrificing performance or image quality – it’s an incredibly impressive game.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss
Undoubtedly the poster-child of the Vita’s launch was Uncharted: Golden Abyss, the Sony Bend-developed spinoff to Naughty Dog’s seminal franchise blew many gamers away when it was first shown, achieving a level of visual fidelity which was unheard of at the time on a handheld. Things like character models and environmental detail showed a level of commitment beyond what was previous seen on a handheld, leading to a lush, well-realized world full of believably animated people.
This is particularly notable in some of the vistas encountered, where you can look out over the backgrounds leaving to some gorgeous, screenshot-worthy views while scaling up the side of a leafy mountain or crumbling cliff-face. Digital Foundry notes that water effects are on-par with similar effects from the home console versions of Uncharted and lighting and shadows are downgraded (yet still impressive) versions of those from 2 and 3. It’s the kind of experience which is rare on handhelds in general and was unprecedented during Vita’s launch period, hence why it received so much attention.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. The team at Sony Bend decided to target a sub-native resolution (720 x 408) then up-scaled it for the Vita’s screen, leading to number of jagged edges throughout the game with things like waterfalls and fires looking notably pixelated. Additionally, as a result of being such a taxing early game, frame-rate doesn’t always hold up and things like shootouts involving multiple enemies can regularly lead to fps dropping to the low 20’s.
Still, these issues weren’t enough to detract from the fact that this was a faithful adaptation of the storied franchise on the handheld that managed to be a fantastic showcase for Vita’s capabilities early on. If the team had longer to work on it, I suspect some of the more glaring issues could’ve been ironed out and we’ve have been left with a very complete package.
Virtua Tennis 4: World Tour Edition
A recurring theme throughout this article is that the most demanding games were released either during launch or its first year on the market – as both third parties and Sony showed up to support the console in full force. SEGA, a company who provided mixed efforts on the handheld outside of Hatsune Miku releases like clockwork provided perhaps their biggest surprise with a near-perfect port of Virtua Tennis 4 for the console’s launch which set a high bar for any sports games which followed.
According to Digital Foundry’s analysis the game is native resolution and targets 60fps which it hits pretty much constantly (indeed, they state that replays actually run at an uncapped framerate which can go higher than the console counterpart). They also note that the title uses reduced geometry from the PS3 release but never actually removes anything, as well as using a solid anti-aliasing solution to create an incredibly clean image, meaning overall the title is one of the best examples of a port done right on Vita.
Unfortunately the conversion didn’t go exactly one-for-one as things like reflections, lighting and certain effects were removed which creates a slightly lower level of detail on the handheld. Yet, this seems like a necessary evil to have the port run as smoothly as it does and it’s remarkable that more objects and effects were not removed in the porting process.
As such, the title stood out as one of the gems of Vita’s launch lineup and still remains impressive to this day – a shining example of how to port a home console game to a handheld with cutbacks in all the right places to make a fantastic, smooth experience.
While Uncharted was the game heavily shown off around Vita’s reveal and launch and Killzone was the game which inherited the mantle of “Vita’s prettiest”, WipEout 2048 fills an odd gap of “most under-rated” graphically impressive title in Vita’s library. As you can see from the screenshots in my review, the title is truly stunning with some fantastic texture work; beautiful geometry and lighting and so much happening in the environments to make it feel like a true next-gen handheld release.
An interview with Digital Foundry revealed some intriguing pieces of information such as the fact that 2048 uses the same shader and lighting systems as the PS3 release HD/Fury; as well as featuring a dynamic framebuffer that drops the game’s resolution to allow framerate to be maintained during more intense scenes and a solid anti-aliasing solution to removed jagged edges. It all comes together to create a smooth, beautiful game that was a gem among the Vita’s launch lineup and even to this day.
The issue – as with many of the titles on this list – is one of framerate. Rather than targeting 60fps like previous entries, 2048 aims for 30fps. Although it maintains this rather admirably thanks to the aforementioned framebuffer, it still provides a less smooth experience than fans of the series would have expected (and is more noticeable in a racing title than something like a turn-based RPG).
It’s a disappointment that this sacrifice had to be made, but certainly not a deal-breaker considering the rest of the package is so stunning. As with Uncharted, I suspect part of the reason for this is due to the game needing to be ready for the console’s launch and had the team been given longer, I’m sure they may have been able to tidy up this final aspect of the presentation; but even with this the game ranks as highly as Killzone for me in truly delivering a console-quality presentation on the go.
Oddly for a console, most of Vita’s most technically impressive titles released during its launch – where developers were pushing to make the most of the hardware right out of the gate. Sadly due to the handheld’s anemic hardware sales we never really got a ‘second wave’ of titles from studios such as Bend Studio and Studio Cambridge that would have really pushed the hardware – like on PSP where Bend kept pushing forward from Syphon Filter to Resistance or Ready at Dawn progressed from Daxter to God of War.
It is, however, worth noting that the vast majority of major technical achievements were made by Sony – whether it be showcasing Uncharted’s lighting effects at launch; PlayStation All-Stars’ fantastic port later in 2012 or Killzone’s impressive texture work a year later in 2013.
In some ways it feels like a missed opportunity that we never got too many games which truly pushed the hardware on Vita, yet there are still some great titles out there that really delivered on the ‘console quality’ experience the advertising initially spouted. They may have had some technical shortcomings, but all of these games are impressive in their own right and are well worth showing off the handheld with.