PS Vita and the end of an era

(The following is an opinion post, the views and opinions expressed within are not those of GamerIndepth, its staff, partners, or anyone else. They belong solely to the author.)

February 22nd marks a very historic date in the world of video games, the launch of the PS Vita. Why is this historic? After all, the Vita has been out in Japan for quite some time now and off to a very less than ideal start. Well, this marks the first real competition to the 3DS here in the states, and what I see as the final competition in the dying single function portable gaming market. This is a market that was created, and ruled all under the boot of Nintendo. The Gameboy was the first successful portable handheld game console. It marked the beginning of Nintendo’s utter dominance and monopoly on the market. To put this in perspective, the Gameboy hit market in 1998. It would see 5 new forms, and finally evolve into the Nintendo DS without ever being rivaled by any other console.

It wasn’t until 2005 and Sony’s massively powerful PSP that Nintendo would see a rival in the handheld market. While the PSP fought hard to appeal to hardcore fans, it could never reach the DS. Interestingly the strongest competition that Nintendo saw did not come from its rival the PSP, but from the new smartphones. This is where I think the market will shift in the current age. So lets talk about the 2 major portable consoles, the 3DS and the PS Vita. One is a gimmicky beefy DS, and the other is an absolute tech powerhouse with more features and shiny things than I have ever seen before. The 3DS struggled due to a lack of software, headache causing 3D, and a sore lack of a second analog stick. It had to shamefully slash its price to remain competitive with the looming Vita. In contrast the Vita has a tidal wave of software lined up for release, with even more hitting shortly after the unit’s launch. The Vita packs far more power then the 3DS, touch, OLED, 3G, dual analog, and more! However the devices are taking aim at very different groups. Nintendo is doing what it does best, appealing to casual gamers, and more so children. The Vita like its precursor the PSP is shooting for the ever resistant hardcore market.

This is where I have my first hangup about Sony. They are going for a very specific market. They are trying to sell a device that delivers console quality games on the go. But why would I want that? I don’t want to play Uncharted on a small screen. I want that on my big HD screen at home. I don’t want to have to pause halfway through an area. I want to sit down and finish that section. What I do want is to quickly battle a few trainers on Pokemon (a constant on my Android phone) or a turn based game. Portable gaming is by nature not something you do for hours on end. It’s something you pick up and play for a little while waiting in line, waiting for your food, during car rides, etc. It’s very rarely something I sit down and do for a long period of time. This is why I feel console games never translate well to a portable. They are just not designed for it. Console games are a meal, portable games are meant to be a snack.

Besides the games, the Vita has another major issue. It is friggen pricey. A new Vita bundle will run you about $300. God help you if you want to upgrade the memory. A brand new smartphone will cost you $200 with a 2 year contract. That is a major chunk of change for the Vita, and hard for me to justify purchasing a device that will serve one function. But of course this device is not being targeted at kids. It’s being targeted at adults. The thing is why would I carry a Vita with me? I already have a phone that can play games. What’s more those games usually cost far far less (Vita games will go for about $40). They are usually deigned to be mobile, not console ports.

Now don’t misunderstand me. The Vita will do fine. Many think of the PSP as a flop because of the PSP Go (that thing flopped hard) but the PSP itself did fine. It turned a nice shiny profit for Sony and did what no one else had done, left a dent in the portable market. The Vita will do the same, but in my opinion it’s not going to beat the 3DS, and it’s not going to last very long. The Vita is the bookend of an era that opened with the Gameboy. I feel it will be the last true portable console. But what will come after it? Here is how I see the portable market in a few years post Vita.

Sony and Microsoft will offer very powerful phones. These phones will be their portable platforms. I think Sony’s will resemble the Xperia play, be PS certified, run Android, and play PSP, PS1, PS Vita, and its own games. Microsoft will have a similar phone. It will run Windows Phone 7 if that is still kicking, or Android. It will play Xbox games, feature some form of Live, as well as its own mobile games. Nintendo (provided they don’t do something insane which they often do) will once again remain king of the casual market, providing some form of portable console for children & teens who cant afford or get the more expensive smartphones offered by Sony and MS.

That is how I see the portable market, and where I see it going. Of course this could all be horribly off track and I could look like a fool. Regardless, the launch of the Vita will be one to be watched carefully as we see what lays in store for the industry.