Quick, come with me in my video game time machine! The year is 2012. It’s a different world here. Obama is the president. The Olympics were in London. Nintendo just released its newest handheld, the 3DS, a year ago. The Nintendo Wii is around, but losing steam with the Wii U around the corner. It’s still the era of the PS3 and Xbox 360; the PS4 and Xbox One are a year away. And a little Sony gaming handheld with a big screen had just arrived.
If you’re holding a Nintendo Switch right now, put it down: I’m here to talk about the PlayStation Vita… because it’s sitting right in front of me on my desk. And looking at it again, I’m wondering why Sony’s handheld hasn’t been readying a comeback.
In February of 2012, the PlayStation Vita arrived in the US. It was another big handheld moonshot from Sony, an attempt to recapture the glory that was the pre-iPhone PSP. The PSP was Sony’s first shoot-for-the-moon gaming handheld, which played little Universal Media Discs and came before the iPod even played video. The Vita was a smartphone-age game handheld that tried to up the game further: It had an OLED touchscreen. It had a front and rear camera. It had a touchpad on its back! The whole thing seemed futuristic.
The Vita met its end in 2018, pretty much. Sony had already announced its demise that year, with production ending in 2019. I never wrote a eulogy for it. But in the months I’ve been stuck inside my house, digging up everything that’s stacked in various sedimentary layers, I found a Vita Slim: a later, lighter LCD model. It charges with Micro-USB. I turned it on. It needed updates, but it worked.
I immediately came across folders full of games I remembered and loved: Echochrome. Super Stardust Delta. There’s Fez on here, and Super Meat Boy, and Spelunky. Wipeout. A pretty good portable Uncharted. Gravity Rush. Patapon. Suddenly I wondered… what happened to this thing? Vita, how did you lose your way?
The PlayStation Vita’s life felt challenged from the get-go. It wasn’t really a PSP sequel, and didn’t play those UMD discs I had collected. It had its own game library from the PS3 and PS4. It was standalone and sort of, kinda connected: It could be a remote player for the PS3 and PS4, like an early local streaming game pioneer, but it didn’t have all the controls that DualShock controllers have.
By the time the PS4 gained steam and got its own fun VR headset accessory, the Vita felt far away. Overlooked. I certainly left it behind. My game card for Persona 4 Golden remains in the Vita Slim, unplayed — a ridiculous wasted opportunity on my part.
If you have one of these around your home, take it out, play the games, appreciate it once again. Now that the Nintendo Switch has taken over and revitalized handheld gaming, the Vita seems like its older cousin. The Switch Lite is practically its brother. The dual analog sticks, buttons, layout — it’s all there. But the Vita’s even smaller, and easier to hold and pocket.
I had to redownload a bunch of my games, due to a strange problem I found when I launched them. Software hung, crashing the Vita. A few reboots and deleting the games did the trick, and downloading them again lost my game saves. It’s a shame, but everything’s up on its feet again. Just FYI if you’ve left yours alone for a while.
The one thing the Vita never had was a way to play games on a TV. There was the PlayStation TV, a weird failure that played Vita games on a microconsole. The idea was there; the execution was not. Imagine what might have happened if that Vita could have docked itself.
Now that idea is mainstream. If there’s any company that can make that work, it’s Sony. A revamped handheld, a mini PlayStation that could also be a TV console, is doable. And yet, it doesn’t seem to be in Sony’s plans at all. Instead, there’s a bigger, beefier PS5. Another big black box.
I’m a handheld gamer, mostly, now. The Vita’s still charming, and just as I felt when I reviewed it three quarters of a decade ago, it’s like a Kindle for gaming. It’s also surprisingly full of still-relevant indie games worth exploring. You can still download them on the PlayStation Store. The Vita’s launch Uncharted game was really ahead of the curve on handheld games at the time. In fact, the Vita’s console-like quality feels like it completely predicts the rise of the Nintendo Switch Lite.
The Vita used to be a system I loved carrying around. I even had a sock I used for a case. Dig it up if you’ve got it, love what you have. And maybe it’s time for Sony to consider letting the Vita rise again.
Games to play: My favorites
If you’re looking for some recommendations, here’s my old list of games I treasured.
Tearaway: Media Molecule’s fantastic papercraft adventure was ported to PS4, but the Vita version uses the camera to project your face into the game, and uses the rear touchpad to make it feel like you’re poking through the game’s reality. Totally ahead of its time.
Spelunky: A randomly generating, super tough, retro side-scrolling game that basically never ends. Spawned a thousand games inspired by it. Spelunky still isn’t on Switch.
Persona 4 Golden: Considered one of the best RPGs ever made, and this is considered the best version of that RPG. I still need to play it. Sorry.
Wipeout 2048: Sony’s perennial hovercraft racer has a great handheld adaptation (though sometimes it’s tough to make out opponents).
Gravity Rush: It got a sequel on PS4, but the original is here. Feels like Inception, bending gravity as you run around impossible landscapes.
Patapon 2 and 3: Music rhythm games featuring little shadow-puppet characters in a series of battles. Battle music? Rhythm warfare? The theme music is still drilled in my head.
Resogun: A Defender-like side-scrolling arcade shooter that’s a perfect diversion.
Super Stardust Delta: Also feels like an arcade game rebooted: Imagine Asteroids on a spinning 3D globe. Love this game.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss: Uncharted’s one handheld adventure. Here it is. This was a Vita launch game.
Lumines: Electronic Symphony: One of the best versions of this music-puzzle game classic.