PlayStation Vita at 3: how Sony can save its handheld

High tech hardware meets sparse software, improvisation ensues

PlayStation Vita at 3

We just passed the three-year anniversary of the North American launch of the PlayStation Vita, and some proper perspective may be in order:

When the PlayStation Portable turned three in 2008, the PSP Go (as ill-fated as it was) was still yet to come, and big-name games like LittleBigPlanet and Gran Turismo hadn't made their portable debut.

When Nintendo DS turned three in 2007, it was a year away from a hardware refresh via the DSi that would add a bounty of new download-only games.

The Nintendo 3DS turned three around this time last year with news of the New Nintendo 3DS about to break and killer app Super Smash Bros. was months away from hitting.

While all of those portables have some life left after three years, the Vita's future isn't as clear. Beyond the fact there are more on-the-go gaming options than ever before, the Vita lacks the triple-A franchise support of the PSP or really any major third-party support.

Yet there is hope for the platform due to unique indie darlings and some great technical ideas on Sony's end. But to understand where the Vita is going - and where it needs to go - we should explore its vastly different beginnings.

The Vita of yesterday

When the PlayStation Vita launched in February 2012, you got the sense Sony had learned from at least some of its mistakes in the portable arena - the change from UMD to cards was a welcome one - but, more importantly, it came into the new handheld with the preparation Nintendo sorely lacked.

Instead of rushing to market to meet Nintendo head-on with its new handheld, Sony made sure its portable hardware was reliable and its launch slate impressive before heading to the masses.

Good design decisions were made by the boatload. The awful UMD format was scuttled in favor of more ubiquitous cards and a reliable download service. A second analog stick was added for console parity, while dual cameras and touch surfaces encouraged innovation.

Unfortunately, despite its preparation, the Vita never really took hold.

Unfortunately, despite its preparation, the Vita never really took hold.

It became obvious quickly that despite PS3-level power, big name franchise releases on the Vita would never quite live up to their console cousins (and in the case of Call of Duty, would straight-up embarrass the series). After a subpar holiday season at retail, third-party support dwindled as most North American publishers shifted support away from the handheld.

The prime culprit of the Vita's slow start was likely the price. While Nintendo knew the 3DS had a botched launch and initiated a price drop within six months, the Vita launched with a $350/£280/AU$349 model (more than the PS3 at that point), and stuck around that range until August 2013.

That, combined with the poorly thought out proprietary memory cards that are still overpriced, have bled the system dry after three years. The Vita quickly went from being a high-priced tech luxury to an overpriced and under-supported cautionary tale.

The Vita of today

The Vita's inception was full of conscious design choices, both good and bad. Sadly, however, little has changed in that hardware - and problematic price point - since launch. In fact, the Vita in 2015 is not much different than the one that launched in Japan in late 2011.

A slight 2014 hardware revision added a bit more battery life and a smaller form factor, but it still has bells and whistles that have gone largely unused. That innovative rear-facing touch pad? It turned out to be a poor substitute for a second pair of shoulder buttons. Worse, those unnecessary dual cameras are a big reason the system is still overpriced.

Compare the launch to today where the price of a Vita is more than a fresh New Nintendo 3DS, and the Vita becomes an extremely hard sell if you're strictly looking for a portable gaming device.

The multiple failings of the set-top box PlayStation TV (which was incompatible with many top Vita games) didn't exactly move the needle as far as third-party support either. Plus, with controller support for more versatile tablets on the rise, the Vita's role as a high-end mobile gaming device dwindles with each day.

Despite all that, it's not game-over yet. Sony and select third parties have found a comfortable niche for the PlayStation handheld as an accessory to one of the fastest selling systems of all-time, the PS4.

Despite all that, it's not game-over yet.

Demoed at the PS4's unveiling in New York City, the Vita seemed built with cross-platform play in mind, allowing both save transfers and cross-platform purchases for a wide swath of notable indie games and big-name PlayStation titles. But while the PS Vita's firmware has seen a number of revisions since launch, the price hasn't shifted in nearly the same way.