Has Sony Lost The Console War To Nintendo Again?

Every generation of computers and games consoles has it’s own rivalry between formats. Right since the 8-bit era of the Commodore 64 and Spectrum, formats have battled for supremacy at retail while owners have argued amongst themselves – especially in the playground at school – over which machine was best. That trend has continued ever since – Sega vs Nintendo, PlayStation vs XBox right through to the handheld “wars”. The first round between the Nintendo DS and Sony’s PSP was won comfortably by Nintendo but now that both companies have released follow-up consoles again the question is already being asked as to which format will be standing victorious again…

This time, it’s Nintendo’s 3DS going head-to-head with Sony’s PlayStation Vita. There’s no denying that both consoles have a lot to offer gamers and each has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. On paper, despite the 3DS’s ability to display games in 3D without the need for 3D glasses, the Vita is technologically more advanced but as history has proven repeatedly, technological superiority doesn’t always mean that a console comes out on top as Nintendo proved with the success of the original Gameboy.

3DS

At the heart of the 3DS and it’s biggest selling point over the Nintendo DS is the 3D technology… When Nintendo first announced that their follow-up to the DS was going to display games in 3D without the need for glasses, they were almost universally ridiculed. No-one believed that they would be able to deliver on that promise, or certainly not on an affordable level, but they not only achieved it but managed to produce very effective 3D effects both with in game graphics and using the built-in camera. With the right software, this looks absolutely superb.

As with cinema, the 3D technology for the 3DS was very much a gimmick for the early titles. While there is no doubting that it worked incredibly well, many games simply added 3D to 2D games without any real need for 3D effects in the way that many movies were filmed in 3D simply for the sake of it. 3D should be used sparingly or appropriately to enhance games – racing games, first person shooters and RPGs – games with vast landscapes that can really be improved by a perception of depth should be the ones Nintendo developers should be pushing on the 3DS rather than anything else.

At the same time, the 3DS was plagued with early problems. Many users reported health issues when using the console in 3D mode. Users complained of headaches, migraines and discomfort when playing games in 3D, even more so in younger gamers, to the extent that Nintendo have had to issue a health warning on the console recommending that the 3D effect should not be used by anyone under the age of 7.

Talking of the 3D effect, there are people with varying problems with their eyesight (wy wife included) who are simply unable to view anything in 3D and not just on the 3DS. I hope that this is something that Nintendo take into consideration in the future and not release games that specifically need the 3D mode to play in.

It certainly hasn’t been all doom and gloom for the 3DS though… far from it and it’s had more than enough plus points in its early days to put it on a firm footing both at retail and – more importantly – in the hands of gamers themselves.

First of all, Nintendo made the smart move and ensured that the 3DS was backwardly compatible with the DS. While this was expected, it meant that there was an instant games catalogue available at launch, all of which were available at sub-3DS prices and often at budget prices making gaming affordable for those who had little spare funds after buying the console itself. Nintendo have done this with almost all of their handhelds (only losing Gameboy compatibility in recent years) and it’s been a smart move.

It’s this compatibility that enabled retailers to promote the 3DS in store next to their regular Nintendo DS product range, meaning that potential customers could see first hand the vast range of titles available for them. While there were only a handful of 3DS titles at launch, with a huge selection of DS games to choose from, purchasing a 3DS wasn’t a difficult decision to make and many DS users took the leap to upgrade their consoles knowing that their existing games collections were still useable.

While very attention has been made on a retail level about the games that can be bought online for the 3DS apart from stores stocking the top-up cards, by using the SD format for storage it does make buying downloadable games affordable. Along with MicroSD, it’s the most affordable and popular media formats available and by adopting an industry standard they’re readily available online and in almost any phone or camera store as well as most major supermarkets at budget prices.

Finally, having one year head start at retail has allowed the 3DS to develop a foothold at retail in the same way that the XBox 360 did compared with the PS3 and while the PS3 has caught up in terms of sales, there are still games stores out there that devote considerably more floor space to Microsoft’s console.

PS Vita

As we all know, there’s no doubting the power of the technology behind the Vita. It’s based on the hardware seen in the PlayStation 3 so in effect Vita owners are getting a hand-held PS3. While the PS3 is now over five years old, it is still a technically impressive console and right now that makes the Vita one of the most advanced consoles available and in terms of performance is only behind the PS3 and XBox 360.

With its dual cameras, microphone, dual touch screen and rear touch panel, console style controls with dual analogue sticks and motion sensors, it “feels” more like a traditional console than any other hand held system ever has.

Unlike the PSP, Sony ditched the UMD format and have chosen to base the Vita around high capacity micro cartridges in a similar style to the DS, combined with downloadable software to the console’s memory cards. However, herein lies one of the Vita’s initial problems…

At present, the memory cards for the Vita are prohibitively expensive. The Vita uses it’s own memory card format and at the moment sizes range from 4Gb to 32Gb and sadly even the 4Gb cards won’t leave you with much change from £20. With most “full size” commercial games requiring several Gb of data if you download them from the PlayStation Store, you will quickly fill one of the smaller cards. Even some of the smaller game downloads from the PlayStation Network can come in at around 500Mb in size so you really need to start off with an 8Gb card or larger. Fortunately, the PS Vita can use multiple cards so if you fill one, just swap it for another, but it’s an inconvenience that shouldn’t be needed and a release of a larger 64Gb card is certainly needed.

This problem is compounded further when you look at the current range of Vita titles. Being based on PS3 technology, it has inherited on of the PlayStation 3’s biggest drawbacks – that it is a very difficult console to develop for and as such it is taking longer for publishers to release titles. At the moment, there are no where near as many titles available for the PS Vita as there are for the 3DS at retail. A lot of games are in development but because of the complexity of the console, they are taking time to be ready.

That doesn’t mean that the Vita is short of games though (as the reviews on this site will prove) but this is where the next problem lies… There are a great deal of titles available to download through the PlayStation Network but in order to take advantage of this, you need the storage capacity on the Vita to do it. As well as Vita specific games (including the free titles Sony has made available), there is a vast range of Minis (originally designed for the PSP), downloadable versions of a wide range of PSP games plus a selection of some of the best PS1 games including the first NINE of the Final Fantasy series.

Astonishingly, this is something that Sony haven’t pushed in their promotion of the console and there is little or no mention of this at retail either. If you go into a store and see a PS Vita on display, all you will see is a handful of Vita games and – if the store stocks them – download vouchers for selected titles from the PlayStation Network (as well as add-ons for existing games) and gamers are left none-the-wiser as to the real catalogue of games available. Most potential owners don’t know that they can play games like Super Stardust Delta, Zen Pinball 2, Frobisher Says! or buy classics like Final Fantasy VII.

At the same time, there are titles available that offer cross-compatibility with the PS3. Specifically aimed at titles available as downloads, Sony have offered gamers the chance to buy a game on one of the two formats and then offering them the other format as a complimentary download including Ratchet and Clank: Q Force, Zen Pinball 2 which I mentioned before, Wipeout HD, and MotorStorm RC and many more recent titles.

High scores and game data are often interchangeable between the two offering a level of gaming interaction not seen before. As soon as ModNation Racers was released for the Vita, users were immediately able to access the entire catalogue of user-created characters, cars and tracks that had been produced by PS3 owners giving the game an incredible amount of content from the start.

As ever, Nintendo has released an endless supply of expected Mario games for the 3DS. While this was a move that wasn’t a surprise to everyone, despite the tired format of all of the Mario games, they continue to be big sellers and have an incredibly loyal following and the character is strong enough to sell consoles on its own.

Sony, on the other hand, have their own exclusives with the Uncharted series and Wipeout and the release of Little Big Planet but no single standout character that has captured the attention in the same way that Mario has. While the Vita doesn’t necessarily need an exclusive character, it does need more quality exclusive games to give it that “must buy” appeal.

At the moment, it’s still too early to tell which console will win out. Sony still have a lot of marketing to do to promote all of the Vita’s strengths to it’s potential customers. Many people who are considering the console don’t know what the full range of software really is for the console apart from the handful of games they see on the shelves of their local store and as history has shown, it’s games that sell a console, not hardware. I actually had a discussion with one potential Vita buyer who dismissed the console saying that he felt that there were only four games on it worth owning and not even thinking about what was available for downloading!

Looking at the range of games available, and the additional content there’s no denying that the PS Vita is a worthy contender right now, but without proper marketing and retail content, combined with more competitive pricing of the memory cards (plus a significantly higher capacity to compete with the 64Gb SD cards on the market) then Sony once again is going to have a tough battle on its hands.

In contrast, SD cards are incredibly cheap and even if the user buys low-capacity cards they are affordable enough to be picked up as and when needed with little regard given to the cost so 3DS owners will have little to be concerned about there. With 32Gb cards costing less than a quarter of their Sony counterparts, it could be a deciding factor for some but again, Nintendo – at a retail level – are not marketing the downloadable games so all customers see are the games on the shelves. For Nintendo, despite the 3DS being on sale for longer that the PS Vita, both systems are comparable in terms of the number of downloadable games available although on the 3DS a large percentage of are emulated versions of games from the Gameboy and NES.

With it’s PS3 connectivity and the Cross Buy initiative and growing range of software the PS Vita has the opportunity to take a real lead this time around but it needs the real commitment of Sony, the retailers and the enthusiasts to show not only what the machine is capable of but what it can run so people know what is out there. A console that can run PS1, PSP, and PS3 quality games as well as a web browser, YouTube viewer, music and video player and everything else that the Vita is capable of… on paper it should be a clear winner so it’s now down to Sony or a third party company to give us affordable memory cards and the men in suits to do the marketing and the rest… we’ll have to wait and see!

Simon Plumbe

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