Ever since the first Gameboys were sold way back in 1989, there has been an enormous market for handheld gaming devices. Indeed, their rise to fame was fueled by the hunger for greater accessibility to games following the enormous popularity of entertainment halls filled with flashing arcade machines. The first generation of gamers wanted games they could play not only physically together with their friends but also on their own during commutes, in the park or even just in the comfort of their own homes.
Providing a handheld alternative to the lumbering arcade games of the time was an enormous technical feat at the time, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Nintendo has ever since held a strong market position in the handheld gaming market. Yet the shift from arcades to handheld gaming represents just one of the major innovative steps that video gaming has taken since its breakthrough in the last decade of the 20th century. Indeed, the story of the Vita is one of not entirely keeping up with the competition of a new generation of mobile phones offering similarly mobile gaming experiences.
In this article we take a look at two of the innovations of the Vita that helped keep it around in the face of mounting challenges from mobile gaming as well as two innovations that never quite materialised, which might otherwise have preserved the platform’s viability and may hold the key to future revisits to the concept of a dedicated handheld gaming platform.
Remote Play was offered from both the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 to the Vita. This meant that games could be essentially run on the heavier platform while receiving control input from the handheld device and streaming graphics and sound to it as well. While the Nintendo Switch and other platforms have since capitalized on these innovations, its roots back in the days of the PSP and PlayStation 3 were genuinely trailblazing from Sony, and served a vital role in both the PSP and Vita’s successes.
While the sad truth of the matter is that our beloved Vita ultimately lost out to the rising technical power of mobile gaming and phone hardware, it is also true that during this period, developers of games for the Vita were forced to think outside the box in order to find some niche in which they might outcompete phone developers. This came chiefly in the form of JRPGS and visual novels such as Persona 4 Golden and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, respectively. Acting as a driving force and platform for these still nascent genres, at least in the western markets, was an act of generous dignity by the then-fading platform, and we gamers have much to thank for from Sony’s decisions to continue producing and supporting the handheld device for so long!
Turning attention to where the Vita missed opportunities for innovation that might have otherwise kept it relevant for longer, online gambling is an obvious example. The first two decades of the 21st centuries have shown few trends and patterns quite as strongly as the shift of gambling away from physical casinos and into online websites. Coupled with a huge demand for gambling as a theme for games in general, it’s odd in retrospect that neither the Vita nor the PSP made the most of these markets.
Mobile phone and web developers capitalized much more efficiently on this demand from consumers and gamers alike. These days huge innovation is occurring across the entire online casino space. Increasingly advanced game mechanics are being added to slots – for example, online slingo sites combine bingo with online slot gaming. Furthermore, many sites provide gamblers with all the metagaming experience of avatars, profiles, rewards, unlockables, achievements, etc. If the Vita had made an equal effort to break into this space, it might have survived to this day!
The second missed innovation by the Vita, and final part of this article, concerns GPS gaming. One of the ways in which mobile phones became the ubiquitous gaming platforms they are today was through the dedicated usage of GPS data as a game mechanic. Perhaps no game more successfully than Pokémon Go manifested the rightly identified potential of pairing a handheld device’s mobility with its games. Indeed, even just this year at Gamescom 2020, a new GPS game themed around The Witcher was announced. One can’t help but think that should developers of Vita games had made more concerted effort towards incorporating similar mechanics, they likewise might have been able to keep the platform around for longer and with greater usage!