During the PlayStation Vita’s five years or so of active game releases, most of the titles I remember playing on it were not games that really needed the Vita hardware to be played. It was a decently powerful machine that played indie games on the go, it was host to some great traditional JRPG ports, and its selection of modern visual novels was superb. Don’t get me wrong, games like Tearaway made really creative use of the device’s touch screens, but games that made use of the system’s unique hardware as more than additional button inputs were pretty slim.
I owned a vita, and I loved owning a vita. I may not have loved its expensive proprietary memory cards, or the lack of first party original software released for it over time, but there was a lot to love about PlayStation’s ambitious little handheld. In particular, one thing I don’t think the Vita gets nearly enough credit for is basically laying out the blueprint that the Nintendo Switch later rode to success.
Picture the scene, It’s late 2014, and on the way home from a gaming convention I was playing through Danganronpa 2 for the first time. There’s a bunch of kids trapped on an island, they have to solve murders to survive, and I’m busily adventuring away on my train home. The Vita was a really lovely handheld to use on the road, with a nice big bright vibrant screen, and most of the buttons present on a modern gaming controller. The next morning, once home, I wanted to enjoy the game on the big screen with a more comfortable controller, so I fired up the PlayStation TV, popped in my game cartridge, and kept playing my handheld game on the TV.
Now, I get the Vita’s approach to handheld gaming on the TV lacked the out of the box simplicity of Nintendo Switch. Having the ability to place your handheld in a cradle, detach its sides, and continue playing on your TV instantly is a uniquely Nintendo concept they deserve credit for making successful. But, at its core, there is very little difference between how I play my Switch, and how I used my Vita at the later years of its lifespan. Sure, Sony sold us a second box years after the fact that needed its own controllers to work. Sure, it required physically moving your saves and software back and forth in a method that’s slightly less instant than popping your handheld in a dock, but at its core Sony’s vision for the Vita as a portable you could play on your TV was very similar to the idea behind the Switch.
The Vita was a high powered gaming handheld for the time, looking to ride the line between offering unique first party software, and the promise of easy console ports by third party developers, which could be played on the go, or optionally at home. I don’t think the idea for the Vita is inherently worse than the idea for the Switch, I just think the idea was a little ahead of its time.
For all of Sony’s promises at the Vita’s launch that it would be capable of handling modern generation console ports with ease, developers in practice struggled to make a lot of promised games run on the system without major sacrifices to performance. The system was undoubtedly powerful compared to the 3DS, but it wasn’t quite over the hurdle where contemporary games could be released for it without having to list a bunch of cut features and sacrifices made. If we look at the Nintendo Switch today, it’s not on the cutting edge of what portable gaming could be providing, but five years passed between it’s release and that of the Vita, and those five years made a big difference to what level of gaming hardware was affordable.
The Switch certainly isn’t running every current generation game port on release date, lots of games we see on the PS4 and Xbox One skip the Switch entirely, or ports do sometimes come delayed or paired back, but that’s a far less common occurrence than it was with the Vita. The Switch runs competent ports of The Witcher 3, Alien: Isolation, Hellblade, Doom, L.A. Noire, Dragon Quest XI, and more without any major sacrifices. I honestly believe, had Sony released a high powered gaming handheld five years later than the Vita it would have, much like the Switch, been able to handle a decent number of ports of modern games the way Sony promised the Vita would.
The Vita’s level of graphical performance sat in a weird spot between the 3DS and the modern HD home consoles. Games couldn’t easily be ported down from consoles to run on the Sony handheld, but making a new unique game for the system was more costly than making a game for the less powerful 3DS. The 3DS was the place to develop games that didn’t need HD visuals, the PS3, Xbox 360, and the next generation consoles that proceeded them were pushing the limits of what they could display, and developing games specifically to run on Vita was an odd prospect.
One of the Vita’s biggest selling points was being powerful enough that it would see decent amounts of third party support, something it always struggled with. Again, I love the Vita immensely, and am grateful there was a gaming handheld at the time with that level of processing power. Much like I today excitedly hope for Switch ports of indie games I see announced, for many years the Vita became my place of choice to play indie games, visual novels, and JRPGs. The Vita and Vita TV was a great idea, just one the technology wasn’t really there to capitalize on. Sony, thank you for creating a concept that I now can’t imagine my Nintendo gaming without.