Game Man Sony's Vita Helps Handheld Gaming Grow Up

Game Man Sony's Vita Helps Handheld Gaming Grow Up
Cinematic may be a too-often used term for videogames, but it rarely, if ever, is used in regards to handhelds. But the PlayStation Vita, Sony's new-gen portable, practically screams cinematic with standout launch games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Escape Plan.

This latest Uncharted, a Nathan Drake treasure-hunter tale from his early days, is as blockbuster-based as its console cousins. It's smaller in scope than what we're used to, but still offers the series' signature film-quality voice acting and set-piece pacing alongside graphics and a game world unparalleled for a portable.

Escape Plan, meanwhile, looks like a film noir cartoon with its chiaroscuro style and adorably dark Gothicism. The download-only indie game is a touch-controlled, side-scrolling puzzler in which you help the aptly-named Lil and Laarg escape certain (gruesome) death. It may lack colour, but it otherwise uses most of the Vita's whistles and bells, like its lush OLED ("organic light-emitting diode") screen, front/rear touchpads and gyroscope. But mostly Escape Plan's macabre monochromatic design is so stunning it deserves to be a feature film. Ever said that about a handheld before?

While not perfect as games, both perfectly nail their job of showing off Sony's new tech, which enters a handheld arena dominated by Nintendo and Apple. Or more accurately, re-enters ― and tries to remedy their PSP problem. Sony's first handheld machine is considered by many a failure. Sony can boast 75 million units sold, including 2.5 million in Canada, but it failed in the most important way: by not capturing our imagination like the DS and iPhone.

"They both carve out different markets and neither one applies directly to us," argues Sony Canada spokesperson Matt Levitan, obliquely referencing the Vita's raison d'être ― it's the first hardcore-gamer friendly handheld.

Though currently in its edgier 3DS form, Nintendo's dual-screen handhelds have been the shock troops of their much-vaunted Blue Ocean strategy to appeal to everyone from five to 95. Their post-Game Boy portable was incredibly innovative ― as you can tell by the Vita's touchscreens, not to mention Apple's ― but was designed to appeal to non-traditional gamers. The iPhone, of course, is the definitive casual gamer device.

Unlike Nintendo and Apple, Sony doesn't like to reinvent the wheel; they refine it ― make it rounder, sleeker and faster, and that's what the Vita does. It borrows touchscreen, tilt controls and camera-based augmented reality tech, repurposes the PSN Store, brings over the PS3's second-analog stick (at last!) and graphical high-fidelity while recycling the PSP's basic shape and structure. Vita offers not revolution, but evolution. What's new is its target market. Sure, Sony extends their hands to the casual masses, but in hopes of making them more invested.

"I look at 'casual gamers' as opportunity," Levitan says. "If you just play Angry Birds and Cut the Rope, you may not think of Vita day one. But you look [at] different games like Escape Plan, and you may recognize it's a better experience on Vita and eventually graduate to it. I don't shy away from that group. I don't want to say they can be converted," he adds, diplomatically, "but they may find down the road that there are gaming experiences they enjoy more than what they're currently playing."

Blame the Game Boy name, but handhelds have always had the stigma of keeping kids busy in the backseat. DS widened that scope, but didn't even try to recreating the console experience. Sony did with the PSP, but couldn't pull it off. The Vita, despite some ill-fitting gimmicks like the rear-touchpad, is the hardware the hardcore have been waiting for.

Now it all depends on the software. The 3DS bottomed out at the beginning because it lacked a great launch library (and because the no-glasses tech is cool, but an acquired taste) so Sony has done a good job so far. There are some duds like the half-assed tech demo Little Deviants while the great Wipeout, Lumines and Hot Shots Golf sequels are essentially ports rather than system sellers. Rayman Origins is an actual port, but makes a strong argument for Vita because it so perfectly recreates the original's home console experience.

The Vita, with its quad-core processor and gorgeous graphics, is pretty darn close to a pocket-sized PS3 ― which quite frankly is too much machine for the mainstream. But that's cool. In a narrowcast world there's no need to alienated hardcore gamers by watering down the tech for mass appeal.

If Sony can continue pairing high-calibre franchise standalones like the upcoming Vita spinoff of Bioshock Infinite alongside experimental indie gems like Sound Shapes (from Toronto designer Jonathon Mak of Everyday Shooter fame with a musical assist from Deadmau5), then the Vita will have finally, after all these years, helped handheld gaming grow up.