Sony’s been getting its glossy plastic behind handed to it in the handheld gaming market for a while now. The PlayStation people launched the PSP a few years back with the hopes of breaking Nintendo’s decades-long hegemony in the portable gaming space but, almost from the very beginning, the device faced an uphill battle. While powerful enough to render graphics quite well, the lack of a second analog stick made developers have to invent bizarre workarounds for camera control in 3D games.
Over the lifespan of the device, publishers stop seeing the PSP as a destination for their AAA content and even Sony started putting only experimental titles out for it. Nintendo, meanwhile, continued to dominate with the DS handhelds. Soon, the only reason to have a PSP was to play pirated arcade classics on the go, thanks to some enterprising hacking. Then, both Sony and Nintendo got blindsided by the sudden rise of games on the iPhone and later Android devices. Suddenly, players had other on-the-go options chock full of cheap and attractive games. Nintendo’s bet big on the appeal of 3D with their new 3DS portable but Sony’s taking a different approach to winning over gamers’ thumbs.
Announced as the NGP (Next-Gen Portable), Sony revealed that their new handheld will be called PlayStation Vita and will retail for $250. Despite the absolutely terrible name, the gadget offers up an interesting mix of technologies for developers to take advantage of. With a touchscreen on the front and a touch panel on the back, two analog sticks, a gyroscope/accelerometer combo and front and rear cameras, the PS Vita harbors a smorgasbord of input methods for games. At E3 last week, I played a bunch of games in progress for the device and came away impressed.
The biggest Sony franchise comes to the PSV in the form of Uncharted: Golden Abyss. The lush landscapes that fans are used to seeing Nathan Drake appear undiminished on the device and you can play pretty well with the touchscreen. Using swipes and taps to guide Drake, you can navigate the jumps and platform challenges that bedevil his every adventure in a new way.
Reality Fighters presented a funny twist to typical martial-arts action by using the camera in two novel ways. First, you can create an avatar with your face as captured by the front camera, further customizing it with a fighting style and outlandish garb. Second, you can fight in front of a background that’s a real-time image of whatever you’re standing on top of. So, “you” can fight a plethora of opponents
But, the best looking (and sounding) PSV game at E3 was Sound Shapes. Developed by wunderkind indie dev Jonathan Mak, the title presents platforming action in a new synaesthetic light. There’s no backing musical track while playing but each quirky shape in the game makes a sound. Successfully, moving through the levels fleshes out the song even more until you get a complete melody. The joy of discovering just where the songs are going to go next propels you through the game. Better still is the capability to build and sahre your own levels, made especially easy by the touchscreen.
Despite these and other promising titles in the works, Sony will have a challenging time carving a slice of the portable gaming market in a post-iOS world. The PSV will have wifi and a 3G option with AT&T (an announcement that elicited groans from people at Sony’s press conference last week) but the PlayStation Network isn’t yet a home for impulse-priced content like the App Store or Android Market. That can change, though, with healthy injections of indie games at launch and over the first few months. Right now, the PlayStation Vita looks like it’s going to fulfill the unmet promise of the PSP: being a hi-def handheld where you can play Sony exclusives without having to compromise on graphics or controls.