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I'm a Dumbass: The Playstation Vita Edition

Why do we do the things we do? Sometimes it's hard to tell. Why, for example, did I spend more than three boring, unpleasant hours standing in dodgy weather on a line well over a city block long outside a tiny little repurposed storefront on the Lower East Side of Manhattan a few weeks ago just to get a few minutes of hands-on time with the Vita? Honestly, I'm not entirely sure.

Sony had advertised the event by saying there'd be a drawing for a free Vita, but based on the signups on Facebook, it looked like somewhere between 500 and 1,000 people were going to show, so the odds of winning the Vita were clearly going to be too small to be meaningful. And since at least another block and a half worth of people arrived after I did, I'd guess that actual attendance was somewhere around the high end of that estimate if not even beyond it.

(Worse yet, when I finally got through the door -- only to spend another fifteen minutes waiting on another line to register so that my name would be entered in the day's various prize drawings -- I found out that Sony had broken its promise, and no Vitas were going to be raffled off, given away, donated, or otherwise dispensed to any attendees. Lying pusbags.)

And to be fair, I have been intrigued, even excited, by the Vita ever since it was first announced with the code name NGP, for Next Generation Portable.

I've been an iPhone owner since the 3G. I use my iPhone 4 for just about everything, from phone calls to VOIP to texting to email to web browsing to keeping up with the RSS feeds I've subscribed to to reading novels and non-fiction to doing my own writing to checking and editing all sorts of documents to, well, you name it. It's fantastic. I'm planning to get the next revision of the iPad if it has a quadrupled-resolution display like the iPhone 4 did, and I know it'll be immediately useful to me in a whole variety of specific and very important ways. And I have little doubt that I'll do my biennial upgrade to whatever iPhone is announced later this year, because I expect it'll be a huge improvement over my existing phone.

But for me, casual touchscreen gaming mostly sucks. It's good for shallow little word games and bite-sized touchscreen puzzle fun like Cut the Rope, but little else. For all that there's an incredible number of games on the App Store, and for all that most of them are dirt cheap, gaming is easily the weakest point in iOS's feature set. Virtual sticks and buttons are crappy and take up too much screen real estate, especially on a little 3.5" pocket-sized device like my phone. And games designed from the ground up around a total lack of buttons and sticks are almost unavoidably shallow. Most forms of gaming with any real depth just plain seem to require sticks and buttons, and the Vita is the first portable to offer a complete set of physical controls.

So, obviously, as a gamer who loves big, deep games, I was very interested in the Vita. But even with all that said, I have a number of very serious misgivings about the future and viability of the platform.

First (and perhaps foremost) is the fact that the world seems to be moving away from dedicated, single-purpose gaming devices. It's widely expected that the Wii U won't do nearly as well as the Wii, and nobody seems too sanguine about the prospects for the next-gen Playstation and XBox. The 3DS tanked on its initial introduction and had to get a hefty price cut before it started selling in somewhat respectable numbers. In the portable realm, many people just seem satisfied to carry around an iPhone or an Android and content themselves with the mostly casual, button- and stick-free games on offer on those platforms.

One reason is that carrying around extra gear legitimately sucks. But I think it's also partly because the economy is in terrible shape and hardly anyone feels secure about the future. Everyone needs a phone, by and large people are switching from land lines to cell phones, and smartphones serve many purposes, so it's not too hard to justify picking one over a dumb feature phone. In fact, I think it's getting harder for a lot of people to justify not having access to email and the web and company assets on the go. But where's the justification -- and where's the spare cash -- for a portable game machine that really doesn't do much of anything else?

Second, the Vita has no built-in storage but requires most customers to buy a memory card to make up for that deficiency because the base models don't come with a card, meaning that the quoted base price of $250 for the WiFi-only unit is a lie, because that $250 won't get you something you can actually use for much of anything.

Third, Sony is up to its old tricks: instead of going with SD cards, they saddled the Vita with a proprietary new memory card format, and surprise surprise, it costs a fortune -- $100 for a piddling 32GB of storage!

Now, granted, it's not impossible to spend that much or more on high-end SD cards. A 32GB SanDisk Extreme Pro, SDHC, UHS-1 card, for example, costs just about $120 from Amazon. But I seriously doubt Sony torqued the specs of their format to equal UHS-1's roughly 95MB/sec read and 90MB/sec write speeds. You need that sort of performance for full HD and 3D video recording, not for simple gaming on a quarter-HD screen.

Between reasons #2 and #3, I think people are quite reasonably going to feel that Sony is trying to gouge and cheat them, which isn't going to do anything good for the Vita's reputation or sales.

Fourth, while the (bogus, fraudulent) $250 base price for the Vita seemed surprisingly reasonable back when it was first announced, after Sony cleverly built up expectations of a much higher price with all their talk of the Vita's great technology and features and the smartphone-and-tablet pricing space they were planning to enter (and back when Nintendo had put the 3DS at the same $250 price point) the bloom has since came off that rose twice -- first when Nintendo was forced to drop the price of the 3DS by a shocking $80 just a few months after launch, and second, when we found out about the obnoxiously expensive proprietary memory card requirement.

And fifth, for a sort of bonus reason, the current incarnation of Sony sucks diseased donkey balls at marketing. Seriously, they couldn't give away free money even if Microsoft advertised it for them. They're that bad.

So why, in light of all these good reasons to fear that the Vita will be pretty much DOA, did I stand outside in the drizzle and cold for hours just to play with some Vitas for a few minutes... and much more to the point, why did I finally cave in and preorder a Vita of my own?

Hell if I know.

Well, OK, that's not quite true. I had enough Amazon bucks in my account that I didn't actually have to pay a cent out of pocket for a base WiFi-only Vita and an 8GB memory card, and GameFly is going to have a bunch of Vita games for rent, so I can dip my toe in the water without too much risk. Worst-case scenario, I can eBay the Vita after a little while for a little less than list. Not the end of the world.

And despite Sony's best efforts to make their Vita hands-on event as unpleasant as humanly possible, the Vita actually did a very good job of selling itself.

Even though I have large hands, it felt good to hold and play with, the sticks were surprisingly responsive and precise, the screen is beautiful -- it only has 85% of the pixels of my smaller iPhone, but it's noticeably larger without sacrificing too much sharpness -- and the d-pad, face buttons, shoulder bumpers, and rear touchscreen offer a fantastic universe of control options and game types that iOS devices, great as they are for other purposes, simply can't come close to matching.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss looked good -- maybe not as good as I might've hoped, since apparently it's rendering to a sub-resolution frame buffer, but still good -- and more importantly, it sounded and felt like an Uncharted game. In the five or ten minutes I played a random segment somewhere in the middle of the game, I felt like I was visiting old friends, and I had every bit as much fun as I did playing the second and third games in the PS3 franchise even if the Vita's visuals weren't similarly breathtaking.

LittleBigPlanet looked fantastic. I didn't actually get to play it (see the above mention of the horrible, horrible job Sony did running the event -- they let too many people in at once and there were never enough Vitas to go around) but I watched some other people playing, and I immediately knew that I want me some of that. LBP is one of my favorite game franchises ever, and unlike the PSP, the Vita actually seems fully capable of serving its needs and capabilities. And the Vita edition of the game is apparently going to ship with even more gameplay than LBP 2 did, so with luck, it'll be a worthy addition to my shelf.

And Sound Shapes was... very interesting, I guess. I don't actually like the look of the game all that much, but the gameplay seemed really solid, and the integration of music into platforming was cool and unique. Besides, and it's another Play, Create, Share title, so if all goes well, it'll offer tons of tons of gameplay over time.

WipEOut 2048 looked sharp and cool, and the PS3 integration seemed excellent, but I didn't stick around to watch because I don't care for racing games.

And Little Deviants... well, it seemed like the obligatory attempt to offer a family-friendly Nintendo-style launch game. If someone mailed me a free copy, I'd play it, but it's not something I'm particularly likely to rent, let alone buy.

I could've wished for the sticks to be a bit bigger, for there to be a bit more space between the sticks and the buttons, and for the shoulder bumpers to feel better (the bumpers themselves feel like little panes of lucite that you're pushing back into a slot by their edges -- not uncomfortable, but not great, either) but overall, the Vita felt, looked and played well.

All told, the launch games in the demo were impressive not just for what they were, but for the potential they show that the Vita has to offer gamers serious hardcore gaming with all the bells and whistles in a small package. If developers spend some time getting to know the platform and the controls it offers and really take advantage of its capabilities... well, damn, they could make some really amazing games. The only question is whether the market will be big enough for it to be worth their while to do so.

 (I'll talk about what I'd like to see Sony do with the Vita in the future in an upcoming -- and much shorter! -- post.)

Obviously in one sense I voted for that future by buying a Vita, and I suppose that's all to the good, but still, I wonder why I spent weeks fighting the urge to buy one and finally succumbed, and I wonder just how staggeringly huge of a dumbass move it was to actually do so.

I haven't noticed many fellow Co-Optimaniacs saying they're getting one. As of this writing, the $300 WiFi/3G launch bundle is #14 on Amazon's Video Game Best Sellers list, above all other consoles and handhelds, so apparently some people are buying Vitas, but obviously I'd much rather game with friends and people who are into co-op, not randoms. So (if anyone's even bothered reading this far) what are you thinking? Have you bought one? Will you buy one? What games are you interested in? Or do you think the platform is doomed?

On the Richter Scale of Stupidity, how idiotic do you think I was for caving in and preordering? Inquiring minds want to know -- or at least one inquiring mind does!

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