On Dec. 17, the PlayStation Vita, Sony’s followup to its PSP gaming handheld, went on sale in Japan, and across the country gamers lined up to get their hands on one. Is it a worthy successor to the PSP? In two words: Oh yes.

However, the PSP, a smash-hit gaming portable in Japan, and the PS Vita are very different devices. Their basic oblong shape is similar, though the Vita is significantly larger, with a 5-inch screen, compared to the PSP’s 4.3-inch one.

Both the front and back of the PS Vita feature touch controls, something absent on the PSP. Touch-screens are quickly becoming standard on electronics. But the addition of “rear-touch” opens up a realm of new possibilities for gaming, as players can seemingly “tickle” the Vita’s back by moving their fingers along the rear of the device.

This dual-touch aspect is a revelation. It could literally change the way portable games are played, much like the Nintendo DS, with its dual-screen displays, did.

Other standout onboard features include back-and-front cameras that have face-tracking and face-detection software, a gyroscope, and GPS for the 3G version — though this requires a 3G subscription with Docomo here in Japan, with several different contracts available. The Vita is also available in a Wifi version.

Considering all those features and that — let’s not lie — this portable is large, it’s surprising how deceptively light the Vita is in the hand. I was expecting something that would be tiring to hold for long periods. It’s not. The Vita’s large size might mean it won’t fit in my back pocket, but who cares; its large size actually means its easier to hold, and the screen is also easier to read. Be warned though, the Vita, like the PSP and the iPhone, is a dust magnet. Get a proper PS Vita case and cleaning cloth if you plan on buying the Vita.

One of the biggest shortcomings for the PSP was that it was outfitted with only one thumbstick, which wasn’t really a thumbstick, but a circular pad. On Sony, and Microsoft videogame controllers, there are dual thumbsticks, along with a directional pad and four face-buttons. The PSP’s singular thumbstick meant that games had to use radically different controls from what players were used to. Some genres, such as first-person shooters, which rely heavily on dual thumbstick controls, became difficult to play on the PSP.

For the Vita, Sony thankfully put dual thumbsticks on the handheld, meaning that gamers can enjoy similar experiences to what they get on the PlayStation 3, with a similar controller layout. That’s good news, because the Vita has a feature called “Remote Play” that currently allows players to access their PS3s via the PlayStation Vita and, in the future, will enable them to play PS3 games on their portable. There will apparently be a drop in image quality, since the PS Vita doesn’t quite have PS3-level graphics. Still, it’s one of the device’s most exciting features.

Even though the graphics aren’t quite as good as on the PS3, they are the best on any gaming handheld I’ve seen, thanks in large part to the Vita’s absolutely stunning OLED screen and some software tech that allows the Vita to run games that almost look as good as those on the PlayStation 3.

At launch, a handful of Vita games are available, such as the golf game “Hot Shots Golf 6” (“Minna no Golf 6”), the fighting game “Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3,” and the adventure game “Uncharted: Golden Abyss.” The top pick is “Uncharted,” one of the PlayStation’s most popular series. The one title to stay far away from is “Ridge Racer.” The game’s developer, Namco Bandai, included only a small handful of race tracks in the game and plans to sell more in the future, meaning this game will ultimately be more expensive than its sticker price lets on.

With the PSP, Sony introduced a new format called UMD, which was supposed to be the next big media format for portable devices. Like BetaMax before it, UMD never quite caught on outside Sony. Thankfully, the Vita ditches UMD for a card-based format. The Vita can run games in either of two ways: via a PS Vita game card or via digital download. The game cards are surprisingly small, and the PS Vita’s memory cards are even smaller. A 4GB PS Vita memory card is so small that it can fit inside the center diameter of my wedding ring! As a result, game cards and memory cards are bound to be lost easily, so be careful.

The PlayStation Vita isn’t only a good-looking piece of hardware, it also features truly elegant software. The graphical user interface is not only beautiful, but intuitive. Anyone who has used a Japanese mobile knows just how fiddly GUIs can get here, with their seemingly endless maze of menus. No doubt one secret of Apple’s success in Japan is a user interface that almost anyone can negotiate right away.

The Vita’s graphical user interface is based on two things: page-turning and bubbles. To click on applications, you simply tap one of the bubble icons on the main screen, or what Sony is calling the LiveArea. Tapping on a bubble brings up whatever application it represents, whether that be Internet, the camera app, a game, a video, whatever. To close the app, you just touch the dog-eared corner and turn a virtual page, closing the app. It’s all so simple and a joy to use.

In an age when more and more people are getting all their mobile gaming done on smartphones, the Vita stands out. It’s an unabashedly hi-tech game handheld, with the multimedia and online features people have come to expect from portable electronics. More than that, it’s unabashedly great.

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