Time is running out for the PlayStation Vita.
Hardware production for the handheld console had already ended in spring 2019, and purchase options for pre-PS4 games were removed from the PlayStation Store back in October 2020. As if that weren’t enough, Sony is also closing the PlayStation Network digital store for the PSP and PS3 in July, and the Vita in August. But the final nail in the console’s coffin is that Sony Japan will no longer accept registrations for new warranty extensions as of March 31.
Sony’s extension program lets players purchase additional coverage within a year of the original device’s warranty for up to two repairs to their console. The current program includes the PS4 and PS4 Pro (both ¥3,300 after tax), and the newly released PS5 (¥4,400 after tax). By announcing the end of the PS Vita’s warranty extension, Sony is signaling that the PS Vita’s era is fading to black.
It’s been a good run for the PS Vita, and “On: Games” was there when it started. In late January 2011, I got my hands on the hardware for the first time, months before it was ever released to the general public. At the time, it was called the NGP, short for Next Generation Portable. This was Sony’s follow-up to its successful PlayStation Portable, but with some serious technology upgrades.
Covering the Tokyo press conference for video game website Kotaku, I remember being in a meeting room with Sony executive Shuhei Yoshida, who handed me the console for the first time. It featured front and rear touch controls, as well as motion sensing and a stunning OLED screen — a clear step above what rival Nintendo was offering, and even better than the PSP. This wasn’t exactly a small handheld, but I was surprised at just how light it was. Yoshida explained that ditching the internal universal media disc drive in favor of flash memory-based cards and digital downloads made for a lighter machine. For a handheld, it was unlike anything I had ever seen.
In the backseat of a taxi returning home after the event, I typed as fast as I could on my laptop, trying to transcribe everything I could recall. Sony, I thought, could have a real winner on its hands.
As a dedicated gaming portable, the PS Vita was the key to moving handheld gaming forward, especially in an age when tablets, with their non-tactical gaming controls, were becoming ubiquitous. This device was slicker, more polished and just oozed cool, like so many of Sony’s best products.
But the history of video games is littered with handheld consoles, and Nintendo is the undisputed king. Sega, SNK Corporation and Bandai Namco, among others, tried to take on the company’s significant market share, but were ultimately destroyed by the mighty Nintendo, who didn’t necessarily release the most popular hardware, but out-packaged everyone, ensuring that its machines had a steady diet of incredible games.
When the Vita finally launched in mid-December of that year, there were customer lines, but nothing like the ones with over a thousand people that formed when the PS3 home console went on sale several years earlier. Sony sold over 300,000 PS Vitas in Japan during that debut week, but sales numbers dropped nearly 80% in the week that followed, eventually settling to around 12,000 units per week. Nintendo still dominated with the 3DS (it sold around 470,000 units its first week in Japan); meanwhile, Sony was also facing additional competition from smartphones and tablets. Succeeding in the handheld space was harder than ever.
Sony did its best to take a page from Nintendo’s playbook and put out a mix of excellent first- and third-party games. For its launch game for the PS Vita, it released the action-adventure title Uncharted: Golden Abyss, which revealed just how good home console-style gaming on a small screen could become. When spinoff games of popular series are brought to portables, it often seems like there is a compromise in quality. Uncharted, however, looked and played great, and was a harbinger of notable Vita games to come, such as Persona 4 Golden and Dragon’s Crown.
The Vita, though, never had its killer app. The Game Boy had Tetris, and the Nintendo DS had Brain Age, but as good as the Vita’s lineup became, there was nothing that made it a must-buy. In Japan, interestingly, one of the most popular games was the Vita version of Minecraft, a franchise owned by rival Microsoft.
“As for the Vita, since Minecraft came out in October 2014, we’ve been able to actively bring on board kids — that is, younger gamers,” Sony executive Atsushi Morita said in a 2017 interview with Nikkei Trendy. I’ve wondered if this was because traditionally console gaming had been more popular in Japan than PC gaming, and the Vita thus became a gateway console for Minecraft, which was originally a PC game.
Looking ahead, will Sony ever release another dedicated gaming handheld? I honestly don’t know. The company’s track record with its PlayStation home consoles has been so spectacular, it’s hard to see them branching out from their established successes.
But it’s hard to forget that evening in that Tokyo conference room, and the exhilarating feeling of testing out the Vita prototype. It was one of the first high-tech handhelds that was primarily a game machine and not, like many modern smart devices, a piece of hardware that also happened to play games. Sony might not have had success with the Vita, but it sure did make a valiant effort.
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