Should You Buy a PlayStation Vita? Consult Our 10-Step Guide

Is $199 for Sony's flagship games handheld cheap enough?

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When I was a kid, I dreamed of a handheld like Sony‘s PlayStation Vita: a sleek, powerful, button-rich, almost pocketable micro-console that’d let you play big-system games on a visually arresting screen with virtually no control compromises — and perks to spare.

Sony hit it out of the ballpark, design-wise. There’s nothing quite like the Vita, with its brawny ARM processor bolstering a spacious 5-inch high-resolution screen bracketed by raised analog thumb-sticks and all the control toggles you’d expect from a standard console gamepad, all pretty much where you’d want them to be.

But when the Vita arrived stateside back in February 2012, it was gut-punch expensive: $249 for the system alone, just $50 shy of the price of a new PlayStation 3. And $249 only got you onto the showroom floor: To go home with a workable system, you had to buy a memory card, since the Vita ships without internal storage. Without the memory card, the Vita might as well be a car without wheels.

Instead of rallying around an industry standard like Secure Digital, which would have been the decent, consumer-friendly thing to do, Sony rolled out a line of proprietary, vaguely Memory Stick M2-like memory cards restricted to the Vita itself and priced at absurd levels. A 4GB Vita memory card cost $20 at a time when comparable 4GB memory cards could be found for a couple of bucks. At the high end, a 32GB Vita card went for $100, where comparable 32GB memory cards were available for just over $30. Nintendo’s 3DS, by comparison, takes standard SDHC memory cards, and a 32GB SDHC memory card goes for as little as $20 today.

At Gamescom in Cologne, Germany this week, after a year prevaricating about the Vita’s high price, Sony finally shaved $50 off the handheld’s sticker, dropping the Wi-Fi version to $199 and landing it in threatening distance of Nintendo’s flagship 3DS XL. Sony also promised to drop Vita memory card prices, but didn’t go into specifics, leaving it to vendors like Amazon to do the honors, thus the 4GB Vita card dropped from $20 to $14, the 8GB card from $30 to $23, the 16GB card from $60 to $48 and the 32GB card from $100 to $80.

So…time to buy a Vita? Let’s talk about it.

Why buy a Vita in the first place?

You tell me: Are you a console gamer by nature? Do you want to play games like Uncharted and Metal Gear Solid 2 and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 unadulterated? Do you think stereoscopic 3D’s mostly a gimmick? Does the prospect of playing a first-person shooter with one thumb-stick repel you? Do you hate the way smartphone ports of games nerf or fumble the controls in the transition to multitouch? Are you frustrated with multitouch’s lack of tactile finesse? Would you rather have your eyelids pinned back with barbed wire than play another second of Angry Birds, Doodle Jump, Cut the Rope or Fruit Ninja? The Vita just might be for you.

But $199 still sounds like a lot for a handheld.

$199 is a lot of money, especially with the PlayStation 4 ($399) and Xbox One ($499) threatening wallets in November, but to recapitulate: the eight-year-old PSP costs $99, the 3DS XL weighs in at $199, and even then, the Vita’s far closer — and superior, gaming-wise — to a device like Apple’s iPhone 5, a smartphone that retails, unsubsidized, for between $650 and $850. Up front, $199 for the Vita sounds more than reasonable to me.

Except I still have to buy a memory card.

There’s the rub. The real price of the Vita is $199 plus whatever you can live with, storage-wise. Since most Vita games now ship digitally, and downloading a full game like Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation takes up close to 3GB of space, the notion of buying a 4GB, 8GB or even 16GB memory card seems quaint. Even 32GB feels claustrophobic, which means you’re looking at $199 plus $79, or about $280. $280 is still in the ballpark when you consider what the Vita’s capable of, and $280’s also a lot easier to swallow than $350, which is what you would’ve paid for the same setup prior to last week. Still, $79 is a bundle for just 32GB of flash storage, thus you’ll have to get past the idea that Sony’s still gouging on that memory card purchase. And that’s a toughie; if Sony’s marking the 32GB card up $30-$40, you’re talking the cost of a full Vita game.

Are there other peripherals?

Not really, but you’ll probably want to think about a case ($10-$20), or at least a translucent screen protector, since the Vita has no lid to protect its substantial display real estate.

Okay, but hasn’t the system been selling poorly?

Very poorly, it’s true. Nintendo’s 3DS, which arrived in February 2011, has sold over 30 million units worldwide, whereas the Vita, which launched in December 2011, stands at just over five million units sold worldwide (at times, right up to now, and especially in Europe, it’s even been outsold by the PSP). It’s hard to say why, exactly, but the obvious points would be the system’s too-high price, the exorbitant memory card pricing and the lack of buzz-worthy, must-have games. System sales needn’t be the be-all, end-all when making a purchase decision, but neither should they be ignored, especially if you’re looking for something future-proof — and who isn’t?

Speaking of games, shouldn’t they be the deciding factor?

Indeed they should, and while the Vita has its share of greats, it’s in a developmental pickle: It needs consistent, platform-exclusive triple-A games (or triple-A, word-of-mouth indies) to move hardware, but the system came out of the gate slowly, without a must-have title. And subsequent triple-A partnerships have been disastrous, like the lamentable Call of Duty: Black Ops – Declassified, a mess of a shooter masquerading as a member of a record-breaking franchise that should have sold more systems than there are stars in the sky.

That said, it’s hard to argue with stuff like Persona 4 Golden, LittleBigPlanet PS VitaGuacamelee!Rayman Origins, Hotline Miami, Velocity Ultra, PixelJunk Monsters: Ultimate HD and Sound Shapes. I’m also partial to Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Gravity Rush, Super Stardust Delta, Soul Sacrifice and Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation.

But several of those games are ports, and even the ones that aren’t tend to have niche appeal. Persona 4 Golden is generally hailed as one of the best roleplaying games in gaming history, but if your definition of RPG skews more Western mainstream, say Skyrim, you’re liable to bounce off Persona 4, and alternatives are nonexistent — there’s nothing else even vaguely Skyrim-like in the Vita’s catalog. That lack of strong, multi-genre representation has definitely hurt the system.

Aren’t there better games in the hopper?

Perhaps, though you never know until they’re here. The Vita’s 2013 lineup looks a little scarce to me just now for a system that’s a year-and-a-half old, but a few look promising: Rayman Legends (Sept. 3), Killzone: Mercenary (Sept. 10), Valhalla Knights 3 (Sept. 24), FIFA 14 (Sept. 24), LEGO Marvel Super Heroes (Oct. 22), Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate (Oct. 25) and Tearaway (Nov. 22).

Further down the road, I’d just be guessing. Sony made a big deal about there being 900 games in the Vita’s catalog (including classics, which I gather comprise the lion’s share of that figure), 150 of those built from the ground up for the platform. Peering into 2014’s crystal ball, things get more interesting, with games like Borderlands 2Rogue LegacyHotline Miami 2: Wrong NumberThe Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and Wasteland Kings on the radar.

Should I buy a Vita to play older PSP and PlayStation games?

Are there PSP games you’d want to play but haven’t? That you’d want to re-play? PSOne games you’d like to walk hand-in-hand with down nostalgia lane? The Vita offers a perk here that the PSP didn’t: a much more tolerable screen when up-scaling comparably primitive graphics. Playing PSOne games on the PSP’s tiny screen could be an eye-chore; playing something like Final Fantasy VII or Xenogears on the Vita, speaking from personal experience, is far more tolerable. (If you want to know which PSP and PSOne games are available through the PlayStation Store, Sony maintains an online list of Vita, PSP and PSOne games here.)

Wishful-thinking sidebar: One way Sony could get attention, and the Vita might — I stress might — just be powerful enough to pull it off: add PlayStation 2 emulation and one of the greatest game catalogs in history. Maybe that ARM CPU doesn’t have the get-up-and-go to make it happen, but if it did, imagine the possibilities.

What about PlayStation 4 compatibility?

When the PS4 arrives, Sony says you’ll be able to play nearly all of the new console’s games on the Vita using the PS4’s Remote Play feature (restricted to your Wi-Fi network). That assumes you’re planning to buy a PS4, of course, in which case you’ll be able to pick up your Vita and keep playing a PS4 game without restarting it. There may be control-related downsides, depending on the game, since the Vita lacks the DualShock’s secondary shoulder buttons and thumb-stick triggers, but mostly it’s a question of whether having the option to play PS4 games on the Vita appeals to you.

Is Sony committed to the Vita long-term?

Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida just told CVG that the company plans to stay in the dedicated handheld gaming market, do or die, adding, “We still like PS Vita and we know people who buy it really like it.”

So Vita fans can hope, but companies have a history of dropping consumers on their heads when it suits them. Sony ticked off gamers when it yanked PlayStation 2 compatibility from the PS3 early on, then Linux compatibility later, so there’s reason to be wary. The Vita’s powerful enough to hold its own for years, but if it doesn’t start selling in high numbers and consistently, it’s hard to imagine big-name developers slaving away to make the next BioShockGrand Theft AutoBatman: Arkham City or Half-Life 2 just for it.

Where’s Sony’s Animal Crossing: New Leaf? Fire Emblem: Awakening? Luigi’s Mansion: Dark MoonEtrian Odyssey IV: Legends of the Titan? Pushmo or CrashmoThe Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (3D or no)? That’s what the Vita’s missing — the buzzy must-haves. And that’s what it’s going to take, if Sony hopes to pull off a Nintendo 3DS-style sales turnaround.