Sunday, July 7, 2013

New to the PlayStation Vita? Here's where to start.

"If someone doesn't love the Vita, I have to suggest it's because they don't have one."

This is a resource for folks who've recently picked up Sony's sweet little handheld, and wouldn't mind a brief tour of what the platform offers.  If you're interested in its multitude of handy apps and social networking features, I'm sorry, but you'll have to look elsewhere.  I didn't buy my Vita for Twitter, I don't use it for that, and I couldn't begin explaining it.  I think I've used Netflix on it like twice, though the YouTube app ain't bad.

As a general rule I use it to play video games, and the good news is if you too love video games, you've made a good choice.  I've tried and failed many times over the years to fall in love with a gaming handheld, and the Vita is the only mobile platform that's ever truly stolen my heart.

The Vita requires a large initial investment if you want to get the most out of it. If you've just come home with a bundle from the store that includes a game cart and a 4 GB memory card, I strongly suggest you trot straight back to the store, pay (through the nose) for a (ridiculously over-priced proprietary format) 32 GB memory card, and (at least one) fifty dollar PlayStation Network card.

Keep in mind, you don't need to.  You can buy all or most of your games in physical form if you like, and I've not yet seen a Vita game that requires much more than 3GB of storage space - but again, my recommendation is a huge memory card, and at least fifty bucks worth of PSN funbucks.

What's the $50 PSN card for?  PlayStation Plus.

(If you've already read the "New to the PS3" post, you get the gist - skip this part.)

PlayStation Plus is a subscription service which regularly offers significant discounts on games purchased through the PlayStation Network, provides a ton of free, high-quality games to its members, and essentially turns your Vita into a self-aware gaming butler as it automatically downloads updates for your games and uploads all your saves to cloud storage for safe keeping.

The current (July 2nd, 2013) PlayStation Plus Instant Game Collection lineup.
For the future, you can see the updated lineup right here.

At first glance, if you only have a Vita, PlayStation Plus may not seem like a very sweet deal.  The Vita-specific section of the Instant Game Collection (on the right) is a bit slimmer than the PS3 side, but keep in mind, Knytt Underground and Machinarium are both Vita titles as well.  That's eight Vita games, immediately, in your pocket - with new titles rotated out of the IGC as new ones arrive each month.

So your fifty dollar year-long subscription (you could also go with eighteen bucks for a three-month sub) nets you Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, Gods Eater Burst, Germinator, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Gravity Rush, WipEout 2048, Machinarium and Knytt Underground.

Were you to purchase these titles from the PlayStation Network store, it would cost you $178.00.  "But Chance," you might say,  "I don't want all those little games - I just want Uncharted and Gravity Rush - I've heard good things!"

Those are awesome games!  And those two alone would currently set you back $72, if you got the $35.99 digital version off the PlayStation Network, which are each four bucks cheaper than the games' current MSRP.

If you have a Vita and a PS3, the deal gets even better.

PS+ members got 64 games across PS3 and Vita in the IGC's first year - that's just over seventy-eight cents each.

So what's the deal?
  • You must grab the free games while available to associate them with your account. You can associate the games to your account without downloading, to save them for later, if you prefer.
  • Games received free through PS+ are yours to keep as long as you are a Plus subscriber. 
  • If your Plus subscription ends, you will no longer be able to play the games you received free. 
  • If you sign back up for PlayStation Plus after your subscription lapsed, you will be able to play the games you "purchased" again. 
  • Any games purchased through a PlayStation Plus discount (I bought the Vita port of Mortal Kombat 9 for five bucks last week) are yours to keep, forever, regardless of your membership status. 
  • If you have a PS3, PlayStation Vita and PS4, you don't need three separate PlayStation Plus subscriptions.  Once subscription covers all three platform, and nets you the freebies across all three. 
So it's a really good deal.  It pays for itself in the first day, and just keeps adding value over the rest of the year.  Not all PS+ freebies are fantastic gems you've been dying to get your hands on - but most are.

Moving on, the Vita's had a fine first seventeen months of releases with a few bare patches, but at this point - early July 2013 - I'd call the library excellent.

Do you love classic gaming?  Do you wish you could play Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil 2 on a handheld?  You can on the Vita - and having old console games on the go is pretty darned cool.

Did you love your PSP and still want to be able to play Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Valkyria Chronicles II, God of War: Ghost of Sparta and Patapon 2 on your new handheld?  They all work on Vita.

It also supports all PlayStation Mobile games (a gaming standard Sony uses to slap PlayStation brand certification on smaller, touch-control smartphone games), but rare indeed is the PlayStation Mobile gem.  If you have classics you adore, you're no doubt already aware of their existence, and I needn't belabor their presence here.

While bigger titles drop on the Vita somewhat sparsely since its launch (it has a small install base in North America), it's seen a lot of excellent, high-quality indie fare lately - and will continue to enjoy such releases for the forseeable future.

What're the games you need to check out?  Let's break it down.  I'll note spiritually-similar but less-excellent alternatives below a title if need be.  Games are listed in reverse chronological order, newest first.

Dead Nation [review] (PSN only - cross-buy)
An intelligently-constructed blend of twin-stick shooting and the horror genre, Dead Nation is a pure arcade experience with a pleasingly pulpy presentation.
Dustforce [review] (PSN only)
A beautiful and rock-hard platformer, Dustforce mixes techno-zen music with a sky-high challenge, once you're past the tutorial.  Uncompromising and pure.
Olli Olli [review] (PSN only - cross-buy)
A compact, challenging and razor-sharp little 2D skateboarding game, Olli Olli is perfect for a few quick runs when you've got ten minutes to kill.

Tearaway [review]
A sweet, charming little adventure-platformer that takes capable advantage of every single feature the Vita offers - touch screen, rear touch pad, tilt sensor and microphone - Tearaway is more than just a cute face.  With lean, smart design and something beautiful and meaningful to say about games, gamers and the relationship between the two, it's an instant classic.

Killzone Mercenary [review]
Gamers have been waiting patiently for a first-person shooter on the Vita that actually lives up to the handheld's potential, and Killzone Mercenary is it.  It plays beautifully, sounds fantastic and is - honestly - shockingly good-looking.  Many, many developers have tried (and failed) to produce a capable, comfortable, full-featured FPS on handheld platforms - but Killzone Mercenary has planted its flag.

It's the new gold standard. Highlyrecommended.  

Dragon's Crown [review]
From Vanillaware, masters of the 2D form, comes an absolutely spectacular 2D brawler RPG in the spirit of Golden Axe and Dungeons & Dragons : Tower of Doom.  Dragon's Crown is a stunningly beautiful co-op brawler (that's still tons of fun solo) that you can breeze through on a single character in 20 hours, or spend hundreds of hours enjoying.  I lean towards the latter.  Highly, highly recommended.  

Velocity Ultra [review] (PSN only)
A tightly-designed riff on the scrolling shoot 'em up, Velocity Ultra is one of those rare PlayStation Mobile gems that was so critically acclaimed and commercially successful, it received an HD face-lift and a Vita-native version from developer FuturLab.  A very fun title custom-bred for bite-sized gaming on the go, it boasts comfy shooting mechanics and the (really well-realized) twist of a ship that can teleport to anywhere onscreen at will as you blast through a sci-fi world, rescuing the otherwise-doomed population of the future.

Also see Super Stardust Delta, which isn't so much less-excellent as it is less-interesting than this cool, weird little indie, and Sine Mora, an absolutely gorgeous side-scrolling bullet-hell shoot 'em up with a dark story, solid mechanics and a few hard design trip-ups.

Muramasa Rebirth [review]
While perhaps not the objectively "best" game on the platform, it's certainly the best-looking, and my absolute favorite Vita title by a very wide margin.  A sprite-based 2D action-RPG that's light on the platforming and heavy on the action via slick swordplay brawling, Muramasa Rebirth sets the player loose in a sprawling, gorgeous free-roaming rendition of Edo-period Japan that can be "beaten" in less than twenty hours, and mastered in around seventy.  Highlyrecommended.  

Also see Ragnarok Odyssey.

Hotline Miami [review] (PSN only - cross buy)
An ultraviolent sixteen-bit top-down 2D game that could almost be described as an "action-puzzler," Hotline Miami is a mainline of blood, gore and a sultry, bass-heavy synth soundtrack that cranks the almost-offputting immersion of its adrenaline-fueled bursts of brutality.  Its gameplay isn't as perfect as some reviewers may have led you to believe, but it's totally unique, gripping experience - with some nice improvements over the PC version for the Vita.

Check it out, if you're not of a delicate constitution.

Limbo [review of the 360 version] (PSN only - cross-buy)
A stark, eerie 2D puzzle-platformer with a gentle but creepy symbolic examination of the terrible things little boys do, Limbo boast excellent design with its steadily-escalating physics-based puzzles, but at only a few hours is a bit pricy.  The fact that a single purchase will get you both PS3 and Vita versions certainly soothes the sting.  Limbo's Vita version is a flawless port of the original.

Also see Escape Plan, a lighthearted little puzzle-platformer from the Vita's launch window, and Machinarium, a gorgeous 2D sprite-based old-school adventure game with seriously challenging puzzles.

Guacamelee! [review] (PSN only - cross-buy)
Easily one of the best games on the platform, Guacamelee is a remarkably accomplished indie metroidvania brawler, with striking presentation that could easily be mistaken for concept art and a fun, whimsical narrative. Great music, very fun combat, and a huge world to explore - it's an absolute pleasure.  I've probably beaten this game a dozen times, and I have little doubt I'll be returning to it again.  Highly recommended. 

Also see Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus, an excellent HD up-port of the classic, supremely challenging brawler.

Persona 4 Golden [review of the PS2 original]
Persona 4 Golden - with new HD graphics, new side-stories, characters, quests and cutscenes - is the definitive edition of Shin Megami Tensei : Persona 4, which, coming late in the console's life, is generally considered the best RPG to ever grace the PlayStation 2.  An eighty-plus hour title with a ton of characters to meet and relationships to form, it's my favorite classic-style turn-based JRPG.   Highly recommended.

Also see Disgaea 3: Absence of Detention, Atelier Totori Plus: The Adventurer of Arland.

Metal Gear Solid HD Collection
Another great HD up-port of PS2 classics, Metal Gear Solid HD Collection offers the original Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2 : Solid Snake along with Metal Gear Solid : Sons of Liberty and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.  If you don't know what any of that means, you won't care, and you probably shouldn't experiment with these - but for folks who love the weird, heavily-story driven stealth-action of Hideo Kojima, this is a must-buy.

Gravity Rush [review]
If there's a spiritual equivalent to inFamous's gleeful open-world platforming on the Vita, it's Gravity Rush.  With a totally-unique flight mechanic, a gorgeous, massive open world to explore and a zany magical girl plot, Gravity Rush was an early standout on the Vita and remains a very special, very valuable experience to this day.  Highly recommended.

Also see Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, a brand new Sly title that's about as good as the ones on PS2, but not an evolution of the franchise in any way and  Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, a not-bad attempt to recreate the Assassin's Creed franchise on the handheld.

Rayman Origins [review]
A perfect port of the PS3/360 surprise hit, Rayman Origins is a gorgeous sprite-based 2D platformer with excellent presentation and music, but more than that it's one of the best-designed pure platformers you'll ever play, with a steadily mounting challenge that goes from a simple jump to the most insane feats of dexterity you'll find this side of Super Meat Boy.  Highly recommended.

Also see Rayman Legends, which has its moments but doesn't approach Origins' consistent high quality.

Uncharted : Golden Abyss [review]
The first game to truly keep the Vita's promise of console-quality games on the go, Golden Abyss is an excellent side story and riff on the Uncharted formula of tight third-person cover-based shooting supported by detours into light platforming and puzzle solving.

Also see Unit 13.

WipEout 2048
Every PlayStation needs a WipEout title, and I've been trying to like these futuristic racing games for years (they're incredibly popular), but it wasn't until 2048 that I actually found myself thrilled by and enjoying one.  It's so damned good that, after falling for it and trying out WipEout HD on my PS3, I threw up my hands in disgust at the lack of new, unlockable ships and immediately returned to the 2048 on Vita.   Definitely worth checking out.

Also see Need for Speed: Most Wanted.

And while - Virtua Fighter aside - I'm not much of a fighting game guy, I feel I'd be remiss in my duties if I didn't tell you that BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend, Mortal Kombat 9 and Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 all have Vita ports, and they're all supposed to be excellent.

And that... should get you started.

Any questions?  Fire away in the comments.


  1. I got a Vita at launch, and i've loved every second with it. Granted, there are weeks here and there were its stayed in a drawer collecting dust, but as soon as I hit the power button, it's ready to go again, instantaneously (the same can't be said about my 3ds). There is so much to choose from on Vita, but to anyone unfamiliar, it can seem daunting to spend so much on a system when you see the small catalog of physical games, at least in the outlets here in NC. Target, Gamestop, Walmart, Best Buy, all have pretty sparse offerings as far as Vita games. The PSN is where the Vita really shines, and since Sony was pushing for a mostly digital system, the fact that memory is so expensive seems like one of the few missteps Sony has made with the system. The price of the higher sized memory cards is ridiculous, if I have anywhere near that money at a given time, it isn't going towards a memory upgrade, its going towards another game. Hence, I will forever be stuck with an eight gig card. If only the Vita had the hard drive capacity that PS3 had, it would be much more successful, at least with someone like me, who shies away from the bigger file sizes of games on the PSN for the reason that i'd have to delete my mainstays just to accomodate.

    That said, I've found plenty of awesome, and tiny, games available on the Vita: Guacamelee, Mutant Blobs, Tetris, Hotline Miami, GTA Chinatown Wars, Plants Versus Zombies, Metal Slug X, Motorstorm RC, the list goes on. If only the memory was more robust, this thing would be like a gaming Ipod, but for now with its limits (or rather, my monetary limits), it feels more like minidisk - not quite there, but it has the right idea.

  2. Yeah, the library absolutely explodes once you add PS1/PSP/PSN titles to the mix.