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Historically, Nintendo’s GameBoy consoles have always defined the handheld gaming experience. Intermittent efforts from Sega and Sony over the years have been unable to unseat Nintendo as the king of handhelds.
According to the latest sales figures from Sony, the PS Vita has surpassed 1.2 million units sold worldwide, despite an unenthusiastic reception in Sony’s home country of Japan.
In Europe, first week sales of the PS Vita outsold Nintendo’s new handheld console, the 3DS. In the United States and Japan, however, first-week sales figures for the Vita lagged behind other handheld gaming consoles of the current and previous generations.
The 3DS sold seven times as many units as the PS Vita worldwide last week. 3DS games have also sold well, making up 7 of the top 10 best-selling games of the previous week.
Nintendo’s perennial success with handhelds has had a massive effect on the platform as a whole. Of the top five best-selling handheld consoles of all time, four of them are made by Nintendo. Gamers who play handhelds have come to expect a certain experience, and this experience has been almost entirely defined by Nintendo’s vision.
The PS Vita also has its own strong vision for itself. It is meant to be the home console experience in your hands, with a large, high-definition screen and graphics comparable to the home experience. And this, possibly, is where it went wrong: It’s stepping on too many toes at once.
For the cost of a PS Vita (about $300 USD), you could buy an actual home console. And because the Vita requires a memory card made by Sony, that only works with the Vita, for an addition $100, you could probably find a Nintendo DS on the cheap for that price as well.
Handheld gamers do not expect, and quite possibly are not even enticed by, the ability to play home console games on a handheld system. The most popular handheld games by far are iOS games, which are often quick, shallow, and addictive. Even GameBoy and DS games are largely episodic, with frequent opportunities to quit and come back later.
Console games, on the other hand, are meant for prolonged play. To try to fit a full console experience into an intrinsically stop-and-go format is at worst a misjudgement of the nature and appeal of the platform.
At best, it suits a very particular, perhaps European, demographic. If you do not have the space in your apartment for a home entertainment system, and use trains or busses more often than a car to get from place to place, being able to experience console gaming in a handheld format could have appeal.
Taking into consideration, however, that the largest gaming markets are in the United States and Japan, the Vita seems poorly thought through. For now, gamers who want a home console experience still prefer to play on an actual home console. Add to that the exorbitant price tag of the Vita, its aesthetically unimpressive OS, and the additional hidden cost of a proprietary memory stick, and the Vita seems to be stepping on its own toes as well.