I still remember playing my Gameboy in the back of the family station wagon, the black and white screen almost impossible to see in the after-school gloom of a winter evening. But kids these days are lucky: They have stuff like the PlayStation Vita to tinker with instead. They're gaming consoles that have huge, bright screens and enough computing power to put a man on the moon.
The Vita is Sony's latest game machine, built from the ground up to act as a handheld console, a multimedia movie and music player, and, most interestingly, a mini web-browsing device. In short, it's really cool and I assure you there's a youngster in your house who has his or her eye on one.
The question, then, is should you pick one up?
The Vita is an odd duck. It looks like a standard handheld console -- joysticks on the left and right sides, a big, bright screen, and lots of buttons -- and it has a cool rear touchscreen that lets you control characters with more than just your thumbs. The console uses tiny, SD-card-like cartridges, although Sony will soon offer a full catalog of game downloads including old-school PS2 titles.
Unlike the Nintendo 3DS, the Vita is all about graphics. Gone are the days of blocky polygon characters and low-resolution worlds. On this, the games look amazing -- on par with a large console like the Xbox 360 or PS3 rather than a standard handheld gadget. You'll be amazed at the detail in some of the more complex offerings.
Parents will love the Vita because it is being released alongside a plethora of cool, kid-friendly games including FIFA Soccer, Mod Nation Racers: Road Trip, and Little Deviants, a game that pits quirky little aliens against evil Botz. There aren't many ultraviolet shooters to be found, at least in the first crop of games, although there is Uncharted: Golden Abyss for fans of Indiana Jones-like adventures.
The Vita also acts as a mini tablet computer with a browser and music/video player built-in. You can download videos for later consumption and there are apps for chatting with friends and joining in with other other players. Sony offers Music Unlimited, a music streaming service for listening to tunes on the go.
The console also supports AT&T broadband access so you can browse the Internet and download content. Games cost as much as $45 but can go as low as about $6 for older titles and PSP games. Fans of older titles will love the Vita's ability to download classics like Final Fantasy Tactics and, thanks to the Vita's powerful graphics chip, the games look great.
The Vita can double as a tablet device, allowing kids to browse the Internet without depending on your iPad. It's a cool feature that adds quite a bit of value to what would normally be considered a gaming console. The Vita even has a mapping app for finding your way around town.
Sony is up against a weird games market. Although the Vita's main competitor is the Nintendo 3DS, this console also has to compete with iPhones, Android devices, and tablets. There are so many amazing games out there, including casual ones like Cut the Rope and Angry Birds, that gamers are almost overwhelmed with options. The Vita will have to cut through the clutter and offer a distinct and compelling gaming experience, which I believe it does.
The Wi-Fi-only version of the Vita costs $249 while the Wi-Fi and AT&T wireless data model costs $299. Compared to a similarly outfitted phone, the Vita isn't much of a bargain, although it is a dedicated handheld system and features more and better games than any Droid or iPhone.
Older kids will really love the Vita for its excellent graphics and gameplay. Kids who have outgrown the antics of Mario and Star Fox will appreciate the more in-depth gaming found on the Vita, and for Sony fans, picking up this console is a no-brainer. PSP owners will notice that the Vita is much lighter and easier to hold than Sony's old console, and new users will marvel at the huge, bright screen.
Do you need another $250 console in the house? If this is the only one you buy this year (or for the next few years), do your homework to ensure that current and future game titles are exactly what you're looking for. There's no way to compare this with the Nintendo 3DS -- Sony and Nintendo are diametrically opposed when it comes to titles, with Nintendo trending towards the kiddies and Sony trending towards the 10+ gamer -- so go into the store prepared to choose based on games and gameplay rather than price.
If you have a PS3, the Vita has some great gameplay connectivity features that let you download games from your console and play them on the handheld.
In short, the Vita is Sony's semi-annual update to its storied handheld line, and it's well worth the price of admission -- if you know what you're looking for. Now if you'll excuse me, there are some Mayan temples I need to explore and some races I need to win.
Image via Sony