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What's Next for PlayStation Vita, Sony's Little Portable That Couldn't?

First-party titles are no longer in development, but a few gaming subcultures remain perfect for the handheld.
October 26, 2015, 10:00am

It's well-known that the PlayStation Vita hasn't been a spectacular performer for Sony. Over the years, the shelf space dedicated to the platform has steadily dwindled at every major retailer, leaving you lucky to find any physical games to buy that aren't either Minecraft or a Lego tie-in.

Even in Japan, where the system is much healthier, sales for the platform are still a far cry from that of Sony's earlier handheld, the PSP, primarily due to third-party publisher Capcom opting to move its multimillion-selling juggernaut Monster Hunter franchise to Nintendo's 3DS. Even an attempt to package Vita functionality into Sony's set-top streaming device, the PlayStation TV, doesn't seem to have helped spur a new wave of Vita development.

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The company's been hinting that Vita is on its way out for a while now. After a flashy E3 press conference with numerous bombshell announcements—none of which involved the Vita—Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios President Shuhei Yoshida said that Sony's first party studios weren't working on any "big" Vita games.

While that statement was a bit ambiguous, one given by SVP Masayasu Ito to Japanese site 4Gamer last week was decidedly not: Sony's first party development studios have halted Vita development and have shifted focus entirely to the PS4. The console will essentially be living on third party games from this point onwards, though the possibility remains that SCE might publish games it outsourced to other developers.

A successor for the Vita is incredibly unlikely, given the current mobile gaming economy where smartphones reign as kings of the realm. But is the Vita well and truly dead? While the Vita's fate might look sealed to many, the platform still has the potential to flourish in a smaller capacity. Though the big name franchises like Assassin's Creed and Call of Duty might be gone, the Vita is a perfect host for indie games and localizations of underrepresented genres from Japan.

Sony made a big push to get indie games onto the platform from its inception, and most indie games that show up on the PS4 come with a Vita version in tow, though it remains to be seen if this will continue being a trend. The Vita is a better fit for many of these titles than smartphones, as it offers a big, horizontally oriented screen with a proper set of buttons, analog sticks, and a D-pad. There is something truly wonderful about being able to play things like Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, and Super Time Force Ultra on the go, and if it continues, the Vita could become the premier platform for a quality portable indie-game experience.

The bulk of the still to-be-released announced Vita games, however, are localizations of titles from Japan. Smaller publishers like NIS America, Aksys Games, Atlus, and Idea Factory International have been publishing the bulk of Vita releases, consisting primarily of text-heavy role-playing and strategy games with anime aesthetics. The small but devoted audience for these titles eats them up. (In fact, there are still two RPGs scheduled for release online in PSP format, a system dead by practically every standard, but whose format survives due to Vita backwards compatibility.)

One still fairly under-the-radar Japanese genre that has experienced a great deal of popularity in the English-speaking Vita market is the visual novel: mostly text-and-menu driven adventures with novella-style narration, still images, and voiceovers. Games like Steins;Gate and the Danganronpa series have made a big splash on the Vita, where it's easy to sit back and enjoy reading through reams of dialogue on the go as one would a novel.

Even more interestingly, a subgenre of visual novels has become a mainstay of the platform: otome games like Hakuoki, Amnesia: Memories, and Code Realize, where you play as a female protagonist in a romantic adventure surrounded by attractive young men, have a big presence on the Vita.

So what does this mean if you're a current Vita owner? Even though you won't get any more big-budget first-party releases, there's now an amazing opportunity to broaden your gaming horizons beyond big Western AAA franchises with the current crop of Vita software. The small companies that are still avid Vita supporters don't seem to be stopping, and there's still a good deal of support amongst Japanese developers, so there will likely be some more interesting little titles coming down the pipes well into 2016. The original dream of the Vita—having portable versions of the biggest Sony games—might be dead, but the console's still got an interesting second life ahead of it.