"Did you hear about the Vita? It's dead." That was a friend's greeting on Friday morning. (Actually, he started off by asking if I'd brought in any Pop-Tarts. The Vita came second, but lead to a more interesting discussion.)
My friend's reasoning was relatively sound, I think. SCE exec Masayasu Itu had just been quoted reiterating the fact that Sony's first party studios have no titles in development for the handhold. "Since third parties are working very hard on PS Vita, SCE's own strategy is to focus on PS4."
This was not exactly unexpected, to be honest. PlayStation's worldwide studio boss Shuhei Yoshida said much the same thing back at E3, and at this year's EGX, he said that the market wasn't right for a successor, either - hardly an indicator that the Vita's fortunes were on the rise internally. On balance, though, I'm not as concerned as I probably would have been if this whole situation was playing out, say, a decade ago. I love the Vita, and one of the things that has probably shaped my love it it is the difficulties it's had finding a place for itself in the world - and it's these same difficulties that should hopefully give it a bit of an extra life now that first-party publishing has dried up.
I've loved the Vita since I first held it. Before then, granted, it was a much harder sell. Sony tends to unveil its new hardware in ways that stress its cold, clinical, luxurious beauty: the Vita was announced with the slightly anonymising slickness with which perfume or sports cars are marketed. There were hints early on that this was a little different, of course, but it wasn't until I had the thing in my hands that I saw just how different it was. The Vita wasn't so much a bet on the future as a bet on a series of possible futures - a riot of inputs and interaction possibilities that made it resemble, in the words of a dear friend, that car that Homer Simpson designed.
Thumbsticks! Face buttons! Touchscreens! Rear touchscreens! Motion control! Here was a device with a riot of inputs, and that sheer wealth of possibilities gave the whole thing a sort of anthropomorphic pluckiness that outshone even the OLED screen. It also lent the early software a chaotic thrill as even the blandest of adventures were enlivened by moments in which you had to stroke, to tap, to tilt, seemingly for no reason other than that the device was set up to allow you to. Remember Gravity Rush? You start Gravity Rush, if I have this correctly filed away, by shaking an apple out of a tree. The Vita inherited a lot of these inputs from smartphones, of course, a class of device that had clearly contributed to its gleeful identity crisis, but here was a smartphone-ified device that had, from the off, a custodian that truly cared about games.
The question since them has always been: which games? Uncharted never really fit in - the launch title certainly looked the part, but the pacing of a cinematic game grinds against a device that you're meant to whip out on the bus, while the spectacle Naughty Dog's series requires to paper over its many systemic shortcomings was hard to conjure on a smaller screen - even one as bright and clear as the Vita's. Ditto Resistance, although I will admit to a lingering fondness for the fireman's axe melee attack that lent a cheerful sense of weight to the otherwise throwaway Burning Skies. Gravity Rush was a delight, of course, but it was a game as weird as the hardware it played on: the story of a clumsy arriviste superhero exploring an open world that owed as much to Mucha as it did Crackdown. Niche, lovable game defines niche, lovable console? There is some truth to that.
I would love to be looking back on a history of lavish first-party follies, but that was never really going to happen. What did happen, though, was still pretty wonderful: somewhere along the line, Sony did was very few big companies seem to be able to do. Sony swallowed its pride and all but gave Vita over to the indies.
An easy decision, perhaps, given the machine's triple-A earnings weren't likely to be sparked back to life anytime soon, but it still feels like a generous decision from a huge industry-spanning corporation. And it works, too, at least philosophically: Vita's freewheeling and often nutty collection of features proved a natural fit for indies who suddenly had a perversely lavish hardware to experiment with.
And even when they ignored the weirder inputs, there's still something pretty special about some of the games that eventually went on to define the Vita. Hohokum may not use tilt or the rear touchscreen, but Honeyslug's game feels far more alive on Vita than it does on the big telly. Suddenly, here is a vibrant world you can hold in your hands, visit while under a duvet, and sling into a satchel to spark up in the school common room. Digital games become physical objects when they're on a handheld in a way that I still find quite mysterious and powerful. Think back to that wonderful Proteus Vita trailer, where Ed Key is yomping through the Cumbrian wilds, Vita extended before him and then - schwwwmmmm - he's on the top deck of a bus, lost in the huge bright world on that tiny screen.
I've got so many memories like that. So many places I've been and taken the Vita with me. Of late, CounterSpy's been my favourite Vita game, and again, I prefer it on the handheld to the PS4 version which I can enjoy on the big TV in the living room. The fiction of CounterSpy works better on the Vita: you're a hi-tech cold war spy acting out your espionage adventures on a device that looks a bit like a Bond gadget.
The Vita may be over in the traditional sense, then, but there's a strange zombie life in it yet, and I'm happy for that. Sony's quirky handheld may be sliding towards gaming's past, but with those wonderful floating triggers beneath your fingers and Hohokum warping and washing across that screen in all its glory, it still feels an awful lot like the future.