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On the Subject of the PlayStation Vita, and the Games You Should Be Watching Out For

On the eve of the Japanese launch, Alex takes a brief tour through the Vita's prospective American launch titles, and finds much to like.

The handheld market is in decline. Of this much, there is little to argue with. Though the 3DS has picked up steam in the time since the hardware's price drop and the holiday run on all things video game, its launch was still something of a wake-up call for Nintendo. After sending the 3DS out into the wild with little support beyond the token notion of 3D being awesome and an array of games that barely bothered to showcase the supposed awesomeness, the company found itself scrambling to recapture the attention of gamers who all but dismissed the system outright.

That initial failure of the 3DS sounded a number of alarm bells among the various talking heads of the industry in regards to all things handheld. Suddenly, the iPhone/iPad was the portable gaming device of the moment. Nintendo had begun to look like a stubborn dinosaur, unwilling to adjust its strategy in the wake of the coming iOS tide.

The Vita has arrived in Japan. Is America ready?
The Vita has arrived in Japan. Is America ready?

While all of this hand-wringing and shouting was going on, another player sat quietly in the corner of the room. With its own new handheld system on the horizon, one might think that Sony would be doing everything it could to shout down the foretold death of the handheld console. You'd have expected them to come out guns blazing, blasting everyone with the myriad technical marvels of their new system as loudly as possible. You half expected the word Vita to be plastered over every billboard, every TV ad, for the entire six months prior to the system's North American launch in February.

Intriguingly, Sony hasn't done that. Apart from this year's E3, where the Vita's pricing and initial lineup of games featured rather prominently, Sony has been oddly quiet about the upcoming console launch. The company's focus has been squarely on this holiday season's PlayStation 3 lineup, and word regarding the Vita itself has been largely relegated to various Sony press events, where games were simply on display for the playing, without a ton of fanfare.

There is something kind of great about that approach. Rather than trying too hard to capture everyone's attention, one gets the feeling that Sony is quietly preparing to go very, very big. Rather than tire itself out early, before everything was prepped and ready to show, the console maker has simply stayed in the background, silently amassing a shockingly strong lineup of launch (or, at least, launch window) games that more than ably show off the various technical delights of the system. It's like that episode of The Simpsons, where the Yakuza are fighting the mob on the family's front lawn. Sony is like that little guy in the white suit who does nothing. Homer knows he's going to do something awesome when the time is right, but until then, he just stands there, waiting.

While Sony Computer Entertainment America waits to unleash the Vita on the mostly unsuspecting public, its Japanese counterpart has just launched the console in its native country. While the relatively paltry couple of months between now and then likely means that few will bother to import the system, it occurred to me that very little has been said in regards to which of the Vita's various launch games actually look like titles worth picking up a system for. The good news? There look to be several.

Over the last few months, I've had the chance to play the vast bulk of the Vita's early lineup, and while these have only been brief hands-on sessions, I've come away more than pleased with how most of these games are coming together. While it's been par for the course for a while now that consoles tend to launch with a fairly meager offering of games, the Vita's launch (and the weeks that follow it) look primed to actually buck that trend.

But enough chatter. Here are five games that any prospective Vita owner ought to be paying rapt attention to. I can't guarantee they'll be great in the end, but they nonetheless impressed me in the short bursts in which I've played them.

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Sound Shapes

Jonathan Mak's follow-up to the critically acclaimed Everyday Shooter has garnered much of the buzz for the system coming out of E3, and rightfully so. Essentially a "musical platformer," the game gives you a ball to navigate through worlds filled with notes. Collecting the notes is both vital for completing the level, but also for completing the song that plays underneath the stage. The music itself is timed with the obstacles and pitfalls of the level. It's not completely dissimilar to Everyday Shooter's methodology of intertwining the soundtrack and the shooting of enemies, but here, the soundtrack plays an even more important role.

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Both times I've seen Sound Shapes, I've had the chance to check out the robust level creation system, which is one of the game's more heralded features. I am awful with level creators, but the relatively simple interface, mixed with the intuitive front- and rear-touch controls make designing levels not only relatively easy, but actually kind of fun. It's an incredibly sharp-looking, gorgeous-sounding game that, despite its premise, isn't even one of the weirder Vita launch games. It's a perfect example of how for Vita, Sony seems totally willing to embrace the fringe sides of gaming often relegated to the PlayStation Network Store on the PS3. It's also a hell of a lot of fun.

Escape Plan

This is one of the more recently-revealed titles for the Vita lineup, and also one of the most intriguing. Developed by the same studio that previously brought us Fat Princess, Escape Plan revolves around a pair of captives--the sprightly Lil and the lumbering Laarg--have to navigate a series of pitfalls and traps in order to escape an elaborately constructed prison. Similar to the sort of gameplay inherent to the Lemmings series, each character moves as you instruct them on a set path. Your goal is to move them, as well as the various traps, using both the front- and rear-touch mechanics. In one case, you might need to make a path using unextended platforms. Simply tapping on them from the rear will cause them to jut back into a navigable place. Maybe you need to get to a higher place? Just move Lil over to an air hose to blow him up into a balloon. Just be sure to watch out for traps, and to not run out of air before you get to the top.

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I am perhaps not selling the cleverness of this game's mechanics to the best of my abilities, but I assure you that's in service of not spoiling some of the cooler late-game puzzles I got a brief look at. The game will often toss a number of different objectives at you in rapid-succession, requiring you to both think critically and think quickly. Coupled with the game's wonderful, black-and-white cartoon art style, and a charming, Warner Bros.-inspired sense of humor (albeit a very violent spin on that kind of cartoon slapstick), Escape Plan really impressed me quite a bit. Fortunately, it sounds like this one will be hitting right around launch. Here's hoping it pans out as well as it showed.

LittleBigPlanet

Perhaps this one is a bit of a given. LittleBigPlanet on the PSP was a pretty great game, and this version looks to be no different. Actually, perhaps that's a poor choice of words. It's actually quite different, thanks to the various touch mechanics of the Vita. Yes, you can still control the game using a proper analog stick, but the levels I saw mixed and matched the front-touch, rear-touch, and motion-detection to craft a variety of new ways to bring Sack Boy and his pals to the end of a level.

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Though Media Molecule doesn't have a direct hand in the development of this latest LBP, you'd be hard-pressed to notice the difference. Mechanically it feels very much like the LBP of old, except with a new array of mechanics to play around with, both in the main game and in the robust level creator, which series fans undoubtedly recognize as the franchise's bread and butter. If you're a fan of LittleBigPlanet, and have any intention of buying a Vita, I can see no reason why you wouldn't want this.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss

Here's the interesting thing about Uncharted: Golden Abyss: I've played it twice now, and I sincerely have no idea what the plot really entails. Yes, I know the basic boilerplate we've all gotten, but truth be told, I haven't really cared too terribly much about the few story details I've ingested thus far. They're fine, par for the course even with what this series typically entails--Nathan Drake adventuring his ass off for one reason or another--but my mind has typically focused elsewhere. Namely, on the graphics.

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Look, visuals aren't everything, but every system needs a big, flashy visual showpiece at its launch. Uncharted is unquestionably that showpiece. The game looks sharper than anything I've ever seen on a handheld console. Full stop. No, it's not quite up to the snuff of Drake's best PS3 adventures, but of course it isn't. What's wrong with you?

The gameplay is more than functional--Sony Bend, who has been developing this in conjunction with Naughty Dog, has ably captured the feel of the console games on the Vita--but if there is one game you're going to want to show off your shiny new electric video gaming trinket with, it's this one.

Gravity Rush

Known as "Gravity Daze: The Perturbation Born In Her Inner Space On The Way Back To The Higher Spheres" in Japan (how great would it have been if Sony America had kept that title?) Gravity Rush just looks cool as all hell. I use that somewhat glib description because truth be told, I haven't got a clue what the heck is going on in this game. I just know it looks awesome.

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All I do know is that you play a heroine named Kat (who actually has a pet cat), a woman who has the ability to bend gravity to her will. As you traverse through various cel-shaded environments, fighting off various bad guys, all you have to do is press a button and use the right analog stick or the system's motion sensing to rejigger Kat's own center of gravity. Doing this will allow her to reach new areas she couldn't previously, and even aid in combat.

It's a remarkably fluid game, filled with colorful visuals and a gameplay mechanic that lends itself toward quite a bit of experimentation and discovery. It's also just a lot of fun, as evidenced by my brief time with it, in which I actively refused to put it down until I absolutely had to. The mixture of the combo-based gameplay and gravity-bending action is just downright addictive. Thankfully, this one also looks to hit on February 22nd, alongside the system itself.

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The Vita still has a lot of hurdles to overcome. There is the perception issue, the one that has hungover since the days of the PSP, that says Sony isn't ever going to be anything but the third place finisher in the handheld market. There is the very real competition that helps fuel that perception, with iOS gaming continuing to soar, and the 3DS now trending upward. There is the rumored pricing of memory cards ($120 for 32 GB), a number Sony says may not be final, but would be detrimental to the health of the system were it true.

The one thing the Vita won't have to worry about at launch? Games. And that's a huge burden to have off a new console's back. This is a lineup that has, at the very least, convinced me that I want one of these things. Now all Sony needs is a few million more like me.

Here's hoping.

Alex Navarro on Google+