First, just a couple of things before I dive in. First, I want to make it clear that I saw the Vita reveal at E3 2011, and I was instantly intrigued. It was the most impressive looking handheld I’d ever seen, and given the tech that was involved, the price point wasn’t too bad at all. The non-optional memory card soured my opinion a little bit, but I was still so impressed with the way the system looked that I was willing to look past that. When the full launch (and launch-window) software line-up was revealed, I was stunned. It was the most impressive line-up I could ever recall. This thing has more titles at launch than I think the PS3 or 360 did during their first year on the market. I may be exaggerating, but it was, and is, impressive, nonetheless.
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On the flipside of that, as the release date neared, (this one, not the original assumed December date), I started to get extremely peeved at the way it was covered. No matter who it was that got their hands on the system, all they could talk about was how sturdy it felt, how comfortable it managed to be, despite it’s size and the potentially problematic layout. They were all about the aesthetics. But to my mind, when your average consumer, (like, say, me), forks out $300 for a handheld console, aesthetics aren’t the only thing you’re thinking about. Sure, the screen may look good, but are the controls tight? Does the touch screen work as it should? Does the rear touch-pad actually integrate comfortably into gameplay? I wanted to know all that stuff, and aside from a few vague mentions, I wasn’t getting it. Nevertheless, (and I can’t explain why), I completely trusted in Sony. They’ve stumbled before, quite severely, in some cases, and the PSP never seemed to live up to the expectations they had for it. But I was willing to believe that the Vita would succeed. So much so, I wanted to get my hands on it a week early. Was my optimism warranted?

Well, I have to start off by admitting, (rather grudgingly, it’s true), that the Vita is a sturdy piece of tech. There is a sense that you could drop it, and it wouldn’t instantly shatter into a million pieces. Not that I want to test that, or anything. The odd thing, though, is that I don’t think it feels quite as sturdy as the DS does. Maybe it’s the lack of a close-over screen, but while it feels strong in its own right, it seems inherently more fragile than a DS. Then again, the DS, like all of Nintendo’s handhelds, is designed for younger gamers. They have sturdiness down to an art form. The Gamecube was nothing if not an indestructible lunchbox, and the DS followed that closely and comfortably. I’ll admit, I didn’t spend that much time with the PSP, but from what I can recall, the Vita definitely feels stronger than it’s predecessor.

It’s comfortable, too. Now, I’m a man. I have man-sized hands, and the DS always felt a little small. My fingers would start to hurt if I spent too much time with the DS. That said, I didn’t grow up playing all of Nintendo’s handhelds. It’s possible that if I had a Gameboy growing up, I would have gotten used to playing with such a cramped d-pad and face buttons. Nevertheless, for me, the Vita feels instantly more comfortable. While it’s larger than your average controller, there is very little difference in the feel of holding the two, though I will say the first time I powered it up, it did feel a little awkward. I think it has something to do with the rear touchpad: there are two divots on the back that your fingers can curl into so that they’re not touching it, but the first time, it feels just the slightest bit wrong. The adjustment to that is very quick, though. I’ve been toying around with it since yeterday, and gripping it no longer feels even the slightest bit weird.

And the screen. Oh, that screen. The first time you turn on the Vita, there’s this little intro cinematic thing, and though it’s kind of mundane, it looks good. Great, in fact. That a handheld console is capable of equaling, if not outright surpassing, in some cases, the graphical capabilities of the big consoles is nothing short of astounding, to my mind. And, of course, it looks out and out better than the graphics on the Wii. I’m baiting, of course, but my point stands: that 5-inch OLED screen looks so good that making it a touch screen almost seems like a crime. It’s not even just the screen: the entire system is sleek and sexy looking. I probably shouldn’t say that about a machine, but it’s true. From an aesthetics standpoint, it has it all.

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Above: the lovechild of a DS and a PSP. The parental rights all went to Sony, though.

So, good point, good point, good point: study, comfortable, and pretty. Now let’s hit a low. Those (insert string of curse words here) memory cards. The price of the bloody things. I actually can’t spend a lot of time on this, or I’ll have an aneurysm. Why the hell Sony couldn’t have just used SD cards, I have no clue. Like, an 8GB PS Vita memory card costs $30. Now, $30 isn’t a whole lot in itself, but when you consider that an 8GB SD card doesn’t even cost 10 freakin’ dollars, it’s absolutely ridiculous! A 32 GB PSV card is $100. $100! Highway freaking robbery! Honestly, if I spend a moment being rational, I come to the conclusion that there’s so much tech in the Vita that at the price they’re selling it at, Sony isn’t making much of a profit, (I know there was a breakdown done, but I don’t remember exactly what the numbers were), and these memory cards are their way of recouping, but it’s still absolutely, completely asinine. This alone is enough to turn away a lot of potential buyers. My First Edition Bundle came with a 4 GB memory card, but that’s going to run out extremely quickly. I have to move on. I can feel my arteries clogging already.

Now, I know that I could stop now, having technically described the hardware. I would also be the biggest hypocrite in existence, having just spouted pretty much the exact same things that every other internet personality has already said. So now, I’m going to explain how well (or poorly) the touch features work.

First, for the rear touchpad. It works. It feels kind of nice, as well. It’s almost better to use than the main touch screen, because it doesn’t smudge quite so bad. That said, just like actually holding the Vita, I found that the rear touchpad had a little bit of an adjustment period. It’s just the slightest bit difficult to gauge where your touch on the rear screen is going to register in a game at first, but once you get going, it becomes pretty easy to judge. That said, I don’t know how easy it would be to implement in an action-oriented game. Puzzle games and mini-game collections are one thing, but in a game where you need might need split-second reaction, you might be hard-pressed to be able to make the rear touchpad work the way you want it. But, so long as no developer tries to cram that in, I don’t think it’ll be a problem, and as it stands, the rear screen works as it should, and I find that it serves quite well.
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The front screen, as I said, is so pretty that it’s almost criminal to make it serve as a touch screen as well. But that’s exactly what Sony did. Touch screens are fairly common now, but there not always done well. I’ve played around with phones whose touch screens are absolutely awful. The Vita’s touch screen isn’t, though. Both single and multi-touch work incredibly smoothly, and the few other functions you’ll use, such as pinch-zoom, are nice and responsive. My only problem, and I think I mentioned this earlier, is that touch the screen inevitably smudges it. It’s not like this is a huge problem, but if you’re a gross, sticky-fingered child, you may muck up the screen to the point where you can’t clean it properly. There are protective films available, though, (2 for $10), so you can keep your screen pristine, if you so choose.

The actual layout of the buttons, sticks and d-pads was a cause of concern for me. The analog sticks are somewhat small, and I wondered if the right stick might interfere with the buttons, or vice-versa. I wasn’t sure if I would be pushing on the right stick, and my thumb would slip off and hit one of the buttons, or if I might inadvertently push the stick when trying to hit the buttons. I haven’t had any problems yet, but that doesn’t mean I won’t at some point. The d-pad is actually quite nice, better, I find, than the d-pad on the PS3 controller. I haven’t used it a whole lot, but the little that I have, I’ve enjoyed. I guess this whole ‘nice button layout’ thing is just an extension of my comfort bit, but I felt it was worth mentioning separately, since it was something I wondered about when I was seeing coverage of the Vita.

I’ll admit, I haven’t played around with the cameras too much. They’re only .5 MP, though, so I don’t think they’ll ever be anything spectacular. The ability to record video was added with a recent update, (so if you’re buying at the North American launch, it’ll already be there), but I haven’t done that yet, either. Truthfully, that was all secondary to how well the system could play the games meant for it.

Overall, my first impressions of the hardware are very good, but as to whether or not it’s worth the price they want for it, that all depends on the strength of the software.

*Article first published as The Playstation Vita: An Honest Opinion (Of the Hardware) on The Honest Opinion Corner.