PlayStation Vita 

The PlayStation Vita invites first-time users to tap an icon on its home screen and take a trip to Welcome Park, which isn’t really a park. It’s a pure-white void where a disembodied female voice lives. “Welcome to Welcome Park,” she says. Then, with a few dull instructional games, she points out some of the device’s features. There are a lot of them. Review units for the press even came with a 12-minute introduction video in which clean-cut Sony representatives outline the equipment’s capabilities. Yet nowhere in this technological Swiss-army knife is there any trace of an idea.

That’s nothing new. The gaming-hardware teams at Sony HQ in Tokyo have never built their machines around ideas. That’s by contrast with their rivals down the road in Kyoto, where Nintendo builds everything around an idea. The central concept behind the Nintendo DS was touch. The Wii was about motion. The 3DS, for better or worse, was about 3D.

What’s the big idea behind the Vita? There is none. Sony’s method is to cram a shiny box full of every feature it can think of, then present it to the world, saying, “Imagine what you can do with this—please!” This isn’t a condemnation of the Vita. The PlayStation and PlayStation 2 were world-beating successes, in terms of both commerce and art, and they weren’t exactly reinventing paradigms, either. It’s a viable approach: Create an excellent machine, then let others provide the imagination.

The Vita isn’t an excellent machine yet, but it’s a good one. Its 3D graphics are smoother and more vibrant than those on any other handheld console. It sports a gorgeous screen that compares favorably with the iPhone 4S’ “Retina display,” probably the current gold standard of portable gaming displays. Sony partisans will note that the Vita’s screen is physically larger, while the Apple camp will point out that an iPhone’s display actually has more and finer-grained pixels. Everyone else will just see that both screens are beautiful, bright, and vivid. Sony sells movies for the Vita in its online store; this is probably the first handheld game console where the prospect of watching a film on the thing is inviting.

Most of the traditional gaming interfaces—the buttons and joysticks—feel great. The buttons on the front face respond crisply, and the two analog joysticks are the best ever on a portable console. The sticks have depth and actually tilt when moved, as opposed to the unsatisfying sideways shimmy of analog sticks on the 3DS and the PlayStation Portable.

The rounded shoulder buttons of the Vita, though, are worse than the flat, angular ones on the old PSP. The curvature preserves the graceful lines of the Vita’s case, but doesn’t offer solid purchase for players’ fingers. Games that rely heavily on shoulder buttons, like shooters and racing games, can feel a bit awkward as a result.

Other aspects of the Vita’s interface are more than a bit awkward. The unit augments its buttons, sticks, and directional pad with a touchscreen and a rear touchpad. When these come into use, it’s time to play “How The Hell Do You Hold This Thing?” It’s the game Vita owners will play more than any other, the handheld equivalent of trying to get comfortable in an airplane seat.

To operate the front touchscreen, you can either stretch out your thumb or let go with one hand and use your fingers, leaving your other hand to carry the weight of the Vita on its own. (The Vita weighs about as much as the first-edition PSP, commonly known as the “PSP Fat” for a reason.) Neither option is terribly appealing, and after two days of playtesting, it became impossible to ignore the burning wrist pain that resulted from repeating these contortions. In short stretches, though, it’s manageable, and the pleasure of navigating menus with a direct-touch interface is hard to deny.

The rear touchscreen is harder to defend. It’s simply too cumbersome to slide a finger along the back of the Vita with any precision while also trying to hold the unit by the narrow, non-touch-sensitive area at its edges. Over time, developers will almost certainly end up ignoring or minimizing this misbegotten feature—most of the games available at launch barely bother with it anyway. The Vita is replete with features that are destined to be forgotten, like two cameras of shamefully poor quality and a rickety web browser. While these boondoggles are indicative of Sony’s inability to edit, they’re also harmless in the long run.

There are more troubling flaws, like the Vita’s mediocre battery life, allowing for about four hours of play in informal testing. That’s better than the 3DS, but far inferior to the PSP. The most startling shortcoming, though, is the prevalence of loading times. The wait to load a single track in Wipeout 2048, for instance, is reminiscent of the original PlayStation with its glacial CD-ROM drive. But the Vita doesn’t have an optical drive—it’s based entirely on solid-state memory—so the frequent waits are a surprise. It remains to be seen whether this is a fundamental defect, or simply the product of developers’ unfamiliarity with a new machine.

The Vita’s $250 retail price is misleading, as it doesn’t include the cost of a Vita memory card, which many games require, even the ones purchased in physical form. Rather than using an established standard, Sony has invented its own memory-card format for the PS Vita, which is very Sony. A high-speed 32-gigabyte SD card (like the kind you might use with the 3DS) goes for around $35; a 32-gigabyte Vita memory card will run you about $100. Sony needs the extra $65 to pay for lavish TV commercials in which the company reminds us how much it loves its customers.

For a $50 premium, you can buy a Vita that communicates on AT&T’s 3G cellular network. Of course, that also requires another pound of flesh for a monthly Vita data plan—starting at $15 a month for a measly 250 megabytes of data. The Internet capabilities of the Vita are so limited that the value of this “upgrade” is hard to figure.

But in spite of its blunders and irritations, the Vita isn’t a bad product. Practically every new handheld is unimpressive at launch. The 3DS had an embarrassingly lame debut, and is only now coming into its own. That’s mostly because Nintendo got complacent and launched the 3DS with a thin slate of games. A company hanging its hat on Pilotwings Resort should know it’s in trouble.

Sony hasn’t made that mistake. It is beating some of its most popular dead horses for the Vita launch lineup: Uncharted, ModNation Racers, Hot Shots Golf, Ubisoft’s Lumines, and so on. Rather, Sony’s folly is its halfhearted effort to present the Vita as an alternative to smartphone gaming. For handheld games in a broad sense, an iPhone or iPod Touch is far and away the best choice right now. The Vita does nothing to change that. But in a more focused way, as a portable encapsulation of the home-console gaming experience, the Vita hits the mark.

The question is whether Sony will be able to keep developers interested enough in the Vita to make the platform thrive. The PSP is a cautionary tale in this respect, as its splashy unveiling preceded a slow descent into irrelevance. And it’s hard to shake the sense that Sony’s main rationale for the Vita was “We need to do the PSP again, but harder.”

That’s what makes the Vita’s future especially tough to predict. Without any big idea at its core, the Vita is a “to be continued” story. Purchasing one is like buying a ticket to an empty void in the hope that someone out there will arrive to fill in the blank spaces. For now, Sony simply wants you to come in and take your seat. Welcome to Welcome Park.