Leading up to the PS Vita’s launch over a month ago, I was excited to finally get my hands not just on the new handheld, but also for new entries for so many franchises that I love — Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational, Lumines Electronic Symphony and WipEout 2048 were all system sellers for me. While I’ve been playing with my Vita almost exclusively since then, minus a short week-long break to play Mass Effect 3, those full-scale retail games are the least of what I’ve played.
My attention has instead been planted firmly towards the PlayStation Store. I’m not talking about the full retail games that you can buy digitally, but rather the bite-sized PSN exclusives that you can’t get from a brick-and-mortar. Games that let you pick up and play for a few minutes at a time rule the portable space right now, and these are the games that drive that point home.
There’s no better example of this than MotorStorm RC, which has been available for free since its release earlier this month. Playing through the game, there’s no question that this is premium content being handed out for free. It’s a fun, Micro Machines-esque take on Sony’s popular off-road racing franchise, and its races are over in about a minute and sometimes less. It’s addictive enough that you’ll want to repeat them to earn more medals, but the instant load times with each restart make it a breeze.
Above: MotorStorm RC
There are even a few augmented reality games that are available for free from the Store, although the need for the AR cards packaged with the Vita make them the least portable of the system’s library. I can imagine that the phrase “free AR games” might cause a few people to roll their eyes right out of their sockets, but they’d be wrong.
Each game is surprisingly well done, even if they’re not particularly deep experiences. Table Soccer is a bit tricky to get the hang of, but ends up playing well for a sports game that relies exclusively on touch controls. Fireworks presents a fun challenge that isn’t unlike a touch-based Boom Boom Rocket, although the timing isn’t tied to music. Cliff Diving, meanwhile, requires a fair amount of skill and might be the most fun of the three games to play. As free games these could have been completely unremarkable, but thankfully that’s not the case.
If this is the stuff that they’re giving away, imagine the quality of the games that you pay for! Case in point: Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack. It’s the cheapest game that you can buy for your Vita at just $7.99, but only Rayman Origins is ranked higher on Metacritic. It’s a simple, Katamari-like platformer in which you devour objects and people to increase in size — starting the size of a baseball and ending up much, much larger at the end — and much of its charm is owed to its delightful art style and sense of humor. There are even a few motion-controlled levels, but they’re still a blast to play because they carry over what makes the game fun in the first place, which is eating stuff to make yourself larger.
It’s also difficult to ignore the likes of Super Stardust Delta and Plants vs. Zombies. While you might have already played them on the PlayStation 3 (or just about any device ever, in PvZ’s case), the Vita’s hardware makes the transition buttery smooth for both titles. The twin sticks make Super Stardust a joy to play, and PvZ is arguably better suited here than on the PS3 thanks to the touchscreen OLED.
Above: Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack
Of course, the games on PSN aren’t universally great, but even those that underwhelm can be worth playing. For example, I was excited for Escape Plan leading up to the Vita’s launch. The game’s touch controls were clumsily handled towards the end, feeling like a game of Twister for your fingers, and some inputs simply didn’t respond as they should have. Still, the game had some good ideas; I enjoyed the black-and-white aesthetic, while the variety and humor of player deaths took some of the sting out of doing poorly. It’s hard to recommend plunking down $14.99 for Escape Plan when the best I can say for it is that it made me giggle a bit, but it definitely beats paying $40 for an iOS port. I’m looking right at you, Dungeon Hunter: Alliance.
I still enjoy playing full retail releases on my Vita. Hot Shots Golf still manages to steal an hour of each day from me, and I’m starting to really dig into MLB 12 The Show as baseball season looms near. But I find myself busier and busier with work, and it’s harder to justify not only the price of those games, but the time needed just to play them. The PlayStation Store provides solutions to both of those problems by offering great games that can be played in short spurts for little to nothing, a philosophy that made Apple’s App Store a threat in the first place.
Sony has taken some great steps to evolve the PlayStation Store into something that can compete with Apple. Smaller, lower-profile releases allow developers to take chances with their design decisions, and it’s nice to know that you don’t have to drain your bank account to get your hands on a game that you can play for hours. If they could top it off by bringing PlayStation Plus over to make contstant, Steam-level sales and promotions possible, then they’ll really be sitting pretty.