When Sony launched the PS Vita handheld in February of this year, the company was staring down some pretty stiff competition. Nintendo’s 3DS had been selling at an even faster clip than the wildly successful Nintendo DS, and bolstered by a holiday season that saw the release of both Mario Kart 7 and Super Mario 3D Land, it seemed like the House of Mario had already staked an indelible claim on yet another generation of handheld gaming machines.
Still, Sony soldiered on, hoping that the Vita’s launch lineup could at least provide a respectable salvo against the Nintendo juggernaut. Unfortunately, the games Sony was banking on were largely rehashes, sequels and gimmicky off-shoots of established series’ designed to highlight the Vita’s various quirks. As a result, it almost seems like the handheld’s main selling point is its future potential — unless you’re willing to look beyond the highly-touted launch lineup to the myriad hidden gems the machine offers.
If that seems like a lot of work, don’t fret; we’ve compiled a list of games that, though largely glossed over by the Vita marketing team, deserve just as much attention as Uncharted: Golden Abyss or Wipeout 2048. Some of these are lesser-known Vita-exclusive titles, some are esoteric PSP games made available for download through the PlayStation Network Store, but all are excellent, unexpectedly inexpensive ways to bide time until the Vita’s software library catches up to the handheld’s technological potential.
Granted, Escape Plan only barely qualifies as a “lesser-known gem.” It was the best-selling Vita game for the month of March 2012, and the games media has been gushing about the title’s striking monochrome color scheme and inventive puzzle-solving gameplay since well before the Vita was even available on store shelves. Check out our full review here.
So why include it in our list? Two reasons. First, on a handheld featuring so many rehashed titles, Escape Plan is one of the few attempts by a developer to do something genuinely novel. Admittedly, Fun Bits Interactive wasn’t entirely successful — the touch-based control scheme is finicky and unreliable at the best of times — but the end result is still a quirky puzzle title that will keep players entertained for dozens of hours.
As for the second reason, that’s simple: Escape Plan will only set you back $15. Consider it a panacea for your wallet, which is likely still aching over the $250 you dropped on acquiring a Vita in the first place.
What Did I Do To Deserve This My Lord?! (1 and 2)
Haven’t heard of this series? Don’t feel too bad. Not many people have. Originally titled “Holy Invasion Of Privacy Badman! What Did I Do To Deserve This?” — a title which was later changed to avoid infringing on the Batman IP — these two games essentially invert the traditional Japanese roleplaying game formula, tasking players with building the perfect underground dungeon that both nurtures a growing population of evil monsters and brutally slays any heroic do-gooders stupid enough to attempt a frontal assault.
That premise alone should be enough of a selling point — it worked for Peter Molyneux’s classic Dungeon Keeper — but where these two titles shine is in their overt willingness to satirize the genre tropes deeply ingrained in gamers through decades of Square Enix RPGs. If you’ve ever rolled your eyes at yet another spiky-haired, amnesiac youth tasked with saving the world from unfathomable eldritch horrors, you’ll love watching the demonic hordes (which you’ve raised from infancy) tear them limb from limb. Though it sounds brutal, the entire game is hilariously tongue-in-cheek, and more crucially the actual gameplay is an intensely deep, demanding test of your skills as a dungeon builder. The end result is closer to Sim City than Final Fantasy — if Sim City were designed by a manic depressive alternate universe version of Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii.
As a bonus, you can download both games (and the two downloadable content additions for What Did I Do To Deserve This My Lord?! 2) from the PlayStation Network Store for only $18.
Super StarDust Delta
Though I railed against the lack of originality in the current Vita software lineup at the beginning of this piece, I have to give credit where credit is due: Super StarDust Delta is a brilliant translation of the PlayStation 3’s Super StarDust HD, and one we loved. Like its predecessor, the game offers a perfectly tuned risk/reward balance that makes its reflex-testing shooter gameplay incredibly addictive. This is one of those games where you’ll die often, but always come back for just one more try at nabbing the high score.
The biggest difference between Delta and the original Super StarDust HD, is that this new version is portable. Now instead of twiddling your thumbs in a busy doctor’s office or lazily mouthing Latin hymns in the back of a church you can get a nice dopamine fix by blasting neon space debris to pieces.
The game’s $10 price point is a bargain, but unless your addiction is truly intense, you might want to avoid the downloadable Blast Pack DLC. The additional gameplay modes it offers are great, but dropping $8 for the lot is just not worth it.
Street Fighter Alpha 3 Max
When the Vita was first announced gamers rejoiced at the handheld’s inclusion of actual, quality analog joysticks. While the PSP included a rotating stick-like nub, it was a far cry from perfect — particularly when it came to controlling the handheld’s surprisingly large library of fighting games. Sony’s latest stick, while not perfect, is far more suited to the genre-standard half-circles and z-shape controller motions, and nowhere is that more evident than in Capcom’s classic Street Fighter Alpha 3.
While the game, which was originally released to arcades in 1998, is a classic in its own right, this 2006 PSP iteration includes four additional characters, an expanded World Tour mode, and is the most accurate home port of the arcade game to date. Additionally, this particular version (which can be downloaded from the PlayStation Network Store for only $10) features reduced load times over its original UMD release.
Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom 3 might be the most high-profile fighter on the Vita, but Alpha 3 Max is definitely the best value for those craving virtual pugilism.
Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack
Tales From Space is another Vita title with roots on the PlayStation 3. Its predecessor, Tales From Space: About A Blob, was a promising 2011 downloadable title that, despite interesting gameplay ideas, was a flawed affair. It was short, its control scheme left a lot to be desired and the game’s overall polish just wasn’t up to par.
Fortunately, developer DrinkBox amended every single issue critics complained of when creating this Vita-exclusive pseudo-sequel. Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack, which is like the lovechild of Super Mario Bros., Pac-Man and Katamari Damacy, is perfectly suited to the Vita’s novel control mechanisms, and unlike the majority of launch titles that rely heavily on the handheld’s touchscreen or gyroscopic motion controls, they feel sublimely implemented and actually improve the overall gameplay experience (check out our full review here). Tilting the Vita to roll your blob through a level, or using the touchscreen to fling your gelatinous avatar across the screen is both intuitive and addictive.
Every new system needs a quality launch title that both demonstrates its technological advantages and offers a compelling entertainment experience in its own right, and in the Vita’s case that game is a relatively obscure, $8 downloadable exclusive.
Power Stone Collection
Though it was largely overshadowed by the Nintendo DS, Sony’s PSP was home to a number of lesser known classics — or in the case of Capcom’s offerings, a surprisingly robust selection of game compilations that revived forgotten titles with a host of improvements. We already covered Street Fighter Alpha 3 Max, but that was to be expected. Everyone knows Street Fighter. Sadly, far fewer people know of Power Stone.
The series, which debuted on the failed-but-widely-beloved Dreamcast, only saw two installments, both of which are perfectly recreated for the handheld in Power Stone Collection. Superficially, one could describe the Power Stone games as “fighters,” but that would far from the whole story. In truth, these titles are closer to Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. series than anything else, though they also feature a host of quirks usually reserved for side-scrolling beat ‘em ups. Weapons abound (ranging from the standard metal pipe to the hilariously overpowered rocket launcher), stages transform drastically during play (diving submarines and exploding airships are just two ways in which the game world attempts to murder you) and battles include up to four players simultaneously scrambling to pummel one another into unconsciousness.
Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, the series was tied directly to the ill-fated Sega Dreamcast, and when that console met its untimely fate, so too did Power Stone. Capcom seemingly has no plans to resurrect these characters in any meaningful way, so until they do, this $10 downloadable PSP title is the best way to experience one of the best party games to never feature a fat Italian plumber.
Straight up, MotorStorm RC earns a spot on this list almost entirely by virtue of its price tag. It’s incredibly difficult to argue with a $0 price point, even if players are occasionally assaulted by ads. Normally I’d be appalled by the presence of blatantly money-grubbing advertisements for Scion’s vehicle lineup, but in this case my kneejerk revulsion is tempered by the fact that MotorStorm RC is a genuinely excellent game.
Unlike previous entries in the MotorStorm canon, RC tasks players with racing tiny remote-controlled cars through a surprisingly large number of exotic courses. This means that the control scheme for the entire thing is designed to mimic the dual-stick RC controllers of actual remote-controlled vehicles, and while that may prove initially off-putting to racing fans used to the more traditional steering-wheel-esque controls of its predecessors, once you get over the learning curve (and the physics of controlling a car that weighs less than a small dog), MotorStorm RC is as gripping and entertaining as any of the earlier MotorStorm titles.
Most impressive though is the sheer number of gameplay modes, tracks and unlockable vehicles present in MotorStorm RC. It’s not just an unexpectedly large amount of content for what is essentially a free game, either. The amount of stuff to see and do in MotorStorm RC would be impressive in a full-priced racing title. If nothing else, developer Evolution Studios wins praise for putting their all into a game that could very easily have been a cheap, advertising-funded cash in.
I would however, warn prospective players away from the game’s huge amount of downloadable content. There are some neat additions available, but for the most part, they’re overpriced in an obvious attempt to further amortize the development costs of the free title.
Persona 3 Portable
This version of the game is actually even better than its original PlayStation 2 incarnation. Gameplay has been streamlined, additional content has been added, and players are finally able to play as a female protagonist. Given that it was all too easy to drop 100-plus hours into the original Persona 3 (and the number of additions the game saw in the PS2’s updated Persona 3: FES re-release), this $30 downloadable PSP title contains a frankly insane amount of gameplay.
Admittedly, it won’t be for everyone. If you’re turned off by the Machiavellian dramatics of Japanese high school kids or find wide-eyed anime tropes to be largely off-putting, you might want to avoid Persona 3. That said, if you’ve ever enjoyed an epic roleplaying game, or are looking for a game to keep you occupied for a very, very long time, it’s hard to imagine any single title topping Persona 3 Portable.
As a bonus, if you end up falling in love with Persona 3 Portable, you can also download the upgraded PSP re-releases of Persona and Persona 2: Innocent Sin from the PlayStation Network Store. Neither are as good as Persona 3 Portable, but that’s no knock on the older games — P3P really is just that great. It should also be noted that Persona 4: Golden and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment are scheduled to hit the Vita in Japan later this year, and while we currently lack an official confirmation of such, it would be very surprising if both titles were not inevitably localized for American audiences.