Ah, PlayStation Vita, what you could have been. Sony’s followup to the surprising success of the PSP didn’t make the waves that they had hoped. A combination of cost, marketing, timing of its release, and a meager lineup of developer support, hindered the Vita’s opulence. It’s a damn shame, too. The Vita is the best handheld gaming console, from a hardware perspective, of all-time.
Sony will likely be using the Nintendo Switch as a litmus test as for whether or not they decide to take the plunge with the Vita 2.
Support for the Vita, even from Sony themselves, has dwindled to a near-standstill. Even though it didn’t end up overthrowing Nintendo in the handheld market (or making it a competition for that matter), the Vita has had a bevy of great games.
Important note: This list specifically avoids remasters/remakes/collections that didn’t add significant, noticeable improvements with their Vita releases, and/or games that were released on traditional consoles alongside lesser Vita versions.
Let’s take a look at the ten best.
Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc
The Danganronpa series, Sony’s sadistic answer to the Phoenix Wright games, magnificently articulates the power of visual novels. All three Vita iterations are definitely worth your time, but in an effort to not clutter this list with Danganronpa titles, Trigger Happy Havoc, the original, gets the nod for this list. Students at an elite school wake up in an alternate world under the control of a robotic named Monokuma. The only way to escape the school is to a murder a classmate without getting caught. This unique take on the dinner-party-murder-mystery trope is dark, funny, and endlessly captivating. Trigger Happy Havoc proves that visual novels can delineate from straight-forward narratives, as it expertly branches, and weaves throughout its lengthy adventure.
Comparing any game to the Civilization series is usually ill-advised, but the Vita exclusive, Freedom Wars, takes some of its most wonderful aspects from the behemoth PC sim. Pitting roughly 50 rival factions against one another in a fight for control of Earth’s remaining viable land comes together to create one of the most satisfying and deep experiences the Vita has to offer. Described as a “third-person battle action game,” Freedom Wars offers an abundance of customization, from infantry, to weaponry, all the way down to varied control schemes (a rarity in handheld games). Freedom Wars is at its best when played cooperatively or competitively, but the robust single player mode makes it a must-play for anyone interested in Risk-esque strategy, and tactical combat, i.e. X-COM, StarCraft, and even traditional turn-based, grid-style games such as Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics.
Ys: Memories of Celceta
The Ys series hasn’t quite caught on in the states like other games of Japanese origin, but Ys: Memories of Celceta is not just a sleeper pick, it’s a damn good action-RPG on a platform that lacks a strong lineup of these sorts of games. It has drawn warranted comparisons to The Legend of Zelda series. Adopting a number of successful techniques from the iconic Nintendo franchise like single-button attacks, and the sheer wonderment of discovering a new item, Memories of Celceta innovates on the formula by quickening combat into a controlled frenzy. The writing is great, the pacing is superb, and the soundtrack is catchy. It also accomplishes a difficult feat by avoiding devolving into a hack and slash button masher.
Persona 4 Golden
Yes, Persona 4 was already a fantastic game on the PlayStation 2, but the Vita version added a bunch of refinements that certainly made it Golden. So much has already been written about Persona 4, it feels redundant to gush about in excess detail here, but there’s a reason why it has been christened as one of the greatest role-playing games of all-time. Persona 4 is a massive, winding adventure, that rewards those who spend copious amounts of time in its enchanting world. While it can be argued that it takes more than a few hours to really understand its greatness, the investment is assuredly worthwhile. And with the release of Persona 5 around the corner, now’s the perfect time to gear up with the masterpiece that is Persona 4 Golden.
The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel II
The Legend of Heroes series can be best described as a slow burn. Both Trails of Cold Steel entries are big time sinks, but thanks to the “Tactical Link System,” an addition to the battle system, the slow, methodical pacing is never necessarily dull. Trails of Cold Steel II gains a place on this list for expounding upon what its predecessor did so well. But because of the continuity of the narrative between the first and the second, it’s definitely recommended to play them in order. Falling in the category of hardcore RPG’s with “grind-y” elements, the Trails of Cold Steel games aren’t for everyone. For serious RPG fans, though, they are a supreme delight. Trails of Cold Steel III is currently in development.
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward
Part-puzzle game, part-visual novel, Zero Escape: Virtues Last Reward is the best game you probably haven’t played. The followup to Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (999), originally a DS exclusive, was later ported to other platforms after the development team decided to expand on what was initially a standalone story. Because of that, you don’t necessarily have to play 999 to enjoy Virtue’s Last Reward, or the most recent entry, Zero Time Dilemma, but all three of them are expert examples of narrative colliding with puzzles in new and interesting ways. Relying heavily on player choice, Virtue’s Last Reward has 24 unique endings based upon your decisions throughout the course of the mystery. The clever flowchart inclusion tracks your choices, allowing you to revisit sections to tinker with past actions. You are likely to wind up being mesmerized enough by the writing to want to experience at least a few, if not all, of the different endgame scenarios.
Sony tried, at least at first, to bring their most popular brands to the Vita. Uncharted: Golden Abyss was serviceable but nothing to write home about. Resistance: Burning Skies was categorically awful. Killzone, perhaps the least popular of the trio of Sony juggernauts, landed on the Vita with surprising force. If there is still any doubt that first person shooters can live and breathe on handhelds, Mercenary shoots down any remaining skepticism. Mercenary uses an amalgamation of key areas from the first three Killzone games to deliver a greatest hits of sorts on Vita. However, the biggest draw was the online multiplayer, and since the game has been out for over three years at this point, newcomers shouldn’t bank on playing competitively. On the other hand, recommending the game for its short campaign alone at launch wouldn’t have been easy, but since it can be regularly found for bargain prices, it’s worth the plunge simply to experience how an FPS can work well on a handheld.
Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational
Hot Shots Gold: World Invitational also appeared on the PlayStation 3, but it is at home on the Vita. The best launch title is still one of the Vita’s highest moments to this day. Whether that says more about the software lineup or the game itself, that’s debatable, but one undeniable fact: World Invitational is pure, unadulterated fun. The series has always been in the shadow of its formidable, animated golf rival, Mario Golf, but it nonetheless continues to offer well-rounded experiences. The perfect pick up and play type of game, World Invitational is a great way to unwind at the end of a long day. Filled to the brim with challenges and unlockables, you will end up sinking a surprising amount of time into World Invitational, even if that time is confined to short bursts on the links.
Coming over from the Wii, Muramasa Rebirth rendered beautifully on the Vita, especially on the OLED screen. Combining old school side-scrolling with modernized action game tropes, Rebirth is a devilishly dark and addictive blend of role-playing and hack and slash combat. Aptly comparable to the Castlevania series, Rebirth can also be recommended to fans of fighting games, as the fixed battle area positions much of the combat in the same type of frame. While some may say that Dragon’s Crown is the best Vita game of this variety, Rebirth improved on the Wii version, while Dragon’s Crown was best on the PlayStation 3. Both are great, but Rebirth gets the edge.
Over four years later and Gravity Rush still utilized the Vita’s unique features–the gyroscope, accelerometer, the back touch panel–better than the rest. A truly unique experience in which the player controls both the gravity, and in some respects, the surrounding environment. Much like how Mirror’s Edge played with form and perspective, Gravity Rush did so with its free-falling mechanics. Later remastered for the PlayStation 4, the sequel is currently slated for launch this coming January.