Japan Gets PlayStation Vita First, Rest of World Still Delayed to 2012

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When will the PS Vita launch in the U.S. or Europe or anywhere that isn't Japan? We still have no idea, but according to Sony, the company's PS3-like portable game system will debut in the Land of the Rising Sun on December 17 with 26 launch titles. The Vita 3G version—Sony's selling one with, one without 3G—will also run on NTT DoCoMo's cellular network.

The "rest of the world" delay, to which Sony admitted in August after promising repeatedly that we'd see this thing by the end of 2011, is turning out to be less of a big deal than anyone thought. No one expected Nintendo's 3DS—specifically the 3DS's software—to be so underwhelming. Absent great games, a platform's nothing more than potential energy in search of a kick. Price drop or no, Nintendo's 3DS has yet to receive one, and yesterday's announcements involving awkward add-on peripherals and at least one highly anticipated game (Kid Icarus) bumping to 2012 haven't helped.

Not that Sony's had an easy year. The company spent 2011's earliest months recovering from the Japanese earthquake, then hounding PS3 hacker George Hotz in a public-relations-unfriendly legal kerfuffle over Hotz's PS3 jailbreak. In April, hackers—supposedly in retaliation for Sony's pursuit of Hotz—took aim at the PlayStation Network (and eventually several other Sony properties), triggering one of the longest, farthest-reaching online service failures in modern history.

The Vita represents Sony's latest love-letter to traditional gamers. It's considerably larger than an iPhone or Android mobile, unusually powerful (for a handheld) and therefore power-hungry, and it's as expensive as a fully-loaded PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. Sure, an iPhone costs up to $600 or $700, but most are paying $200 to $300 for the 16GB or 32GB versions with a new contract. That, and they're getting a lot more than just a bulky handheld gaming system.

"This new device is packed with every possible function, and that's why we confidently call it the ultimate entertainment system," said Sony games unit honcho Hiroshi Kawano at today's press conference.

Except the "ultimate entertainment system" these days can do a lot more than merely entertain. The Vita's not a phone. It's not a messaging device (oh, it'll have stuff like Skype and Twitter...you know, because that's worked so well on the keypad-less PSP). It sports a pair of low-end VGA cameras, so it's not something you'll be popping out to snap pics for photo albums. It won't do 3D (okay, so that's maybe a plus). It won't organize your life. Its app store's restricted to games, because that's all it is: a souped-up PSP with a clever double-touchpad angle—a portable PS3 with a "TOUCHAXIS" in lieu of a SIXAXIS.

"But it's not meant to do any of that stuff!" you're saying. And you're right. And that doesn't really address the issue I'm getting at, which is whether there's still a market for this kind of device. I mean, of course there's a market for it, but is it sustainable and substantial enough to warrant a $250 to $300 system that you'll have to tow alongside your tablet or laptop and smartphone? Nintendo's been able to sidestep that question with the DS up to this point because it's big with kids. Less so the PSP. Does Sony think it'll be any different with the Vita?

You—that's the you screwing up your face and preparing to let me have it down below—may be perfectly happy packing enough kit to make a 1980s Gordon-Gekko-style brick-phone look like a matchbook, but will you be enough to offset the consumer trend toward one-device-fits-all? That question, as the iPhone 5 and future Android and Windows phones loom, is the one foremost on Sony's mind at this point, I'm betting.

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