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Handhelds are Doomed. Oh Wait, They Aren’t. Just the Vita is.

January 8, 2012 Written by Sebastian Moss

When the 3DS released, lackluster sales immediately caused the internet to struggle under the weight of thousands of articles proclaiming not only the end of the 3DS and Nintendo, but dedicated handheld consoles as a whole. One price-cut and a bunch of good games later, and the 3DS was outperforming the DS’ launch sales. With the Vita now failing to sell well in Japan, doomsday predictions are happening all over again – but are the claims fair?

The problem with making sweeping statements about the entire handheld market based on one product’s performance became immediately clear when the 3DS had a comeback – it launched at a high price, it had virtually no compelling software and hardly anyone cares about 3D anyway. These were problems with one dedicated handheld, not the whole of dedicated handhelds. Sure, the market has shrunk in the post-smartphone world, consumers can get powerful gaming devices that also double as media players and phones – but a sizable market still exists. After the 3DS’ price cut, the release of Mario Kart 7, Super Mario 3D Land and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, the handheld quickly sold millions, offloading a whopping 800,000 units on Black Friday alone.

In Japan, this surge in sales came at an especially embarrassing time for Sony, with the Vita readying for launch. In fact, only four days before the Vita launched, Nintendo boasted the 3DS’ biggest week ever. 378,114 units were sold as 471,055 people bought a copy of Monster Hunter Tri-G. Monster Hunter releasing on the 3DS just as the Vita launched was particularly damning considering how the franchise had performed on the PSP, and how it shifted tens of thousands of Sony’s first handheld week in and week out.

Then the Vita launched to reasonable, but not spectacular, sales of 321K – but it was the second and third week sales of 72k and 42k respectively that truly set the web on fire. The Vita isn’t selling well in Japan, so therefore it won’t sell well in Japan ever, and won’t sell well in the West at all, right? Well, not exactly. With over 20 launch games, the excuse that there weren’t any games available can’t be made, but it is fair to say that there still isn’t much in the way of compelling software. SCE Worldwide Studios President predicted that Hot Shots Golf and Uncharted would be the system’s hottest games, which, at the time, should have raised some alarm bells – Hot Shots (Everybody’s Golf) is a solid game, but it is, after all, a golf game that has limited appeal, and Uncharted , while fairly big in Japan, doesn’t perform as well overseas as it does in its homeland, despite Harrison Ford’s best efforts. Uncharted 3 managed a chart-topping 125k in Japan at launch, which was impressive at the time, but when you consider that the same 125 thousand gamers would have to by a new handheld and a new game only one month after 3‘s release, it was likely that it wouldn’t be a huge seller.

Unfortunately for Sony, the western release of the Vita probably won’t dominate the charts; even though the launch games are more western focused, too few of the games are from huge franchises. A single Uncharted or WipEout release never passed 10 million, ModNation PS3 barely made an impact and MvC3 is on every platform ever. This is a problem that Sony has always faced: Despite its huge number of developers, the company lacks any truly huge IPs (with the exception of Gran Turismo, but it takes far too long to develop). Instead, Sony has to rely on a slow-and-steady accumulation of sales of a few hundred thousand units from this, and another few hundred thousand from that. Another possible boost for the Vita lies in potentially huge third party software like Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty, which are hopefully fully fledged, standalone games, and not simply cheap ports, or pretty versions of mobile games.

But don’t get me wrong, the Vita could be doomed, the PSP’s successor could be a complete failure that ends Sony’s plans for the handheld space. It’s just far, far too early to say. The future of the Vita depends not on its opening weeks, but on its upcoming line-up, both first and third party, and how soon Sony can bring down the price. If it does continue to struggle, despite bigger titles and a more compelling price, then we can start declaring that the Vita is, in fact, doomed.