The software library available at launch - while short on killer apps - was packed with plenty of big franchises (like Uncharted, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Hot Shots Golf, and more) to show off the potential of the system. Sony was definitely taking notes during the tepid launch of the 3DS: in order to move systems, they needed to have software. The console launched with an impressive array of games for a wide variety of interests, and many of them were designed to take advantage of the handheld's unique features. For all intents and purposes, the launch was a success.
Like nearly all major hardware releases over the past few generations, though, the Vita's successful launch period soon gave way to a typical post-launch software drought. With the latest entry in Capcom's multimillion-selling Monster Hunter franchise exclusive to the 3DS (at least for the time being), there didn't seem to be many titles on the horizon for Japanese Vita owners, and the console's weekly sales began to plunge. Consider the case of the launch of well-received Vita exclusive Persona 4 Golden. Despite the fact that the game tripled sales of the Vita in its launch week, the 3DS still managed to overtake it by nearly 2:1 according to Media Create figures for the week of June 11, 2012.
Currently, the 3DS is selling at a ratio of approximately 9:1 against the Vita in Japan according to the latest numbers from Media Create. Looking at sales figures alone, however, is misleading. It's important to note that the 3DS had its own share of problems during its first several months, with difficulty selling at the price point where the Vita currently sits, as well as the same troubles acquiring third-party exclusives. It took a significant price drop and the launch of several noteworthy first-party titles before the machine truly came into its own.
It was that price drop in August of 2011 that vaulted 3DS sales numbers into the stratosphere - with Media Create declaring that 196,077 new systems landed in players' hands that week compared to a paltry 4,132 the previous week - despite the fact that most of Nintendo's hardest-hitting franchises weren't even scheduled to land on the 3DS until the holiday season. I've heard plenty of Vita "doom and gloom" talk over the last few months, and heard just as much about the 3DS prior to the unit's price drop.
In many ways, the Vita finds itself in a similar situation to that of the 3DS early on. Despite all the cries of gamers claiming that the handheld has no worthwhile games, there are actually many developers who are throwing support behind the Vita, many of whom are located in Japan. The challenge for Sony now is keeping that Japanese support going, and keeping the Vita as a platform out of the dreaded "Console Starvation Feedback Loop" (that is, lack of system sales puts development projects on hold, which adds to the lack of sales, which contributes to lack of projects in development, and so on) that was responsible for killing many capable pieces of hardware (such as the Jaguar, Saturn, Dreamcast, and Neo Geo Pocket Color) over the last few decades.
Though small, the Japanese market as a whole has shown an incredible resilience in terms of reception to dedicated gaming handhelds in the face of ever-growing mobile competition, and because of this Japan may very well be the Vita's most important market worldwide. It's a good thing, then, that while the console hasn't quite pulled itself out of the first-year software drought just yet, there are certainly a few promising signs of things to come as we now find ourselves in 2013.
Here are just a few of the Japanese developers throwing support behind Sony's pocket powerhouse.
Sony is pushing hard for this title to draw sales for the Vita, and are planning to launch a special edition red system with the game when it hits Japan on March 7th.
The game, a significantly enhanced version of the 2008 PS2 release with upgraded graphics, new scenarios, and Vita functionality, went on to become one of the highest rated games on the system and sold quite a few Vitas when it launched in Japan earlier this year. Not wanting to leave English-speaking fans out of the Shadow-slaying goodness, Atlus USA translated the game into English and released it in North America in fully localized form.
Though relatively niche in Western markets, the series commands a huge following in Japan and was one of the major reasons why the Japanese PSP remained such a strong platform for game development over the last few years. The latest title in the series available on the PSP - 2010's Monster Hunter Portable 3rd - was not only the fastest selling PSP title in Japan, but also the most successful title in Capcom's history, selling over 4.7 million copies in 6 months on the market. That's impressive, especially considering that the game never received an English localization. The fact that Nintendo managed to secure the next numbered title in the series is certainly a blow to the Vita's short-term sales potential, to say the least.
While the selection in North America and Europe currently trounces that of Japan (including major Vita titles like Gravity Rush), Japan does get an exclusive in the form of Sumioni: Demon Arts with more promised for the near future. The Instant Game Library is an advantage that no other platform holder has implemented, and it's something that can certainly draw people to the system. The fact that PlayStation Plus subscriptions work across both PS3 and Vita makes the transition as painless as possible.
With the smartphone boom slowly but surely penetrating the traditional realm of dedicated gaming handhelds in Japan, it's now more important than ever that the Vita successfully gains momentum in the marketplace. If Sony can get the price under control and keep the first and third-party exclusives coming from the Japanese market, there's no reason why Sony's underdog handheld won't be able to carve itself its own niche in the increasingly complicated world of dedicated handheld gaming.