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Why we don't need an Xbox Vita

Entirely non-topical thoughts on a handheld Xbox console

Hey you, the elephant in the room! Bring that massive, touch-sensitive backside over here for a second - it's time for a few home truths. Gosh, you're bigger than you look in pictures. Shinier, too. Must be a real slog getting rid of the fingerprints. Have I mentioned how much I love your thumbsticks, your high res screen and your compact solid state storage format? Because I honestly do. But here's the thing: as tasty a machine as you undoubtedly are, you're not the only elephant in this particular room. There's a bigger beast behind you, a beast with a few cautionary tales to tell. You should be familiar with him. He's your older brother.

Bad just got worse.

I began my games reviewing career with the PSP - and the approximate two year period between my ripping the cling-film and casting the worn-out slab aside is a regular Grecian tragedy of elation, experimentation, secret pain, shrill denial and (finally) grinding apathy. As a lifelong WipEout lover, I don't have it in me to detest the handheld. But PSP's failings, dissociated from PSP itself by a shimmering, redemptive loop of electronica and fusion-engine flare, have left an indelible mark in my mind on portable gaming in general.

A few years ago, Microsoft's Shane Kim stated that a handheld Xbox console was "a matter of when". Cue internet-wide shocked inhalation... followed by a long, slow exhale as the company moved ahead with its plans for Zune and Windows Phone. A friend revived the idea recently during a discussion of (cough, inexplicable trumpeting noise) certain high profile hardware launches. Here's why it can't be allowed to happen, at least for the moment.

There's a special kind of chemistry behind on-the-go entertainment, one my trusty PSP's second-hand portfolio never managed to crack. The ingredients make up a distinct hierarchy, with convenience right at the top. Whether you're selling a new flavour of Sudoku, a streaming TV app or some (cough, thundering footsteps) random Indiana Jones 'em up, the thing needs to be accessible in the worst possible circumstances: packed tube trains, a bustling kitchen, the corner of a club, the top of a bus, a noisy beach.

And cherished home-school qualities like fidelity, "immersiveness", "substance"? Right slap-bang at the bottom. High-end visuals, dynamic soundtracks that drag you into neighbouring realities, complex, testing mechanics... all fantastic in theory, but user-friendliness comes first, and when push comes to shove, there's only one possible outcome. Any 3DS users in the house? How often do you play with the slider at maximum?


This is why smart-phone apps like Angry Birds have captured the crowds, despite their scrappiness and arbitrariness: they're easy to digest at a glance, with clean, crisp art and single-screen gameplay; they're designed around but the one hand (and but the one digit); and they're paced in such a way that you can switch them on for 30 seconds and feel like you've achieved something.

Efforts to port the much-vaunted "living room experience" to handhelds are, accordingly, seldom wise. Games like Gears of War and Oblivion (once down to appear on handhelds) require much attention and investment on the player's part, and a damn good thing too - Rovio's bitty thrills divert in small doses, but when I'm manning a sofa, I want all the trappings visual, visceral, voluble and otherwise.

This gulf between home and portable entertainment has been around for yonks, of course. Now is a particularly bad time to try your hand at bridging it. Why? Because like the rest of the global economy, the videogame industry is currently falling down several staircases at once. Demand for new games is dropping, and accordingly so are development budgets - only yesterday at Brighton's TestFest conference, former EA general manager Harvey Elliott told me that outlays peaked in 2008 and are currently millions of dollars down across the board.

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