Sony's PlayStation Vita portable video game handheld has just launched, bringing several innovations to the portable gaming space including a super-bright 5-inch OLED screen, front/rear touch controls and cross-platform play capabilities. It is capable of offering PlayStation 3-quality game experiences, though critics have naturally questioned the $249 (WiFi) or $299 (WiFi/3G) system's relevance as a premium, single-function device in a world of smartphones and endless free or value-priced app downloads. But looking at the PSP's successor's software library, fans might posit an equally intriguing query: Given the genre's supposed "death," why are music and rhythm games, and acoustically-inspired game concepts, so well-represented?
Easy, explains Zach Wood, Sr. Producer for Sony Computer Entertainment America. "Aside from being a great gaming platform, PS Vita is also a great portable media player. It lets you listen to music, watch videos, browse the Web and check in on Facebook and Twitter… There's just so much you can do with the tools," Wood tells Rolling Stone. "There are more ways to interact with music, be it via games or cool music creation apps. Playing music is very tactile and visceral – the Vita offers that same instant gratification with touch surfaces… plus, the fact that you also have dual joysticks and buttons, cameras, motion sensors, etc. really opens up design possibilities that aren't possible elsewhere."
Of course, most current applications appear fairly simple, e.g. HD portable conversions of existing dance simulations such as Michael Jackson: The Experience, which let you moonwalk to "Smooth Criminal" or "Billie Jean" by waving a finger. But more compelling proofs-of-concept are also available, suggests James Mielke, producer for fellow launch title Lumines: Electronic Symphony, a psychedelic puzzler which marries trance-inducing beats by the Chemical Brothers and Underworld with frantic, finger-blistering play.
"PlayStation Vita is the closest thing to approximate a [set-top] console experience on a handheld… and is a small portable device which is similar to products we already use for daily music consumption," he says. "It's a compelling platform for the music genre because the device's physicality lends itself well to rhythm games. Some features are a natural fit for these titles... having touchscreens on both the front and back of the system allows for finger tapping and other rhythm-based gestures."
Echoing similar sentiments, software designers we spoke with concur that regardless of whether the device succeeds commercially, it provides a major gameplay win for fans and creators alike. Credit the handheld's high-fidelity performance, and a hands-on experience that – under the oversight of experienced game makers – can be made potentially more akin to playing actual instruments.
How software makers choose to use the tools Sony's offering remains strictly up to their disposal, with several titles currently choosing to integrate existing music themes and play concepts in a more traditional fashion. (See: Rayman: Origins, whose limbless hero hops between flutes, keyboards and snaking woodwinds between stomping on tuba-touting birds' heads, Super Mario Bros.-style.) But while not all new outings for the Vita will innovate, say market insiders, those that do may permanently change the shape of toe-tapping interactive interludes to come.
"Writing music sounds like a mysterious and difficult thing to do, but it's actually quite simple," explains Queasy Games' founder Jonathan Mak, co-designer of upcoming acoustically-inclined Vita action title Sound Shapes. "It's something you can learn, just like [martial arts moves] in Street Fighter. If you have the patience to learn and play through most games, you can write cool tunes. [Our game] is actually a musical instrument disguised as a traditional side-scrolling platformer. That means there's no pre-recorded soundtrack. Every enemy, coin or creature adds to the music you hear – it's like walking through sheet music. Just by making a level, you'll already have a song."
Music has its own language and set of rules, which cutting-edge systems like the Vita can help players more effectively interpret on a subconscious level, agrees co-designer Shaw-Han Liem. "You know how to clap along to a song, or sing to a chorus, even if you have no concept of musical theory," he suggests. "As game designers working with musical ideas, we can engage with this unconscious logic. It gives us a common language to communicate with the player."
Whether or not you buy into that theory, an unexpected rhythm games resurgence on an equally unlikely platform may seem a surprising debate to be having in the post-Guitar Hero and Rock Band era. Scoffing at the idea that music games have permanently run their course, experts say that a sudden comeback on the PlayStation Vita would make perfect sense. "Music games aren't dead," says Mielke with a laugh. "Interactivity is just changing. Right now, we're experiencing an overkill state in music games: [Audiences] are expecting quality games that offer unique interaction with music."
Still, big questions surround the Vita's possible success before one even considers just what kind of sweet music it can make. Chief among them: publishers' willingness to experiment with new concepts, as the system fights to establish relevancy in a market increasingly defined by smartphones and free and low-cost apps. Likewise, it's impossible to say just how much they'll consider investing in music games for the system vs. alternate platforms like the Nintendo 3DS or iPod touch until the handheld proves it can command a good-sized audience.
Arguing that mobile game experiences are completely different from the richer play sessions dedicated handhelds offer is a non-issue, argues Sony's Wood, who claims we haven't scratched the surface of what music gaming can do. But perhaps the strongest case for the system's posited success comes from game-makers themselves, who say the combination of gaming and music is primal and capable of connecting with audiences regardless of platform or distribution channel.
"Many gamers exist in the world, and many music fans exist," notes Q Entertainment chief creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi, celebrated for his work designing synesthesia classics like Rez. "This correlates well. The basic mechanics of music and games are very similar. All music has a call and response mechanic. In games, players have an objective – the call – and a necessary action to complete that objective – the response. Gamers and music lovers are striving for similar accomplishments."
"It was difficult to make a music-based game in the early era of gaming," he admits. "But now, we have the ability to insert any type of sound and music into video games. We have the power to create an intense, emotional audiovisual synthesizer."
The big question marks: Just how many are willing to pay for the privilege, let alone gamble on mind-expanding new musical creations or pricey new hardware, when the world's best jukebox and gaming system may already exist in their pocket?