A screenshot from Rayman Origins, from Ubisoft.
A screenshot from Rayman Origins, from Ubisoft. Ubisoft
When a new videogame device is released, it's rare that any real chances are taken with the games. If you're searching for a passel of offerings that are completely astonishing and push the limits of imagination, it's rare to find them on launch day. That rule applies to the PlayStation Vita, a futuristic portable machine that's so powerful, it's almost having like a PlayStation 3 in your pocket. Yet the vast majority of the first two dozen games are riffs on established videogame series. Some are marvels of technology. Some should never have seen the light of day. Sadly, Escape Plan, the one game that's artistically new, cute and charming, is kind of broken to the point of being unplayable at points. Later this month, the BBC's new gaming arm releases Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock on Vita, which may indeed be compelling. Until then, here are the best of the early games.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss (Sony)
Sure, some of the childish dialog in this prequel to this over-the-top adventure series seems written for the youngest of the Maxim crowd, and that's so annoyingly 1990s. Despite frat-like banter that seems too young for these characters, this latest chapter in the adventure-rife Uncharted series is the best of the Sony-developed Vita games. The verdant Central American jungle and waterfalls are so precisely drawn and animated, you can almost feel the humidity. And the panoramic vistas make you want to sit on a cliff and take it all in, as if you're on an exotic vacation. You even have a camera to take pictures of the wonders you encounter. (Picture-taking is part of the puzzles you solve.) Along the way, you'll fight revolutionaries and do charcoal rubbings of ancient stones to get clues. By the time you're midway through, you'll learn a bit about history as well, all in an effort to solve the latest Nathan Drake mystery.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus (Tecmo)
The stylized Japan-influence artwork within this game is arguably as pretty as that in Golden Abyss. Going deep into Sigma Plus is like playing within the Crouching Tiger and Kill Bill movies. From the get go, you'll find much sword-stabbing and slashing — and the chance to stop and marvel at a passing raven or falling cherry petals. But there's a chilling, haunting aspect as well, everything from biting bats in caves to a monster dating from as far back as the Babylonian take on Gilgamesh, the girtabilu (except this version is part fish, not a transmogrified scorpion). You play Ryu, which is the Japanese word for dragon. That in itself says a lot.
Rayman Origins (Ubisoft)
This isn't just one of the best games for Vita. It really is one of the most joyful platformers ever made, and is surely influenced by classic cartoons like Disney's busy 1930s Silly Symphonies. Ultimately, it's like having sheer glee in your pocket. If you're unsatisfied and grumpy from a long day of work, it's the kind of game that gives you the grit and guts to soldier on. You see it in the opening sequence and during every level you play. I'd go so far as to say that these vibrant, imaginative characters rival the best that Pixar has to offer. Yes, there could be some more interactions via the touchscreen. But take this one with you, if only for the wonderful boost it gives you after a trying day of, well, living life. It'll warm your heart and make you smile, no matter what your age.
Lumines: Electronic Symphony (Ubisoft)
Those who fondly recall Tetris, the addictive game in which you match the falling shapes, might like the newest version of Lumines. The Lumines recipe is to riff on Tetris and add rhythm-based music. The Vita's touch screen is used to turn the shapes by quarter turns to near perfect results. As you play, the thumping club music flows like your lifeblood as you the game moves faster and faster. The result is a feeling of yin and yang, the soothing, satisfying feeling of aligning shapes mixed with sounds that are like musical caffeine. But why does this series always begin and end with club music? Riffs on Lau Nau and Kuupuu or fiddle legend Joe Thompson could have worked perfectly as well. At the very least they could have remixed them in any of the many club music genres presented here.
WipeOut 2048 (Sony)
Here's a supersonic game that tests your reaction time, one that might make someone who's 29 feel old. In the latest in a series that has been around since 1995, you take the futuristic wheel of a vehicle so fast, it would give Sonic The Hedgehog pause. The race courses are like imaginative, physics-defying roller coasters, and the constant need to hit spots on the road that shoot you faster and faster toward the finish line is perfectly suited to the reflexes of a teen gamer who doesn't yet have a driver license. If you're in your late twenties, however, you'll just marvel at the graphics and the pointy, souped up cars just as you wish for the halcyon days of youth. And if you're 40, you'll be soaking your fingers from hours of pain, happy pain. But carpal tunnel pain nonetheless.