I had my birthday recently, and birthdays often bring something wonderful: Birthday money. In my case, some of it was birthday money in the form of PSN credit, which was very welcome. Of course I was immediately and eagerly navigating my Vita towards the PS Store. Off I went, with plenty of credit with which to potentially buy TWO big games. Only... there weren't any.
"How can there not be anything worth buying?" I thought. "I have free money burning a hole in my virtual wallet, that has to be spent on the PS Store. Yet the selection here is all either stuff I've got, disappointing ports, or decent enough fare that's way overpriced." But you know what it's like when you've got actual money to spend. You have to find something. And that is how I ended up staring at the download bar filling up with my £4.99 purchase... of Pure Chess.
Above: Pure chess is an actual game on Vita that I bought with my own actual money
As the name would imply, it's just chess. As in the board game. Now, I agree that sounds impossibly sad in both senses of the word. But primarily sad because my £230 wonder console is so game-starved I'm resorting to buying budget range chess games that aren't essentially that different from The Chessmaster that I still have somewhere on my Game Gear from 1992.
Above: Spot the difference! Vita's 3D wonder chess vs Game Gear's pixel chess
But the Vita game has truly 'daptured' my imagination (that's an 8-bit Chessmaster voice sample gag, folks) and, incredibly, I can't stop playing. It helps, of course, that I haven't played chess in ages, and that the computer opponents soon move from 'awful' to 'omnipotent', seeing everything and considering every eventuality, compared to me contemplating why chess horses can't jump in a straight line. Yes, I've tried almost 30 times to win the Challenger tourney, never getting past the second game of four.
Above: That's 'Attempted' with a capital because it KNOWS I'M CRAP AT CHESS
Unlike my skill at chess, the game is genuinely great. The 3D rendered chess pieces are so reflective and detailed, they even fooled Hooters into thinking they were pre-rendered footage instead of real-time 3D models. This is deluxe stuff. It's full-featured, too. It's got internet 'play by mail' multiplayer, an interactive tutorial to teach you the finer aspects of the game like En Passant and even gives you a brief explanation of what makes a good or bad opening.
You can even save replays of your matches and watch them back to see where you went wrong. And I've actually been doing that. Considering the last game I did that on was Super Street Fighter IV when I got schooled by a fellow Sakura player, you're looking at a game worth putting the hours into. The very design of chess is like a hardcore video game. The rules of play are really just like a Final Fantasy Tactics or Advance Wars at heart. This unit type can move like this, this unit type is more valuable than this… it's the most hardcore and unforgiving war game on any console.
Above: It even works with the buttons OR the touch screen. Couldn't ask for more
Sure, I wish the music was better and I wish that, in my gushing enthusiasm, I hadn't paid good money for the 'Central Park' area DLC and set of animal pieces (funnily enough, animals from behind all look similar in a furry kind of way, meaning I have absolutely no idea which piece is what). And you can't use the Central Park add-on as a location unless you use the animal set. That's crap. But also beside the point.
The point is this: Vita does have games. You just have to look a little further than the obvious ones. Everybody's Golf may have won the most hours of my time out of all the Vita games thus far, but smaller titles like Motorstorm RC, Super Stardust Delta and now this are equally enthralling. I also took a punt on the £5.49 Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack. I'd missed its PSN predecessor, assuming it was some kiddy game – perhaps a crappy cartoon tie-in that I've never heard of.
Above: Looks like a Saturday morning kids TV show, doesn't it?
It was only the extraordinarily high user rating taken as an average of over 1,000 people that made me give it a try on Vita on my birthday. Not that many idiots can know how to use the review button, right? Turns out, as our review (opens in new tab) attests, it's actually a blend of Katamari and Loco Roco, with a little Jellycar thrown in for good measure. And it's got a wicked sense of humour. Squelching along, ingesting students at their graduation ceremony in revenge for what some scientists did to your poor blobby friends? Sheer brilliance.
So what's the moral of the story? Taking a gamble on two cheap games that don't look or sound like worthy purchases (at least when you're looking at mere words on the store) have given me joy, challenge, and fun. Vita will get more big games soon – it kinda has to. But in the mean-time, don't think you're 'too good' to spend your money on the smaller fare. Why let your Vita become a very pretty paperweight because you refuse to play anything on it until the big guns arrive?
'Small games are not what I bought my Vita for' is an easy argument to make, but if you didn't buy your Vita for great-looking, challenging and absorbing video games (and cheap ones at that), what did you buy it for?