Steam power, typewriters, starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together — sometimes things become obsolete for good reason. There are more efficient ways to power locomotives, write and set fires these days.
But newer doesn't always mean better. In some rare cases, the old way of doing things is the best. Take buttons, for example. You press a button, and something happens. The reaction is immediate, the effect is precise and the effort is minimal.
That's why months ago I rushed out to order a PlayStation Vita, which finally hit store shelves last week. The system's enormous screen, powerful processors and exciting software were all secondary to me. The biggest selling point? Buttons. Lots of them. And two analog joysticks for good measure.
So I find it somewhat ironic that a system I bought for its buttons might finally have what it takes to sell me on the concept of touch-screen controls.
More and more, developers of hand-held games are moving away from dedicated, button-having gaming systems, such as the classic GameBoy or the Nintendo DS and PlayStation Portable systems. Developers have been swayed by the runaway success of simple, low-cost games on touch-screen tablets and smartphones, which have a larger market penetration than dedicated gaming systems and yield higher profits.
Some genres of games work well on touch screens — menu-heavy strategy games such as Plants vs. Zombies or blithe time-wasters such as Angry Birds. But many more games on the Apple and Android stores wind up in consumers' hands with touch-screen controls that are passable at best and terrible at worst. Genres that have fueled the game industry since the 1980s — racing, shooters, action adventures and RPGs — are notoriously hard to control without buttons.
Casual gamers say their phones or tablets work well enough to play games in short bursts. Hard-core gamers say you can't play proper games with limited touch-screen interfaces.
The Vita effectively eliminates the argument, offering gamers more options for control than any game system in history, portable or otherwise.
In addition to buttons and joysticks, you can control certain games via the system's 5-inch touch screen, which is every bit as responsive as that of an iPad or other tablet. If that doesn't strike your fancy, how about the nearly perfect one-to-one tilt control — meaning if you turn 180 degrees, the character in the game you're playing turns 180 degrees, too? The Vita's built-in microphone, rear touch panel and front- and rear-facing cameras also may be used in certain games.
You can go elsewhere to read in-depth articles about the Vita's various other strengths, such as its ability to render graphics near the quality of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and weaknesses, such as its lack of built-in memory for saving games and downloadable content.
For me, the sole reason the Vita is the most important hand-held console to launch in two decades is the amount of control it gives its users.
The Vita's marquee title, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, is a perfect example. The game is controlled mostly with the joysticks and buttons, but it quickly became second nature to control certain actions using the system's other features. I found myself more often than not using the touch screen for hand-to-hand combat, zooming in the with the camera and sniper rifle scope, and climbing ledges. And the tilt-control aiming — which allows you to correct your aim by tilting the system — is so intuitive that I don't know if I can go back to playing shooters without it.
Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational also uses the touch screen well. Point on the course where you want your ball to land, and the game automatically assigns a club that will give you the distance you want. It works because it isn't heavy-handed; the touch screen doesn't control the game; it enhances it, while relying on the joysticks and buttons for most movements and actions.
Designing a control interface is a tough prospect for a game hardware designer. A good control method will go unnoticed and unappreciated, as it should. For a gamer, thinking about or struggling with the controls is the same as someone talking on a cellphone at the theater. It pulls us out of the story and reminds us, "Hey, this isn't real life."
The Vita is being marketed as a portable gaming device for hard-core gamers who have been spoiled by the big-budget blockbusters on the 360 and PS3. And it should succeed in that regard: Never has a portable system catered more to longtime game players. But the system can be more than that.
With the Vita, Sony has finally delivered a system that lets you do whatever feels most natural to you. Not all games take advantage of the features the system has to offer, but the potential is there for the powerful Vita to become the most user-friendly system on the market.