Atelier Ayesha is an emotional game for me. The idea of losing loved ones and feeling so determined that they are alive really resonated hard with me. I loved the cast in this game; from Regina who wanted to help her village by exploring the mine attached to it, to Wilbell’s determination to become the greatest witch of all time, these characters had so much personality infused in them. What I loved about this port was simply being able to carry a favourite game with me wherever I wanted to go and knowing that these friends would be travelling alongside with me. Ayesha’s story is the kind that has been missing from the series as of late, and I hope that newer games will one day revisit their stronger story roots.
Atelier Escha & Logy is when I first made the jump to #TeamHandheld with the series, previously playing it on PlayStation 3. Atelier is a big hit among the RPGamer staff! Featuring two alchemists whose stories varied slightly, the game begs to be replayed — I enjoyed Escha’s route on console and played Logy’s route on Vita. There’s something that just feels good about collecting ingredients, making items, raising friendships and going out on adventures, rising from defeating the lowly puni up to downing the greatest dragons. Though the series has these days retired from the Vita, it remains a handheld game in my eyes since I’ve never actually docked my Switch.
Atelier Totori Plus had a stealth release on the Vita. It just showed up one Tuesday with no announcement or fanfare. I remember fearing that the manner of the release bode ill for the quality of the game. Thankfully, my fears turned out to be unfounded as Totori Plus brought Atelier back to portables in fine fashion. Totori was the Atelier game that hooked me on the series; the story of a young girl coming of age, becoming an adult, and discovering what happened to her mother — an adventurer that had disappeared across the sea years ago. It’s a smaller, more personal tale in comparison to the “save the world” dynamics that drive most RPGs, but the smaller scope allows the character development to have more impact. The alchemy and turn-based battles, which work great for short bursts, combined with a fantastic soundtrack from Gust, make it one of the best games the Vita has to offer.
It should come as little surprise to longtime readers when Bastion makes any sort of “Best of” list on RPGamer. It was Game of the Year in 2011 and has continued to be a staff favorite in its many subsequent releases. Bastion tells the story of the Kid, one of the only survivors left after the Calamity. The Kid has to rebuild the world and find cores that will hopefully revitalize it. The world of Bastion assembles out of the ether as the Kid explores it and a narrator punctuates the player’s every move. With vivid colors that just pop off the Vita’s screen and action combat that works well even on the go, the portable version of Bastion was a no-compromise edition of one of the best games of the last generation.
When the Vita was launched, the promise of the system was the ability to have the power of a home console in the palm of your hand. To this end, Sony partnered up with Gearbox to bring a big console experience to handheld. The result is honestly quite stunning as Borderlands 2 made the portable jump better than any game of that scope had a right to. Sure there were compromises; I had to buy an accessory grip to keep my hands from cramping up using the controls mapped to the back touchpad. Visually it didn’t quite match up to the console version, but Borderlands was a blast to play on the Vita. Spending considerable time and money porting a several-year-old console game didn’t prove to be an effective move to save the Vita’s flagging fortunes, but I enjoyed tangling with Handsome Jack and exploring Pandora. I’m glad that the Vita version introduced me to a series I had been missing out on.
The Digimon series has a hit-or-miss reputation, but Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth was definitely a hit. With the sheer volume of Digimon and being able to teach basically every move to any monster, the customization alone was satisfying enough. But the more mature story, stylish graphics, great animations, and even online player versus player battles really made it one of the best in the series. Though the Vita didn’t get a physical release in the west, being able to play this game on the go and having cross-save makes it worth the investment.
Disgaea, as a series, is always off the wall, wacky nonsense with an undertone of serious contemplation of the concepts of good and evil. Disgaea 4: A Promise Revisited goes all in on that. The sardine jokes, the crazy Axel stuff, a giant robot powered by love and prayer, and some of the tightest gameplay in the series make this a must-have for fans of the series. Disgaea 4 also works well as an introduction to the series; being approachable and completely stand-alone, it loses no depth in the transition, and the grind is less painful when you can go into rest mode whenever necessary. This is the definitive version and a worthy purchase.
Dragon Quest Builders takes everything familiar about the Dragon Quest series and blends it together with the immensely popular gameplay of Minecraft. The game is set around a “what if” scenario from the original Dragon Quest of the 1980s, and this premise works perfectly for this first Builders side series entry. The music harkens back to the NES days of Dragon Questing as the game reintroduces locations and storylines in beautifully rendered 3D on the Vita while slowly introducing and guiding RPGamers through the rebuilding of a shattered world. Complete challenging chapters to advance the main story or get lost in the sandbox creation mode; both provide dozens of hours of construction and combat with a side of item creation.
When the original Final Fantasy X came out, I was finishing my second year in college. At that point in my life, the Game Boy Advance was the portable system of the day, and mine never left my pocket. If you would have informed me that just eleven years later, we were going to get a portable version of Final Fantasy X, I would have thought you were on crazy pills. Needless to say, 20-year-old me would be so jealous of current me right now.
Final Fantasy X|X2 is everything you remember about the Final Fantasy X and X-2 that you know and love, right down to that sphere grid that is SO satisfying to fill out. In addition to the portability, one unique feature about the Vita version is a “Heal All” function that is mapped to the touchscreen. This was so handy that it annoys me the PS4 version doesn’t have this feature. Also, being able to transfer your save to the console version is a plus, if you’re lucky or rich enough to own BOTH versions. There is just one drawback about Final Fantasy X|X-2 on a portable system. Whatever you do, resist the urge to throw your Vita into a wall trying to get the perfect score on that chocobo race. Your Vita, wallet, and landlord, will thank you later.
I actually wrote about Mary Skelter for Mac’s Pocket Console site. It took top spot in my #TeamHandheld Best of 2017 list, and anyone diving into it should quickly see why. I really wasn’t intending to play it at all (creep games? No thanks!) but was talked into it with the promise of a great dungeon crawl and fun characters. Matched up with a nifty class system that lets you specialize into various roles such as tank, debuffer, or glass cannon with a risk/reward system made me excited to dive deeper into each dungeon. Though it flew under the radar in 2017, it’s worth picking up even now.
Going by the reviews immediately apparent on GameFAQs, Rainbow Skies appears to be an inconsequential title that impressed few and will be remembered by fewer. After spending over 400 hours with the game I have to fervently disagree. It’s true that this is not an RPG to entice anyone who demands a gripping narrative, and after spending so much time with it I can come up with a list of small gripes that probably wouldn’t even occur to a more casual player. It’s nevertheless the most addictive experience I’ve had in years, one that makes me want to praise Rainbow Skies even more in the hopes of getting it a little more attention. It’s got a ton of personality that becomes apparent after spending some time with it, and that deserves to be rewarded.
Despite being an RPG wonderland, and the home of some of the best RPGs of all time, there were many Super Nintendo RPGs that never made it over to the west. This included the Romancing SaGa trilogy. Though the first game eventually got a remake on PlayStation 2 that came westward, the second and third games remained unlocalized with nary a decent fan translation in sight. Finally, after years of waiting, the generational RPG got a localization on mobile, and eventually to consoles. Though obviously not the only console it is playable on, Romancing SaGa 2 is perhaps best on Vita. The classic pixels look great on the Vita’s screen, the download size doesn’t take up much of the Vita’s limited memory card space, and cross-save with the PlayStation 4 version allows for playing on TV when not on the go. Nevermind the fact that the game itself is well ahead of its time with a somewhat open nature and varying party members from generation to generation. This is a must for any Vita owners who are fans of the 16-bit era.
While Stardew Valley released years before on virtually every other console on the market, Vita players were eventually rewarded in 2018 with a game worthy of such a wait. Taking the best elements from dozens of Harvest Moon and Rune Factory games, Stardew Valley provides a casual experience for players to pick and choose between farming, battling, mining, befriending townsfolk, or completing tasks to rebuild the community center. The choice to do as many or as few of them as one likes is as refreshing as the rains in spring that water the plants and free up even more time to go fishing or milk the cows. Nostalgic 16-bit graphics and matching soundtrack add to the simple charm of this country-life RPG. This game may be available everywhere, but it feels at home on a portable console.
“Tokyo Xanadu is a modern-day RPG built off the same game engine as Trails of Cold Steel,” was enough to sell me on the game. Though I initially bounced off the first Cold Steel title, once I got a couple hours in I was hopelessly hooked, playing both available titles back-to-back on my Vita; I was anxious to dive into Tokyo Xanadu as well, and finally did in July of 2018. I enjoyed sharing fun little moments of the game with Mac, and just like Cold Steel, once I picked it up I could barely put it down! I’m glad Mac bugged me so often to try these games out — it’s led to one of my favourite games in 2018.
Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception and Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth stand out not just through the difficult pronunciation but in its incredibly deep narrative and world-building. The pair of titles combine to form one of the most satisfying overall stories told in RPGs in recent years, combined with a very strong cast, though its slow build-up may have caused some to fail to get over the hump into the incredibly engaging portion that spans from the second half of the first game and throughout the entirety of the second. In addition, the games’ strategy RPG portions are excellent and handled very nicely, making for a visual novel/strategy RPG hybrid that has not really received the full amount of plaudits it deserves.
This feature is dedicated to the memory of our friend Michael A. Cunningham. Mac started at RPGamer in 2006 and would go on to become the long-running Editor-in-Chief. While Mac loved RPGs, he especially loved handheld games, founding the #TeamHandheld hashtag as well as running a personal project site, Pocket Console, where you can read more of his musings on portable games. In addition to this feature, you can see Michael’s top Vita games, which we incorporated into the voting for this feature. The link is to a Google Document because Mac loved organizing lists in spreadsheets. You can also read the tributes to Michael from the community as well as a list of our favorite works by Mac. Also, a special thanks to our friends at RPGFan who dedicated their recent Top 25 Nintendo 3DS Games feature to Michael’s memory.