LittleBigPlanet 2

Like with the Wii, Nintendo is not attempting to have Wii U compete on graphics; based on what we’ve seen and heard, it’s roughly on equal footing with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in terms of horsepower. It’s the system’s controller that sets it apart from the competition and, like the Wii remote, allows it to provide experiences that can’t be had elsewhere. Or, at least, that is the idea; Microsoft showed off SmartGlass at E3 which was perceived as the company’s version of the Wii U GamePad. Sony did the same with LittleBigPlanet 2 and Vita, something we got to see again at Gamescom as one demonstration of how Sony is indiscreetly going after Nintendo.

Sony announced today that Cross Controller support, the feature used to play LittleBigPlanet 2′s upcoming Cross Controller DLC, will be included in a Vita firmware update coming later this month. The distinction between this and PSP Remote Play is that the Vita is recognized as what it is; asymmetric gameplay becomes a possibility, and the Vita’s unique features can be harnessed — the game doesn’t play as if you are simply holding a PS3 controller with a screen that displays what would normally be seen on your TV. This firmware update will enable developers to make use of the functionality in their games going forward; the only thing that might stop them, really, is that the Vita install base is not especially large, and the number of people with both a PlayStation 3 and Vita is even smaller than that (though there is undoubtedly a fair amount of overlap between owners of the two).

While SmartGlass was the E3 announcement that got more attention — and perhaps rightfully so since it features support for a wide range of devices including iPads, iPhones, and Android devices — it’s the Vita-PS3 combo that stands a chance of offering an experience more like that of the Wii U. The first reason for this is that developers know what hardware they’re working with; whereas SmartGlass has to account for different devices with different screen sizes and button configurations (or lack thereof), Cross Controller only makes use of the Vita so they can tailor an experience to that setup. SmartGlass’ support of so many devices helps to ensure more people will be able to get some use out of it, but it puts it in a position where it is most useful as a secondary screen.

The other reason is the Vita has both a touchscreen and buttons, and it can for the most part replicate the inputs available with a PS3 controller. That is the main difference between the Cross Controller feature and SmartGlass — you could, in theory, pick up a Vita and play a PS3 game by mapping the L2 and R2 buttons to the rear touchpad and the analog stick clicks to the touchscreen. Playing an Xbox 360 game on a SmartGlass-enabled device would require an entirely different, touch-based control method. So while there are interesting applications for SmartGlass and it may be enough for some to forgo a Wii U, it’s actually the people with a PS3 and Vita that could enjoy a Wii U-style experience without spending a dime on Nintendo’s new hardware.

Particularly in today’s on-stage demonstration of the new LittleBigPlanet 2 DLC, which is coming later this year, Sony didn’t shy away from attempting taking the wind out of Nintendo’s sails. It’s looking for any reason to help sell Vitas, and this functionality certainly doesn’t make it any less attractive to potential buyers, but more importantly this feature is something that makes what Nintendo has to offer seem less special. As Sony looks to sell its own hardware this holiday (and simultaneously hopes its own next-gen offering, not the Wii U, will eventually be the big seller), what better way is there to hurt interest in the competition’s offering than by showing how you can do the same thing, possibly even better?

I say do it better because the Vita has the added benefit of multi-touch and its rear touch controls, which are two input methods you won’t find on Wii U. It could be said the PS3/Vita combo is less desirable because the cost involved in purchasing both systems is almost certainly going to be higher than whatever the Wii U’s price ends up being set at. But there is a large PS3 install base that could decide to pick up a Vita to get a Wii U-like experience with the added bonus of having a portable game system that can play games anywhere, unlike the Wii U GamePad, which needs to be kept near the console itself to function.

Whether this Cross Controller thing ever amounts to much will depend entirely on how much developer support it receives. LittleBigPlanet 2 seems to make great use of it, whether it be by having the location of hidden hazards displayed on the Vita’s screen or requiring its touchscreen and touchpad be used to interact with objects in the environment like in the standalone Vita game. Assuming other developers decide to embrace this — no doubt Sony will ensure many of its first-party studios do, just as Nintendo will have its dual-screen first-party games — this could, like PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, be another blatantly Nintendo-inspired idea that Sony does a fine job of executing on.

By Chris Pereira