PlayStation Vita as a Retro Handheld Gaming Device

Last updated: 13DEC2020 (see Changelog for details)

If you’ve ever spent time on any emulation-related website, subreddit, YouTube comments, or discord server, you’ve heard the arguments: if you want a good handheld gaming device, you must buy a PS Vita. So I decided to pick up a PS Vita and give it the same critical eye that I like to give any of my handheld devices.

Table of Contents
Specs and features
Where to buy and necessary tools
How to hack a PS Vita
Hardware
Emulation performance
PS1 and PSP backwards compatibility, PS Vita, and Remote Play
Likes, dislikes, and conclusion

Changelog

Specs and features

The PlayStation Vita debuted in Japan in late 2011, and made its way overseas by early 2012. During its seven-year run, a total of 1,508 Vita and PlayStation Network (PSN) indie games were released worldwide for the device.

CPU: Quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore (can be clocked to 2GHz)
GPU: Quad-core PowerVR SGX543MP4+
RAM: 512 MB RAM, 128 MB VRAM
Screen: 960 × 544 qHD @ 220 ppi (16:9 aspect ratio)
Connectivity: EEE 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR, 3G (some models)
Battery: 2210 mAh (3-6 hours depending on model)

The Vita had two models: the PCH1000 model (featured in my video above) with an OLED display, and a PCH2000 model with an LCD display. The general consensus is that the PCH1000 model has a better display, but the PCH2000 model has longer battery life. The PCH2000 is 20% thinner and 15% lighter than the PCH1000 model.

Where to buy and necessary tools

Sony stopped production of the PlayStation Vita in March 2019, so the only place to buy this device is now on the used marketplace. Its original MSRP was $250, and it still commands a fairly high price. In general, I would expect to pay about $200 for a working device in good condition; you may be able to find deals for as low as $175 if you’re lucky.

I bought mine via eBay from a seller named supply4demand808, who is “Top Rated Plus” and has sold many Vitas. They were very professional and helped me find the right device for my needs. After some discussion, I decided to go with the PCH1000 because of its OLED display. Because we both live in Hawaii (but on different islands), it only took a few days to ship to me. If you are in the United States, I highly recommend their eBay store. One thing to note is that ALL FIRMWARES are hackable for the PS Vita, so don’t worry about what firmware is listed for the system; the video guide below works on the most recent firmware version (3.73).

If you want to hack your PS Vita in order to install RetroArch, you will need to save some files to the device. If you have a PCH2000 model, the device has 1GB of onboard storage, so you are good to go. But if you have a PCH1000 model, you will need to buy a Sony PS Vita memory card, which is proprietary. The size of the card doesn’t matter, so if you can find a 4GB card, go for it. 8GB cards are easier to find, which is what I bought (via eBay for about $20).

Finally, once you’ve hacked your PS Vita, you will be able to use an SD2VITA card, which will allow you to use a microSD card for storage. It costs between $5 and $10 on Amazon and is worth every penny (be sure to buy this FunTurbo brand card, it is highly regarded as being the most reliable of these cards). I paired my SD2VITA card with a 256 Samsung microSD card and it can fit a ton of PS1, PSP, and PS Vita games.

Your device should come with a charger, but if it doesn’t, grab one of these and you’re ready to rock.

How to hack a PS Vita

I’ll admit it, hacking a PS Vita was a harrowing experience for me. I followed the video above from Tech Savvy Buyer and it worked like a charm, but throughout the process I kept worrying that I was going to brick my unit. But that may be some lingering PTSD on my part — I bought an original PlayStation Portable on day one (March 2005), and bricked it the following year trying to hack/jailbreak it to play retro games. But things have come a long way since then, so just follow the video above and you should be fine. Do note that the process is beginner-level, but will still require you to be fairly computer savvy.

Once the device is hacked, you can modify it to allow an SD2VITA card (see this video), install RetroArch, and more. There are tons of videos about these processes, so let’s move on to my actual review of this device.

Hardware

In general, the device has a very premium feel. The entire front is covered in glass, which makes it highly reflective and a fingerprint magnet. Even if you wipe the device down with a microfiber cloth, it will be filthy again within minutes.

The buttons feel fantastic. The d-pad and face buttons are set inside a slightly convex frame, and it makes them feel very natural and nice. The buttons themselves are a perfect mixture of clicky and squishy — they feel more modern than a retro gamepad, but still very responsive. The analog sticks are a little on the small side, but they are easy to adjust to. Note that the analog sticks do not click down, so there is no L3/R3 buttons on this device.

Speaking of a lack of buttons, the PS Vita does not have L2/R2 trigger buttons, just L1 and R1 shoulder buttons. This isn’t an issue when playing PSP or PS Vita games, but can cause an issue for PS1 games and especially for PS4 games (more on that later). The START, SELECT, and HOME buttons are all flush with the device; this prevents you from accidentally pressing them, but they’re also a bit difficult to press (especially START and SELECT) because they are so small.

The device has two front-facing stereo speakers that sound just fine, and a headphone jack on the bottom. Because it is bluetooth enabled, you can also use bluetooth headphones with this device.

Up top, you have your power button, volume buttons, and ports for the Vita card and an accessory slot that doesn’t really do anything. Down below you have a charging port, headphone jack, and a Sony memory card slot.

The 5″ screen on this device is incredible! I spend a lot of time looking at small screens on handheld gaming devices, and I’ve never seen one like this (bear in mind I have the OLED model). Compared to the 3.5″ screen on other retro devices, this device feels like a monster. And because the bezels are nestled within the device itself, it appears to have ZERO bezels, which makes the experience that much more premium.

Dimensions

PCH-1000:
83.55 mm (3.289 in) (height)
182 mm (7.2 in) (width)
18.6 mm (0.73 in) (depth)

PCH-2000:
85.1 mm (3.35 in) (height)
183.6 mm (7.23 in) (width)
15.0 mm (0.59 in) (depth)

Mass

PCH-1000:
260 grams (9.2 oz) (Wi-Fi)
279 grams (9.8 oz) (3G version)

PCH-2000:
219 grams (7.7 oz) (Wi-Fi)

Emulation performance

RetroArch is the simplest way to emulate systems on the PS Vita, and it is what I primarily tested for this device. Here is an abbreviated list of supported RetroArch emulation cores:

Amiga (P-UAE core)
Amstrad CPC
Atari 2600
Atari 5200
Atari 7800
Atari Lynx
Atari ST
Bandai WonderSwan / Color
Cave Story
Commodore 64
DOOM
MSX
Nintendo Game Boy
Nintendo Game Boy Color
Nintendo Game Boy Advance
NES
SNES
Nintendo Virtual Boy

PC Engine (TurboGrafx-16) / CD
Quake
Sega Master System
Sega Game Gear
Sega Genesis
Sega CD
Sega 32x
SNK Neo Geo CD
PlayStation
TIC-80
Wolfenstein 3D

Arcade:
FinalBurn Alpha 2012
FinalBurn Neo
MAME 2000
MAME 2003
MAME 2003-Plus

You may notice that certain systems, such as Nintendo 64, Nintendo DS, Sega Saturn, and Sega Dreamcast are not listed. That’s because they are either unplayable or play very poorly on this system. Developers are working on standalone emulators for some of these systems, but they are far from complete. So if you were hoping to get a PS Vita in order to play N64, NDS, or Dreamcast games, this isn’t the system for you.

As a whole, RetroArch is a little slim and buggy compared to other versions of the app. For example, you have to download a standalone version of RetroArch, which doesn’t have online core updates, shaders, etc. Although I’m using the “stable” 1.9.0 version, it is still buggy, and it will crash randomly. Note that for the gpSP emulator core to work, you will need to put the gba_bios.bin BIOS file into the data/retroarch/system/ folder on your memory card.

The emulation performance is also not stellar. Some SNES games, like Super Mario RPG, have a hard time playing at full speed, and many arcade games (both in MAME and FBNeo) cannot keep up. CPS2, CPS3, and other games (like Mortal Kombat) cannot play at full speed. It’s disappointing, but the arcade performance on this device is worse than on the RG350 devices, which has a far inferior chipset.

PS1 and PSP backwards compatibility, PS Vita, and Remote Play

The PS Vita is backwards compatible with the PS1 and PSP, and these games play flawlessly through the Adrenaline app. Booting up that app is like starting up an original PSP, and it brings me no small amount of joy to see that old interface. After spending so much time trying to squeeze PSP performance out of my RG351P or Retroid Pocket 2, it is super awesome to see PSP games running so well on the PS Vita. The Adrenaline settings are very helpful; for example, you can map the right analog stick to whatever buttons you’d like, which is very helpful for games like Daxter and Ratchet and Clank, which use the L and R shoulder buttons to move the camera. You can map the right analog stick to the L and R buttons and voilà, you have a perfectly functioning right analog stick camera setup.

Similarly, PS1 games run perfectly on this device, and you can adjust the screen size to the nth degree using the application. So no matter what dimensions you like, you can find your perfect fit in this app.

And it goes without saying but PS Vita games themselves are a bonus feature for this device. Many of my favorite PS2 games have HD collections available on this platform, to include Metal Gear Solid, God of War, Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank, and Sly Cooper. In all, there is a very impressive software library available from the Sony catalog alone.

And finally, the device also supports PS3 and PS4 Remote Play. So if you have either of those systems, you can play those games directly on your PS Vita. The only downside, and it’s a major downside, is that you have to use L2/R2 and L3/R3 via the rear touchpad, which is not very responsive and doesn’t compare to physical buttons. There are third-party cases available that add trigger buttons to the device, but the good ones (from Japan) are relatively pricey, so expect to pay around $50 for one. But if PS3/PS4 remote gameplay is important to you, this is a viable solution.

Likes, dislikes, and conclusion

To sum up my experience, here is what I love about the device, what I don’t love, and what it all means.

Likes:

  • Screen: this 5″ OLED display on the PCH1000 is downright gorgeous. It makes other devices’ screens pale in comparison. I like that it’s a touchscreen, it makes using the menus very inuitive.
  • Craftsmanship: the PS Vita is a premium device. After spending a lot of time with Chinese-designed-and-manufactured devices, it’s refreshing to get my hands on a first-party device that came from a reputable development team. This thing just oozes quality.
  • Quality of life features: the online connectivity, bluetooth, and sleep mode on this device are very handy, and while they are expected with Sony devices, it’s often overlooked with other retro handheld devices.
  • Sony software library: the PS Vita, PSP, PS1, and PS3/PS4 Remote Play options on this device are phenomenal. If you are a big fan of Sony products and games, and somehow don’t have a Vita already, now is a great time to pick one up. It’s been 15 years since I first bought my PSP, and getting into the PS Vita has been a real joy for me.
  • Community: there is a large PS Vita community out there, which gives me hope that this device will be relevant for years to come. And who knows, maybe they’ll get a legitimate N64 or NDS emulator someday. Speaking of which:

Dislikes:

  • Fingerprint magnet: it bothers me how quickly this device gets dirty. I actually wish it had a plastic shell (but this same screen), just so it would not be so reflective and fingerprint-catching.
  • L2/R2 buttons: the lack of trigger buttons is disappointing when trying to play PS1 and PS4 Remote Play games. It basically renders most PS4 games unplayable, because that unresponsive back touchpad is not even worth playing in my opinion.
  • Not ergonomic: the device has these little pads on the back of the device, ostensibly for your fingers to go into, but they are poorly placed. Overall, I have a hard time figuring out how to hold this device. Because it’s rather slick, and because it’s shaped more like an oval than a rectangle, it is slightly awkward in the hand.
  • Hacking not fun: I didn’t enjoy the experience of hacking the device. In fact, at one point I thought I had bricked my device (turns out you can hold the L1 button while booting to boot without any user settings, which can sometimes fix booting issues). Overall, even being relatively computer savvy, I found myself very nervous during the hacking process.
  • Emulation: using RetroArch as my primary means of emulation, I found the experience to be lackluster. The games that do play look great, but the supported systems are limited and games/cores were prone to crashing out of nowhere.

In a nutshell, the PS Vita shines doing all the things it was intended to do: run PS Vita, PS1, PSP, and PS4 Remote Play games. As a standalone emulation system, it doesn’t really “wow” me at all. In fact, if I was to only choose one device solely for retro gaming, the PS Vita would not be that system. I’d rather play on my RG351P, a device that is made for retro gaming, even if it does have an inferior screen and chipset.


Changelog

13DEC2020
– published article
– added GBA bios info

One thought on “PlayStation Vita as a Retro Handheld Gaming Device

  1. I’ve got retroarch working great on my ps vita thanks to you Russ. just need help with adding console icons . they don’t show up even after scanning them. any ideas.?

    Like

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