From: Fun Bits Interactive/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (suggestive themes, violence, blood)
The arguable oddball (in a good way) of the Vita launch? It has to be "Escape Plan," which takes a simple premise - help best buds Lil and Laarg escape from a bizarre, factory-like prison laden with danger - and packages it in a wrapper that's pretty, charming, twisted and the most clever introduction there is to the Vita's touch (and to a lesser extent, tilt) control capabilities. You control neither Lil nor Laarg directly: Rather, using the touchscreen and touch panel, you swipe and poke at them to guide their movement and interact similarly with the surrounding environment to keep them from strolling into peril. Past the opening levels, "Plan" doesn't tell you what to do: It's up to you to look around the level and figure out what can be done - perhaps tapping a mattress from behind to push it over for a safe landing, perhaps holding a finger over a damaged pipe to block a gas leak while using another finger to guide the friends across - to escort them safely. As usual, easy early levels eventually give way to genuine brainteasers, and while you can cheat "Plan's" three-star grading system by replaying levels once you figure them out, the real sport comes from keeping Lil's and Laarg's death count to a minimum. The number of times each character perishes is displayed prominently and humorously on his/her body, which is but one of the many darkly funny touches - Tim Burton-esque character design, a monochrome presentation that looks like a cross between 3D and charcoal art come expressively alive, a delightful appetite for slapstick, a classical music soundtrack that jubilantly belies the otherwise dark tone - that make "Plan" a beast of its own creation.
From: Studio Liverpool/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)
If you don't follow the "Wipeout" timeline, you may not realize "Wipeout 2048" actually predates the original Playstation "Wipeout" game by a few years. What this means - in addition to a really impressive opening video that beautifully animates the evolution of the automobile into the hovering ship for which the series is known - is that "2048's" tracks are a cool hybrid of regular concrete roads and the futuristic tracks that populate the other "Wipeout" games. Beyond that visual twist, though, this is as "Wipeout" as "Wipeout" gets - a very fast, very pretty and eventually very challenging futuristic racing game that will absolutely punish you if you don't learn to use your ship's air brake. Long load times between races - in the 30 to 40 seconds range - make "2048" the slowest Vita game as well as the fastest one, but if you can ride out the wait, the spotless on-track action is worth it. (Just be sure to stick with the tried and true: A tilt-and-touch control scheme is available as an option, but it holds no candle to the sticks and buttons.) "2048's" customary career mode mixes races, time trials and kart racer-style combat events, all of which carry over to local and online play (eight players each). As a first taste of Sony's plans to cross-pollinate the Vita and PS3, those who own "2048" also can race against those who own "Wipeout HD" on the PS3. If you own both versions, the two forthcoming downloadable packs of "HD" tracks are yours to download for free when they release for "2048" this spring.
"Super Stardust Delta"
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild fantasy violence)
Price: $10 (free with activation of a 3G data plan)
One of the PS3's original standout downloadable games is now pulling similar duty on the Vita, which has the dual sticks to do it justice. In the vein of "Geometry Wars" and "Robotron," "Super Stardust Delta" is a pure dual-stick shooter (left stick to fly the ship, right stick to aim and fire). Its primary gimmick - that the levels are spherical planets rather than flat arenas - gets put to better effect here than on the PS3, thanks to an ability to tilt the Vita to change the perspective from which you view the planet. Five offshoot modes take advantage of the touch and tilt controls, including a tilt-based game in which you control a rolling asteroid, a touch-and-drag game in which you keep a blue disc out of harm's way, and an amusing game in which you pinch the touchscreen and rear touch panel together to "squish" asteroids like a god. But "Delta's" main modes - a planet-by-planet campaign or an arcade-style marathon mode - are as pure in spirit as their PS3 counterparts. The Vita's sticks are up to the task, the game is as polished and responsive here as it's ever been, and the confluence of challenge, activity and special effects makes for an exciting and very pretty way to put $10 to very good use.
"Army Corps of Hell"
From: Entersphere/Square Enix
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, violence)
The wait for Nintendo's third "Pikmin" game has entered its eighth year, and if you're inpatient enough to play the best "Pikmin" game Nintendo wouldn't dare make, this one has your name written all over it. "Army Corps of Hell" puts you in control of the literal King of Hell, but the real action comes from commanding a massive army of minions to do your bidding. The fundamental similarities to "Pikmin" are undeniable: You "command" minions by chucking them two or more at a time at enemies and other points of interest, and your duties as king revolve around keeping minions alive and managing different formations of sword-, spear- and spell-wielding minions. The primary difference with "Hell" is, of course, the theme: In place of "Pikmin's" cute creatures and lush landscapes, "Hell" sets shop in a scorched underworld, populates it with hideous allies and enemies alike, drenches everything in blood, and wraps it inside a heavy metal soundtrack that's so deliriously overt as to be amusing. Elsewhere, "Hell" is alternately a deeper and shallower game. Though level arrangements change and boss fights force you to consider new attack formations, there's still little objective beyond killing enemies. On the other hand, you can level up your minions and outfit them with new weapons and armor. If you're up to the challenge, there's fun to be had in finding the perfect formation and putting it into play to finish a level quickly, forcefully and stylishly enough to get the highest grades. Should you wish to apply that knowledge toward destroying your friends as well, a local multiplayer option (four players) is on hand to let you do just that.
"Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen"
From: Acquire/Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, violence)
One look at the graphics is all it takes to wonder if "Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen" began life as a PSP game before rebuilding the deck and jumping aboard the Vita launch. Unflattering visual presentation aside, though, the move was for the best. The Vita's dual joysticks prove to be a considerable asset in a game in which you're trying to maintain stealthy awareness in levels with multiple open ends. Similarly, while the touchscreen gets put to limited use and nearly every function has a button equivalent, they're useful functions (calling up a map, homing in on a target's general location when the game alerts you to his presence) that are easier to access this way than via buttons. "Zen" has some wobbly control working against it: Zen (that's you) is a bit clumsy when climbing ledges and peeking around corners, and he's downright messy when fighting an enemy who has spotted you and is fighting back. (There's a reason your specialty is stealth, so just flee and try to surprise your enemies again. "Zen" and Zen, to their equal credit, are flexible enough that getting spotted isn't a deal-breaker if you aren't stubborn enough to admit your mistake and bolt for the shadows.) "Zen's" action is fast, limber and engrossing enough to make even its control shortcomings pretty forgivable, and the story brings with it lots of control over upgrades, special moves and allegiances with different factions. It won't make your newfangled handheld feel very new, but as stealth action games go, it offers a lot to like.
"ModNation Racers: Road Trip"
From: SCE San Diego Studio/Sony
ESRB Rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)
The endlessly customizable kart racer makes a Vita debut that's at once impressive, imperfect and incomplete. Outside of some occasional framerate stutters, "ModNation Racers: Road Trip's" on-track action looks and feels as good as the original "ModNation Racers" did on the PS3. Better still, because both games feed into the same ecosystem, every one of the hundreds of thousands of karts, racers and tracks players created in the PS3 edition is immediately available to download for free in this version. The customization options remain enormous, and the track builder benefits from the optional touchscreen sculpting tools (though the traditional interface remains available as well for those who prefer it). On the other side of the coin, "Trip" sports some lengthy load times that lend an air of unresponsiveness to the touchscreen-only menu interface. And while "Trip" supports local multiplayer (four players) and mobile-friendly asynchronous online play via time trial challenges, the lack of head-to-head online racing is baffling considering the 2010 PSP version had it. There's an obscene amount of content here for single and local multiplayer purposes, but if your primary goal is to compete online, another racer will have to suffice.
"Touch My Katamari"
From: Namco Bandai
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild fantasy violence, mild suggestive themes)
"Katamari Damacy" - that bizarre game where you roll a ball-shaped katamari around and ... forget it, just watch a video to understand it - was such a weirdly original stroke of genius that it remains beloved in spite of Namco's inability to meaningfully improve it over the course of numerous sequels. "Touch My Katamari" is no different, and its self-aware storyline - in which the King of all Cosmos mounts a furious return to form after his once-loyal subjects declare him stale and washed up - might have been insulting if it wasn't so sharply, hilariously on point. Like its predecessors, "TMK" resides at the three-way intersection between weird, genuinely funny and easy to play/hard to master, and there remains something compelling about rolling around a ball smaller than a bottle cap that gradually grows large enough to absorb cows, trains and entire buildings. The level count is low - only 12 environments - if all you plan to do is blaze through the story. But each level offers two additional variants upon completing it the first time, and beyond the pursuit of top grades and high scores, there's a ton of hidden and unlockable content for completists to discover by replaying levels. As the name implies, an optional touch interface accompanies the traditional dual-stick controls, and you can switch freely between both. In a minor twist that's useful and amusing all at once, you also can use multitouch to pinch or stretch the katamari to squeeze between tight spaces and/or sweep a wide area that would require two or three passes in standard ball form.
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (mild violence, tobacco reference)
How much are buttons and sticks worth to you? In the Vita launch, no game contextualizes the 99 cent-versus-$30 price debate as pointedly as "Asphalt: Injection." On its own merits, "Injection" is a well-made and well-rounded racing game, with 45 licensed vehicles, 15 cities' worth of tracks, a comprehensive career mode with numerous event types and local/online multiplayer (eight players each). But "Asphalt 6," available for a buck on iOS, offers most of these features as well. Support for Playstation Network features (friends, trophies, Near) aside, the primary difference is the ability to drive with the sticks and shoulder buttons instead of tilt and virtual touchscreen buttons. For many, that's enough. "Injection" controls respectably with its optional tilt and touch control scheme, but it's a superior experience with traditional controls, which are just plain better at handling a racing game that threads the needle between fast arcade action and consideration for vehicle weight and other simulation-like features. For those less concerned about acing "Injection's" career and online arena, control precision may not be worth the 2,900 percent markup. And if that's the case more than it isn't, developers in Gameloft's position have some stuff to ponder with regard to how they price their games.
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence, suggestive themes)
Pound for pound, "Rayman Origins" - the magnificently pretty 2D platformer that ranked among 2011's best games - is as good as any game on this list. If you haven't played it on a console yet, this port may also be the version to get. Though a lengthy game that easily commands its price, "Origins" also breaks into stages that are very portable-friendly. The 2D graphics look stellar on the Vita's screen, and a new layer of touch controls enhance the experience without changing anything about the core gameplay. The only downside: This version doesn't have the console versions' two-player co-op support.
"Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3"
ESRB Rating: Teen (mild blood, mild language, partial nudity, suggestive themes, violence)
Like "Rayman Origins," "Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3" is powered by a hand-drawn graphical presentation that just looks awesome on this screen. Every feature from the console versions - 50-plus characters, eight-player online play, the Heroes and Heralds mode - makes it into this edition, and an accessible and flexible touch control scheme is available for casual players who want to pull off the prettier moves without putting in the effort to master them. (Competitive players, worry not: You can avoid these players online if you please.) Capcom has jumped on the cross-compatibility train as well: If you own the PS3 version of "UMvC3" and have purchased any downloadable content for it, that DLC is yours for free in this version (and vice versa).
"Plants vs. Zombies"
From: Popcap/Sony Online Entertainment
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, cartoon violence)
Because you can't have a system these days without a version of "Plants vs. Zombies" on it, kudos to Sony Online Entertainment for having one ready to go right at launch. The Vita also benefits from all that prior porting: It has the console version's controller controls, the mobile versions' touch controls, and pretty much every important feature Popcap has built into the game since it first appeared. If you somehow haven't played it yet, this may be the definitive version until a sequel comes along.