NEW YORK — Sony is intensifying its push in handheld gaming with a gadget aimed at hard-core players looking for something with a bit more punch than Angry Birds, Words With Friends and other smartphone pastimes.
The PlayStation Vita, already available in Japan, debuts in the United States and Europe on Wednesday. A basic, Wi-Fi version will retail for $250, while one that can access 3G cellular networks will go for $300, plus monthly service fees from AT&T.
Sony is promoting the device with a $50 million marketing blitz "everywhere gamers are and where the general population is," said Jack Tretton, chief executive officer of Sony Computer Entertainment America.
Tretton acknowledges it won't be an easy sell.
People have grown accustomed to playing games on handheld devices that also make phone calls, shoot videos, connect to the Internet, play songs and send text messages. The devices do practically everything but wash your socks.
So why buy a gadget that does only one thing?
"Ultimately, if you consider yourself a gamer, you are going to find yourself migrating up the food chain to dedicated gaming consoles and the Vita," Tretton said.
Don't tell that to Christian Thomas, a 20-year-old New York University student who tried out the Vita at a temporary lounge Sony set up to promote the system.
"I don't see myself carrying it around," Thomas said while playing Marvel Vs. Capcom 3. "I'm content just picking up Bejeweled on my iPhone."
That's even though he called the Vita beautiful and said it's easily the best handheld gadget he has played.
The Vita launch is an important one for Sony. The Vita is sleek and powerful, melding the consolelike controls that gamers are used to with touch screens common in mobile devices. Its dual analog sticks are a first for a handheld device and a must-have for shooter games played from a first-person perspective. Not only does the Vita's main screen respond to touch, but the Vita also has a touch screen in the back that offers gamers an entirely new way of controlling game play.
The Vita has a 5-inch screen, front- and rear-facing cameras and a quad-core processor, which is used in the fastest tablet computers. The Vita also connects to the PlayStation 3, so that players for the first time can play the same game regardless of whether they are using a console or a handheld system.
"It's a very good video game platform," said Colin Sebastian, an analyst at Baird, a financial services firm.
That said, he believes the market has "largely moved beyond this type of experience."
"I think the dedicated handheld game market is very challenging," he said. "The odds over the long term are stacked against the Vita."
Another handheld system, the Nintendo 3DS, has been a disappointment. The gadget, which lets players see 3-D images without special glasses, hasn't sold as well as expected and was one of the reasons Nintendo reported a net loss in the last nine months of 2011.