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The subways and buses of Japan will soon be filled with gamers trying out their new PlayStation Vita devices. The handheld gaming machine, which has been long anticipated, finally launched in Japan on Saturday, reports the Associated Press. The hubbub was something out of an iPhone debut: hundreds reportedly lined up in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro shopping district to get the device, and some shoppers couldn’t wait to get out of the store before trying out the thing.

That’s understandable enough: the Vita is the biggest Sony product launch since the PlayStation 3 came out five years ago. If you’re a gamer in the US or Europe, though, you’ll have to wait till February 22 to try out yours. The price “starts” at $249, per Sony’s site.

What’s so exciting about the Vita? For one thing, it’s a serious handheld gaming device in the era of the casual smartphone gamer. Indeed, if you look at the specs of the Vita, you can see features that are intended to appeal to people who have begun to come to gaming through smartphones: a multi-touch screen for iPhone-like gameplay, front- and rear-facing cameras, a microphone, Wi-Fi connectivity, and GPS technology. The Vita’s Wikipedia page goes into excruciating detail about the device’s innards, if you’re curious. Sony’s own site will tell you more about the device’s OLED screen, rear touch pad, and six axis motion sensor. Prefer getting your specs via videos with swooping, dramatic animations? Well, who doesn’t:

The Vita, a successor to the PlayStation Portable, is intended to go head-to-head with Nintendo’s 3DS device; that product has faltered somewhat, with a price cut just six months after its launch.

If the Vita sells well, it could be a much-needed shot in the arm for Sony, which has been losing money four years running, according to the AP. Why does Sony lose so much money? The earthquake sure didn’t help, nor did the extended hacking-related outage of the PlayStation Network earlier this year. The tinkerer-sleuths at iSuppli have long estimated that Sony loses a considerable amount for each PS3 unit sold (the hope is to make it back in software and services). Its TV division has been particularly weak; it’s greatly scaling that division down following a more than $2 billion loss.

Will the Vita be Sony’s savior? It’s too soon to tell, of course. But CNET makes the good point that the Vita will need to take full advantage of its big cousin, the PS3. Write Scott Stein and Jeff Bakalar with an impressive vision that I hope Sony itself matches: “the Vita could be a satellite portable for the PS3, streaming remote content, playing shared games, or it could even be used as a versatile PS3 controller. The PS3 could use its expansive hard-drive storage for downloading and archiving Vita games.”

Both luring away casual gamers from their iPhones and promising a satisfying experience to the hard-core gamer will be key to the Vita capturing a sizeable chunk of this market–and standing Sony in better financial stead.

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