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Sony finally launched its PlayStation Vita portable game system in Japan today as thousands of game fans lined up early to buy it. The device will launch in North America and Europe on Feb. 22.

The launch appeared to go off without any major problems. The timing of the launch is very late in the holiday season, so it isn’t clear just how popular it will be. The device will face strong competition from all sorts of new devices, from Nintendo’s 3DS to Apple’s iPad 2 and iPhone 4S as well as a plethora of Android smartphones and tablets. If the launch goes well, it could help offset growing losses; Sony expects to lose more than $1 billion in the fiscal year ended March 2012.

Sony is hoping to beat the competition with a superior high end device. The Vita comes with a five-inch multitouch capacitive touch screen, two analog sticks, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and optional 3G connectivity. It has a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 microprocessor and a separate graphics chip. It is backward-compatible with Sony PlayStation Portable games released in digital form on the PlayStation Store. And it is integrated with the PlayStation3 game console, with features such as Twitter and Flickr.

The system has 17 ways to control the action in a game, including a novel backside touchscreen. It also has front and back cameras and can be used to play against PS 3 players via the PlayStation Network. I played such a cross-platform match with the new Wipeout game, which has cool water simulations.

In Tokyo’s Ikebukuro shopping district, some 300 game fans lined up outside a major electronics chain that opened early for the event. In the U.S., the system is expected to cost about $250 for Wi-Fi only and $300 for a 3G/Wi-Fi model.

“I’m so happy to see so many people lining up for PS Vita so early in the morning,” Sony Computer Entertainment Japan President Hiroshi Kono wrote in his official blog after touring several Tokyo stores. “I can tell they had anxiously waited for today’s launch.”

The Vita has about two-dozen launch titles and many more coming after the launch in 2012. Of those I’ve seen, Uncharted Golden Abyss, Resistance Burning Skies and Unit 13 look the best. The graphics on these titles look very console-like and can run circles around most free or 99-cent Apple App Store games.

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