Requiem for the PSP

The Sony Playstation Portable was first released in the US in 2005.

I was shocked when I realized that Sony’s Playstation Portable (PSP) has been on the market for nearly 7 years.  That’s quite a long time for any hardware to remain relevant, but then again portables have always had a longer shelf life than their console cousins.  The original Gameboy was around for a decade or so before Nintendo finally added color to it, and longer still before a true successor was released.  Handhelds do benefit from redesigns though.  The original bulky Gameboy was originally replaced by the Gameboy Pocket just as the PSP received multiple updates, including one radical re-design in the form of the PSP Go.  This post wouldn’t exist though if it wasn’t for the Playstation Vita, which is set to replace the PSP in less than two weeks.

I have always felt like the PSP was viewed as a failure by the gaming community, or at least only a minor hit.  It was crushed in sales when compared with its nearest competitor, the Nintendo DS.  The two systems have always been intertwined, and even though the DS beat the PSP to market it felt like Nintendo’s retaliation towards Sony.  Nintendo has always dominated the portable landscape.  While systems like Sega’s Game Gear and Atari’s Lynx failed to win over consumers Ninendo’s Gameboy steadily found homes in the back pocket of gamers across the world.  The Gameboy was not a technological marvel by any stretch of the imagination.  Even when it was first released it seemed little better than one of those Tiger handheld games.  When I was a kid, the only people who had Gameboys were those who had parents that weren’t willing to spend a bunch of money on a Nintendo Entertainment System or Super Nintendo once that came out.  It really didn’t become a truly viable system for me until Pokemon in 1998 and the Gameboy Color.  That’s when I jumped on board and I’ve owned every Nintendo portable since.

The PSP has not been a failure, but the redesigned UMD-less PSP Go sure as Hell was.

Sony has been the only real threat to Nintendo’s portable dominance.  Even though it failed to beat out Nintendo’s handheld, it’s actually done fairly well for itself.  Sony has sold approximately 17 million units in North America since 2005, but it’s in Japan where the system really did well as its sold 15 million units there.  It goes without saying, that Japan is much smaller than North America and its rare to see sales figures that are so close when comparing the two territories.  For the sake of comparison, the Nintendo DS has moved nearly 58 million units in North America, and around 33 million in Japan.  It’s those staggerring numbers for the DS that make the PSP seem like a failure.  The PSP has always been the more expensive piece of hardware, debuting at around $100 higher than the cost of the DS in the US, and it has mostly appealed to traditional gamers.  The DS also appealed to gamers, but Nintendo also had great success reaching the non gamers and children as well.  That and the Nintendo brand definitely helped move units.  And for the sake of objectivity, I’ll even go out on a limb and say the DS has the better software as well.  While I actually didn’t get a ton of milage out of either handheld, I did get considerably more out of my DS.

Despite that, I still have great affection for the PSP.  Technologically speaking, it’s the most impressive handheld I’ve ever owned, even more so than the 3DS.  Visually it’s quite the looker, and the weight and feel of the device just give it a aura of high quality.  And I have the original model, now referred to as the PSP-1000.  The subsequent redesigns have slimmed the unit down some and even increased the power of the screen, which to me is borderline shocking as the screen on this thing is beautiful.  Even when I fired it up for the first time in years last week to play Tactics Ogre I was impressed by the clarity of the image.  I never did watch a UMD movie on my PSP, but I imagine they looked just fine.  Sony wisely incorporated analog control for the PSP in the form of the analogy “nub” located under the D-Pad.  If there is one design flaw though, it’s that the nub wasn’t placed in the more prominent position as most games make use of it as the primary means of control.  Nonetheless, it’s textured and grips your thumb as you play and there’s plenty of resistance.  Because of its size and placement, I do consider the circle pad of the 3DS superior but this one gets the job done.

Pretty much the reason why I got a PSP to begin with, Twisted Metal: Head-On, which was basically a remake of the super popular Twisted Metal 2: World Tour.

The medium that the PSP used for games is one not likely to be seen or heard from ever again.  While Nintendo has always stuck with cartridges of some kind for its handhelds, the PSP used an optical disc format that Sony dubbed the Universal Media Disc.  UMD actually worked better than expected.  Yes there are load times, but aside from a handful of early titles, they’re not that bad.  Sony tried to get production companies to put movies out on UMD which mostly failed.  While a UMD disc can hold nearly 2 GB of data, that’s still far short of what a DVD can hold.  This meant most UMD movies came with fewer special features and yet still cost about the same as a DVD version.  Most studios abandoned the UMD format within the first year of the system’s life and never returned.  Utilizing UMD also meant that games lacked a save function and owners were forced to purchase memory sticks for game saves and any other media they wished to put on their PSP.  And since Sony loves going rogue with its devices, it forced gamers to use its own brand of memory sticks called the Memory Stick Pro Duo, instead of allowing gamers to just use any flash card.  Not surprisingly, Sony’s memory sticks were always more expensive than traditional cards which made the entry price of the PSP quite steep.

The UMD format proved adequate for games but never caught on as a film medium.

Short-comings aside, I still love my PSP.  I never acquired much of a gaming library on it, mostly because it just came at a bad time for me.  I really got into portable gaming in the last couple of years, and even though I’ve had a PSP since 2006, I rarely found a reason to play it.  Because the system was so powerful most developers just spent time porting their console games to the device as opposed to making new titles.  There was definitely a lack of truly compelling software to pull me back in.  Square-Enix tried pretty hard though with Crisis Core and the Dissidia franchise.  I have both, but never got into Dissidia’s frantic style.  I did play a lot of MLB The Show on my PSP, and though it wasn’t as good as the PS2 version, it was certainly playable.  I also never took advantage of Sony’s download service that allowed you to download PSOne games and put them on the PSP, though I was tempted to do so with Final Fantasy VII.

The Playstation Vita will arrive on February 15th for those who want the bundle version out there, and a week later for those interested in the stand-alone unit.  Like the PSP, it’s going to cost a lot.  When Sony first unveiled the $250 price point (the same price the PSP debuted at) most were actually pretty happy as that’s the same price the 3DS came out at.  And just like how the PSP far outclassed the DS in terms of raw power, the Vita wipes the floor with the 3DS.  The Vita should be a technological beast and the games we’ll see on it should be comparable in terms of visual quality with what we’re seeing on the PS3 and 360.  The Vita also adds a second analog nub, something gamers were disappointed the 3DS didn’t include, and even has a gimmicky touch pad on the back.  The Vita has also ditched the UMD medium and is opting for flash cards instead.  Prices range from $30 to $50 for games, with most looking like they’ll settle in the middle at $40 a piece.  The memory issue though is the big kick to the crotch that most gamers hate.  Just like how they did with the PSP, Sony has opted to use its own memory card device with the Vita and the prices are outrageous when compared with a standard SD card.  A 4GB card for the Vita will set you back $25.  I have no idea how big a game save figures to be, but 4GB seems awfully tiny considering my PS3 at 60GB is far too small.  A 16GB card will set you back $60 and a 32GB card a whipping $100!  Again, I have no idea what the ideal size will end up being, but if you’re looking to get a Vita with a 16GB card and one game in a couple of weeks that will set you back $350 which is a pretty step entry fee.

The Playstation Vita has obviously adopted the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach in terms of its general design.

And since it’s going to cost so much to be an early adopter, it’s a damn good thing that the launch games actually look pretty awesome.  There’s some first-party favorites like a brand new Uncharted game and the latest Hot Shots Golf game.  The following month Little Big Planet and MLB 12 The Show arrive with a new Resistance game following in May.  On the third party front, ports of Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom 3 and Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus arrive alongside new titles like Army Corps of Hell and Ridge Racer.  The Vita is basically the opposite of the 3DS when it launched, as the immediate future looks awesome but I don’t see anything truly compelling on the horizon (not that I expect future software to suck, there’s just nothing comparable to Super Mario 3D Land set for the fall) and I expect a lot of the game’s software to consist of ports.  That’s not the worst thing in the world as ports of sports games are worth owning alongside their console counterparts and some games, like Rayman Origins, almost feel better suited for on the go gaming.  The Vita will also (finally!) incorporate more cross platform features allowing players of The Show to take their franchise from the PS3 to the Vita when leaving the house.  For me, this is something I’ve always wanted out of a portable making it basically a new way to interact with my console.  I also want original content too, and hope the Vita can deliver.

Gameplay shot of Army Corps of Hell on the Vita, a Square-Enix strategy-action hybrid that figures to be interesting, if nothing else.

Because of the cost to be an early adopter though, and the fact that I currently have plenty of gaming to do on my 3DS and PSP, I won’t be getting a Vita this month.  I’ll hold off for now and maybe benefit from a future price drop or something as the Vita has failed to gain much traction so far in Japan and may meet a similar reception in the US.  With the economy the way it is I can’t see the Vita getting off to a great start here.  It will move some units, but probably won’t have a better launch than the 3DS which was pretty slow to start off (again, probably because of cost though the lack of games certainly didn’t help).  When I do eventually get a Vita, I’ll be a little sad to say goodbye to my PSP.  Even though it probably has been a commercial success for Sony, I feel like the PSP has been the most under-appreciated gaming device of the last 7 years, maybe even the most under-appreciated ever!  The device, in its original release, still holds up from a technological standpoint when compared with the 3DS and I think it was a great thing that Sony entered the handheld market and forced Nintendo’s hand.  Sony raised the bar and brought console gaming to a portable device, something even Nintendo and other developers have been more willing to adopt recently.  The soon to be released Resident Evil Revelations for the 3DS is basically a console experience on a handheld, and I find that awesome.  For a long time portable gaming did not interest me because it just seemed like a watered down version of what I could experience in my living room.  I didn’t care to do that and wanted a truly rich experience.  Portable gaming has finally caught up with consoles and it’s no surprise I’m playing more portable games now than I ever have before.  I plan to treat Tactics Ogre like a great encore for my PSP, and I’ll enjoy every minute of it.

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