Monday Spotlight - The PlayStation Portable
In 1990 SEGA released a high-spec portable, the Game Gear, in hopes of out-doing the wildly popular Game Boy. It was a Master System in the palm of your hand, featuring full colour output, a backlit screen and impressive visuals. Technologically, it was light years ahead of the Game Boy, yet it failed to challenge Nintendo’s dominance as it was beaten on price, quantity and quality. The Game Gear disappeared for good in early 1997 with plans for a touchscreen enabled successor falling by the wayside.
Fourteen years on from the Game Gear’s launch, and a decade removed from the Game Boy's last serious competition, another major console manufacturer prepared to do battle with Nintendo by way of a technologically superior and more expensive portable. Sony looked to claim its own significant share of the market with the PlayStation Portable and beat Nintendo and the DS at its own game. Although it may have shed the Game Boy brand, the DS would benefit from customer loyalty and familiarity, and also enjoyed a slight head start on the PSP in the west. However, that didn't stop Sony from coming out guns blazing, convinced that there was a gap in the market for a more powerful and feature-rich machine.
The PSP was announced at E3 2003 and unveiled the following year. It was a brave move for the Japanese electronics giant, having spent the last ten years concentrating on establishing itself as the giant of home console gaming, yet a logical one for the designers of arguably the most important portable device of all: the Walkman. The use of the Universal Media Disc (UMD) was unprecedented, as was the sheer number of high-spec features and multi-media capabilities, an impressive LCD screen, internet functions and connectivity between Sony consoles and other PSPs.
The power of the PlayStation Portable was unmatched - there were rumours that the original build had to be scaled back due to overheating issues - and it was claimed that it could offer graphical fidelity with the PS2. But if Nintendo had proved anything over the last two decades it was that simplicity and quality will win the day, and before the arrival of smartphones it was unclear if people really wanted the kind of functionality and power from a portable that the PSP could offer.
The PSP would be released at the tail-end of 2004 in Japan, and would follow elsewhere in the spring. As with the PS2, the Japanese launch saw hardware defects and a very limited software line-up - six typically uninspired titles - yet the console still sold out nationwide almost immediately. The March US launch was better able to accommodate the huge initial demand, which was fuelled by a much deeper and eclectic collection of software.
Europe would have to wait until September, but would benefit from almost a years’ worth of games. Sony claimed that the huge demand for units in Japan and the US caused the delay, and took legal action against European retailers who had been selling import PSPs for the best part of a year. Despite the delay and legal proceedings, the PSP broke all records for a portable launch in the UK, reportedly doubling the figure set by the DS six months previous.
Along with ever evolving firmware - a necessity for a platform that quickly became a favourite of homebrew enthusiasts and hackers - the last six years have seen a number of iterations of the PSP. The original 1000 model was replaced by the slimmed-down 2000 three years after launch and then the 3000, with an improved LCD display, a year later. A simplified E1000 is due before the end of the year and should see out the final days of the PSP.
The digital-media-only PSP Go was an unmitigated disaster, being discontinued little more than a year after its Western launch. Despite being a smart looking device, it fell flat thanks to its incompatibility with the UMD format, its high price, a lack of digital titles, a design that many found uncomfortable and the simple fact that the PSP's popularity had already started to wane by the time it arrived. The failure of the Go brought into question the future of dedicated gaming portables, giving both Sony and Nintendo food for thought. It was a public embarrassment for a company trying to discover on the fly where portable gaming was headed, without having to commit to a new platform.
The PSP has seen strong sales, especially in Japan where Capcom's Monster Hunter series helped to make it a cultural phenomenon. This eastern success has led to a number of home console franchises moving over to the portable device as exclusives, including Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, Valkryia Chronicles and Parasite Eve. In the west, it has at times suffered from a barren release schedule, interrupted by the occasional AAA title or high profile remake, but bolstered by an ever increasing collection of downloadable games on the PlayStation store.
I bought my first PSP back in November 2005. Having just moved to Japan, I found myself console-free for the first time in almost fifteen years and decided that the still pricey portable was the answer, despite being near destitute and a few weeks away from my first pay check. I invested in a white model along with Wipeout Pure, NBA Live '06 and Talkman. It saw plenty of action until the next summer when, returning from a trip back to England, I stowed my PS2 as hand luggage and returned to console gaming.
I have enjoyed a number of PSP games over the years, though I must admit that since returning to the UK in 2010 I have used it only sparingly. The God of War games were excellent and MGS Portable Ops showed the kind of ambition usually reserved for home console titles, but it is Square-Enix that has provided me with the most entertainment. Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions is a beautiful update of one of my favourite games of all time; Crisis Core was outstanding and miles better than the rest of the FFVII compilation; Tactics Ogre is the only PSP game I have played this year, but is also one of my favourites of 2011, portable or otherwise; and the PS1 era Final Fantasies lend themselves perfectly to the PSP experience.
Next month Sony will release their sophomore portable, the PS Vita (you can find my Vita hands-on impressions here). The market place has completely changed since the launch of the PSP with smartphones completely re-writing the rule book and reshaping customer expectations of portable gaming. The early struggles of the 3DS and the failure of the PSP Go have provided more questions than answers, though with the experience of the PSP and a strong software line-up behind it I expect the Vita to carve out a nice little niche and build upon the success of the PSP.
Five years later, and my PSP 1000 still has the ability to impress on the rare occasion that I do dust it off, usually when travelling abroad or sat on a train. It remains my portable of choice, and although it may have fallen short of the DS’ success it has certainly outdone Nintendo’s last portable competitor and, with the VITA, the future of Sony portables is assured for at least one more generation.