Farewell to the PSP: Part 1 – Looking Back on the Old Pretender

Sony Computer Entertainment Korea (SCEK) recently announced that the Playstation Vita, PSP’s successor device, will be released in Korea on 11th February 2012 for an eye-opening KRW 368,000 (just below $320). With a game and a memory card the expenditure will creep northwards of KRW 400,000 which, considering that the US price of $249 had nicely poised the Vita on the threshold of nerd impulse buy, is quite disappointing, if not entirely surprising. SCEK habitually mis-prices Sony consoles – one instance I can recall saw the company suspend PS3 shipments to Korea and then jack up the price after incidents of reverse-importing to Japan, prompted by the depreciating won and the Korean PS3s being among the cheapest in the world for a while in 2008. Conversely, SCEK forced punters to cough up more than KRW 350,000 when the PSP first came out, which I did six years ago, cringing at both the high price and myself for actually shelling out. But the PSP was so sleek and desirable that as soon as I held it in my hands all the buyer’s remorse just melted away, and I’m sure that the Vita will feel the same way. Games were a different story, and there was only so much you could play MLB 2005 and Dynasty Warriors over and over again before ennui set in; eventually I realized that I didn’t have any compelling reason to own the thing, and sold it online.

Although strongly marketed as a multimedia device that was capable of video playback and web browsing while serving as an MP3 player and photo viewer, PSP did none of these things particularly well: it only played MP4 video files (some websites say that AVI files are supported too, but not in my experience: every AVI video I put on my PSP had to be encoded), the built-in browser was painfully slow, and Sony did not bother providing a usable media management software that could control the music and photos you put on your PSP. MediaGo did arrive later, but that was an unstable, half-baked waste of space, and the lack of Sony’s equivalent of iTunes was sorely felt when you had to locate a specific subfolder to place your movies in. At no point did the user feel he or she could make daily and productive use out of any of the non-gaming features, and this sense of redundancy was exacerbated by anemic battery life and a lacklustre launch lineup which made the PSP perhaps the ultimate test of early adopter zeal.

A couple of iterations later, thinner, with more juice and considerably better library of games that gave users some choice at last, I was once again a PSP owner, and this time the price was almost half of what I’d coughed up in 2005. The 2000-model (PSP Slim) was such a drastic leap from the original in both form factor and affordability that it instantly rendered the original obsolete, and it was here that PSP truly took off in sales. 70 million-plus units worldwide are proof enough of that, and even when you take into account Nintendo DS’s runaway success that has relegated it to a runner-up, PSP should be seen as a significant achievement for Sony, notwithstanding its failure to achieve the kind of dominance predicted for it before and upon release.

With borked web functions, mindnumbing encoding chores and no way to properly organize your entertainment, it was really the games that had to sell PSPs (you certainly weren’t going to get it for the DMB  or satnav add-ons). After the slow start, they managed to pull themselves together to be a reasonable proposition to gamers: two God of Wars, three GTAs, two Wipeouts as well as portable versions of Sony’s emergent stalwarts Little Big Planet and Modnation Racers and a fully realized, mainline-sequel-in-all-but-name Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker are a testament to PSP’s considerable catalogue. Despite the well-founded belief that games tailored toward the mobile form factor and experience – the bite-sized $0.99 games on the App Store, and persistent world-building/creature-rearing games like Nintendogs and Animal Crossing – are essential for portable devices, there is also no doubt a strong market for Sony’s oft-touted ‘console experience in your pocket’. PSP gave Sony gamers the opportunity to further delve into their favourite franchises and to do so in greater comfort and convenience; and the sheer quality exhibited by the likes of God of War: Chains of Olympus, Wipeout Pulse and Tekken: Dark Resurrection gave lie to the idea that these were lesser efforts: shorter, perhaps, but equal in excellence. While it can’t be denied that in the West PSP ultimately petered out, subsisting almost solely on Sony Worldwide Studios’ output, in Japan it established a significant symbiotic relationship with third party developers: while many overseas observers have attributed PSP’s sales in Japan to the wild success of Capcom’s Monster Hunter franchise, PSP was also the affordable go-to platform for Japanese software companies inhibited by the high cost of HD console development, and being a more muscular machine than the NDS it proffered a more ideal outlet for remakes, enhanced editions, and PS2 and arcade ports. This development transformed PSP from a shiny, forward-thinking device with a small number of lavish exclusives into an all-inclusive haven for dating sims, visual novels, music games and, most notably, RPGs. It might be no exaggeration to say that for JRPG aficionados, PSP has been the most logical choice this generation: Crisis Core was Square’s extravagant tribute to the undying Final Fantasy VII cash-cow which in any of the previous generations would have seen a front-row console release; venerable franchises like Tales, Star Ocean, Phantasy Star, Kingdom Hearts and Disgaea all had either new installments or remakes release on the platform, while slightly less internationally well-known series such as Ys and Legend of Heroes as well as one-off classics including Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics received loving, respectful treatments on PSP and succeeded in finding entirely new audiences. The Persona series, probably the hottest JRPG property right now, had the first three games not just ported but tailored to PSP gameplay, while the pyrrhic success of Valkyria Chronicles on the PS3 led Sega to relocate the franchise to its portable sibling (a decision lamented by many, including myself). Far from being a Monster Hunter simulator, PSP was – to Japanese gamers at least – a feast of nostalgia, a comfort food to indulge every otaku’s whim, and a time sink providing thousands of hours of gameplay with zero acclimatization necessary.

PSP’s ergonomic design – a beautiful marriage of Dualshock control layout and portable form factor – and its stunning display (in 2005 it was truly something special, and even today still looks quite fetching) combined with the eventual affordability and install base to hit a sweet spot for developers and consumers alike. Its immediate hardcore appeal was broadened by the lower price and reduced thickness of the 2000-models so that PSP became an attractive alternative to the PS2 and the still-expensive HD consoles. Granted, the experiences PSP provided weren’t so much new as variations on the same theme, but the reduced risk allowed some developers to take chances and experiment. The precision and comfort provided by PSP’s traditional input design meant that the rhythm game genre in particular saw some very fine entries: Hatsune Miku: Project Diva gave me some of my favourite moments this generation and found a niche (half a million franchise sales in Japan) which will keep it going for a good few years yet, and Patapon was delightfully novel and original, one of the best new IPs on the machine. DJMax, once a popular online game, found a new home on PSP, so much so that in 4 years Pentavision has released 5 installments and 2 compilation games with no sign of diminishing returns. PSP was also where I discovered the joys of Everybody’s Golf, a sports game every bit as devilishly addictive as Pro Evolution Soccer and a shining example of the ‘easy to play, hard to master’ design philosophy; Diamond and The Sound of a Gunshot was a strangely absorbing text-based adventure game and another highlight. The sumptuous widescreen made the portable experience less of a disheartening compromise for consolites, and at the risk of sounding like a philistine, given the same game on the PSP and the NDS, I would choose the former every time (provided that touch-screen controls are not involved, of course). Graphics are not crucial to good gaming, but they do make a difference, and so does the display – PSP had shown years earlier the benefits which people enjoy with the retina display today.

Having said all that, ultimately it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed with PSP’s legacy. Sony had the right idea when it tried to create the ultimate convergent consumer device, but the multimedia features were just too disparate to be a successfully integrated whole, and simply not good enough individually for any one function to be of standout use. The lack of management software killed any hope of PSP becoming anything more than a gaming device, yet here too the sense of disappointment lingers. Often it wasn’t pretty watching its struggles in the West. It might be my selective memory, but between the period of late 2006 to early 2009, punctuated only by the – albeit significant – triple release of God of War, Patapon and Crisis Core in the spring of 2008, there was such a paucity of major new games that you genuinely feared for PSP’s future. Only Sony’s fightback at the Destination Playstation event in February 2009, where PSP versions of Assassin’s Creed, Rock Band, Little Big Planet and MotorStorm were announced, helped recreate some momentum in the Western markets, but it could not prevent unfavourable comparisons with the record-breaking sales of NDS, by then already crossing into 100 million units worldwide. Unlike Japan where everything from shovelware to prestige remakes kept up a constant stream of awareness, in North America and Europe only Sony’s first party products struggled to keep PSP afloat. The supposedly flagship titles like Gran Turismo and The 3rd Birthday, arriving late in the day, weren’t quite the table-turning cavalry many gamers were hoping for, while some promised titles like Resident Evil and Devil May Cry never even came out. The problem with these supposedly big hitters was that, while the first wave of Sony franchises like God of War and Wipeout were brilliant games created with great skill to be standalone experiences, the PSP Gran Turismo or Assassin’s Creed were watered down versions of big console originals which gamers wouldn’t consider buying for a second if they had been on PS3. The sort of care and attention that Ready at Dawn bestowed on Chains of Olympus, for example, just weren’t replicated by Polyphony Digital or Ubisoft. Far from being console experiences in your pocket, these games were essentially asking gamers to settle for far less, while charging almost as much. More encouraging for PSP, however, was the emergence of the PSP minis. The transformation Apple had wrought in the gaming industry meant that basing its business model entirely around full-priced games (especially with most not offering demos) was no longer viable, and the minis were a belated recognition by Sony of that fact. Not an unequivocal success in and of itself, the minis have nevertheless quietly established itself as a valuable ‘third way’ for PSP, and more importantly, together with the Playstation Suite they represent a convenient cross-device framework with which Sony can theoretically establish a gaming ecosystem. In remains to be seen, however, just how committed the company is to the idea, and judging by the slow progress of the Suite initiative and the puzzling reluctance to push small downloadable games as part of the Vita’s major attractions it would appear Sony still hasn’t quite fully embraced the new world order. The major concern here is that Sony, like they did with Media Go, SonicStage and Connect Music Store, may stop supporting these new measures and revert to re-branding exercises rather than knuckling down to offer customers genuinely persuasive service.

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