I’ve had a long history of spending hours with handheld gaming. Thinking on it I’d have to say it goes all the way back to the original GameBoy. I’m sure for most that’s where it starts in one form or another. Nintendo really put some legs on that machine, stretching it out until 2001 when they finally released a successor in the form of GameBoy Advance. For some perspective on just how incredibly long of a shelf life it had, before transitioning to complete support of the GBA Nintendo had sold the original NES, SNES, N64, and GameCube while selling original GameBoy games. Sure there was a flurry of redesigns with the GameBoy Color, GameBoy Light, and GameBoy Pocket – All of which were spruced up form factors that shared the same gaming library. Nintendo established a firm lock on the handheld market and created a rich legacy of portable experiences. Several other companies tried to jump in with their own offerings, all of which were met with weak sales before eventual abandonment. Atari Lynx, Sega GameGear, Tiger’s Game.Com, Bandai WonderSwan, and the side talking Nokia N-Gage to name a few.
There’s a good reason why Nintendo has held the market as tightly as they did. Personally I have a ton of fond memories with the original GameBoy. Even before Pokemon took the world by storm, I dumped tons of hours into both of the Super Mario Lands, Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, and Tetris. That torch carried into the GBA’s remodel (the GBA SP) as it was the only system I owned for awhile. I remember spending countless nights playing Final Fantasy Tactics Advance or one of several SNES era ports/spiritual sequels like Metroid Zero Mission or Mario Kart Super Circuit. Nintendo always stacked a potent and varied catalog of games that pulled you into that tiny sub-3″ screen. Speaking of which having a backlit screen and rechargeable lithium-ion battery made it the perfect solution to play in bed. Eventually they had to lose some steam though and the DS released to an eager audience with no new content. Thankfully Nintendo had the foresight to include the ability to play GameBoy and GameBoy Advance cartridges to help carry new owners through that drought. It wasn’t until the DS Lite launched that it really caught fire by it’s own right and eventually grew to become the best selling handheld system of all time at 154m units sold. Between the DS and the Wii, Nintendo was banking enough money to buy an island made of pure gold. Times were good and Nintendo remained untouchable in the handheld space. There’s always another side to every tale though…
Somewhere after the Nintendo 64 but before the Wii, Sony had moved into the console business. We all know the story of a broken business deal between them and Nintendo, but I don’t think Sony themselves could have predicted they would outpace their predecessors as fast as they did. The PlayStation and PlayStation 2 set the industry on fire in a way that humbled the house that Mario built. Losing ground to it’s competitors, the GameCube decided to go with optical discs in order to keep up with Microsoft and Sony. With a dominant place in the living room for gaming, Sony decided it was time to take their stab at providing an on-the-go solution too. Enter the PlayStation Portable, or PSP for short. History tends to forget how successful the PSP was despite being in the shadow of the DS. By the end of it’s lifetime the PSP “only” had about half of the sales of the Nintendo DS, but that still amounts to 76.3 million sales worldwide by the launch of the Vita in 2012. Anyway you want to spin that, that’s a successful platform. In fact that puts it above both the iconic NES and SNES in terms of sales.
Those times are mostly over though as it’s no surprise with the rise of smartphones and tablets that dedicated handhelds have less of a market. Combined sales of the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP were over 230 million units. So far their successors have only managed to move a combined 65 million as the 3DS and Vita struggle to find a spot on most general consumer’s nightstand. Going back to the numbers means there were more PSP’s purchased than both modern systems combined. Denying the PSP was a success would infer that of the 3DS is as well, as it has around 30% fewer systems floating around out there. We can yammer on with numbers all day but sales alone can’t represent the significance of what’s being evaluated. A good example of that is with the Vita. It’s only moved an estimated 12.5 million at this point and is dearly beloved by the (vocal) majority of it’s owners. As always with video games, it comes down to the quality of the games and the culture of the system.
Now I want to dive into that just that with Sony’s PlayStation Portable and explore why it’s still worth owning. When it launched Sony made it a point to differentiate it from anything Nintendo was doing by offering the high-tech sophistication of a Sony device, something they did quite well with for their home consoles. By comparison a lot of folks that owned a Nintendo product early on considered it just an elaborate toy. That was Nintendo’s marketing at work here in America – groom Americans to embrace video games without calling them video games. The crash of Atari left a bitter sting on the ears of the public. The idea of purchasing another “video game system” felt like throwing money out the window. That encouraged Nintendo to sell the NES as a toy (primarily in toy stores) and for better or worse has since remained close to that identifier. The PSP on the other hand had a large storage capacity for it’s games that allowed rich media delivery. The visual and audio fidelity found on PSP games just wasn’t possible on anything Nintendo had at the time. Even now the 3DS can suffer from compression that ends up delivering a sub-optimal version of a genuinely astounding track. The PSP brought a lot of firsts to the portable market on top of that – analog controls, a widescreen presentation, WiFi connection, online play, an eShop, and a robust desktop navigation system know as the XMB which was later adopted by the PlayStation 3. All of this together built the framework to support an eclectic and technically-demanding library of games. Fortunately a lot of these features Nintendo would adopt themselves and incorporate into the splintered variant, DSi, and more importantly the 3DS. The hardware informed the software, and the software in turn realized a design by creating a hybrid of portable and console experiences. Quite a few of the titles that would be released had big brother versions available on the PS2/PS3, but offered a unique twist for on the go play. Entries like SSX on Tour, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories, or Burnout Legends immediately comes to mind as successful companion games.
There was no shortage of PSP ports for established successes either. Sony’s partners took advantage of the tiny powerhouse to allow PS1 games to run directly on it without modifications, but they also brought in unique builds like Namco Museum Battle Collection, Mega Man Powered Up, Star Ocean: First and Second Departures, Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, and Final Fantasy 4: Complete Collection… Of which some stand to date as the definitive versions of those games. The collection of titles available incorporated those re-imagined fan favorites on top of a ton of contemporary ports and original content created specifically for the PSP. All-in-all Sony would see 865 titles released on their debut handheld globally. Through it’s life from a software standpoint they ended up selling 277m units, with some of the more commercially successful titles being from long lasting series such as Grand Theft Auto, God of War, and Monster Hunter.
While on the topic of games; the Vita has a lot of backwards compatibility with digitally available PSP titles, but there’s a lot sorely missing. Two of the most standout titles on the PSP were Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII from Square-Enix. Neither of which are accessible on the Vita and were thought to be lost to the annals of time. Somewhat recently though KH: BbS has been rescued and brought forward to the PlayStation 3 via Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD ReMix. Those two were the most notable titles left unsupported by the Vita but they definitely weren’t alone. Curiosity got the better of me and I pieced together a list of PSP titles that aren’t accessible through Vita’s backwards compatibility. Not everything is a gem though so I filtered out sports titles (no FIFA, Madden, World Tour Poker, etc), eliminated the sub-60 scores on MetaCritic, and found myself still left with over sixty other games that have no modern equivalent on the Vita. Seriously, it’s list time. Let’s look at a few of these.
- Brave Story: New Traveler
- Dungeons & Dragons Tactics
- Dungeon Siege: Throne of Agony
- Generation of Chaos
- Marvel Ultimate Alliance 1 & 2
- Monster Hunter Freedom 1 & 2
- Phantasy Star Portable 1 & 2
- Legend of Heroes trilogy
- EA Replay (featuring Mutant League Football, Syndicate, & Wing Commander)
- Guitarooman Lives!
- Mega Man Powered Up!
- Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection
- Shadow of Destiny
- Space Invaders Extreme
- Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 Remix
- Brooktown High
- Chili Con Carnage
- DJ Max Fever
- Traxxpad: Portable Studio
- Metal Gear Acid 1 & 2
- Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law
- Every Extende Extra
Hopefully with just those lists of what’s missing from the Vita store you can understand why the PSP is still checking out today. I purchased mine on launch alongside Dynasty Warriors and Lumines and went through cycles of selling/rebuying the system, eventually settling with a white PSPGo. It’s a delightfully tiny sliding form factor, but Sony had to sacrifice their proprietary disc drive in order to accommodate it’s new design. This means the only PSP games it can run natively are ones downloaded from the digital store front. Unwilling to lose all my games purchased through the years I eventually modified it to play disc images loaded from the memory card. Another cool aspect they added was blue tooth support to enable the use of a PS3 controller. Combine that feature with it’s TV-Out port and it changed this handheld system into a portable console. Not bad for Sony’s debut against the Nintendo championing systems, built on a legacy of handhelds that began with the GameBoy.