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I’ll Never Love (or Hate) a Console Like I Loved (and Hated) the PSP

Seventy million sales can't change the fact that Sony's first handheld PlayStation was a bit of a stinker.

av Edwin Evans-Thirlwell
2015 07 23, 10:26am

The Sony PSP (image via the Classic Game Room YouTube)

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In George Orwell's 1984 – a satirical novel everybody used to think was pretty neat, until Western governments started treating it as a human rights handbook – citizens of Oceania are required by law to spend two minutes each day expressing pent-up resentment at gigantic images of the regime's enemies. The idea is that all their negativity is projected firmly away from the real causes of inequality and injustice, so that Big Brother and chums can enjoy their morning coffee without some firebrand lobbing a half-brick through the panopticon window.

Gamers aren't running short of things to revile at present, justly or unjustly – that Samus-free Metroid spin-off for 3DS, the Batmobile of Arkham Knight, the recent horrific plague of women asking to be portrayed as human beings, rather than orifices linked together by strands of chainmail bikini. But on the off chance that we near the brink of insurrection for want of cultural trends or labrador-like AI tomfoolery to scapegoat, I'd like to propose a subject for the games industry's first formalised Two Minutes of Hate. His name is PSP Man and his game, sirs and madams, is Streetwise Multimedia Functions.

To be clear, I don't have a problem with the underlying "man" component of "PSP Man". I'm sure he's a perfectly nice fellow. But I find it impossible to look at this image – at that big-dog belt buckle, at that hint of an assured pout and, above all, at the lumpily accessorised console dangling from one hand in an achingly suave attempt to whip the carpet from beneath emerging smartphones - and not feel the urge to vomit. Marvel as his suit jacket billows! Swoon to that come-hither stare! Now there's a guy who isn't letting a trifling matter like basic road safety come between him and the glorious on-the-go future.

Among the PSP's many and exciting failings was the distinction of getting demographic expansion utterly wrong, around the same time that Nintendo and Apple were getting it very, very right. Nintendo managed this by skewing ever further towards younger players and their parents' wallets, arming its acclaimed DS with a gimmicky but charming touchscreen while turfing out a mixture of proven brands and light-touch lifestyle sims (most notably, Brain Age and Nintendogs). Apple pulled off a similar trick with the phone market by channelling the satanic energies of iTunes and delivering the world's first boutique handset.

Sony, meanwhile, set out to persuade hypothetical affluent 20-something hipsters that they needed an MP3 player the size and weight of an Aztec writing tablet, while labouring to convince existing PlayStation customers that the best way to play GTA III is by way of an unwieldy plastic nipple. The result was a bit of a travesty, as rapturously as the likes of Lumines and WipEout Pure were received – a handheld gaming console tripped up by its, ugh, "broad entertainment" ethic, and a multimedia box that suffered for its layman-unfriendly DualShock button layout and costly excess of computing power.

Of course, some would object that the PSP's 70-odd million lifetime sales are anything but tragic, that coming second to the creators of almighty Pokémon in the dedicated handheld sector is nothing to be ashamed of. And to these people I say: did you know that PSP Man likes gaming in the bath? Because there are some PR sins even a respectable installed base can't wash away.

And all that's before you consider the genuinely unsavoury elements of PSP's marketing, such as that mischievous appeal to racial stereotypes in Belgium, or the "All I Want For Christmas" astroturfing campaign of 2006 ("Guess we were trying to be just a little too clever," quipped an evidently super-penitent Sony of America after SomethingAwful users blew through the pretence). I'm not going to dwell on those upsets, though, because it's time for an embarrassing if predictable confession: I'm actually a guilty fan of the PSP. It's perhaps the most broken-by-design piece of hardware I own, but it's also the machine that gave me my start as a games reviewer in 2007, and one I've spent many a happy hour with while coaching down from my native Yorkshire to my girlfriend's place in London.

It was a real struggle, mind you; a fractious enthusiasm wrung from the sopping, post-Friday-night bar towel of frustration and despair. Chief among PSP's drawbacks is the storage format, Sony's now-deceased Universal Media Disc – a daftly shrunken cousin of the DVD, tucked inside a cheap plastic case that handles the stress of the average commute about as gracefully as a balloon animal being shoved through a wasp's nest. We have the UMD principally to thank for the PSP's lacklustre battery life, to say nothing of its awful loading times. Spin up the optical drive rather than playing from solid-state storage, and it'll last you an evening at most.

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PSP's biggest problem is conceptual, however. It all comes back to the promise of a "PS2 in your pocket". This was a promise the handheld wasn't really equipped to fulfil, for starters – its specs sit somewhere between PS1 and PS2, and the presence of just one analogue input would have forestalled many a porting initiative even if the much-detested nub weren't tailor-made to grind your thumb to the bone. Broadly, it was also a formula that created a certain sales momentum while imposing a glass ceiling on creatives, choking off new design approaches that might have made the most of PSP's specific capabilities, and thus cheating the platform of an identity.

That's a shame, because what quirky originals the PSP can boast of are pretty compelling. I still recall the first time I laid eyes on Patapon, the feisty, bouncy, beautifully weird rhythm action strategy game thingy from Pyramid and Sony Japan. It's a fitting exclusive for a handheld that's trying to topple the legendary Nintendo DS, pitting an army of dinky, singing, disorderly eyeball warriors against enormous mythical creatures and fortresses. You command this army not with a cursor, but by tapping out drum riffs that correspond to broad "attack", "defend" and "retreat" commands – a winningly unconventional gambit that also seems far more in tune (sorry) with the pulse and ebb of actual battle morale than drag-selecting groups and placing waypoints.

'Patapon'

Patapon is also a celebration of the PSP's still-gorgeous widescreen, its world map a roll of parchment unfurling from left to right. So is LocoRoco, one of the console's earliest critical darlings, and another game that embraces how music can be more than a peripheral feature. The aim here is to gather up all the titular LocoRocos on your way to the exit, adding another layer to the game's J-Pop choral score for each LocoRoco gathered. The catch is that the LocoRocos lack arms and legs, so you'll have to tumble them past obstacles and threats by tipping the landscape left and right with the shoulder buttons – a rocking motion that gently emphasises the expanse of screen estate in play – or hitting both at once to rebound your smiling, squashy charges onto platforms.

'LocoRoco'

A stronger push in the direction of digital distribution might have helped such titles find a following, while paving the way for the quick-fix endless runners, lightweight management sims and physics puzzlers that have come to reign supreme on iPhone. As it was, Sony's unadventurous store and network offerings were quickly outpaced by indie coders, who wasted no time turning the relatively easy-to-jailbreak PSP into a bustling homebrew platform. Following in their footsteps, of course, came the pirates. Dubious as it is to equate every pirated copy of a game with a lost sale, it's likely that the virulent spread of cracked software on PSP played a part in killing off sales of all but the biggest brands – or at least, scaring off publishers given to all-or-nothing responses in the face of copyright theft.

In recent years the PlayStation Portable brand has come to be seen as firmly auxiliary, a facet of Sony's war for control of the living room, rather than something worth pursuing for its own sake. The original handheld's rarely exploited Remote Play feature has flowered in the age of its successor, the PS Vita, with all PS4 games compatible as standard. It's a neat little feature – playing Destiny on the loo is truly the mark of a civilised man – but it has even more of a diminishing effect on Vita's uniqueness and prowess as a platform than the old rallying cry of a "PS2 in your pocket". Turns out all you need is a screen and a Wi-Fi connection.

On Motherboard: When I Was Five, I Was a Game Boy

The PSP was finally discontinued in Japan last year, after several years of steady yet unremarkable sales. Its successor is likely to face the same fate much earlier in its life, going by Sony's disinclination to talk figures and the seemingly indefatigable rise of smartphones and tablets as venues for great games. On clear autumn nights, rumour has it that you can still hear PSP Man wandering the empty tarmac of West London, would-be Game Boy killer clutched to his chest like an absolution that will never come. I can't say I miss the guy, but I do mourn the terrific gaming handheld that might have been.

@dirigiblebill

Tagged:
Gaming
nintendo
vice gaming
Sony
Game Boy
vita
Retro Gaming
DS
PSP
Playstation Portable
Handheld Gaming
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell
PSP Man
Patapon
LocoRoco