When I first heard the news of the PSP being discontinued this year, I instinctively looked over to my red God of War PSP quietly sitting on the shelf, plugged into the wall. For over six years, I’ve been “working” on finishing Brave Story: New Traveler. I made strong headway back in 2010 or so, but then I plugged it into the wall to let it charge. There it sat for over four years. I told myself I’d get back to it eventually. Every so often, the little orange charge light would come on, reminding me that it’s still there. Waiting.
I thought back on the history of the device, and only one emotion ever comes up: disappointment. But why? The system was around for almost, just almost, a decade. How can a system with that lifespan be thought of as a failure? I think I know why.
“The Walkman of the 21st Century”
In 2003, the state of the home console could be boiled down to one name: PlayStation. Sony utterly controlled the market with the PlayStation 2, while Microsoft and Nintendo could barely find their footing with their consoles. Microsoft’s Xbox found itself a little niche in first-person shooters thanks to Halo’s popularity. For them, it didn’t matter so much if the Xbox failed. They had the capital to simply move on and create the eventual Xbox 360. Any gains they would get out of the first Xbox were simply just gravy. Nintendo didn’t have that luxury.
Nintendo had seen better days. The GameCube was faltering, and most gamers at this point were losing faith in Nintendo in large part because the GameCube lacked quality third-party games. Also, the popularity of first-person shooters had begun, but these titles were either on the Xbox or the PS2. The GameCube controller wasn’t exactly conducive to the genre, anyway. But things weren’t all bad. They still had the Game Boy Advance and were still the only presence in the handheld gaming market that mattered. Many others had tried to compete with Nintendo in that market, and they all had failed. Nintendo’s handheld devices had been a reliable source of income for years. What could go wrong?
During Sony’s E3 2003 press conference, Sony announced their intentions to enter the handheld market. At the height of their power, having wrested the home console market from Nintendo’s death grip with both the PlayStation and the PlayStation 2, Sony would take on Nintendo on their turf again. Their presentation went so far as to call their endeavor “the Walkman of the 21st Century.” Just to make sure everyone understood this would be history repeating itself, they named it the PlayStation Portable.
They showed the specs of the system during the presentation, and it’s pretty obvious what Sony’s strategy would be. The PSP would win the handheld market with sheer force of power. The PSP could display full color and 3D polygons. It would be backlit. The screen size was that of a widescreen display. It would have removable media. It supported ATRAC. It supported multiple video codecs. It had a USB 2.0 jack. The UMD, Sony’s proprietary Universal Media Disc that would store games and movies, could hold 1.8 gigabytes (gigabytes!) of data. Compare this to Nintendo’s then-recently released Game Boy Advance SP. The only thing the two had in common was their lit screens (the original GBA SP was frontlit), and that was the new addition to the system. The PSP would be a home console that could be carried in the pocket. Sony even compared it to the original PlayStation, saying the PSP would be more powerful.
In January 2004, Nintendo sent out a press release announcing their new handheld system codenamed DS. It would be released by the end of the year, the same launch window as the PSP. The brief press release promised to reveal all at that year’s E3. The most tantalizing, and truly bewildering, aspect of this new handheld was its dual-screen nature. Without releasing a picture, they left it up to the public to make up their own conception of the DS, and what they came up with was anything but kind.
At E3 2004, Nintendo showed off the prototype DS, and the reactions were once again rather lukewarm. The prototype shown was not the final form factor and has been described as “bulky and cheap-looking” and “seemingly random mishmash of disparate technologies thrown together in a desperate bid to differentiate itself from Sony’s imminent PSP.” The initial showing of the system was consistently described similarly by just about everyone who had gone hands-on with the device and who had an audience to listen to them. Although Nintendo undoubtedly put in years of research and development to create the DS, the PSP made the DS look like a reactionary attempt to stay relevant in the handheld space. The PSP, to put it mildly, had a much better showing.
Jaz Rignal, current Editor-at-Large of US Gamer, attended E3 2004. He had this to say about his hands-on experience with the device:
The PSP looked sensational – like some kind of born-again Atari Lynx, blacker, meaner and seemingly all screen, with barely enough room for a joypad and buttons. It was still three years before the first-generation iPhone, and the PSP’s sexy looks and vibrant screen put it way out there on the cutting edge of technology. I just loved it – the coolest piece of entertainment kit I’d ever laid hands on at that point.
At the time, Rignal was not in games media. Marc Nix was.
Marc Nix, then interim Editor-in-Chief of IGN, called the PSP “portable gaming on that next level, that mass market, everybody-must-play, super-cool-even-to-chicks game system experience that we were hoping the GBA would have been… the PlayStation Portable is, to put it bluntly, the real deal.” If that wasn’t hyperbolic enough, he continued.
They’re [Sony] masterminds of marketing, hype and public relations, and with the power of Sony’s giant music and movie studios behind it, the PlayStation Portable stands a better use of becoming a permanent pocket or purse accessory than anything else before it, and likely anything else to come (until Sony comes out with something new, that is.) That beautiful, bright screen — kicking out glorious presentations of games, movies, music and more — is just too much to ignore. We’ve had Stendhal Syndrome all week, and we can’t imagine this feeling fading.
If you’re feeling weak in the knees, doctors recommend looking at images of E3 2004 DS
That level of excitement was not confined to some E3 groupthink. In December of the same year, John Davison, then Editorial Director of 1UP, had his own hands-on experience. His blog post on the subject says it all.
One of the best things about this job is that every now and then you spend some time with something, and it dawns on you during the presentation that you’re witnessing the start of something really big. In the past, the PSP has forced a sort of intellectual appreciation of such a scenario because of its inherent coolness, but now I really feel it with my gut. Now I’ve held the thing, and played a bunch of games, and have a rough idea of how much it is going to cost, I have this little flutter of excitement in the pit of my stomach that I’ve not felt since I first saw the PS2…
Like Nix before, Davison wasn’t done yet.
The PSP really nails it, and if you look at the way things are moving in all of pop culture and technology, it’s in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time to be the most imporant [sic] development in videogames for a very long time. Screw the movies and the music, the PSP is a kick-ass games machine, and already looks like it will be as significant culturally as the iPod. Imagine the aching hipness of Apple’s baby with the gaming ubiquity of the Gameboy [sic] at a price that anyone can tolerate, and you have a recipe for something that could be more important than the PS1, PS2, and PS3 put together.
Right up to the launch of the PSP, the hype for the handheld ballooned to impossible proportions. Within the first couple of months of the PSP’s release, the hype seemed to have some credence to it.
A Tale of Two Launches
The PSP launched in the US March 24, 2005. Like any system launch, the launch lineup was a bit of a mixed bag, but at least it showed off the system’s strong points. Two games stood out from the rest. Lumines was an original, beautiful, and fairly addictive puzzle game with great music. Metal Gear Acid was a turn-based collectible card game in the Metal Gear universe. Although the series popularity had cooled somewhat since the days of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Acid was the series debut on a handheld platform showing that traditional IPs had a place in the handheld space. The rest were more or less portable versions of existing titles, such as Spider-Man 2, Twisted Metal: Head-On, and Dynasty Warriors, among others.
The DS launch lineup, on the other hand, seemed to be doing almost everything in its power to prove the PSP hype. Probably the most visible game of the bunch was Super Mario 64 DS. The original was Nintendo’s proof of concept for the analog stick’s place in gaming. Putting out a version of that game on a platform that didn’t have one just justified Sony’s point of including one on their PSP. Ridge Racer was released on both the DS and the PSP at their respective launches. The DS version was a port of the series’ N64 outing, Ridge Racer 64, while the PSP version was a brand-new version and was visually comparable to its PS2 cousins. Suffice it to say, the PSP version was superior.
In the early goings, everyone was buying the hype. The system managed to sell 500,000 units in the first two days of its US debut. By that time, Japan had an install base of about one million. In September 2005, the PSP set a new sales record in the UK, having sold 185,000 units in the first days of its launch. Sony felt confident the UK market would have an install base of a million by Christmastime. At first, all seemed well in Sony’s handheld kingdom. But not long after, the PSP started to flounder.
What happened? Why did the PSP fail to meet the hype? Find out in part 2 of our PSP retrospective.