"PSP: Pretty Sweet Portable"

PSP For Me

As an individual jilted by Nintendo over the years, it would be quite fitting to launch this review with a barrage of attacks, peppering it with anti-DS remarks, and ending with an all out rant about how the PSP will demolish the competition, propelling Sony into first place there, too. Those looking for such an arbitrarily smitten review should browse elsewhere, as I am first and foremost a gamer and hence respect consoles for what they are: mediums with which we can experience new bouts of entertainment.

To be entirely honest, I've never even had a problem with Nintendo's Gameboy. Sure I despise said company's pathetic cash-in ventures (read: ports), but I also respect its superb creativity and ingenuity in making what has been, for over a decade, the sole champion in the handheld gaming arena. Always choosing intelligence over gaudiness, Nintendo withered away the support for Sega's Game Gear, Atari's Lynx, Bandai's Wonderswan, SNK's Neo Geo Pocket, and countless other contenders who didn't even reach surface credibility, all while marketing a device that never stood on the cutting edge. (Heck, Game Gear and Lynx had color years before the Gameboy ever did). It's always been about the games through and through, and Nintendo's portables always had the best. I openly profess my love for the Gameboy Advance SP, and already shared hours of ‘passion' with my DS. That said, this is a review of Sony's PSP, not the history of Nintendo.

The Arrival

I think that, in many ways, both the Nintendo and Sony camps were right in assessing the opposite's consoles: the PSP really isn't a “game machine” and the DS really is a toy . The PSP, if it accomplishes nothing else, proves that any company that puts actual effort into their product (take note Nokia) can create an “omnibus” device that can also play games. What follows is a written documentary of my first experiences with the PSP, though somewhat dated by the time I finalized and submitted the review:

The first thing I noticed when removing the PSP from it's Value Pack-ed box, was that it's as minimalist-ly packaged as all Sony products are: brown cardboard and plastic wrap. Spending the extra currency entitles me to a soft-foam case for the PSP (complete with logo), a pair of ear buds and a remote control, a hand strap, and a 32MB Memory Stick Duo. Nothing special to be sure, but from a gamer prepared to spend the originally rumoured ~30,000 yen ($300), why not. Those opting to save the extra cash need not fret: Sony sells each of these items separately (however the foam case and strap are sold together).

The rest of the package comes standard: manual, repair card, anket (survey) card, battery pack, PSP, AC Adaptor and power plug. The PSP comes (as expected) wrapped in an ample sized piece of foam paper. Undressing the outerwear reveals the fantastic body underneath. “WOW” was my first reaction, having only viewed pictures previously. The console is longer than expected, however most of that is the screen. It's quite light as well (a bit heavier when you install the battery pack), thus spelling an end to those nagging wrist aches that come about when one plays the DS lying on their back for too long.

The thing looks gorgeous, to say the least. Black is a damn sexy colour to begin with (are you listening Macintosh?!) and the polished coating Sony adourned the PSP with makes it that much sleeker. Holding the console properly for the first time (i.e. in a position for gaming, not battery installation) feels quite natural, and the architecture fits in my hands perfectly. I put the memory stick inside the machine, close the plastic door tab that guards it, and then notice the fingerprints I've made on the PSP. I figure it would be best to turn on the unit before “tarnishing” it with my mitts any further.

Opting to wait until the battery charges completely (about 3 hours or so), I do random tasks while waiting, like writing my philosophy final due tomorrow. Progress is sloth-like to say the least, and hence after checking on the PSP for the third time finally notice that the battery is full. Tearing off the plastic wrap on one of the games I purchased, Lumines (love the “UMD” lining on the pull strip), I mull over how cool the game format looks. Think of a mini disc, only smaller, much like the boxes (think of a DVD case, but half the size). [Insert nasty, biased joke]: Who wants to bet that Nintendo's big Spring 2005 “news” for the DS is a redesigned case for the US, claiming-as with the Gamecube-that it can't have customers thinking its products are less important because of the package size. I open the door to the UMD tray and pop the game in, just like a mini-disc, then close it hearing a “click”. Next step: the power switch.

It Lives

Perhaps stemming from my use of the DS and it's “trend”, I oddly went to reach for the non-existant stylus after turning on the PSP. Heck, I've even started to do it when playing GBA games as well. The console whirrs to life (literally, as you can hear disc access) and along with the two dead pixels I now notice my unit has, witness the brilliantly vibrant “PSP” intro screen. This alone would seek to put the DS to shame, given its resolution and fantastic colour spectrum. Without a doubt Sony put an unprecedented effort into this widescreen display. After going through the initial set up (yes, the language can be set to English) the “OS” appears-no restart necessary ;D
I quickly navigate the “Home” screen, as it's called. Pushing up or down scrolls through the game-related options, pushing left [or right] scrolls through media options horizontally, and going all the way to the left presents yet another vertical listing, this time for system settings. Imagine a malleable “H” type design if you will.

Tempted to explore, I forgo it and opt for the game instead. While waiting for Luminare to load up, I test out the much referenced “analogue nub” the console has. Hard to describe, really…imagine a one of those board games you had as a child which used a rubber band for tension (think Mouse Trap). This is perhaps the best way to describe the thing; it's almost as if there is a strong rubber band holding the nub in place. I think it works fine, really, and can't understand all the complaints that it fails to meet the Playstation controller's dynamic. It sure as heck works more proficiently than your finger. (Speaking of dispelling unjust rumours, the sound capabilities meet if not exceed that of the DS, as does the backlighting.)

[While playing] I'm surprised by how quickly the game loads up (heck, the console powers up instantaneously when turning it on) and note that, at least with Lumines, the disc access is at a minimum, indicating the battery life will last longer. There seems to be an awful lot of negative press about the PSP's battery life and I just don't get it. Back in the days when the Game Gear was the alternative, you were lucky to get six hours out of the batteries, and ate up six at a time. None of which were rechargeable. Seems to me like all the anti-hype comes from gaming newbies who never knew such a long-gone era…

And really now, how many people are going to sit down and play a portable gaming console (or any for that matter) in excess of 240+ minutes at a time? I fail to believe that the average person, regardless of where they live, would actually sit down for daily 4-6 hour gaming sessions and have a legitimate issue with the battery life. I have a strong feeling that, were the DS or SP the console that the PSP is, they would also share battery life “concerns”. Trust me here, any business with common sense knows not to create a problem subject to criticism unless its absolutely necessary. (Perhaps Nintendo fanatics need ask themselves “Why does myconsole's battery life last so long?” as the big N sure doesn't have a patent on chemical reactions.)

After playing Lumines for about 10 minutes (think a hybrid of Tetris and every much as addictive) and finally succumbing to the endless barrage of blocks, I opt to return to the main menu, assuming the “Home” button will take me there. Indeed it does. While waiting for it to load up, I test out the shoulder buttons at the top: somewhat clunky, almost like a fancy showpiece meant for display only. They work, but I can see them breaking easily. Oddly enough, their transparent existence actually looks out of place on the PSP. Realising that there are only 24 hours in a day, and that most of this one's spent, it's back to the term paper and thus ends my first experience with the PSP.

From the very first press PSP announcement, I was of a mindset that believed Sony could pull off a competent piece of hardware, that it could indeed create a true rival to Nintendo's handheld monopoly maker, the Gameboy (DS). It's not some kind of latent psychic ability or anything like that, it's just what comes from being a gamer for so long, and in understanding the whole reason for Sony's traditional platform success. After spending more time with the PSP however, and playing some of the other games I got (all of the launch titles), I feel even more secure in this belief. Sony has quite a success on its hands, provided it can fulfill its potential with killer software.

“I'm Falling In Love, All Over Again”

Nintendo recently commented that gamers want new types of experiences, not better graphics. In my opinion, the PSP actually provides the best of both worlds: The games are fantastic (unprecedented for a console launch) and the pseudo-PS2 looks make for an entirely new revolution in handheld gaming. It's tantamount to shrinking your HDTV into a small rectangle, putting buttons around it and calling it a gaming console. I heard that the PSP could do some sick visuals, but the reality is just plain infected.

In fact, I'm not even sure how to explain it to those who've yet to use the PSP, because it's beyond words; seeing IS believing. If you can imagine the futuristic worlds depicted in games like Xenosaga or Neon Genesis Evangelion, it's possible to get an idea of the kind of breakthrough I'm talking about: other-worldly devices that are light-years beyond anything we could ever hope to see. Indeed after playing a game like Ridge Racers, the only plausible reaction is that “this simply doesn't exist, it's TOO cool.” Starting with a CG movie that puts some Xbox games to shame, Ridge Racer then progresses with in-game graphics that are equally jaw dropping, so much so that I'm falling in love with handheld gaming all over again. We're dealing with an entirely new standard in visual quality, as if the community suddenly jumped from the 16-Bit era into the current one.

If there is one thing Nintendo remains adamant about, it that quality games need not have cutting edge graphics. Their Gameboy consoles more than prove this. At the same time, however, that kind of stance is merely an excuse for ineptitude; a round-about way of stating that “We're more interested in enjoyment over looks” or that “We'd rather bring less to the table but make it easy to eat off of”. That's all well and good, but as any PS fan knows, you can have your cake and eat it, too. (Well, *I* at least think that there are enough top notch Playstation and Playstation 2 games that look and play great). The PSP shares this belief and, perhaps for the first time in gaming history, actually launched with titles that are JAW DROPING. I mean so cutting edge that Mario 64 DS looks as outdated as the N64 version.

Even a 2-D game like Lumines becomes an experience thanks to the mother-of-all portable processors inside the PSP that pump out the blissful visuals. [Read: The pictures are horribly deceptive.] Until the novelty factor wears off, you will literally be telling yourself that, “I can't possibly be playing this, not on a handheld” and even afterwards, you're left with enjoyable games that provide more than just graphical glee. Just thinking about what the *future* holds for the PSP, with all the confirmed development support in-toe, as well as visuals and programming that can only get better as time progresses and more learn how to make better use of the console. It's almost as if I'd never even played games until now, as if I'm but a child getting my feet wet.

There is just no comparison between the PSP and DS in terms of visuals, absolutely none. What Nintendo can only hope to create visually by the end of the DS's lifespan, the Sony's PSP has already surpassed at launch. I'm no graphics whore, not by any standard, but that hardly means I am incapable of liking what I see, and I absolutely love the PSP. In fact, I dare anyone to sit down with the PSP and DS for 10 minutes each and not reach the same conclusion.

“You're Giving Me Nothing But Shattered Dreams”

But, as with all good things, my glowing praise of the PSP must come to and end and hence I begin my “tirade” (as many Sony fans will see it): the listing of faults. Even holding the PSP in your hands beckons the realisation that this is not a Nintendo product, not at all. Many criticise the DS for the touch screen's fragile nature, this argument seems shallow when compared to the overall nature of the PSP. There is a part of me that actually doesn't want to use this new console, out of fear of breaking it.

Of all the things the PSP is, durable is not on that list. Aside from the dead pixel issues already brushed upon (this stands as the first device I've ever experienced the problem with), there are a number of other signs that would seek to diminish the PSP's "quality" when compared to the DS-a typical flaw of all Sony products. Whereas Nintendo's can withstand close to anything, the PSP lacks the overall cohesion and confidence:

1. For starters, the analogue nub, while much appreciated and highly useful, seems like it will break or damage easily. The rubber band-type fixture mentioned earlier can not last forever, especially when using the PSP for intensive gaming sessions like Vampire Saviour or whatnot. (Please note I am NOT claiming there is a rubber band inside the console).

2. I can very much see the claim (even if it did originate as a DS fanboy's hoax) that the buttons stick, because they do. Playing around with the volume buttons, after only one or two presses I became unsure of actual progress as they started to stick. Releasing my finger, I pressed down again but didn't feel the same “feedback” from the buttons (typically that of their depression) however the volume did get louder. On the other hand, the shape buttons (i.e. the ones used to control games) work fine and respond just as they would on the PS2 controller.

3. The screen is HIGHLY susceptible to damage, I mean HIGHLY. This is a fault you just can't see until you actually SEE the console…in your hands. Perhaps a product of Nintendo's lower end technology, I never had a problem with the Gameboy consoles' displays. As things got higher up (the SP and DS), the solution lied in the folding design that prevents damage. The PSP's display, which is absolutely huge for a portable, seems a lot like an HDTV, but one that you hold in your hands. I'm terribly worried about scratching, smudging, or chipping because even the slightest bit of dirt as a hair on the screen is noticeable when the console is turned on. Luckily I have the foam case that came with the Value Pack, but I would have much rather Sony made a flip cover (similar to PDA implementation) that goes over it. Heck, they could have easily marketed different colours to “personalize your console”. Also, if I already have two dead pixels PRE-use, I'm not that excited to learn how many more I will have by the time the PSP enjoys a North American launch. (On the other hand, it doesn't cost much so I'll definitely pick up another then anyway).

4. The overall console just seems too flimsy, quite typical of the uber-gizmos that offer everything but can't do anything right. The PSP has so many parts, from the battery cover to the plastic tab that fits over the Memory Card slot, to the door that closes the UMD game tray, that none of them seem to be designed with lasting durability in mind. I even had trouble replacing the cover to the battery compartment after installing said power supply; it just wouldn't snap in correctly and I didn't want to risk jamming and breaking it.

I can't help get the feeling that Sony intentionally designed the PSP in this manner to replicate it's “shoddy craftsmanship” approach to consumer electronics. (How many Walkmans have you purchased over the years?). I wonder if perhaps some of the rough edges arose from the lower-end price tag attached to the console: perhaps had we paid twice the price for the PSP, it would be made better. I wouldn't have had a problem, but this doesn't lend itself well to a mentality intent on dethroning Nintendo.

5. While not a fault per se, the multimedia capacity of the PSP somewhat detracts from the actual nature of the device: that of a gaming platform. Maybe I'm just an old-fashioned stickler, but I like my games OFFline and I want my consoles to be made to play them. I'm unsure of who the first to perpetuate the “multimedia” approach was, Nintendo or Sony, but it is quite apparent that both the DS and PSP are victims of it. Whereas Nintendo's DS spreads itself evenly among wireless networking and gaming, Sony on the other hand, opts to run the whole gambit: wireless gaming, movie watching, music playing (etc).

It's a bit like the Japan-only PSX, a PS2 “upgrade” that featured a built in HDD and DVD/DVD-R capabilities. Perhaps also worth noting, the PSX failed to net Sony a sizable chunk of the Japanese DVD player market (the reason for said device's existence) and hence maybe we can learn something from this: Perhaps Sony needs to focus on one group exclusively with its products, not on catering towards everyone that Nintendo (or whomever) does not. I remember hearing the same comment about the American Democrats and Senator John Kerry: he basically attempted to be everything for everyone who was not a Republican. Interestingly enough, it didn't work.

Of course, all this said and done, nothing can be perfect. Even Nintendo deals with complaints over dead pixels, smashed screens, broken buttons, and damaged consoles. That the PSP is not comparable to the DS (or Gameboy) in terms of design and hypothetical durability is obviously noted, however these are but observations of what could happen. All the safe-guarding in the world could never be enough to keep a product safe from one who would intentionally seek to destroy it. In truth, however, maybe this is just "collateral damage" of sorts: Sony did not set out to make a toy, and as such this is not a child-proof machine that a company like Nintendo would opt to bring out. The PSP is a gaming platform for more mature gamers, and hence people who (hopefully) know better than to throw electronics down toilets (just how many of those have we heard of) or treat them like building blocks.

Checkmate...?

All said and done, however, the PSP is a fantastic console, but one with its own unique share of faults. I suppose that, in the end, Nintendo only claims to want older gamers with its DS, but Sony actually nets them with its PSP. The two consoles are so markedly different that the PSP renders the DS nothing more than a toy. At the same time however, there is no question as to which one is made for game play. Sony's PSP is almost a hybrid entertainment center, a fusion between the new wave of visual MP3 players and its own Clie brand, and (at least with respect to consumers) it really needs to prove that the PSP stands for PlayStation Portable if it hopes to pull the rug from under Nintendo's pompous feet. How ironic, though, that the “gaming standard” would launch with such sub-par drivel (Ping Pals anyone?) and yet the competition offers cutting edge products and performance rivaling that of Nintendo's full fledged Gamecube platform.

So why did I give it a 10? Because the PSP has addictive games. Because the PSP actually *did* launch with quality releases (much to my surprise). Because Sony managed to prove beyond a doubt-to me at least-that this console is everything it was hyped to be and more. That alone is reason enough as far as I'm concerned.

To note, I considered giving the PSP one notch lower on the review score, and even submitted an earlier draft of this review under that intention. After spending more time with it however, I simply could not get the excitement and enjoyment had out of my mind. Call me a Sony fanboy if you want (though for reference I own *two* DS consoles and about 8 SPs) but it's just a label and an unjustified one at that. I am more than willing to accept Nintendo's handheld gaming success, I openly admit to buying products for their consoles, and I think the DS has a lot to offer given the nature of its design. That said however, the PSP is not the Nintendo DS, nor is it the unfinished trinket that Nintendo would have the public believe. If one wants to blind themselves to the advancement of handheld gaming, if one wants to hide behind paltry arguments such as battery life issues, they are the ones missing out. The North American DS packaging may claim that the touch screen feature is a revolution, but if that is true than Sony's PSP is nothing short of an evolution.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 12/17/04, Updated 12/20/04


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