Review by Auction Sniper

"An excellent alternative to Nintendo's portables."

INTRODUCTION:
After conquering the game console market, Sony decided to turn it's attention to other gaming venues, and decided to enter the handheld gaming arena, which is currently dominated by long-time rival Nintendo.

Instead of trying to match the promises of their competitor and make a new twist on gaming, they went for a traditional layout using the familiar Sony controls, incorporating a sleek and stylish design, a high resolution widescreen LCD display, and powerful architecture similar to the PlayStation2 home console.

Known as the PlayStation Portable, it made it's debut in Japan on 12/12/2004, and is slated for release in the United States in March. Being a collector of Japanese video games, I was keen to hunt one down at the systems launch, but due to a shortage of supply, it became difficult to obtain one.

A month later I am able to obtain one from an import seller for $378 (standard pack, and its double the price due to the still-high demand) as well as a few launch games, which brings me to the system review.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Fresh out of the box, I unpacked the AC adaptor, battery, manual, and the PSP unit wrapped in a strangle coated covering. I'd seen pictures of the system a dozen times, but the system is really small considering how powerful it is. Small, but it does feel a bit heavier than Nintendo's GBA, due to the motherboard and the Universal media disc drive (UMD, I'll explain a bit further down).

The control scheme mimics that of the PlayStation consoles. A 4-way control pad, and the shaped face buttons which mirror eachother on each side of the screen, which blend in with the face of the system. Unlike the PS consoles, only 1 set of shoulder buttons is available, but I'd imagine it would be extremely uncomfortable. Analog control is also available in the form of a sliding disc, which can be dragged around with your thumb for precise movement, and clicks back to the centre deadzone once you let go.

Down the bottom of the screen are several small buttons for volume, screen brightness, a Home function for quitting games and returning to the OS, and a music note button I assume is for music (I have only played games on this unit, and the system instructions are in Japanese, which I know very little of).

Upon turning the unit on, you are asked to choose your language (English is selectable but games still play in Japanese), set the timezone and date, and create a nickname for the PSP in network games. Then you are treated to an easy navigational menu for arranging your Memory sticks (*Needed for saving games), watching Movies, playing Mp3's (I hope they release an Ogg Vorbis decoder as I don't like mp3 :P), and changing system settings.

The default screen brightness is quite bright, and the highest really works wonders when playing in the dark, however it will take a toll on the battery life, but you won't really need to have it past the second brightness setting.

FEATURES:
I could go into quite a lot of detail here but I will do my best to mention the important points.

Universal Media Disc (UMD) - Rather than opting to go with a cartridge or card based format as seen in Nintendo's portables, Sony took it upon themselves to create a high density optical disc format known as UMD. The discs are slightly smaller than GameCube discs, but hold 300 Megabytes more for a total of 1.8 Gigabytes! They are housed inside plastic caddies to protect them from damage, considering how delicate they are. Apart from housing games filled with masses of FMV and compressed audio, Sony plans to release movies on UMD. At the time of writing, I am yet to see a UMD movie release, so I can't comment on these. A movie based on Final Fantasy VII is the only planned for UMD release I know of so far.

Operating system - Not an uncommon thing these days, but this generation of handhelds is the first to feature them. As mentioned before, it features an OS for navigating your media and changing system settings. The system theme colour changes each month, and you can change wallpapers copied from your computer or a memory card. Also, the system shows a small video demonstration when a game disc is inserted :)

Multimedia - Taking a step further than just gaming on the go, Sony have also implemented features allowing the PSP to play music and video in the common formats, mp3 and mpeg4. Users can connect their PSP to a Windows xp computer and copy content to a memory card, provided you have one. I haven't actually tried this yet as I don't have a memory card yet... (the system and games set me back half a forghtnights pay packet).

Wireless multiplayer gaming - In this day of wirelessness, it would seem weird not to include this feature. Although I have not been able to test this out (nobody else I know has an import PSP), I understand that its possible for a multiplayer experience through a wireless LAN, so you could have a wireless mahjong tournament on a packed train ride (just like the Mahjong Fight Club commercial), or a straightforward 2 player battle in a fighting game.

Upgradeability - It's possible to connect your PSP to your computer and download the latest codec firmware for playing new video and sound formats *Prays for an OGG codec.

GRAPHICS:
The graphics are to the PSP's main selling point. Touting graphical power akin to the PlayStation2 console, you can expect a richly detailed gameplay experience similar to your loungeroom console. So far I've only played 3 games (2 of which are 2D), but at least one of them demonstrates the systems capabilities.

Ridge Racers is the finest example of the PSP's prowess. If you have played Ridge Racer 4 on the PlayStation2, you'll find it a very close experience. A buttersmooth framerate (60fps), smooth 3D models, a decent draw distance, and turbo speed! While the textures may not look Ultra Hi-resolution, they are something close to Dreamcast quality. Given that this is a first generation game, things can only get better as time passes.

The two other games I have are Mahjong Fight Club, and Vampire Chronicle. Mahjong Fight Club is a decent Mahjong experience close to the PS2 games, but its nothing flash. Vampire Chronicle showcases the PSP's ability to handle the splendor of 2D fighting, and the wide screen makes you feel at home (the CPSII arcade version runs in a widescreen resolution very similar to the PSP's).

I can say without a doubt that the graphics really do shine on this system.

CONTROL:
It was to be expected that Sony would give us something in the PlayStation line. The familiar controls are there, minus 1 analog stick and two shoulder buttons. It takes a while to get used to, but it works.

I found it a bit hard to pull off some special moves in Vampire and my thumb would smudge the D-pad area with all of those rapid hadouken style motions, but it's nothing serious (wiped away with a cloth easily). A sliding disc is used for analog control which actually feels better than the PS2's analog sticks, a pity they couldn't fit two of them in though.

The Square button would sometimes not pop up, but this would only really happen if you pushed down hard. I'm sure it will get fixed with a bit more use.

SOUND:
Given that the system used optical discs, it really isn't an issue. High quality stereo sound effects and music are presented via two tiny speakers on the face of the system, or a pair of headphones if you get them (Included in the value pack).

GAMES:
At the moment there aren't a great deal of games that push the systems graphics, but so far there are some games to warrant purchase (Dynasty Warriors, Metal Gear Ac!d, Ridge Racers, Lumines). There are plenty of developers on board including Capcom, SNK Playmore, Konami, Tecmo, Square Enix, Namco, and EA. There's RPG adventures, FPS (Coded arms!), fighting, sports and racing. Surely more will be available as the system gets into full swing, as with the PS home consoles. (I wouldn't mind a Dead or Alive 2 conversion!).

OVERALL:
A Solid system that lets you take the fun and splendor of home console gaming to work or school..... I've heard of many flaws of the system but I'm yet to see anything serious besides the battery power, which last a good 5-6 hours, but gets drained faster with high brightness and sound volume.

The PSP's power allows just about any current gen game to be portable (with the exception of overly detailed PC games like Half Life 2 and Doom 3).

Buy one now if you're desperate for portable gaming or wait until March for the USA version. This system is awesome and I wouldn't trade it for anything less.

-Steven

NB - If you live in Europe or Australia, you won't need a step-down converter as the power supply is multi-voltage, but you might need a plug shape converter.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 01/10/05


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