Handheld Week: Sony’s Gambit, The PSP Retrospective

Here at Leviathyn I am dedicating this week to handheld gaming and all its ups and downs through gaming history. Portable gaming has been through a heavy evolution. Some may argue even moreso than home consoles. When you think about what he played on the dot matrix GameBoy and look at the PS Vita or the 3DS, it is absolutely astounding to see what we can do with technology. This week we’re going to look into some retrospectives from Nintendo, Sony, and what devices like smartphones and tablets have to offer portable gaming.

Monday: The 3 Best Games for Each Handheld
Tuesday: The GameBoy Retrospective
Wednesday: Sony’s Gambit: The PlayStation Portable
Thursday: The Smartphone and Tablet Uprising
Friday: Top Ten Handheld Games Ever
Saturday: The Forgotten Devices: Portable Nobodies

Yesterday we went into detail about Nintendo’s history in the portable realm. From 1989 to 2011, we followed the GameBoy’s evolution to the 3DS. Today, we look at Nintendo’s biggest rival in handheld market: Sony. In 2004, Sony unveiled their first portable offering and tried to overtake Nintendo’s DS showing at E3 that year. Just a month before E3, Sony showed the PlayStation Portable for the first time and it made headlines everywhere. The powerhouse portable was set to bring the finest graphics to hands and a slew of online features. A month later, Nintendo showed off the DS and the handheld race was off.

We know now that the DS had won the race. The market share and sales show that. However, it wasn’t so cut and dry this time around. I talked about Nintendo’s dominance in yesterday’s article and how they crushed the competition. Sony didn’t just disappear like the others. They stuck around and made the best with what they had. How did that work out for them? Sony has sold over 70 million PSP’s worldwide. Sure, that’s eclipsed by the DS’ 151 million stats but no one had come this close to Nintendo before. Sony’s sales and progress with the PSP is nothing but a success. You can’t say they failed at all except in market share. The PSP succeeded in giving consumers an alternative that was supported and didn’t die out. While Nintendo continued their dominance of a kid-friendly, family-support lifestyle, Sony captured the more mature audience though kids had plenty to find on those shelves as well. With over 750 games for the PSP, the system did very well with developers and gave gamers plenty of choice in their purchases.

Games weren’t the only strong suit for Sony’s PSP. The system had “apps” that allowed users to download more off the PlayStation Network, use Skype to call friends, listen to music, watch videos, view galleries of photos, and much more. The PSP was a media machine just as much as a gaming one. Sony has always been known to place existing tech within new stuff. They mix and match all the time. The PS1 could play CD’s. The PS2 could play DVD’s. The PSP took advantage of Sony’s Memory Stick Pro format and brand new UMD media. The UMD didn’t last outside of the PSP, though. Sony tried with movies but they died out just a couple years after release. It was the Mini Disc fiasco all over again. Sony themselves even tried to get rid of the UMD drive in the PSP with a remodel late in the system’s lifetime.

The PSP saw plenty of remodels, just like Nintendo’s systems. Over the lifetime of Sony’s handheld, we saw four different models after the original. We had the Slim, 3000, Go, and the more recent E1000. The Slim basically took the bulk out of the PSP just as the DS Lite did the same. The 3000 added a built-in microphone and better color density to the screen. The E1000 takes functions out of the PSP to reduce costs and become just a handheld gaming system. No Wi-Fi and a mono speaker were among the changes done to make the E1000 cheaper. However, the PSP Go was the most radical change. The system took a slide mechanism to make the design not as wide. Also, they took out the UMD drive and made the Go completely download friendly by adding a flash-based memory inside. This didn’t go over well. Sony didn’t offer a way to get UMD games to be downloaded so all your bought discs were useless if you switched to the Go. That didn’t sit well with gamers and so the Go leads an obscure life.

We also saw plenty (and when I say that, I mean plenty) of Collector’s Edition system bundles that came with games, memory sticks, cases, and movies. This led to many special colors or themed PSP’s out in the wild that marked you as different among the other buyers. We’ve had bundles for Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, Monster Hunter, God of War, Star Wars, and much more. Sony even tried to capture more female gamers with a special Hannah Montana lilac-colored PSP. Perhaps the best bundle was released only in Japan. One of the most looked for versions of the portable is the Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII bundle. Japan received numerous exclusive editions of the handheld, some of them being the best ones. Ugh, I really wanted that Crisis Core one.

 

 

Even with all this tech, the PSP was known for its great selection of games. They are the reason why we bought the thing in the first place. Games make consoles. This is just simple fact. The PSP had plenty to choose from, even at launch. With 17 games on the shelves on opening day and 11 that came during the launch window, the PSP was off to a great start. It had to be a good launch to support the price tag, though. The price of admission to PSP-land was $249, which was a full hundred higher than Nintendo’s DS. Even with that disadvantage, Sony still saw good numbers selling out launch allocations in many regions of the world. The trend of good games and sales wouldn’t end at the launch, though. Throughout the PSP’s lifetime we saw classic portable games such as the Monster Hunter Freedom series, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, Daxter, Metal Gear Solid Portable Ops and Peace Walker, Grand Theft Auto Stories series, Dissidia: Final Fantasy, and plenty more. While Monster Hunter proved to be the PSP’s killer series, the other big named titles held their own on the charts.

Not everything was clear skies and picnics over here at PSP-land, though. Hackers were able to break the PSP’s code and put it online in 2005 which resulted in many customed “firmwares” that allowed people to exploit hidden features or add their own to the PSP. Sound cool? Sure, it would be awesome to play SNES and Genesis game on the PSP but it didn’t stop there. Soon, hackers were able to make the custom firmwares able to allow the system to play PSP games off the memory stick using an ISO file. This ran rampant as players would buy a PSP, hack it, and just download games to play for free. This resulted in developers being weary to spend the time and effort on games for the system. The PSP saw a huge drought of games during a time that made it almost seem dead. Finally, Sony took to marketing and damage control that resulted in a new push of games but the piracy was still an issue. With every stable firmware release, Sony would try and defeat ways that hackers could exploit the system but it never really worked. The only way to stop it would be to rewrite the entire source code but then the PSP wouldn’t be the PSP anymore, would it?

The piracy issue really hurt the system here in America. The drought turned away prospecting buying and more and more current owners felt that the lack of effort on the system meant that they should just pirate. In other regions, like the Europe and Asia, the PSP stayed strong and sold very well. Monster Hunter continued to dominate and get the PSP to the top of many consecutive hardware sale charts.

Still, Sony saw great success in the handheld market. There was no reason to leave. In January of 2011, the ‘NGP’ was announced and shown off for the first time. The successor to the PSP would wow gamers with its screen size, two analog sticks, touch capabilities, and online features. It would be at E3 that year that Sony would announce the true name of the system and get rid of the NGP code name. The PS Vita was born and would breathe new life into the portable console realm by offering graphics that could rival even the best of the PS2 titles and give a little touch of PS3 in your hands. With two touch interfaces, two analog sticks, and a 3G modem inside the Vita was set to be one of the most feature-filled and highest performing devices ever for portables. The system released in America in February of 2012. Did it live up to the hype?

Yes, it did. The Vita’s launch could arguably be called the best system launch in gaming history. With over 20 games on opening day and more than 10 arriving during the launch window, the Vita had plenty to offer to gamers. In fact, for my purchase, I wound up with nine games for my launch. That is the most I ever had for a new system. My buying habits aside, the Vita’s range of games made it look like a fantastic addition to any gamer’s possession. However, the sales after launch don’t add up. The Japanese launch saw great numbers but quickly let up. Why? The launch titles and offerings didn’t really appeal to the Japanese audience. When you lead the system with Uncharted, you should know that you won’t have the line-up at stores like you want. Sony didn’t cater to the audience there at all. The slow sales should come at no surprise due to the games available.

However, in America and Europe, the games appeal to a wide variety of people. The launches in those regions did very well but once again we saw a drop off. Shortly after March began, the game releases and PSN content slowed to a crawl and we were beginning that oh-so lovely drought just before E3. I’m sure Sony has plenty in store for buyers at this E3 and time will only time how well the Vita does in comparison to not only the 3DS but also the PSP.

Sony has seen much love and success with portables. You can expect that they’ll be around in the market for quite some time and I can’t see the Vita being the last we’ll see of their handheld offerings. The company has hit a lot of roadblocks lately but we’ve heard that their PlayStation hardware and software divisions weren’t affected. Sony was able to take a grasp of the portable realm and gain a foothold against Nintendo. They may not be first place but you can’t count them out. That is an achievement on its own. Nintendo’s dominance of the portable world doesn’t look so stable as it once did. The PlayStation brand is here to stay and the competition will continue making handhelds better.



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