Is time running out on the PlayStation Portable?

March 22,
2010

Is time
running out on the PlayStation Portable?
By

Louis Bedigian

Looking back
on the first five years of Sony’s handheld game machine.

Following years
of speculation that Sony would get into the handheld gaming biz, PlayStation
Portable hit US stores in March 2005. With a beautiful, HD-quality screen, the
ability to play multiple forms of media, and the promise of PSone and
PS2-caliber games, the PSP was what millions of gamers had been waiting for.

 
Good
enough to stop traffic.

The launch was
met with tons of great sequels and offshoots to several console favorites,
including Wipeout and Need for Speed, which helped launch the original
PlayStation 10 years prior. UMD (Universal Media Disc, for those who forgot)
flooded the marketplace, and it wasn’t long before people began to speculate
that PSP would destroy – or at least be a serious competitor to – the iPod. 

That thought
was a bit presumptuous. But while the iPod has spent its life evolving to stay
ahead of the competition (just look at the many iterations of the iPod Nano, or
how the iPod Touch practically made the iPod Video, released only two years
prior, obsolete), the PSP has survived – and despite what analysts say, thrived
– on one basic format. Reducing the weight, increasing battery life and
brightening the screen are barely worth the “upgrade” label. Though you could
point to the PSP Go as a form of evolution, that system was merely an experiment
to see if people would embrace a new variation of a very old handheld. They
didn’t. But they still embrace the classic PSP and all that it has to offer.

 
Wipeout
Pure

2005 and
2006: A Beautiful Start

PSP had the
first truly great console launch since 1999, the year the Dreamcast pummeled
retailers with new Sonic, sports and fighting games that no one could resist.
Similarly, PSP had its share of must-have sequels, such as Wipeout and Ridge
Racer, whose franchises helped launch the PSone in 1995. 

PSP also
launched a new craze with Lumines, a unique game that looked familiar (at first
glance, thoughts of Tetris sprang to mind) but played unlike any other puzzle
game available. Lumines was followed by Mercury and many other
flawed-but-inventive puzzle games designed exclusively for Sony’s handheld.

By fall, PSP
was blowing minds with console-caliber experiences from Burnout Legends and
Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories.

In 2006, Sony’s
portable prowess continued with Daxter, Def Jam Fight for NY, Ace Combat, the
ultra-creative (and often cloned) LocoRoco, Lumines II, another Grand
Theft Auto, Gitaroo Man Lives! (an update of the PS2 original), Ultimate Ghosts
‘N’ Goblins (also an upgrade, but of an SNES game), Killzone: Liberation and
Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops.

 

God of War: Chains of Olympus

2007 and
2008: Things Slow Down

With so much
support and momentum from the developer community, many thought that 2007 would
be the PSP’s greatest year yet. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The
system’s best games – Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters and Castlevania: The Dracula
X Chronicles – were overshadowed by a number of disappointments.

Many of the
long-awaited sequels/prequels (Burnout Dominator, Coded Arms Contagion, Silent
Hill Origins and Sonic Rivals 2, to name a few) failed to live up to the
originals. Sales figures were anything but Earth-shattering, which gave
publishers a fearful attitude toward PSP development.

When gamers
think of the following year, 2008, they think of God of War: Chains of Olympus –
not only because it is an amazing, console-perfect offshoot, but because it is
also the only standout game to hit PSP that year. There are, of course, a few
games that deserve an honorable mention: Patapon, Echochrome, Wipeout Pulse and
Hot Shots Golf: Open Tee 2. Not surprisingly, all of these games were published
by Sony.

(For the
record, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII was omitted from the list on purpose
because it does not deserve an “honorable” mention of any sort.)

 

LittleBigPlanet

2009: A New
Beginning

With the
exception of the Saturn, which Sega attempted to resuscitate on more than one
occasion, console and handheld manufacturers don’t typically stand by a machine
whose success is dwindling. But despite the dying third-party support and
slowing sales figures in 2007 and 2008, and despite the failure of UMD as a
movie/TV format, Sony was determined to keep the PSP going.

PSP Go was one
such attempt, but again, it is best described as an experiment, nothing more.
The real effort came from Sony’s push to bring another string of triple-A games
– both first- and third-party – to the handheld. This led to the creation of new
titles in the Resistance, LocoRoco, Patapon, MotorStorm, LittleBigPlanet, and
Jak & Daxter series – all built specifically for PSP. There were a couple
third-party gems as well, most notably Rock Band Unplugged and Tekken 6.

 

PSP only
suffered two disappointments in 2009, the first of which was visible from a mile
away: Gran Turismo. No game can endure that many delays without tempting players
to expect more than the developers can deliver. The second, Assassin’s Creed:
Bloodlines, was somewhat of an important release because it showed that these
kinds of games can be developed for PSP. Now all we need is for someone to make
them fun.

 

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker

2010 and
Beyond: The Swan Song Begins

There’s no
doubt that PSP still has some life in it. Dead or Alive Paradise is on the way,
Lunar: Silver Star Harmony was just released, Ace Combat Joint Assault was just
announced, and Blazblue Portable should be a blast. Metal Gear Solid: Peace
Walker, due this May, is more than gorgeous technology – it pushes the gameplay
boundaries as well.

But with games
like Peace Walker, you can’t help but get a sense that things are coming to a
close. It happened with GameCube as soon as Resident Evil 4 – the console’s most
groundbreaking title – arrived. To be certain, PSP’s life will end with much
more grace than Nintendo’s failed square … uhh … cube. But going into 2011,
when developers begin to prepare for the next DS, the next iPod (will Apple
finally
make a game-dedicated machine!?), and undoubtedly the next handheld
from Sony, development for the original PSP will be seriously reduced. We’ll see
some great titles before then; I expect there to be at least five to 10
must-play releases before the year’s end.

After that,
chances are the best third-party releases will be small, download-only games
that will be compatible with the PSP and its successor, allowing developers to
serve both markets with ease.

 
Dead or Alive Paradise

If you’re
wondering how Sony will tackle PSP development once its next handheld is
released, look no further than the way the publisher handled its aging consoles.
Unlike Wii and Xbox 360, which killed off their predecessors the day they were
released, the arrival of PlayStation 3 didn’t spell doom for PS2. To keep the
old brand alive while paving the way for the future, Sony chose to release its
primary sequels and start new franchises on PS3, but lowered the price of PS2
while pushing mainstream games like Buzz! and SingStar for the older console.
Expect a similar strategy for PSP.