Backstage: The PlayStation Portable Sorta-Review
Over the past two weeks, I’ve been preparing to write a rather extensive review of Sony’s PlayStation Portable (PSP), but I’ve changed approaches. You’ll read plenty of spec-by-spec breakdowns and feature analyses elsewhere, so what follows is my not-quite-review of the PSP - some highly positive thoughts on the machine, its games, and potential, notes on some of its serious problems, and color commentary on its chances against Nintendo’s DS. Don’t forget to see our first photo gallery here. Another gallery may follow in the next day or so.
I’ll preface all of this by saying that I’m no fan of Sony Computer Entertainment, and personally would prefer to see it punished rather than rewarded for its obnoxious public relations practices, low-quality manufacturing, and egregious treatment of third-party developers. But these feelings won’t stop me from giving the PSP the considerable praise it’s earned by delivering an initial slate of excellent games and a new hardware platform that has both humbled long-time leader Nintendo and strongly deterred other potential competitors. Click on Read More for the full story.
A Brief Aside on Nintendo DS
There could hardly be two more different beasts than the PSP and Nintendo’s DS, the latter of which you may recall that I passed on officially reviewing last month, but for entirely different reasons. My basic comment on the DS was that it is an entirely skippable portable game console, and regardless of how it’s sold since release, I still hold firmly to that statement. Nintendo once publicly characterized DS as a “third pillar” (search for “heterogeneous goods”) to sit alongside the GameCube console business and the Game Boy portable games business, and though it has recently tried to sidestep that characterization (temporarily leaving open the prospect that DS might replace Game Boy altogether), truer words have not been spoken by Nintendo since then.
The DS is definitely not a Game Boy. It’s a mixed-up half-PDA/half-GBA with games that feel more like Pocket PC or Palm software than Nintendo titles. And yes, I’ve played them, from Mario DS to Feel The Magic to Sawaru Made in Wario. Though each title has its moments of charm, you really have to set your standards low to call any of them “great” in absolute terms. They’re good in small doses - just right for short trips, or long ones if you can flip between titles whenever you become bored. And they’re just not as good as the amazing Nintendo 64 (Mario 64), GBA (Wario Ware) and Dreamcast/PS2 (Space Channel 5) original games that inspired them. (Rabid gamers, feel free to pick away at the SC5 reference. It’s there for you to fixate upon.)
Software Makes the PSP
Then there’s the PSP. Let’s ignore the console for the moment and just consider a few of the launch games. You’ve probably never heard of Lumines, but it’s the Tetris sequel that no one has been able to create for fifteen years. Think multimedia music and video effects plus simple block-building, and then add a surprising amount of depth. And a truly robust two-player mode, besides. Anyone can play it, and if Sony was smart, they’d give it away with every PSP sold outside of Japan, as Nintendo did with Tetris years ago. Lumines - more than Feel the Magic - is a game worthy of Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s former team at Sega. It shows what the PSP’s optical disc storage and wide screen can do for even a puzzle game.
Ridge Racers is the arcade-style driving game that will sell PSP consoles to hard-core gamers. More than any other PSP launch title, it displays the machine’s capacity to approach a full-sized PlayStation 2 in graphics and audio horsepower: combining the best tracks, cars, music, and gameplay from six earlier Ridge Racer driving games, it is incredibly detailed, fast, and addictive - the best handheld racer ever made. Because its wide-screen orientation matches your eyes’ field of vision, and its speed is so convincingly real, you feel drawn-in to the visuals in ways that the Nintendo DS’s odd vertical screen stacking will never achieve. Having spent untold hours with Ridge Racers since getting my PSP, I can say that it’s the rarest of portable games - one that pulls you away from full-sized consoles and entirely immerses you in its own world for as much time as you can spare. There are so many tracks, challenges, and unlockable features that you could play it for weeks on and off without seeing everything.
Finally, there’s Everybody’s Golf Portable (Japanese: Minna no Golf Portable, U.S.: Hot Shots Golf Portable), the PSP version of Sony’s fairly long-running and popular action golf series. In traditional portable fashion, the most mainstream of games is the PSP’s top-selling title, despite the fact that its gameplay isn’t the most addictive and its graphics aren’t as mind-blowing as Ridge Racers’. Everybody’s Golf is very easy to play, beautiful looking for a golf title, and agreeably cartoony. It’s gotten less of my play time than the other two above, but less hard-core gamers will really enjoy it.
A Handful of Notes on the PSP Console: Pros and Cons
Without reviewing the console per se, I’ll say the following: it is going to quickly enslave a huge number of people and anger a smaller but significant fraction of them. I use the word “enslave” because the PSP is going to make rabid devotees out of non-believers in the same way as the iPod won fans for Apple - until you see it in person, you cannot begin to imagine how compelling the PSP’s clean, large widescreen 4.3” LCD looks for games, movies, and JPEG photo playback, how cool the unit’s thicker-than-iPod clear acrylic buttons look, and how clean the unit’s interface is. Each of these components has issues - limitations, squeakiness, failure potential - but they’re oh so hot at first sight. You don’t want to put the PSP down when you’ve picked it up, and want to come back to it whenever you have a chance. When it’s good, it’s that good.
The anger will come either minutes, days, or months after you first open a PSP box. I hesitate to pull a “told you so,” but as predicted on iLounge here and here, PSPs have experienced two sets of problems: defects and battery life. Early PSPs have exhibited significant quality control issues ranging from numerous dead screen pixels and interior dust to disc drive latch design and door manufacturing defects, joystick and button defects, and even some DOA hardware. Some people reported problems that developed only hours or days after first turning the unit on. Screen problems were so significant that Sony sent out a notice to customers at the last minute that they shouldn’t buy PSPs if they couldn’t live with the dead pixels. But these problems hardly compared with the drive defects, which sometimes cause the PSP’s discs to literally eject through the air in the middle of a game, amongst other issues. (For reference, my review unit has only the slightest amount of interior screen dust, but no dead pixels or other defects save the apparently universal latch design issue. More detail on these issues is available if you search Google for PSP defects.)
Add to the “issues” list the PSP’s guaranteed limitations on battery life, particularly when playing back movies or using its built-in wireless game networking feature (both under 2 hours), and typical game time falling at or around the 4-hour mark, give or take an hour. If you play a game with no disc access, you can get up to 6 hours of play time. This is just not good by comparison with Game Boy Advance hardware (up to 15 hours), and even DS hardware (6 to 10 hours). Then there’s the fact that you need to buy expensive Memory Stick Duo Pro cards if you want to store music or movies. On the bright side, unlike Nintendo (or Apple for that matter), Sony lets you easily replace the PSP’s rechargeable battery with $50 replacements, and these memory card prices will eventually go down.
For now, I’ll avoid rendering a final opinion on the PSP’s Universal Media Disc (UMD) optical discs, which seem to have tremendous scratch potential but have not in fact been scratched by me quite yet. Sony’s choice to go with these discs rather than cartridges is probably the PSP’s single biggest engineering headache at the moment, and they cause modestly inconvenient load times (15 seconds, typically, once in a while) and plenty of battery drain. Perhaps the company will eventually switch to some Memory Stick ROM cartridge format in the future, but for now, they’re at least a so-so solution. Lumines’ and Ridge Racers’ incredible music pretty much justifies the format in my mind.
The bad points had to be made, because they are real issues and will impact buying decisions for plenty of people, but my gut feeling is that Sony’s going to engineer around them. Within a year, I strongly believe that we’ll either see a PSP Mark II (a la Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance SP) or a quietly revised PSP with fewer of the above issues, if not both. A smarter move would be to diversify the PSP hardware into versions with gigs of music storage capacity and/or other features, and sell at different prices.
But even if it sticks entirely with the current design, Sony won a lot of favor by dropping its original PSP price plans (strongly believed to be $330 for Japan, $300 for USA) to a $200 Japanese price point. People can tolerate a bit less perfection at lower prices, and won’t mind buying the extra batteries they’ll need on their own. Sony’s already catering to this in Japan with a $250 Value Pack version that includes a 32MB Memory Stick, remote control, carrying case, earphones, and hand strap - the last two of which come in iPod-matching white. They’re quite the contrast with the jet-black PSP, but for obvious reasons.
Conclusions on Competition and Pricing
As the preface to this not-quite-review noted, I have no desire to see Sony conquer the portable games business, and frankly hope that Nintendo (or Microsoft) will present a real challenge to keep Sony from getting away with the same bad marketing, manufacturing and development practices that have turned many one-time fans into reluctant and wary consumers. Moreover, I hope that every PSP customer who receives defective hardware will have his purchase quickly refunded or replaced by something perfect.
That said, unless Nintendo drops the DS’s price to $99 or the PSP misses its March 2004 U.S. launch date, Sony has a very good shot at dropping the DS like an out-of-shape boxer, and causing Nintendo tremendous loss of face in the process. Particularly because of the visual mediocrity of Nintendo’s launch games and the strength of Sony’s, people who have seen the PSP and DS uniformly prefer the PSP, and feel even more strongly once given the chance to actually play the consoles’ games. DS titles come across looking and feeling like ten- or fifteen-year-old technology, while PSP games look considerably cleaner and newer - basically like PS2 launch titles. If PSPs are guaranteed to be in U.S. stores by February or March, my belief is that those who were swept up in the DS launch hypewagon will soon find themselves in no-questions-asked post-Christmas return lines or planning eBay sales of unwanted DS consoles.
On a final note, I stick with iLounge’s earlier conclusions that the PSP isn’t going to be the “Walkman of the Future,” and it’s not going to replace the iPod. It is an absolute killer of a portable games console - so strong in that regard that Apple should probably stay entirely out of that space unless it has way more than Macromedia Flash games in its sights - but I’m not going to be using mine to watch movies, view pictures, or listen to music any time soon. Leave aside its custom-made remote control and headphones, which are made cheaply from junky plastic. Practically speaking, the PSP does not fit into any sort of clothes pocket, doesn’t have enough battery power to do what I would want (movies on extended trips) with it, and its Memory Sticks aren’t compatible with either of my digital cameras or any of my computers. Plus, I have no incentive to drop hundreds of dollars on Sony’s proprietary memory cards to get way less storage than an iPod mini. So there’s plenty of opportunity for others, including Apple, to wreck the PSP on literally all of its ancillary features. But as a portable gaming device, save battery life, it’s better in all regards than I had ever hoped.
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