words Alex Wiltshire
With its good looks and raw power, the PSP demands to be taken seriously. But does it offer anything new.
As recently as a couple of years ago, you would have been laughed at for suggesting that we might be playing a handheld games console as powerful and desirable as Sony’s PlayStation Portable in 2005.
Nintendo’s GameBoy range has ruled handheld gaming for 15 years, and has developed at its own unchallenged, steady pace. Its DS console, which it only launched a few months ago (see icon 023), was the first to generate high-quality 3D graphics. But with the power of a PlayStation 2 home console, the PSP is already, at least computationally, a whole generation ahead of it.
There are already claims that the PSP will challenge the popularity of the iPod – it certainly looks seductive and is technically very capable. Apart from games, it can also play movies and MP3 music files, display pictures, and connect wirelessly with other PSPs and the internet.
But while the PSP is technically very advanced, it actually feels like a bit of a throwback. Time for a little history. Sony’s first games console was the PlayStation, launched ten years ago. Its subsequent domination of the worldwide home console market was aided by two early games: Ridge Racer and Wipeout. Ridge Racer proved that the PlayStation was able to reproduce the vibrant 3D shapes, colours and speed of the arcade. Wipeout sealed the console’s image as the plaything of the clubbing generation with a soundtrack that included real licensed music and in-game logos and liveries by cult graphic designers Designers Republic.
What has this got to do with the PSP? Well, Sony is launching its first handheld console with updates of the same games it used to launch its first home console: Wipeout Pure and Ridge Racer. As they did with its forebear, the games prove the PSP’s power, effortlessly spinning out smooth and gleaming 3D graphics on its big, bright 16:9 ratio screen. They’re undeniably modern games, with all the graphical tricks, multitude of musical tracks (Wipeout will even allow you to download new ones) and options you’d expect, but their heredity makes them feel rather old fashioned. They’re less crude, and they’ve been restructured to allow short bursts of play suitable for being on the move, but we’ve played these games before.
What’s more, because the PSP has a similar power level to the PlayStation 2, many of the games available for it are remakes of PS2 games and are not designed specically for a handheld console.
Having said that, the PSP feels more suited to sedentary play. You can carry it around, but it requires a large pocket, and at 280g it weighs a fair bit. It also needs recharging every five or six hours. And games like Wipeout aren’t the sort that you can play with the motion, bumps and sun flashes you get travelling on the bus.
How does it compare to Nintendo’s DS? Though less powerful, the DS is continuing to inspire really interesting games with its unique user-interface. The PSP, so far, is not; it’s just powerful. It is, however, proving exciting material for hackers, who have already worked out how to run their own software on it. The most popular programs hackers are developing are emulators, which allow you to play games from older game systems.
And is the PSP an “iPod-beater”? Probably not. It lacks the functionally focused insight of the iPod. Where the iPod married massive storage space with a music player to create something genuinely new, the PSP gathers together a number of functions that exist already in handheld formats and throws a lot of processing power at them. It’s
hard to envisage people who aren’t techies or gaming aficionados getting particularly excited. And it’s not as beautiful as an iPod either.
Still, the PSP is a miraculous piece of consumer technology – it’s just a pity that it’s a product of power over imagination.