It almost did not happen
The ‘Walkman of the 21st Century’, as Ken Kutaragi called it when it was announced in 2003, the PSP has had a bumpy ride in life, with controversial ad campaigns, system hacking and the revival of the XMB from a failed PSX DVR all being risky and potentially damaging. The various iterations of the console sold 67 million units worldwide and the Playstation Portable can undoubtedly be seen as a popular system. With the announcement of the PS Vita, life as a portable gamer seems set to continue to evolve. However, what made the PSP so special in the first place? Why did Sony feel the need to wade into the Nintendo-dominated handheld market?
To understand why the PSP happened, you have to go back to the late 1980s, almost 20 years before the release of the Playstation Portable. Our friend, Ken Kutaragi, had just left his hardware engineering division and was approached by Nintendo to create a CD-Rom for the SNES. After 5 years in development, the ‘Nintendstation’ made its debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in June 1991. However, a day after the announcement, Nintendo betrayed Sony by opting to go with Phillips. The lack of honour and respect shown infuriated Sony, who immediately set out to rival Nintendo in everything they did, starting with the home console market. This is pivotal: if the two companies had managed to broker a deal in the negotiations that ended in May 1992, it is unlikely that Playstation would ever have been born.
Some fun, some games
The announcement of the Playstation Portable was a shock to the industry, as previous manufacturers such as SNK and Sega had tried, and failed, to break the Game Boy monopoly on the handheld market. However, it soon became clear that the PSP would be a serious contender to the crown, with multi-media capabilities, outstanding handheld graphics and internet connectivity being just a few of the specifications that signalled Sony’s arrival. With a stellar range of launch titles including Ridge Racer, Metal Gear: Acid and Wipeout Pure, and the ability to watch movies released onto the short-lived UMD format, the PSP sold in excess of 200,000 consoles in Japan in just two days. With 185.000 units, the PSP eclipsed the 87,000 units that the Nintendo DS sold when it launched in the United Kingdom. The PSP hit the ground running.
And then it hit the wall. Launch units in Japan suffered from problems such as dead pixels and UMD ejection caused by movement. In PAL regions, the launch was delayed due to high demand in NTSC regions and $100 more expensive to boot. There was criticism too: its bulky weight and single analogue stick were seen as problematic for the handheld.
The successful release of Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories caused many of these problems to be forgotten, to be replaced with new problems of 5 star police chases and ad-hoc multiplayer massacres. With a new in-house engine to take advantage of the PSP’s resolution and texture density, and custom radio stations, Liberty City Stories was just the game the PSP needed to market itself as a handheld for the core, whilst Nintendo went off and let you throw Frisbees at dogs in Nintendogs. Selling over 8 million copies as of 2008, the game was both a critical and financial success, with a PS2 remake being released in 2006, selling 1 million within a year. With Final Fantasy VII- Crisis Core, Gran Turismo and Vice City Stories, the PSP was going strong with some seriously impressive core titles.
Two improved versions made it both lighter and gave it a better screen and the PSP seemed to be going from strength to strength, with its foothold in Japan growing due to the insane popularity of the action title Monster Hunter, the Freedom series, and later Portable 3rd, selling over 10 million copies between them, mostly in Japan. It would take an absolutely monumental catastrophe for Sony to damage their reputation. Surely they wouldn’t. Would they?
They most certainly would. In 2009, after 4 years of gracefully sailing the portable seas with the PSP-1000, 2000 and 3000 iterations, the waves got rocky. In June of 2009, the PSP-Go was announced. Whilst the Go was not a replacement for the PSP-3000, it was marketed as the ‘evolution’ of the PSP. This evolution brought with it a smaller screen and a sliding mechanism, along with weight and size reductions and no UMD drive. Digital distribution would be the only method of purchasing games. This was a monumental cock-up. By removing the ability to play the games that existing PSP owners already owned, charging them more than a PSP-3000 and placing the analogue stick in an incredibly counter-intuitive place the PSP-Go was a ‘hard sell’. It was so bad that the PSP 3000 sold more in a week in Japan than the Go did in 2010. It had to be bundled with 10 games and heavily reduced in the UK to even sell. Not a good move by Sony, and confidence in their portable offerings was dented as a result, starting a slow but steady decline in sales, especially in Western countries.
Back on track
But Sony is a resilient company and tempted their luck with the announcement of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play, a Playstation-certified smart-phone that makes classics such as Crash Bandicoot playable on the train and on the bus. With the Xperia going strong, the time seemed right for Sony to revitalize their portable efforts so as to dominate both the smartphone and the traditional handheld gaming market and announced the Playstation Vita at the E3 2011.