clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The portable PlayStations were Sony at its most ambitious

New, 43 comments

More than just a footnote in the PlayStation story

PS Vita Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

As we mark 25 years of PlayStation this week, Sony’s grip on the home console market has rarely been stronger. The PS4 recently outsold the original PlayStation to become the second bestselling version yet behind the PS2, which will likely never be matched. It augurs well for the upcoming launch of the PS5. One part of the PlayStation story that is often overlooked, however, is Sony’s efforts with handhelds. You probably know the broad strokes: the PSP was overshadowed by the hugely popular Nintendo DS, while the PS Vita never took off at all. And now we have the Switch.

But it would be unfair to write off Sony’s travails in the portable gaming industry. The PSP and Vita were not only innovative devices in their own right, but the most daunting competitors Nintendo ever faced in the handheld space. They’re more than just a footnote in the PlayStation story.

The idea of a portable PlayStation was something that seemed inevitable as soon as it was clear that Sony was serious about games. While the original PlayStation comprehensively outsold the Nintendo 64 around the globe, the Game Boy essentially had the handheld market to itself during that time, so it was only natural to wonder what the new home console leader would be able to put in your pocket.

In Japan, at least, Sony had an answer right away: the PocketStation. In truth, this tiny gadget didn’t really count as a console — it was technologically closer to a Tamagotchi or the Dreamcast’s Visual Memory Unit than a Game Boy. It was also never released outside of Japan. But with its cute, low-res mini-games that connected to popular original PlayStation titles like Final Fantasy VIII and Street Fighter Alpha 3, the PocketStation was an early sign that Sony saw the potential in taking the PlayStation outside the home.

PS Vita Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

The real bombshell dropped just ahead of E3 2003, when Sony announced the PlayStation Portable, or PSP. Although it wasn’t set for release until the following year, with many technical details left unclear, Sony Computer Entertainment president and CEO Ken Kutaragi’s description of the device as “the Walkman of the 21st century” served as an appropriate statement of intent. The news that the PSP would use a 480 x 272 widescreen LCD and a new 1.8-inch “UMD” optical disc format was enough to get people excited about what the PSP could do. This was clearly going to be leaps beyond the Game Boy Advance.

When the PSP was revealed in full in 2004, its success seemed like a foregone conclusion, particularly as Nintendo’s new competing device was so unconventional. The PSP had a high-resolution widescreen display, incredible graphics, multimedia capabilities, and an ultra-sleek industrial design. The DS, meanwhile, had two low-res screens, PS1-level graphics, archaic software, and looked like a communicator from Battlestar Galactica.

The gap between the two devices was most starkly illustrated by their respective Ridge Racer games, which were both released around each system’s launch. Ridge Racer DS was a port of Ridge Racer 64 with janky graphics and unconvincing touchscreen controls. The PSP Ridge Racer, however, was a total reboot of the franchise with visuals that seemed impossible for a handheld system at the time. The comparison did not do Nintendo any favors.

The play for the high end of the market sounds like it would have been an obvious move for Sony, but in truth it was out of step with the company’s moves in the gaming industry to date. The Nintendo 64 certainly had bigger numbers to throw around on paper than the PS1, for example, while the PS2’s inferior specs didn’t stop it from steamrolling the Xbox and the GameCube. But with the PSP, Sony saw a broader opportunity in mainstream consumer electronics.

“It has gaming at its core, but it’s not a gaming device. It’s an entertainment device,” Kaz Hirai, Sony Computer Entertainment America head (and eventual Sony CEO), told CBS upon the PSP’s launch. In a classic Sony move, the company attempted to use the PSP to push sales of UMD movies that would only play on the console, even though they cost around the same as more versatile, better quality DVDs. The PSP was also a vehicle for Memory Stick Pro Duo, the doomed proprietary SD card competitor.

The PSP was everything that Sony claimed it would be (except perhaps a wireless wing mirror for a Formula One PS3 game, as was prematurely announced in 2006), and that’s ultimately why it lost out to the DS. Despite vastly inferior silicon, Nintendo turned the DS into one of the most popular video game systems of all time with software that made clever use of the touchscreen, a battery that lasted far longer, and flash-based media that made more sense for portable scenarios. Yes, the PSP’s UMD drive allowed for more expansive games… and yet another failed physical media format from Sony. The trade-off was that the PSP got much worse battery life than the DS, its games could take forever to load, and they often weren’t well-suited to portable play when they did.

PS Vita Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Still, the PSP was a great device with lots of fantastic games, and it reportedly sold more than 80 million units, a figure that puts it over the 3DS to date. It might not have been a winner, but it certainly wasn’t a failure. And when Sony started to think about a successor, it didn’t stray too far away from the PSP’s blueprint.

2011’s PS Vita was another full-throttle attempt to create the most powerful practical gaming handheld possible for its time. Just as the PSP could kinda-sorta be a PS2 in your hands, the Vita was kinda-sorta like a portable PS3. Its flagship launch title was a reasonably faithful Uncharted spinoff, just to prove the point.

Sony also addressed some of the PSP’s most obvious flaws with the Vita. It had a second analog stick, which made modern action games viable; physical games switched from optical media to proprietary flash cards, which improved performance and staved off piracy for a while; and the screen was updated to a five-inch 960 × 544 non-Pentile OLED panel, which was bigger and better than anything you’d find on pretty much any phone at the time. There were some features that turned out to be mostly useless, like the rear touchpad and an incomprehensible social network app, but the Vita hardware was overall very impressive.

Unfortunately, the software never caught up. Beyond the launch flurry, Sony barely supported the Vita with high-profile first-party titles, and sales were never strong enough for third-party publishers to lend significant support. By the time Sony released its first and last revision to the Vita hardware in 2013, the platform had essentially settled into its niche as a really great portable indie game machine and PS4 Remote Play controller.

In hindsight, when the games industry was worried about what mobile gaming might do to traditional consoles around the turn of the decade, it only really applied to Sony portables in the end. Their extra features became redundant next to smartphones; popular genres shifted to commute-friendly free gacha titles; and Sony’s technical advantage was quickly lost to phones that got better and faster every year.

The PlayStation 4, on the other hand, outshone expectations and proved the relevance of dedicated console hardware. Nintendo handhelds never lost their appeal, meanwhile, but the leap in mobile capabilities and the failure of the Wii U opened the door for the company to push the envelope with the Switch. The new Switch Lite is, to all intents and purposes, a Vita done right.

Couldn’t Sony make a Switch-like console? Sure, but it’s hard to see how it’d play to Sony’s strengths more than the Switch does to Nintendo’s. It couldn’t be much more powerful, and it wouldn’t be compatible with games for the PS5, which Sony obviously wants you to hook up to your TV. It’s hard to see how it wouldn’t turn out like the Vita.

This is sad to say because of how impressive Sony’s handhelds were in their day. But perhaps, after these two and a half decades of Sony and Nintendo trading blows, each company has arrived at its most natural position. Nintendo is so focused on making the best portable console possible that it’s supplanted its own home console business altogether with a simple USB-C dock, while Sony has achieved great success with the PS4 simply by focusing on games. It’s hard to see either company straying too far from its path any time soon.

But the PSP in particular is a meaningful part of gaming history that deserves to be remembered. Without it, we wouldn’t have Lumines, Monster Hunter as an extant series, Metal Gear Acid, Persona 3 Portable, LocoRoco, Wipeout Pure and Pulse, two then-mindblowing Grand Theft Auto games, Jeanne d’Arc, Patapon, and I really could go on with this list but I won’t. (Except to note that to this day, there is no other other way to play OutRun 2 on public transit.)

While Sony probably won’t ever make another portable PlayStation, the two it did make were entirely worthy of the PlayStation name. Sony didn’t “win” — but the company still took part in spectacular fashion.