It was like a spaceship suspended above them.
When Sony’s Kaz Hirai unveiled the new PlayStation Portable in 2004, the crowd was awed by the sleek, jet black chassis of an enlarged model hanging from the rafters of E3.
Looking up, it was as if portable gaming grew up all of the sudden. Just one generation removed from the translucent-purple Gameboy Advance, handheld consoles were no longer toys for children who needed a distraction during long road trips.
No, this machine had power. It was delicate, and it was expensive. But most of all, it was a statement.
PlayStation was ready to shake up the handheld realm the way it did home consoles.
Designed by Shin’ichi Ogasawara, the original PlayStation Portable (PSP) was a monster. Its hefty weight was matched only by the expectations of gamers worldwide as the world headed into October’s launch event.
During its unveiling, the spotlight was planted firmly on the Portable’s large liquid crystal display, which stood head-and-shoulders above the Nintendo DS and other contemporary handheld devices. With its futuristic design, geometric action buttons and signature directional pad, there was little doubt that this was PlayStation at its finest.
What raised eyebrows, however, was the textured circle on the console’s left side. Was it a speaker grille? A mic? No, it was an analog stick and it blew minds, offering home console-like movement fluidity while drifting down the tracks of Ridge Racer. Unbelievable.
With cutting-edge hardware, impressive launch titles, and strong developer support, the PlayStation Portable looked to be on its way.
The launch of the PlayStation Portable was a success by all accounts, with over 200,000 units sold upon its release in Japan. Later, the much-anticipated North American launch saw another 500,000 consoles sold, delaying its European introduction due to a lack of stock.
But as quickly as the consoles landed in consumers’ hands, issues began to arise. The highly-touted screen was tainted by reports of malfunctioning “dead” pixels, while those who received non-defective consoles complained of slow loading times and poor battery life.
Meanwhile, Sony’s software engineers were also facing challenges of their own, as hackers discovered how to run pirated games just months after the console’s launch. In response, an update was released in May 2005 to patch the exploit, kickstarting a game of cat-and-mouse that would plague the entirety of the PSP’s lifetime.
Nonetheless, sales remained strong as established franchises released blockbuster titles for the Portable, most notably Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider, and Medal of Honor.
In early-2007, rumours of a refreshed PlayStation Portable began to surface with the launch of the PlayStation 3 the year prior. Speculation for the new portable ranged from a larger display to secondary analog nub.
The truth was considerably more restrained, however, as Sony introduced the Playstation Portable Slim in September 2007. Retaining the original’s looks, minor upgrades included a notably thinner, lighter build; improved directional pad; and increased memory to improve load times.
Just one year later, PlayStation unveiled yet another update to its Portable line: the Brite, which featured an upgraded screen capable of increased color range and contrast, as well as a built-in microphone for Skype calls.
Alongside the hardware update, Sony also launched the PlayStation Network Store on all PSP consoles. Players could now download games, movies, and media directly onto their device. In addition to convenience, digital downloads meant shorter loading times and account integration with Sony’s home console.
With the launch of the iPhone’s App Store in June 2008, mainstream handheld gaming experienced a fundamental shift towards pick-up-and-go gameplay. In response, Sony announced its first major revision to the PlayStation Portable’s design: the Go.
The new console’s significantly smaller footprint was achieved through its slide-out controls and removal of the UMD tray. However, this resulted in the PlayStation Network Store being the sole method of adding content onto its 16GB of built-in storage.
By this time, though, consumer preferences had changed, and Portable titles struggled to remain relevant in a sea of easily-accessible iPhone games. In response, Sony released PlayStation minis, which were inexpensive, bite-sized titles meant to bridge the gap between handheld and mobile gaming.
But it was too little too late. One by one, developers left the console, and in a last-ditch effort, Sony began bundling digital game downloads with the Go before discontinuing it completely in 2011.
As a final footnote, Sony released the budget-oriented Street for European markets in October 2011. To reduce costs, the UMD tray made its return amid the removal of Wi-Fi capability, stereo speakers, and the microphone.
When the PlayStation Portable was launched, handheld gaming was in full-swing as newer technologies allowed for titles such as Grand Theft Auto and SOCOM to be measured against their in-home counterparts.
For a while, it seemed like Sony achieved its vision of bringing the console experience to handhelds, as the Portable delivered masterpiece after masterpiece. It continually pushed the envelope and, as a result, built a library of titles rivaling that of the legendary PlayStation 2.
But times change, and the release of the Apple iPhone ushered in a new era for mobile gaming. Consumers stopped spending hundreds of dollars on portable consoles, opting instead for the $1.99 indie game which could be enjoyed on a device they already owned.
And while Candy Crush Saga and other mobile titles dominate the market today, it was the Portable which first took handheld consoles seriously and, in true PlayStation fashion, put power into the player’s hands. ∎