Its’s 2019 and the PSP’s long dead and buried – if it ever truly lived – just another pretender crushed by Nintendo’s unbroken thirty-year grip on handheld gaming.
So it might be surprising to learn that PSP wasn’t a failure. Gaming’s handheld graveyard may be filled with the carcasses of Nintendo’s rivals but so very few of them deserve to be there based on the quality of their game selection, the PSP perhaps least of all – this is a format that sold over 82 million units in its lifetime, making it the sort of “fail” that should be read as nothing more than “It didn’t succeed as strongly as its main rival did”. If you’d like some broad sense of scale – a quick search suggests the PSP comfortably sold more than the Dreamcast, original Xbox, Wii U, Sega Saturn, and PC Engine combined. Or to put it another way – there are almost as many PSPs in the world as there are Xbox 360s.
Sony’s handheld is much more than an easily hackable emulation machine, or a place for on-the-go Monster Hunter, or a convenient way to keep old Playstation games in your pocket (although it is very good at all of those things and you should definitely keep old Playstation games in your pocket at all times); it’s a good format in its own right.
So why does this matter?
It matters because I really don’t like to see people missing out on good games. Now even when I go around praising some weird Japanese RPG on an equally weird format from decades ago I don’t seriously expect anyone to go following me down the rabbit hole – games are supposed to be fun and relaxing, not a wallet-emptying language lesson, right? The PSP isn’t like that.
What makes the PSP different is that it’s not a tiny-but-interesting niche like the N-Gage (hey, I love the N-Gage! The genuine 3D Tomb Raider port on that taco was a revelation back in 2003!), or a fussy retro project like keeping Game Gears and PC Engine GTs operational (I really don’t mind soldering but I have a vivid memory of opening my Game Gear up to replace the capacitors and thinking the hardest “Nah~” of my life), it’s a well-made and readily available handheld that doesn’t require you to be overly precious about it.
Even better is knowing that even with the wide range of PSP colours and revisions out there every last standard model (we’ll leave the digital-only PSP Go to those who know what they’re doing with it already), including the original launch model, are at the very least a good buy (the 3000-series is the best in my opinion, it’s got a beautiful screen), so you don’t have to be especially picky about which sort you end up – go for one you like the colour of and you’ll be fine.
The PSP has also had some unexpected help from… the Nintendo Switch?!
That’s right! The Switch, with its Nintendo Magic™, has done what was once thought impossible and brought mainstream acceptance of portable console-style games to a wider audience, making now the perfect time to take another look at the PSP. “But it’s just a portable console game!” – once a go-to criticism of PSP titles like Wipeout Pulse, God of War, and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (funnily enough, Metal Gear Ac!d was criticised for not being like a regular Metal Gear at the time) – doesn’t hold much weight in an era where ports of Diablo 3, Doom, Skyrim, Bayonetta, and Dark Souls regularly sell in their droves, even with the dreaded “Switch Tax” on top. A similar modern reframing of a previous “problem” applies to the negative comments on the PSP’s battery life that whirled around when it launched: “Only four hours playtime?!”, the websites and forums would cry (swiftly followed by “Battery di-” in the replies). Four whole hours? I can’t help but look across at my fancy modern phone and wish that thing could go four hours of intensive gaming without crying for a wall socket.
This isn’t me putting on my best grandma-sucking-a-lemon face over the Switch and its success – that lovely little hybrid deserves every good thing coming its way – but to try and illustrate how far sentiments have shifted since 2004.
So now I’ve hopefully established that the PSP itself is worth another look, what games do you buy for it? What esoteric Japanese delights await? What glorious unknowns should you rush to fill your e-baskets with?
Slow down a minute.
If there’s something I see a lot of in this hobby it’s everyone falling over themselves to grab import games; whether that’s EU players buying US RPGs or everyone lusting after fancy JP limited edition sets with barely a glance at whatever’s available at home. It happens a lot with another personal favourite of mine – the Saturn, a format that can offer a vibrant domestic library filled with of all sorts of excellent classics like Virtua Cop, Sega Rally, Virtua Fighter 2, Street Fighter Alpha 2, Lobotomy’s Quake port, Panzer Dragoon Zwei, and NiGHTS; all sadly ignored because everyone needs their “I’ve made it, I’m a real import gamer now!” copy of Radiant Silvergun and some Capcom arcade port with a 4MB RAM cart.
I am speaking as someone with a copy of Radiant Silvergun and several 4MB-supported Capcom games.
So take a moment to look around local (online) stores for excellent “everyday” titles like Ridge Racers, Tactics Ogre, Locoroco, and Exit. Bask in the joy that is portable Power Stone, Darkstalkers, and Outrun. Marvel at the pocket change fantastic games like Dissidia: Final Fantasy, Everybody’s Golf (AKA:Hot Shots Golf: Open Tee), and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker go for. Right now we’re still in that magical no man’s land where most PSP games aren’t officially rare, collectible, or have a legendary reputation that makes them must-haves for “real” gamers – they’re just old. And being plain old old means they also tend to be cheap; the quality and quantity of sub £10 PSP games even on somewhere as mainstream as Amazon UK is a sight to behold (Monster Hunter! Disgaea! Tenchu! Tomb Raider! Puyo Pop!), and a vanishing opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted.
Then we can move on to the well of Japan-only titles: There’s Onore no Shinzuru Michi wo Yuke, Gundam vs Gundam, Nayuta no Kiseki, Time Travelers, Boku no Natsuyasumi, Grand Knights History, Pop’n Music Portable, Valkyria Chronicles III and many, many, more that are again in the same almost offensively low price bracket as their domestic brethren.
Which doesn’t mean that exceptions to the above don’t exist: Arcade shmups are determined to be eternally unaffordable on any format they deign to grace with their presence, the beautifully named R Type Tactics II: Operation Bitter Chocolate (I will complain about missing out on this one forever) is at a price where I can honestly say “I’ve literally paid less for arcade PCBs”, and crowd-pleasing English language RPGs (everything by Falcom and Atlus’ localised Persona titles, for example) have values that’ll make your eyes water, but even after taking these titles into consideration there’s still a lot of great games to choose from.
Just like its more popular under-the-TV cousins the PSP really does have something for everyone, from serious sports to dating sims to hardcore arcade titles to the most casual of sudoku and one-for-the-kids movie licenses. The only problem is the handheld currently sits in a very awkward position, being not popular enough for that Game Boy-level ubiquitousness, but not obscure enough to possess that “I just bought a WonderSwan” standard of nerd-quality. It’s also not terrible, stripping it of the chance of gaining any ironic interest in the way the Game.coms “ports” of Resident Evil 2 and Sonic Jam have; the PSP is a shining example that being amazing and being popular are two very different things.