All Hands on Decks

Sony’s a regular wizard when it comes to math.

Seriously – the company positively adores citing facts and figures in press releases touting the success of its recently released handheld, the PlayStation Portable (PSP), which debuted in Japan last November and stateside this March.

A few fine examples?

More than ten million units have shipped worldwide. The manufacturer’s already sold a whopping 2.2 million of the devices in North America. Upwards of 45 games are available for the system. Over 200 compatible movies, TV shows, and other video programs can further be had now in the machine’s propriety 1.8GB Universal Media Disc (UMD) format.

Still with us, ye of the short attention span? Great? Here’s another one you can chew on: After nearly eight months on the market, there’s still not one single killer app for the darn device.

But please, fans of Lumines (an enjoyable, system-exclusive outing which some tout as the greatest puzzle game ever made) don’t believe us. Reference retail statistics instead, which sadly say it all: Only 19.6 million PSP games have shipped as of September.

Not a bad figure that, except when you consider – the tie ratio of games to systems floating around out there is less than two to one. Translation: If you own a PSP, chances are, well, you just don’t possess much in the way of electronic entertainment. No surprise there really – we’re not exactly jonesing for Frogger: Helmet Chaos or Death, Jr. either.

Conversely, with 15 million-plus units of UMD video titles shipped in the same timeframe, it’s obvious: People are using the console as much to watch films as they are to play games. Perhaps even more so in certain cases?

In a word: WTF?! It?s unheard of for a new videogame system? But then, what can you say when the hottest software one can find lying around for the handheld is the NES, SNES, Genesis and Game Boy back catalogue?

Allow us to explain.

The Sony PSP
Image Courtesy of Sony America

Utilizing exploits in early versions of the unit’s operating system, enterprising hackers have formed a thriving homebrew software community.

They were the first to add Web browsing, IRC chat and comic book viewing capabilities to the machine. The first to discover its ability to run emulated software from other, older gaming consoles, e.g. the aforementioned models. And, of course, the first to earn Sony’s ire, as the Japanese giant quickly instituted a 2.0 firmware upgrade, which, while introducing an official Internet browser, closes off the loopholes enabling at-home software development.

While obviously concerned with piracy – dumping UMDs to Memory Stick is, alas, an increasingly common practice amongst certain criminal elements these days – it’s a slap in the face to fans. Not only since the so-called OS enhancement actually decreases the PSP’s overall functionality (and value, given the dearth of quality games for the device), but because it’s a mandatory installation.

Sure, you can avoid logging onto your computer via USB cable or wireless network and downloading the patch. But if you want to play Burnout Legends or Madden NFL 06 ? the closest thing the console currently has to must-see games – you’re forced to install the update. It’s a not just a downfall common to specific titles either, but a full-blown trend: Future games will also demand you upgrade your unit’s firmware to the most up-to-date version before they’ll run.

Burnout Legends Burnout Legends

Madden NFL 06 Madden NFL 06

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Essentially, either you play by Sony’s rules, or you must circumvent the law to get any real enjoyment out of the portable. (Although, in fairness, multimedia enthusiasts can always dump DVDs or load photos and MP3s onto the gizmo for a high-tech, if non-interactive thrill.)

Rollback utilities do exist to help those inclined to follow the road less traveled, letting you downgrade your firmware from version 2.0 to 1.5, if not from the newer v2.01 update. Beware, though – many of these so-called utilities you’ll find out there are actually cleverly disguised Trojans.

Still, stop and think about the overall insanity of the situation in general for a moment. It makes you want to grab Sony CEO Sir Howard Stringer by the collar and commence throttling.

Common sense alone tells us this much: The battle wouldn’t even matter to the majority of consumers apart from hardcore tech-heads if someone simply programmed a few decent titles for the system.

The holidays will, of course, bring a few welcome additions to the console’s software library. For example, The Con, Virtua Tennis: World Tour, Star Wars: Battlefront II, Metal Gear Acid 2, Prince of Persia and SOCOM: Fireteam Bravo. But apart from Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, none of these offerings exactly scream “must-have” potential.

The Con The Con
Click for a larger image

Meanwhile, Nintendo’s been quietly stirring up a “revolution” well in advance of the 2006 release of its set-top console of the same name.

The uprising’s presently thriving as we speak on the DS and Game Boy Advance (GBA) platforms. As for the publisher’s secret: it keeps on delivering games that push the boundaries of what both casual and hardcore audiences have come to expect from the medium.

Never mind the scorn hecklers have heaped upon these units, especially the Game Boy Micro. Even the most vocal of the machines – critics are slowly starting to come around. And why shouldn’t they?

Pioneering DS outings like surgical simulator Trauma Center (in which your stylus doubles as a scalpel) and virtual pet Nintendogs (where you raise a pixilated puppy) presently set the bar for innovation high. Ditto for artistic experiment Electroplankton, quirky courtroom romp Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and island castaway adventure Lost in Blue.

Electro Plankton Electro Plankton
Click for a larger image

Even more traditional GBA outings, e.g. hyperactive side-scrolling blaster Gunstar Super Heroes and role-playing excursion meets spastic shooter Sigma Star Saga show touches of inspiration.

Laugh if you must: With its 4.3-inch, 16:9 widescreen color LCD display, unrivaled wireless connectivity, and multimedia-rich features, the PSP makes one hell of a technical showpiece. But assuming you’re looking for more than just a good place to store vacation snaps, do yourself a favor and take a second look at Nintendo’s portable systems.

Because, quite frankly, when it comes to certain executives’ claims the PSP is this year’s undisputed handheld heavyweight champ, face it – at present, things just don’t add up.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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