Although Sony has enjoyed its status as a juggernaut in the console gaming market for over two decades, its success in the portable realm has been marked with epic highs and disappointing lows. To understand how PlayStation managed to threaten Nintendo’s dominance in the handheld scene, and whether we can expect another portable console from Sony, we will be delving into their history in the market and the many innovations and missteps made in their attempt to fit the PlayStation experience into the palm of your hands.
The Handheld Scene
The portable console market is a different beast from the home console market, so a little contextualization is necessary. Many console manufacturers have tried their hand at making handheld consoles, with varying levels of success. This includes Nokia who came out with the N-Gage which functions as both a phone and a gaming device. Despite the innovation, the N-Gage is remembered as a quirky oddity within gaming history and failed to meet Nokia’s expected sales.
Nintendo, however, managed to excel where many others had failed. The early 2000s saw the release of the Game Boy Advance, a 32-bit gaming device that veered from Nintendo’s past design choices by featuring a landscape form factor instead of the typical portrait design seen with the Game Boy and Game Boy Color of the 90s.
The Game Boy Advance found great popularity. This was aided by its wide library of games that included hits such as Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire (which sold over 16 million units) and Super Mario Advance (which sold close to 6 million units). Although the Game Boy Advance saw phenomenal sales, it was not without its flaws. Most notably, the screen had no back-lighting which made it difficult to play in certain lighting conditions. This was addressed with the successor to the Game Boy Advance, called the Game Boy Advance SP, which features back-lighting as well a clam-shell design that allows it to fold shut.
In total, the Game Boy Advance series sold over 81 million units, making it one of the bestselling handheld consoles of all time. The Game Boy Advance laid down the groundwork for Nintendo to enter the next generation of gaming with the faith and goodwill of millions of gamers. However, they would be facing their most formidable competitor to date.
When the Game Boy Advance’s successor, the Nintendo DS, launched in 2004, it was forced to, for the first time in its history, share the stage with PlayStation’s first attempt at portable gaming.
Sony, who had already firmly established itself in the gaming world thanks to the original PlayStation and the PlayStation 2, announced their entry into the handheld market during 2003’s E3 event. Their debut handheld console, the PlayStation Portable, was introduced as the “Walkman of the 21st century”. What this meant was that the PlayStation Portable (or PSP) would make history by being more than a powerful handheld gaming console – it would also be a robust multimedia device.
The PSP features a button layout that is instantly familiar to anyone who has spent some time with a DualShock controller, although the PSP only has a single analog stick and two shoulder buttons. Technologically, it is leaps and bounds ahead of the Nintendo DS and boasts a beautiful LCD screen capable of 480 × 272 pixel display resolution with 24-bit color as compared to the Nintendo DS’s 256 × 192 pixel display resolution. This, along with the PSP’s impressive processing power, allows it to produce graphics that rival the PlayStation 2, making it quite attractive to anyone looking to enjoy the console experience on the go. And of course, one has to mention its sleek design that, at the time, made sure everyone who laid eyes on it knew they were looking at a premium piece of technology.
AAA Gaming In The Palm Of Your Hands
Plenty of game developers took full advantage of the PSP’s capabilities. This resulted in the handheld having a rich library of games that could go toe-to-toe with the Nintendo DS’s.
Rockstar Games, who are also responsible for the bestselling PS2 game, brought the open world mayhem of Grand Theft Auto to the portable world through Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories. Set in Grand Theft Auto 3’s Liberty City, Liberty City Stories takes player into a world of mafia gangs, corrupt politicians and insane shootouts that many would have previously thought would be impossible on a portable console. Liberty City Stories was met with great critical reception and went on to make history by becoming the bestselling game on the PlayStation Portable.
The Gran Turismo series, which has long been one of PlayStation’s flagship franchises, also found its way onto the PSP. Simply titled Gran Turismo, the PSP game showcases what a powerhouse the handheld console truly is and proves that the home console experience can be faithfully translated to a portable console. Not unexpectedly, Gran Turismo would also be one of the PSP’s bestselling titles.
Sony’s next iteration of the PSP would take further advantage of increased internet connectivity globally and would lay the foundation for gamers to begin ditching their physical libraries for digital ones.
The PSP Go, released in 2009, foregoes the PSP’s ability to play physical media, opting to allow gamers to download games digitally off the PlayStation Store instead. Furthermore, the PSP Go has a radical design change and features a screen that can be slid up and down to conceal and reveal the main controls.
The PSP Go failed to meet the sales expectations of Sony. Some might argue that the device was a little ahead of its time and that the digital-only market had yet to grow large enough to make the PSP Go viable for many. Consequently, the PSP Go was discontinued in 2011, just 3 years after its initial launch.
Nintendo DS vs PSP
Thanks to the PSP, Sony had broken into the portable console market and proven that Nintendo, who once effortlessly dominated the handheld scene, would now have to face some serious competition. The PSP was able to do what others, such as the N-Gage, had failed to do and managed to pose a real threat to Nintendo’s monopoly on the portable gaming market.
Although the Nintendo DS enjoyed greater support from 3rd party developers, and also had money-raking franchises like Pokémon and Super Mario to draw in an endless stream of both casual and hardcore gamers, the PSP’s impressive multimedia features allowed it to appeal to both gamers and anyone looking for a nifty device for both movie and music needs.
Overall, the Nintendo DS outsold the PSP by about 80 million units. Yet, this should not be taken as an indication that the PSP was a failure. Far from it. With an estimated 82 million units sold, the PSP proved that there was a thirst for a portable console that could bring high-end gaming to the handheld world while still having expansive multimedia capabilities. Through the PSP, PlayStation changed the history of portable gaming forever.
Having owned the PSP, I can attest that the for a long while the device was permanently attached to my palms and I found it very hard to leave the house without it. It was sleek, super-powered and allowed me to take my favorite games with me wherever I went.
The eighth generation of gaming, having begun roughly around the early 2010s, brought with it another tussle between Sony and Nintendo for dominance in the handheld scene. Nintendo put all its cards on the Nintendo 3DS, a device that features a dual screen much like the Nintendo DS. However, it also features the impressive ability to produce 3D effects without the need for 3D glasses. Although still a relatively low-tech device, it far outstrips the multimedia capabilities of the Nintendo DS, allowing gamers to watch YouTube and Netflix, as well as play games with augmented reality features.
Sony also had a trick up its sleeve. In 2011, Sony revealed to the world its next foray into the portable gaming market. Introduced as the Next Generation Portable, gamers were promised that the device would bring visuals that would not be too far from the PlayStation 3.
Later that year, it was announced that the device would be called the PlayStation Vita. Vita, of course, is the Latin term for life. The Vita brought many improvements to the PSP. For one, PlayStation decided that the UMDs of the PSP would be history and would be replaced with game cards which are far more convenient for portable gaming. Furthermore, the Vita has two analog sticks, allowing for an even more faithful replication of the home console experience. It also has motion control, a front-facing camera in addition to a rear camera, as well as a touchscreen and a touch-sensitive back panel not unlike the touchpad that would be found on the DualShock 4 years later. Once again, Sony’s device was leaps and bounds ahead of Nintendo technologically.
One cannot discuss the PS Vita without taking a moment to appreciate its attractive design. It looks less like a toy and more like an expensive piece of technology fit for mature adults as much as young gamers. Never in gaming history has a device looked as gorgeous as the PlayStation Vita.
Powerhouse In Your Pocket
Of course, any gaming device is nothing without a library of games to showcase its capabilities. PS Vita launch titles did not fail to impress.
The Uncharted series, developed by Naughty Dog, had earned itself a good reputation on the PS3 as a franchise that pushed the console to its limits by combining jaw-dropping visuals with action-packed gameplay. While many might have thought it would be impossible to bring such a title to a portable console, Uncharted: Golden Abyss proved them wrong. Nathan Drake once again takes the protagonist role and leads gamers on an exhilarating adventure that is indistinguishable from its console counterparts. Furthermore, the game makes full use of all the PS Vita’s inputs including the touchscreen and the cameras. For anyone who owns a PS Vita, this is an unmissable title.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted, released in 2012, is an almost perfect port of the PS3 version, fulfilling Sony’s promise that the PS Vita would allow gamers to bring the home console experience with them everywhere they go. Other titles such as Killzone: Mercenary, Wipeout 2048, and Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified, further demonstrate the PS Vita’s technical prowess.
The PS Vita also has a formidable collection of visual novels such as Root Letter and Steins; Gate, as well as a host of Japanese RPGs which include Persona 4 Golden. Furthermore, with access to the PSP and PSOne library, the PS Vita is also a great retro gaming device. Some games, such as Metal Gear Solid 1-3, received full ports to the Vita that enhance the games and breathe new life into them.
The PS Vita’s gaming library is further expanded by the fact that it can be used to Remote Play PS3 games and, later, even PS4 games.
On the surface, the PS Vita had everything it needed to be a success, especially following the positive reception of the PSP. However, it would ultimately be a commercial failure. It is estimated that the PS Vita sold roughly 15-16 million units, only a fraction of the 3DS which sold over 75 million units.
What Went Wrong?
When discussing the lack of PS Vita sales, many point to its limited gaming library as the reason why it struggled to sell. Although developers supported the Vita early on in its lifetime, this interest waned very quickly.
Piracy is one of the reasons game studios were reluctant to develop games for the PS Vita. The PS Vita is an easy device to hack. With a simple exploit, you can download and play games for free, robbing developers of sales. This is not a new problem in PlayStation’s history within the portable gaming market, and the PSP also faced a lot of piracy. Unfortunately, the consequence is that it is simply a far less risky venture for developers to opt for supporting home consoles where piracy is far harder.
Another problem was the prohibitive cost of the PS Vita. The PS Vita was far more expensive than the 3DS, and this price was only raised by the fact that the PS Vita uses proprietary memory cards that are substantially more expensive than SD cards.
All these problems compounded to dissuade gamers from investing in the PS Vita.
The Future Of Sony In The Portable World
As Jason Schreier reports on behalf of Kotaku, production of PS Vita games ended in 2018. Soon after, production of the PS Vita console ended. Despite this, the PlayStation Vita is not history just yet and it still has a very loyal user base who have continued to support the the portable console along with the many indie games that were released for it.
Admittedly, I am one of those people. The PS Vita still proves to be an excellent device for reading visual novels in bed and playing PS4 games via Remote Play.
The portable gaming market has drastically changed since the release of the PSP. Mobile games have found great popularity, allowing many to play games on their cellphones and tablets without having to purchase a dedicated gaming device. Furthermore, Remote Play is a feature that is now available on many devices including laptops, tablets and cellphones.
Jim Ryan, who is the President and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment, spoke to Game Informer in 2019 and praised the PS Vita while admitting that the portable market is a business that they’re “no longer in now”. Clearly, PlayStation believes that mobile gaming has made it unprofitable to make dedicated handheld gaming devices.
The success of the Nintendo Switch may be evidence that gamers are still hungry for portable gaming consoles. Whether Sony will ever change their mind about making portable consoles has yet to be determined. However, PlayStation’s history in the portable market is an interesting one that undoubtedly made a mammoth impact in the gaming world.