As a follow-up to my Top 3 DS list from last week, I decided to make up a list for its oft underrated contender, the Playstation Portable. There was a time in my life when I was in a situation that led me to greatly prefer portables to consoles, and it was pretty fortunate that it happened to coincide with the handheld gaming golden age of the DS and the PSP. While it’s often considered to be far less successful than the DS, it actually sold 70+ million units and managed to amass a library that I think was quite respectable in its own right, although it’s too rarely recognized as such.
Before release, many thought the PSP would be a juggernaut that would eclipse Nintendo’s new handheld in the same way that Sony had bulldozed Nintendo’s console dominance. It packed considerably more advanced graphics hardware than the DS and used optical discs called UMDs. The UMDs were probably an inferior solution to the solid-state carts that Nintendo used for the DS, but CDs had given the PS1 the edge to dominate the cart-based N64, so many thought the same would happen in the handheld space. The drawbacks of the UMD were two-fold. Being optical discs, the UMD drive needed a small motor to spin, and this had a big impact on battery life. Also, it made an annoying screeching sound when it would load from the disc. The release of the download games-only PSP Go was considered a non-event by most, but it actually led to a huge number of games finally being offered for download through PSN, and I’ve always felt that PSP games are better played from the memory stick.
Out of the gate at launch, the PSP actually managed to offer up heavy competition to the DS, but after the release of the DS Lite and Mario Kart, it began to slip hard against its Nintendo counterpart. Western sales slowed to a crawl. Western publishers, who had initially been supportive of the platform, quickly abandoned the PSP, a move which was accelerated by profligate piracy on the system. However, in Japan, the enormous popularity of Monster Hunter Freedom gave the machine a huge second wind, and it managed to go toe-to-toe with the DS for the rest of its lifespan in that region.
Despite most gamers not taking it very seriously, I actually really enjoyed the PSP across its lifetime. Quantity-wise, it’s library couldn’t compete with the DS, but I found it did have a fairly respectable number of high quality releases. There were a lot of great games that trickled (and I mean trickled) out of Japan from the likes of Falcom (Ys series), Square Enix (Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts), Capcom (Mega Man, Ghosts n’ Goblins, etc.), Konami (Metal Gear series, Dracula X Chronicles, and Silent Hill Origins) and others. Also, unlike the Vita, Sony really hung in there with the PSP, releasing high quality installments of several of their big name series, such as Resistance, Killzone, MotorStorm, Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank, Wipeout, and God of War. They also created a few new series for the PSP, namely Patapon and LocoRoco.
With so many great games available for the system, here are my personal top 3 highlights:
I’ve sung the praises of Half-Minute Hero on my blog before. The game stands out as a clever rethinking of the structure of your typical grind-heavy Japanese-style RPG. The idea is rather subversive for its genre. In most JRPGs, the hero is on a quest to defeat a single all-powerful villain attempting to end the world via an ostentatious, long drawn out, apocalyptic scheme. In Half-Minute Hero, the technique of an apocalyptic world-ending spell has been propagated through the world at large, so the game features a series of quests where the hero must fight a huge cast of evil lords who are in the process of summoning forward doomsday. The spell takes 30 seconds to cast (hence the title), which is a stark contrast to lengths the likes of Sephiroth and Lavos must go through.
The game plays out as such: the hero rolls up into a village and is alerted by his patron, the Time Goddess, that an evil lord has begun casting the doomsday spell in a nearby lair. The hero then has 30 seconds to quickly grind-up in the surrounding area to a level at which they can take on the evil lord. Random battles play out quickly and automatically, within a second or two, to facilitate the high speed of this entry into an infamously slow genre. One catch is that the hero can spend gold at the Time Goddess shrines in each village to reset the clock back to 30 seconds, so each quest will actually usually take a few minutes to complete.
It’s a relatively simple formula, but the developer manages to put a number of interesting twists on it during the course of the game. Despite the rapid-fire pace of the quests, the game finds ways to tell little stories during each quest and also fills them with clever secondary objectives that serve as side quests. And if I remember correctly, the game actually follows a few branching paths depending on if you complete these side quests. So while it seems like the formula would wear out its welcome quickly, through some inventive ideas, it keeps the player hooked.
And that’s only the first quarter of the game. After this mode (Hero 30), the game’s story continues across 3 other modes: Evil Lord 30, a Pikmin-style RTS, Princess 30, a shmup, and Knight 30, a monster defense game, with each of these modes similarly featuring 30 second stages. Needless to say, this game has a lot of content that is extremely refreshing in how it subverts genre conventions. And just like the gameplay, the story has a lot of playfulness and wit that makes it more than just a throwaway companion to the furious action.
Half-Minute Hero eventually saw a Steam release which goes on sale pretty often, so I would highly recommend it to the curious.
The PSP was inarguably a very poor platform for modern third-person shooters, as it possessed only a single analog nub. Modern 3D game design is based around using the left-hand to move and the right-hand to look/aim, and, on consoles, this is best accomplished with a dual analog setup. I always thought this was an odd oversight in the PSP’s design, as the importance of this controller scheme had already been established in game design by the time of its release, and the PSP was clearly designed for relatively high-end 3D gaming. A single analog nub may have been okay on the right side of the layout, so that the d-pad could be used for movement and the nub for camera controls, but this was not the case. As a result, many of the more advanced 3D games had infamously awkward “claw” controls, where the player had to manipulate the camera using their pointer finger on the d-pad while moving with their thumb on the nub.
With the control limitations in mind, I waivered a little on whether a third person shooter such as Resistance: Retribution should be included in my top 3. Retribution doesn’t require claw controls, but it does make use of the face buttons as a secondary d-pad, which is still not ideal. But I feel the game was designed with the controls in mind (it doesn’t require high accuracy aiming), and, consequently, plays pretty well.
Resistance: Retribution was the final PSP game released by Sony Bend, and it served as a culmination of their efforts to bring modern 3D action games to the PSP. Their other two PSP games were TPSes in the Syphon Filter series which were also very well received (especially the second game, Logan’s Shadow). These games represent some of the most advanced and smartly designed games on the system, meaning Sony Bend really knew how to work with both the PSP’s strengths and weaknesses. The Resistance series as a whole was a bit of a blur to me (I honestly only vaguely remember what happened in the third game), but I thought Retribution stood out for what it was trying to do with the PSP. It has the epic feel of a big console action game, but is also decently pick-up and play friendly. It’s also a killer looking game for the machine. Bend were able to push amazing graphics on this device, although I wouldn’t necessarily consider them the best. Others like Ready At Dawn (who did the God of War PSP games), Capcom (the later Monster Hunter games looked amazing) ,and especially Square Enix may have topped their technical prowess.
Sony Bend would go on to do Uncharted: Golden Abyss for the Vita, continuing their legacy of great handheld action games. Unfortunately, with the Vita being a low (read: non-existent) priority for Sony’s internal developers, they seem to now be working on a secret game for the PS4, but at least they’re still getting the chance to make great games (which is more than can be said for some other former Vita studios).
Mega Man Maverick Hunter X
I was somewhat conflicted as to whether to put this game on the list, as it is a rather faithful (but polygon-ized) remake of Mega Man X, and I didn’t know if I should count games that started off on other platforms. If I have to be honest, my favorite feature of the PSP was the ability to play PS1 games from the PSN store. I played so many great PS1 classics for the first time on this little device, including RE2+3, Parasite Eve, Dino Crisis, and Symphony of the Night, and a truthful list of the top 3 games I played on the PSP would probably be filled with these games. But that would only serve to highlight how cool the PS1 was, rather than the PSP, which is what I want to talk about. And if these PS1 games are going to be disqualified, maybe a fairly faithful recreation of a SNES game shouldn’t be included either. I don’t know, but I’m placing it here anyway, since this particular version is technically only playable as a PSP game.
Maverick Hunter X was actually my first encounter with a Mega Man game, and it was an incredibly enlightening one. As it should, since Mega Man X is well-recognized as one of the series’ best. It does a good job of representing what makes Mega Man a unique and beloved series. True to its counterparts, it’s not a game a player can breeze through. Each level and boss requires a fair bit of practice and can initially seem quite daunting when compared to the difficulty level of a standard platformer. But each time you die in these games, you hone your skills and learn a little bit more, and you’re able to push farther. And when victory finally comes against what seemed insurmountable, the satisfaction in such triumph creates a compelling catharsis for the player to throw themselves up against the next intimidating challenge. Needless to say, the game inducted me into the series, and I’ve been a fan since.
In addition to Maverick Hunter X, Capcom also remade the first Mega Man for the PSP as Mega Man Powered Up. Many actually consider this game to be the superior of the two Mega Man PSP titles, but I haven’t been able to spend as much time with it. (Unlike MHX, it’s not available to buy through PSN, and physical copies are somewhat rare.) Powered Up does more than just remake Mega Man 1. It adds two awesome new stages to the game, bringing the robot master count up to 8 (while the NES original only had 6, unlike the rest of the series).