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The Video Game Handheld War Part 9 October 6, 2013

Posted by Maniac in Histories, Video Game Handheld War.

Times were changing and while the hardware was still being revised on a regular basis, we were still in the middle of the handheld war between the Nintendo DS and the Sony Playstation Portable.  Previously, Nintendo had launched its highly successful DSi, a camera equipped DS which allowed for digital game downloads, and Sony had just released their third revision to the Playstation Portable, dubbed the PSP-3000.  Based upon sales, the Sony PSP was still trailing behind the Nintendo DS, but the landscape for what would make for a video game handheld system was about to be completely changed.

After the failure of the UMD Video format, Sony set their sights digitally.  Apple’s iTunes store had seen a major influx of customers after they released the iPhone.  After the release of the second iPhone, the iPhone 3G, many critics believed that Smartphones would be the future of portable gaming platforms and not dedicated handheld gaming systems.  This was a worrying prospect for everyone, and Sony was determined to take drastic steps to prevent the PSP platform from becoming obsolete.  Sony had already established a hugely popular online store for the PS3 which offered full game downloads, add-ons, trailers, and more for download, and Sony was ready to bring it to the PSP.  Also, portable storage was getting cheaper.  By this point in time, with the low price and larger capacity, PSP’s Memory Stick offered players a lot more options than UMD could, and unlike UMD, digital downloads cost nothing to manufacture and ran no risk of running out of inventory.  Soon, Nintendo would not be the only handheld game system with an online store.

Sony decided to go further with the idea and designed an entirely digital PSP.  Sony completely redesigned the PSP’s form factor to slide open, making it look and feel more like a modern day cell phone.  However, there were a lot of downsides to this new system.  First off, it would be using entirely new standards for everything, making currently existing PSP peripherals and external storage incompatible.  The device would have 16 GB of its own internal storage, with the option of expanding memory using Memory Stick Micro.  It would also feature no UMD drive at all, making it incompatible with all retail PSP games.  Dubbed the PSP Go, it would ship at a price of $249 US…which was $50 dollars more expensive than the already released PSP-3000, which had nearly all the same features of the PSP Go and a UMD drive.

In 2009, Nintendo released a larger model DSi, dubbed the DSi XL.  The intention was to release a larger handheld with all the functionality of the DSi, including access to the popular DSiware store, but with a larger screens.  The DSi XL would be the final DS model to get released from the DS line.  Sadly, Nintendo chose not to bring the GBA slot back with the new system, making the entire DSi line of handhelds incompatible with GBA games or DS peripherals that made use of the GBA slot, like the Rumble Pack.  However, this turned out to be a moot issue, as DSi XL owners were buying their systems to play the fantastic library of DS games that were already available and the DS games that would be coming soon.

The PSP Go launched just in time for Christmas 2009, and by all intents and purposes it was Dead on Arrival.  Most users thought that the PSP Go was the stupidest idea that Sony had ever had and they couldn’t believe Sony actually brought it to retail.  Any regular model PSP would have access to the digital Playstation Store and so long as they had a Memory Stick with enough space, they could download all of the same content that a PSP Go could.  On top of that the PSP Go had an incredibly unfair price premium over the most recent model PSP, and yet without a UMD drive it could not play any retail PSP game!  If a user didn’t have access to a WiFi hotspot with internet access, the PSP Go was useless, unlike an iPhone owner who could download content through the wireless phone service.  This made it the most illogical handheld upgrade ever and current PSP owners decided to stick with their systems.  Gamers knew Sony was expecting them to pay extra money for what was essentially a crippled PSP, and they did not have any interest in it.

In fact, many retailers worldwide were uneasy about stocking it, not just because of its high price point and the bad word of mouth, but brick and mortar stores were angry that Sony was planning to cut them out of possible revenue from the system’s games.  Sony assured retailers that was not their intention, and retailers would have the opportunity to sell prepaid digital game codes for many of the PSP’s most popular games at the time of the PSP Go’s launch.

Aside from a few curious adopters, the PSP Go did not sell.  Reviews for the device were lukewarm to terrible, as critics believed the device did not merit the high price point.  However, while the PSP Go was by all accounts a complete failure and a big black eye for Sony, the online marketplace set up to be used by the PSP Go was a resounding success.  Playstation Portable owners hoping to get their hands on older games that were no longer in print finally had the chance to download all the games they wanted.  With the low price and high capacity of external Memory Sticks, the storage capability on the PSP could in theory get just as large as what a stock PSP Go could offer.  No matter how many price drops Sony did on the PSP Go, no one would buy it, and the system, as well as the peripherals for it, collected dust on retail shelves.  However, the digital download codes that Sony offered to retailers, since they worked on any model PSP, sold quite well.  There are still plenty of people who do not have credit cards or are unwilling to use them for digital purchases, and retailers made a smart decision by offering downloadable game codes, as well as Playstation Network Gift Cards, at retail.

Meanwhile as Sony floundered with the PSP Go’s launch, Nintendo had entered in unimaginable success with the DSi systems.  Now, Nintendo prepared their fifth generation Pokémon game launch, and the second generation to appear on the DS platform.  Previously, a new Pokémon generation game (not including remakes) would launch on a new Nintendo platform, but the success of the DS was so great that Nintendo chose to release the newest Pokémon games to the same platform as the previous ones.  The fifth generation games would be called Pokémon Black and Pokémon White.  Normally, a Pokémon game’s release would go on to become the biggest selling games on Nintendo’s handheld platform, but Pokémon’s popularity had started to wane since the release of the DS.  By this point there were so many other great games on the DS that were huge system sellers, a Pokémon game released so late into the platform’s lifespan just could not make up those sales, but Black and White sure tried.  When the games were released, they gave a great boost to the franchise’s popularity and went on to become staple games for the platform.  In fact Pokémon Black & Pokémon White were so popular they remain the first Pokémon games to not receive a special third game in their generation like Pokémon Yellow or Pokémon Platinum.   They were also the first Pokémon games that would go on to get direct sequels in the form of Pokémon Black 2 and Pokémon White 2, but I’ll get more into those games at a later time.

In 2011, Sony officially announced they had discontinued the PSP Go.  Nintendo on the other hand was still doing phenomenally with their entire DS line, and the DSi XL still can be found at retail to this day.  In the end, the Sony Playstation Portable could not compete with the overpowering success of the Nintendo DS brand, which if you take into account combined sales of all their different DS models, made the DS the second best-selling console of all time.  However, Sony’s PSP cannot be considered a complete failure.  While UMD never took off in the way that Sony had hoped when they designed the format, the PSP itself offered a lot of features that gamers liked, including MP3 Music and MP4 Video playback, Internet Browser, and support for streaming Podcasts.  The fact that it allowed its internal software to be updated on a regular basis offered gamers the opportunity to receive new features, and to this day no game console goes without some sort of update feature.  Also, the PSP Go’s online digital network laid the groundwork for a fantastic digital game marketplace to already be in place by the time Sony’s next handheld would hit the market, but that’s a story that is still being written.


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