Sony’s Playstation Vita will hit American shores in less than a month, and expectations are understandably high for the newest handheld powerhouse. While the Vita received a strangely cold reception when it launched in Japan over a month ago, the system still tops many gamers’ most wanted lists, and it’s easy to see why: I mean, who doesn’t want something that basically amounts to a portable PS3? But while the Vita is undeniably a sexy piece of hardware, we shouldn’t forget that this isn’t Sony’s first attempt at bringing the console experience to “the handheld ghetto” (as Sony calls it.) Yes, I’m talking about Sony’s poor, oft-forgotten original PSP, and now, on the eve of the launch of it’s successor, it seems pertinent to look back on the tumultuous history of Sony’s first foray into the handheld gaming market.
The original Playstation Portable has a reputation of being something of a flop, which is strange when you look at the system’s stats and take the numbers at face value: there’s been more than 71.4 million PSP’s sold worldwide, which is a pretty substantial number by any metric, and from a purely technical standpoint the PSP completely overwhelms its main competitor, Nintendo’s DS, by a significant margin in regards to raw hardware horsepower.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story: while the PSP does indeed have a huge installed base, most of the system’s active users are in Japan, and most of them are only using the system to play one game (more on that later.) Outside of a few niche (but excellent) releases, the PSP has been pretty much dead in terms of support and sales in most Western territories for the last few years. The PSP was once considered the safe bet against Nintendo’s experimental DS, but here we are 6 years later, and the original DS has gone on to become a bona-fide phenomenon, with over 151 million systems sold. Some of the video game stores in my area don’t even have an aisle, or hell, even a shelf dedicated to the PSP anymore; more often than not, the only PSP games you can find for sale around here are languishing in some bin alongside some five year old PS2 games or some clearance priced Wii shovelware.
It’s easy to see why most people, including Sony themselves, see the PSP as a disappointment (hence why Sony is calling their next handheld “Vita” instead of “PSP2,”): the PSP launched at the height of Sony’s dominance of the gaming market, and many critics and industry analysts not only predicted that the PSP would absolutely demolish the DS, some of them (including semi-reputable game industry analyst Michael Pachter) even went as far to say that the PSP would eventually become more popular than Apple’s iPod. Obviously, that never happened. The system launched with a lot of hype but has more or less spent the last 3 or 4 years of it’s life cycle languishing in obscurity.
The slick looking PSP Go could’ve offered a second wind for Sony’s troubled handheld, but a high price and lack of support killed the digital-distribution only system quickly after it’s launch.
It’s hard to say exactly why the PSP never caught on with mainstream audiences: despite being released at a time when Sony could seemingly do no wrong, and despite having the support of pretty much every major third party, the system just kind of petered out in most markets after its second or third year. Some attribute the PSP’s slow death to piracy; the system was quickly hacked after its release, and playing pirated ISO’s or ROMs on the system is a relatively easy and painless process. Others blame the very design philosophy behind the PSP. Sony’s goal with the system was to bring the console experience to a portable, and they arguably succeeded, but unfortunately, things sort of back fired on them: instead of creating games specifically designed to take advantage of the handheld environment, publishers quickly flooded the PSP with lazy, hastily produced ports of old console games that were ill-suited for quick play sessions on the go.
There is a bright side to this story, though: while the PSP obviously didn’t end Nintendo’s handheld monopoly or usurp the iPod, it has managed to accrue a pretty substantial library of fantastic, must-play games over the last seven years. In a way, the PSP has sort of become Sony’s equivalent of the Sega Saturn: abandoned by the masses, but loved by a small, hardcore niche. It’s popularity in Japan has turned the system into the last bastion of popularity for many genres that have more or less become irrelevant on today’s home consoles (specifically, the Japanese style RPG,) and the system’s wide selection of surprisingly good anime licensed games and fighting games have made the PSP a favorite among the import crowd.
With that in mind, I’ve written a list of my ten favorite PSP games. As always, this list is by no means definitive and this article is merely me stating my personal choices, so if you don’t see your favorite game on this list (or if you see a game you hate on this list,) do try to keep your nerd rage to a minimum. If you lack the basic level of self-control/maturity required to do that, feel free to let me know what an idiot I am for not like/hating the same stuff as you in the comments section. It happens at least once every time I post one of these “Top 10” lists, so who am I to argue with tradition? With that said, let’s get to the real reason why you’re probably skimming over this article:
Monster Hunter Freedom Unite
The PSP’s popularity in Japan can undeniably be attributed to one thing and one thing only: Monster Hunter. Capcom’s multiplayer loot game is an absolute phenomenon in Japan, and has already spawned a cottage industry of merchandise, snack foods, maid cafes, and even theme park attractions. People line-up for hours at the Tokyo Game Show just to play a demo of the next version of the game, and new releases within the series are usually met with the sort of fanfare and hype that’s usually only reserved for console launches. Monster Hunter is as popular in Japan as Call of Duty is in America.
At its core, Monster Hunter is a loot-driven hack and slash game built in same vein as Blizzard’s Diablo or Sega’s Phantasy Star Online: you team up with 3 of your buddies and go kill monsters in the hopes of getting a rare drop or a special piece of equipment. Unlike Diablo or PSO however, MH isn’t about slaying thousands of generic enemies; rather, you’re usually only fighting one big “boss” monster per mission. These fights are far more involved than the usual wars of attrition that boss fights in this genre usually are: each monster has a unique set of moves and AI, and the game requires you to pay careful attention to how the boss moves so you can learn their feints and weaknesses, and when to dodge and when to attack. The fights are intense and long, and the possibility that every kill will yield enough materials to craft a new weapon or piece of armor has been enough to keep millions of players glued to their PSP’s for hundreds of hours.
The only thing wrong with Monster Hunter is how inaccessible it is: unlike Diablo and PSO, this isn’t the type of game you can simply pick up and play and feel comfortable with in a matter of minutes. No, Monster Hunter requires dedication: it’s initially obtuse and seemingly stiff controls have a substantial learning curve, and none of the games in the series do a very good job of teaching you how to play. Your first few hours with Monster Hunter will likely be pretty confusing and/or frustrating, but once it clicks, it’s impossible to put down. There are multiple versions of Monster Hunter available in the US, the latest of which is Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, which contains most of the content from previous versions. If you’re comfortable with importing and can read a bit of the Nihongo, you’re better off with the improved Monster Hunter Portable 3rd, which as of right now, remains a Japan only release. (Also, keep in mind, if you have a 3DS, the recently released Monster Hunter Tri G [which again, as of now is Japan only] is the newest and most complete version of the game.)
As I stated earlier, a good chunk of the PSP’s library is made up of console ports (even the mighty Monster Hunter games, despite being most popular on handhelds, are all ports of games that originally appeared on the PS2 or the Wii,) but the system has its fair share of fantastic original titles as well, the best of which is Falcom’s Ys 7.
Though the Ys series dates back to the mid-eighties, you’d never be able to tell from looking at Ys 7. While many other Japanese series’ remain stuck in the past, Ys 7 manages to remain respectful to series traditions while at the same time offering all the amenities and flashy presentation you’d expect from a modern title. Playing like a more arcadey, action oriented version of Zelda with multiple playable characters (each with their own fighting style,) Ys 7 is undoubtedly the PSP’s best original title. Even if you’ve never heard of Ys before, or even if you don’t know how to pronounce its name, do whatever you can to track down this sleeper hit.
Valkyria Chronicles II
The original Valkyria Chronicles was a sweeping, epic story of love and war. The second Valkyria Chronicles is about… a bunch of teenagers going to school. But despite the shift in tone towards something a little lower-brow, VC2 still manages to translate the original game’s fantastic tactical battle system over from the PS3 to the PSP with the minimum amount of compromises.
Yes, the characters in this game both talk and act like they were ripped out of a Naruto fan fiction, but any complaints raised by the game’s embarrassing story line are quickly negated once you get out on the battlefield. Like the original Valkyria Chronicles, VC2 mixes real-time and turn based elements to create a game that requires both reflexes and tactical planning, and the result is absolutely fantastic.
Final Fantasy: Dissidia Duodecim
You wouldn’t necessarily associate the words “Final Fantasy” with “fighting game,” but Square-Enix made a Final Fantasy fighting game anyway, and surprisingly, they ended up with a pretty good game.
Now, despite technically being a “fighting game” in that the game’s core mechanics are focused around 1 on 1 combat, Dissidia isn’t some Street Fighter or Soul Calibur clone: it’s an entirely original take on the fighting genre. Sort of playing like a mix of Virtual On, the Tenkaichi series of Dragon Ball, and Square’s own Kingdom Hearts series, Dissidia’s fast paced, free-roaming 3D battles are kind of hard to describe with words alone. With it’s large set of customizable skills and gear, it might be easier to describe Dissida as a 1 on 1 PVP focused action RPG.
But whatever genre you consider it to be a part of, there’s no denying that Dissidia is a lot of fun: the fights are fast and frentic but still reward players who play skillfully rather than just mashing buttons, and the game’s all-star cast of Final Fantasy favorites will make an old-school console RPG fan feel like they’ve gone to fanboy heaven. At the very least, it’s worth getting just so you can give self-absorbed pretty boys Cloud and Squall the beating they so thoroughly deserve.
Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions
Final Fantasy Tactics is proof that a real classic never goes out of style: this enhanced port of the popular 1998 tactical RPG is still as fun and as deep today as it was on the Playstation 1, and thanks to a new localization, Final Fantasy Tactic’s intricate story line of political intrigue actually makes sense now.
While the PSP version isn’t perfect — the load times are longer than they were on the PS1, and the game’s 2D sprites don’t upscale particularly well to the PSP’s increased resolution — but the new localization makes the PSP Final Fantasy Tactics the definitive version of this classic. The original version’s translation was… iffy, to say the least — the story made no sense and descriptions and names for gear and skills were inconsistent and often inaccurate. The new translation in the PSP version not only allows players to enjoy the game’s original, complex story in proper English for the first time, but it also makes the game’s deep combat and customization elements a lot more accessible: the obtuse, bizarre descriptions and names for skills and gear from the original game are now replaced by more accurate flavor text that actually lets you know what said skill/piece of gear actually does. It sounds like a minor thing, but in a game that’s all about tactical planning, it makes a world of difference.
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker
The PSP really needed a second analog stick (on a semi-related tangent, so did the 3DS.) and there’s no better way to illustrate that point than with Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. Despite a hand-cramping control scheme, Peace Walker is still one of the best PSP games ever made, and it’s arguably one of the better games in the Metal Gear Solid series as well.
While previous Metal Gears for the PSP were at best forgettable, Peace Walker feels like a true, fully featured entry into Hideo Kojima’s landmark series. While the controls take awhile to get used to, you eventually adjust, and once you do it becomes clear that no expense was spared in the creation of PW. It features all the long cutscenes, cinematic presentation, beautiful graphics, and bizarre plot twists that you’d expect from a Metal Gear game, as well as some surprisingly well realized multiplayer and customization options.
It’s worth noting however that Peace Walker is also available on the PS3 and Xbox 360 as part of the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, and once you play the game with a proper dual-analog set-up it’s very difficult to go back to playing the PSP version. Despite being designed for the PSP, the game feels more at home on a console, but even with that strange caveat, the fact remains: Peace Walker is a damn great game regardless of what system you play on, so whether you prefer to have it on a portable or in HD, don’t let this underrated entry in the series sneak past you.
PixelJunk Monsters Deluxe
PixelJunk Monsters Deluxe launched on the PSP with an MSRP of $9.99. Since I have absolutely zero impulse control, I bought it because of it’s low-low price, and I was surprised at the quality of the game I just received. Even though it was 10 bucks, PixelJunk Monsters is a game that I would’ve easily paid 40 or 50 dollars for. It’s simply that good.
An enhanced port of the popular PS3 downloadable title of the same name, PJ Monsters is a tower defense game that’s filled to the brim with both content and style; it’s clean, iconic art direction and dozens of stages would never lead you to believe that it was a budget release. Like most tower defense games, PJ Monsters has its frustrating moments — you often can’t tell if there’s a flaw with your defensive layout until it’s too late to fix it — but even when you’re forced to replay a stage over and over again until you get right, the experience remains entirely satisfying and addictive. If you’re a completionist like me who has to beat every high score or complete every level flawlessly, there’s easily at least fifty hours worth of content in this cheap, 10 dollar game.
Persona 3 Portable
Yes, it’s another console port, but honestly, when it’s a port of a game like Persona 3, can you really complain? Port or not, it doesn’t change the fact that P3 is a great game. It’s one of the best, pure dungeon crawlers ever made, and it also happens to have one of the most memorable narratives in a J-RPG ever. It’s stylish presentation, modern day setting, and memorable cast of characters make for an adventure that’s far removed from your usual sci-fi or fantasy RPG cliche’s, so those tired of the countless generic J-RPGs that have been recycled and rehashed ad nauseum over the last 10 years should give Persona 3 (or its much improved sequel, Persona 4, which is available on the PS2 and is coming soon to the Vita,) a try. The game really shows that it’s still possible to craft an engaging and innovative entry into one of gaming’s most conservative and static genres.
Even if you’ve played Persona 3 to death on the PS2, it’s worth the double-dip on PSP thanks to an amazing amount of new content: there’s new areas to explore, new gear to earn, new music, and the ability to play as a girl (which changes a significant amount of the story/social aspects of the game.)
Mega Man: Powered Up
Capcom may be eager to cancel anything Mega Man-related nowadays (or simply turn him into a joke,) but there was a time when they gave everyone’s favorite boy robot top billing. While Capcom may be hesitant to even bring up the ol’ blue bomber’s name following the fan fallout from the cancellation of Mega Man Legends 3, back in 2006 Capcom would use any opportunity they had to trot out their iconic platforming star. Case in point: when the PSP came out Capcom announced not just one, but two Mega Man remakes: a more modern, anime-ified revision to the original Mega Man X, and a new, cutesy version of the original NES Mega Man. Both are worthwhile games, but the remake of Mega Man’s first adventure, subtitled “Powered Up”, is my personal favorite.
Despite the cute veneer, Powered Up is still the same challenging, addictive, cleverly designed action-platformer that was a must-own on the NES. The “original mode” is a perfect remake of the original NES game, with the added ability to save your game so you don’t have to beat the game in one sitting (or memorize a long password.) In addition to that, there’s a slew of new bonus modes, like a completely new remix of the entire game that adds in a rudimentary (but cute) story and makes the game a little easier for newer gamers. The “new style” gameplay mode even allows players to play as the game’s selection of iconic boss characters, and this adds a lot of replay value to the game: Playing through the game as Guts Man or Cut Man requires players to take alternate routes or fight enemies with different strategies than plain old Mega Man.
Best of all, there’s a level editor included, so you and your wannabe game-designer friends can create your own Mega Man levels. It’s not quite as fully featured as LittleBigPlanet, but c’mon, it’s Mega Man! With solid mechanics and pixel precise controls, I’d take even the most limited Mega Man level over the wacky physics of LittleBigPlanet any day.
Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles
Like Mega Man: Powered Up, The Dracula X Chronicles is a remake of an old classic. Unlike Mega Man however, you probably haven’t played the original Dracula X to death: the game was originally only released in Japan for the PC Engine CD (known as the Turbo Grafx in North America,) so most gamers in the West — even hardcore Castlevania fans — probably missed the chance to play it until the release of this PSP remake. It was worth the wait too; Dracula X is undeniably the best “classic” style Castlevania ever made.
Outside of the brand new 3D graphics, Dracula X might not seem all that different from say, Super Castlevania IV or Castlevania: Bloodlines at first glance, but it quickly becomes apparent why Dracula X is so well regarded and highly sought after by fans (physical copies of the original PC Engine release regularly fetch around $100 on eBay,) — the level and boss designs are among the series’ best, and the game’s non-linear, branching level progression set the groundwork for the series’ most famous entry, Symphony of the Night.
Speaking of Symphony of the Night, it’s included on the UMD as a special unlockable bonus, as is an emulated ROM of the original, 2D PC Engine version of Dracula X. Unfortunately, neither bonus is perfectly emulated — the version of Symphony of the Night on the UMD is lacking the game’s original (terrible but,) iconic dub, and the old school version of Dracula X suffers from some muddled, inaccurately emulated graphics, but if you get over those minor issues both games remain imminently playable. With both of the Castlevania series’ best games included on one disc, Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles is easily one of the best values available for the PSP.