Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Forgotten: the life of the PSP

[painstakingly scribed by Sir Gaulian]

It has been a tumultuous life cycle for the PSP.  It started off being lauded as the ‘future of handhelds’ and a sure-fire successor to the throne that had been occupied by Nintendo pretty much since the beginning of time when they released the Gameboy.  But that adoration was soon buried beneath a pile of vitriol as once-proud owners of Sony’s Gameboy killer were faced with long load times and nothing to play.  Coupled with the minor irritation of having to connect the PSP to a power supply for firmware updates causing outrage across the internet, and the once proclaimed white pegasus has become somewhat of a donkey in the eyes of the gaming public.

Launched in 2004 in Japan, and 2005 in North American, European and other (including Australia) markets, the Playstation Portable was nothing short of a technical marvel.  Audiences at E3 were wowed by the graphical quality and sheer appearance of Sony’s widescreen portable beast – a sentiment that was continued when the PSP were first spotted in public in the form of demo booths in retail outlets.  It was nothing short of a marvel, and watching Ridge Racers with its console-like production values running at 60FPS was a sight worth seeing.  These early impressions were enough for many to proclaim that the Nintendo’s DS was dead in the water in the face of the behemoth.

Reality however told a very different story.  Within 12 months of the release of the PSP, Nintendo had all but proclaimed victory in the handheld stakes and the perception among the gaming press and communities around the internet was that the amount of worthwhile software being released for PSP gamers had decreased to a level that was signalling that Sony had raised the white flag to its steam-rolling opposition. 

Underneath all of that however, is an incredibly amazing piece of machinery that at the time of launch was pushing the boundaries of what handheld gaming could be. System specs aside though, it is the incredibly rich catalogue of games available that makes the PSP a system worth owning.  Some, like Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions are incredibly obvious in their quality, but others like Warhammer 40K: Squad Commander run a real risk of falling into the depths of time forgotten.  I mention these two specifically because I REALLY dig on turn based tactical games, but chances are, whatever your gaming vice, the PSP has a piece of software that can stand toe to toe with anything else on any other portable system.

Interestingly enough, unlike the launch of most consoles, the PSP launched with a number of games that still remain best in breed.  Ridge Racers still remains to this day one of the most content-rich and fully functioned racers on the market.  If you like Ridge Racer games (an important caveat) chances are you were a pretty happy PSP owner back in 2005 when the portable system finally found its way onto North American, European and Australian shores.

But Namco’s classic arcade racing series wasn’t the only game likely to be viewed as somewhat of a classic sometime into the future.  The continuation of a number of franchises spearheaded the launch, with technically impressive and immensely playable entries in the Twisted Metal (Twisted Metal Head On) and Jak and Daxter (Daxter) giving players a reason to push through the more frustrating elements of the system and keep their eyes glued to that still-impressive screen.  Others like Metal Gear (Metal Gear Acid), while perhaps not classics in the purist sense will be remembered as oddities worth experiencing only by the most adament collector.

Despite this however, a  problem that has plagued the PSP through its entire life cycle started to rear its ugly, as developers started to aim their development efforts more at the power of the system, rather than the portability.  Games became console style games, suited more to couch play than something suited to 15-30 minute bursts.  While this suits my strong preference for portable handheld systems, for a lot of people once the technical marvel had worn off, it was a source of frustration – especially when compared to the pick up and play friendly titles on Nintendo’s DS system (interestingly enough I did’t see anyone criticising the move by Square Enix to develop Dragon Quest IX exclusively for the DS)

In spite of this however, developers still managed to push out some incredible titles in the system’s early teething period.  While games like Loco Roco and Wipeout Pure were a display of the strong push from Sony’s first party, the third party developers also put in a good showing for the system, showing the handheld wasn’t just Playstation in name, but also in philosophy.  Capcom put out two stunningly playable ports of classic 2D fighters Street Fighter Alpha 3 and Darkstalkers, while even the minnows of the business released some surprisingly polished games in the form of Farsight Studios’ Pinball Hall of Fame: Gottlieb Collection (a much-improved port of the PS2 game and probably still the most played game in my collection).  It also managed to successfully modernise the stagnated 2D platform genre, ironically in the form on an improved in-every-way update of the classic first entry in the Mega man series in the form of Mega man: Powered Up.  Add to this the delightfully simplistic Loco Roco and the PSP, while perhaps not a rival to the similar revival occuring on the DS, certainly showed that 2D sidescrolling game design didn’t have to be synonymous with 16-bit sidescrolling game design.

It was during the early days that the PSP also attained a bit of a reputation for being mighty fantastic for puzzle games, due in no small part to the amazing success both critically and sales wise of Lumines.  Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s musical puzzler was a reason to own the PSP in its first 12 months, and while its sequel Lumines 2 was almost nothing more than a reskinning with popular commerical tracks, it too was a shining example of why portable handheld systems are a natural fit for puzzle games.  And so the industry caught on to this and we were privy to great titles such as Mercury Meltdown (a much better sequel to the launch title Archer Maclean’s Mercury) and further trance-enducing puzzlers from Q-Entertainment such as Every Extend Extra andGunpey which although were just jazzed up versions of already available flash games, felt right at home on the PSP.

It is fair to say that the PSP didn’t start off on the front foot, plagued by down-ports from the PS2 and games that while impressive from a technical standpoint, just didn’t play to the portable nature of the system.   But amongst these were some incredible titles that did just what a portable system should do, and led by example as the console moved to the more comfortable stage of its life cycle as both the platform holder and developers became more at ease with what they should (and shouldn’t) be doing with the system.

So by 2007 the PSP had hit somewhat of a stride. It still wasn’t enormously popular and it was still uncommon to see one out in the wild, but those of us who did take the plunge into the world of Sony handheld experiences weren’t disappointed.  While the same frustrations still applied, developers had largely found ways to deal with the shortcomings of the system, and the likelihood was that no matter your gaming taste there would be something for you.

But its not that fact that these already well established genres were well represented on the system a few years that for me makes the PSP an incredibly solid gaming system.  It’s the experiences that started appearing on store shelves circa 2007.  A few weeks ago I wrote about the current generations coming of age, making particular reference to when those console defining titles finally hit a console and actually define it as a system.  For the PSP, like many other consoles, this started to happen in around 2007, with the release of Sony’s first-party game Patapon.  Despite being surprised that the first game spawned two sequels, the latest of which was released only 6 months ago, Patapon for me defines the Playstation portable.  It is elegant, it is artistically striking and it plays to the portable nature of the system almost perfectly. It also had that certain something that only a Sony game can possibly have.  While some people criticised the grind heavy nature of the game itself, it is hard to argue the finer points of the game far outweight those minor irritations.  And Sony Japan’s masterpiece was just the start of the onslaught of first party titles that will likely be remembered once the PSP is long forgotten, with Ready at Dawn delivering an amazingly faithful portable installment of God of War to the system, and High Impact games delivering a well received and technically impressive Ratchet and Clank game into our hands.

But this was just a sign of things to come, with some of the major third party publishers putting their weight completely behind the PSP.  Of course they weren’t all winners, but among the seeming stampede of third party titles were a number of gems that made the decision as to which portable system to put in my bag just that much harder.  Level 5’s historical turn based RPG Jeanne D’arc was probably the highlight of the bunch (unfortunately never seeing a release outside of Japan and North America), placing you in control of a squad of French revolutionary types charged by the divine  to put an effective end to the hundreds year war.  While not being a challenge to the throne held by Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre (released this year), Jeanne D’arc did just enough to stand out among the crowd and more importantly was just as good as 90 per cent of the JRPG offerings on the NDS.  What the impact of such a title was on the sales of the PSP I can’t say – but there is no doubt that games like Jeanne were keeping the system on the radar of gaming enthusiasts, even those who had all but completely shifted their allegiance over to the NDS and the abundance of Dragon Quest titles.

It is a common misconception that the PSP was not a successful console.  It is true that in comparison to the current yard stick set by the unprecedented success of the Nintendo DS, the PSP was an abysmal failure.  But that is almost like comparing an athlete’s ability to run a full marathon to man’s ability to walk on the moon – the sheer runaway success of the DS is an impossible success to attain by anyone’s standards.  Insofar as this is correct, by 2010 the war was well and truly over and Nintendo had sunk its almight stylus into the gut of the dying Playstation Portable.  Of course, this was only the tale in the west, with games like Monster Hunter keeping it well and truly alive in Japan.

It is important to pondering on why this may be the case for a moment.  The below graph is a time series graph showing what is clearly (although the trend line is arguable) a steady decline in sales of the console from September 2007 to March 2010 (I particularly like this graph because it leaves off the jubilation felt at the launch of a console which can often end up being somewhat of an outlier in terms of a longer term data set).

Interestingly enough, the figures don’t really paint a picture that the PSP was a failure.  While there is an underlying downward trend in sales, it is equally matched by quite large spikes in demand around the holiday season.  Assuming that there were no significant retail-wide price decreases around this period, these spikes indicate that there certainly was underlying demand for the console, and it is hard to envisage that the release of any one software title is enough to drive platform sales in such a regimented way every 12 months.  This being case, the question then becomes why during normal retail periods were the PSP’s sales numbers so different? 

Regardless of the origins of this bizarre market trend (which I add I would like to analyse a bit further at some point), the steady decline in interest for prospective PSP buyers by no means meant that publishers had given up, however.  Stelwarts of the industry (and two publishers who stuck rigidly to the PS2 in its twilight years) Atlus and Square-Enix have continued to support the system even at this late stage, with an apparent flurry .  This late effort from third parties is certainly not a symptom of a dying or unsuccessful console, and the fact that there are intensive (and incredibly impressive) localisation efforts being made to release these games in North America and other English-speaking regions is a sign that the observation that the PSP has been a failure is not resonated within the industry itself.  Tactics Ogre: Let us Cling together, 3rd Birthday, a number of entries in the relatively dormant yet still enormously popular Ys series, and a couple of (I’m told) faithful remakes of the first two Persona games are just a few examples of the continued support the PSP enjoys from third party developers at a time where the NDS has almost been relegated to receiving mediocre licensed titles.  So while the PSP maybe didn’t hit the mark in the public consciousness like its competitor it is difficult to argue that the PSP was a failure, and in light of the focus being placed on its successor the Playstation Vita Sony must think it did kinda alright as a first-go portable console.

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Psi-Ops: Clunky Fun

I bought this game YEARS ago. Seriously, I think it was in about 2008, or maybe even 2007, which means it’s taken me nearly four years to get round to finishing it. Yowch. The trouble is, I just don’t have the time to spend on playing games that I used to – whereas at university I would happily while away a whole weekend grinding through Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast, nowadays I don’t have two hours to rub together when it comes to partaking in my favourite hobby (playing video games that is, not grinding through Phantasy Star Online – I eventually got bored of that at around the 60-hour mark).

Anyway, I originally bought Psi-Ops all those years ago after reading an interesting ‘Time Extend’ feature on it in EDGE magazine and, in a happy conincidence, EDGE have recently included it again in a feature of the 50 best ‘obscure’ games you have to play (see issue 231). I have to agree with EDGE on this point – Psi-Ops is a real hidden gem, if a little rough around the edges (but more on that in a minute).

I’ve recently gone back to my PS2 after being inspired by Sir Gaulian’s plan to restrict himself to playing only games released before 2006 – although seeing as he’s recently been raving about Deus Ex: Human Evolution and Resident Evil: Mercenaries, I’m guessing that plan hasn’t come to fruition yet. Still, it’s always interesting to take a look into the past, and the speed at which the world of gaming moves means that even though Psi-Ops was only released in 2004, it feels positively Stone Age when compared to the latest first-person shooters. For a start, the graphics are horribly murky and blurry, which takes a bit of getting used to after years of being mollycoddled with high definition – I had to whack up the brightness on my telly to maximum just to make out what was going on.

Still, considering the age of the game, you can just about forgive murky graphics – what’s unforgiveable though is the utterly dreadful and instantly forgettable storyline. I criticised the hokey sci-fi plot of Assassin’s Creed a few weeks ago, but that game displayed Tolstoy-esque levels of sophistication compared to Psi-Ops. Such bland characters! Such threadbare emotion! Such BLOODY AWFUL acting! My God, why… Plus there’s an awful ‘jump the shark’ moment towards the end of the game, when suddenly you’re faced with invisible floating ‘aura beasts’ from another dimension – I half-expected The Great Gazoo to pop up. Anyway, I can’t be bothered to get into the shakey set-up for the game (head here if you want a plot synopsis) – all you need to know for the purposes of this review is that you’re a soldier with various mind powers, and it’s these powers that elevate an otherwise average shooter into the realms of ‘must-play classic’.

I believe I’m right in saying that this was one of the first games to fully integrate realistic physics into the main gameplay – one of the first ‘psi-powers’ you unlock is telekinesis, which lets you pick up various game furniture and fling it about with wanton abandon. Not only that, you can pick up enemies too, and one of the most satisfying parts of the game is being able to lift up some hapless grunt and casually fling him off the side of a building. Evil, but fun. More and more of these psi-powers are unlocked as you go through the game, and each one encourages you to alter your playing style accordingly – for example, the ‘mind control’ power gives you the option of possessing an enemy and then forcing them to fire on their own side, providing you with a more tactical option than just wading in and lobbing rocks at everyone in sight.

The game is at its absolute best when you’re given the chance to use your various powers creatively: on some of the later levels you’re presented with some large, open plan areas that are swarming with enemies, and these can be approached in a number of ways. Do you opt for the stealth option, using remote viewing to suss out the positions of your enemies before picking them off with the sniper rifle? Or do you distract them using mind control before lobbing a boulder at them while their back is turned? There are loads of different ways to approach the game depending on how you like to play, and I loved the opportunity to exercise some real creativity when it came to planning your way through the enemy’s defences.

I’ll have to admit though, I did struggle in a few places – for a start, the game is rock hard at some points, which came as a bit of a shock after the modern shooters I’ve been playing recently. I’m too used to health regeneration, autosaves, graceful difficulty curves and closely bunched checkpoints, so plunging back into a time when none of these existed caused a few hair-pulling moments. “What, you mean I have to restart ALL the way back there?” was a common refrain throughout the game, along with “Where are all the bloody health packs?” Far from being a bullet sponge, the main character will croak after a few direct hits from gunfire – presumably this is to encourage you to use your psi-powers intelligently rather than wade in with all guns blazing (in fact, your own guns are fairly weak compared to your psi-powers). However, this did detract from the enjoyment a little – the game is at its best when it allows you to feel like some all-powerful demigod, able to toss around enemy soldiers like so many ragdolls, so being humiliatingly brought to your knees by a few shots from a pop gun is a bit frustrating. Plus, the cynical part of me can’t help but feel the fragility of the main character might be a way to artificially extend the lifespan of this otherwise short game – my completion time was about four and a half hours, but if you factor in all of the restarts, I easily spent twice that long playing.

Other points that let the game down are the noticeably wobbly collision detection and the somewhat tricky controls: I actually developed ‘gamer’s claw’ at one point, which hasn’t happened since Street Fighter II. Worst of all though are the one-hit-kill invisible mines that pop up right at the end. A note to all game designers: INVISIBLE MINES HAVE NEVER, EVER BEEN A GOOD IDEA. Please, please, PLEASE do not include invisible hurty things in your games: all they do is make gamers want to hunt you down and post nasty things through your letterbox.

However, despite all of the negative points above, I still really enjoyed Psi-Ops. I briefly contemplated sending it to the charity shop last year, but I’m glad I gave it a chance because the psi-powers really do make for an interesting and (almost) unique gameplay experience. Sure, it’s a bit rough around the edges, but as long as you can put up with the niggles described above, it’s a fun retro experience.

[As dictated by Lucius Merriweather. See The Mantelpiece.]

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Monkey Island: Not As Good As I Remember

When I finally got around to ditching my old ‘dumb’ phone and upgrading to a considerably smarter iPhone 4, I approached the App Store with all the excitement and fervour of a kid in a sweet shop. So many games! And so cheap! I immediately purchased Angry Birds (if only in an attempt to beat my girlfriend’s high score), which was quickly followed by Cut The Rope, Tiny Wings and various other casual ‘pick-up-and-play’ games that I’m sure most of the iPhone-owning population already have. However, what I was REALLY excited about was replaying some of the classic games of my youth, and The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition was right at the top of the list.

Ever since I’d heard about the re-release of this Amiga classic, I’d been hankering to play it. I loved the humour of the original game but I never managed to complete it (I had to give it back to the friend I’d borrowed it from), so I was looking forward to playing through the whole thing.

Initial impressions were very encouraging – the controls have been handled well, and I love the way you can swipe the screen to switch to the original graphics (I have to say though, the original graphics look positively Stone Age compared to the update – it’s really remarkable just how far games have progressed over the years). The opening was just as good as I remember, in particular the fourth-wall-breaking conversation with the “Ask Me About Loom” pirate, and the dialogue in general was pretty funny. I also really loved the incorporation of a hint system, which I found completely invaluable, particularly as some of the later puzzles are frustratingly obtuse. In fact, I found myself relying more and more on the hints as I went on, mostly because of the frustrating and time-consuming backtracking on Monkey Island itself.

Which leads me to the biggest problem with the game – the need to comb every inch of the screen, pixel by pixel, to find every last object. I suppose this is a general bugbear with the whole of the adventure genre, not just Monkey Island, but I found it particularly frustrating. Perhaps because this is one of the earlier examples of a graphic adventure it suffers more than later entries from ‘frustratingly tiny object syndrome’, made worse by the small screen, but I practically gave up after spending about half an hour combing every inch of Monkey Island only to discover there was a tiny object I’d missed (I think it was some gunpowder).

Which brings me onto the awful map screens. These were utterly dreadful in the original, and the iPhone’s small screen makes them even worse – where is the fun in trying to guide your one-pixel-high character towards a one-pixel-high pirate/monkey/boat? And moving between locations is SO SLOW! I could just about put up with it on the relatively small Melee Island, but watching tiny Guybrush crawl his way painfully slowly across the four screens of gigantic Monkey Island was enough to make me weep. And don’t get me started on the maze sections. Maze sections have NEVER been fun in ANY game in the history of mankind, and Monkey Island serves to enforce that rule.

Thankfully, the dialogue and general imagination of the game kept a smile on my face for the most part – I particularly enjoyed the conversations with Herman Toothrot and the Storekeeper – and the voice acting is generally very good. I have to say though, it didn’t tickle my ribs quite as much as it did when I was an adolescent – I guess that just goes to show that something you find funny as a 15-year-old might not necessarily float your boat as a 31-year-old. I mean, I used to collapse into tiny, gibbering heaps of laughter when watching Bottom on BBC2, but I caught an episode again recently and found myself stony-faced throughout all the fart gags and mallet-based testicle whacking. Ah well, c’est la vie [shrugs shoulders].

Oh, and I finally got the reference in the title of my co-author’s blog. I did always wonder where that came from…

[As dictated by Lucius P. Merriweather. See The Mantelpiece.]

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Filed under Backlog - The Mantelpiece of unfinished games