"This is the Walkman of the 21st Century," said Ken Kutaragi, as journalists amassed at Sony's pre-E3 conference stood there gazing, dumbfounded at the wily SCE chief. PlayStation Portable, or PSP, due out in Q4 2004, finally signals Sony's large-scale entry into the handheld gaming market. And we have a hunch they'll give Nintendo a run for their money where the likes of SNK have failed in the past.
Although Sony has yet to show anybody what PSP looks like (they themselves may not yet know), we do know quite a lot about the technology behind it. It will play games from Universal Media Discs (UMD), which are 1.8GB, 60mm optical discs housed in a minidisk-style plastic cartridge, and like GBA there will be no region encoding (although given Sony's active role in restricting importers, we wouldn't put it past them to worm something in). The console will be powered by the latest 90nm semiconductor technology, with PSone-surpassing graphics under the control of NURBS (Non-Uniform Rational B-Spline), and a capacity for around two hours of high resolution MPEG4-based FMV "at DVD quality", all of which will be pumped out onto a 4.5", 480x272 pixel TFT LCD widescreen (16:9 aspect ratio). It is also expected that the button layout will eventually resemble DualShock, with a few changes made to fit the smaller size of the console.
And like Nintendo, "connectivity" is a real buzzword for Sony. With PSP's USB 2.0 port, the handheld will be able to connect to the PS2 and other PSP consoles, and the console's use of Memory Stick (over Memory Card) for data storage means we can look forward to "networking applications and data transportability in a wireless environment". Whatever they plan for that to mean.
Although plenty of questions remain, Sony is promising to make a truly mass-market device, in keeping with its treatment of PlayStation and PlayStation 2, and that will mean a sensible price and genuinely portable design - something we may not actually see for a year or more. It will also need plenty of high-profile games to succeed, which is why Sony is planning to offer incentives to third parties as early as this summer via a new licensing scheme. Even without that, several major Japanese developers/publishers are said to be involved already.
The answer from NOA's George Harrison and Nintendo president Satoru Iwata was that, what with the Sony console aiming for Q4 2004, "we're not really concerned". But despite stamping their little feet, we got the distinct impression that they hoped to drown it out with software announcements (Miyamoto's two new Zelda and new Pac-Man connectivity games, of which more in a minute) and throw some SP sales figures around. Will it be enough? We'll probably have a better idea by E3 2004…