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DF Retro: Revisiting E3 2004 - PlayStation Portable vs Nintendo DS

How these machines defined mobile gaming, from smartphones to Switch.

Let's take a trip back to E3 2004 and re-examine what looked like one of the most one-sided console 'wars' in history. Sony debuted its state-of-the-art PlayStation Portable as part of an E3 that also saw the reveal of the Nintendo DS. The Mario makers' low-tech device was all but written off in the wake of an admittedly feeble reveal, but of course, in terms of sales success it was the handheld device of its era, with PSP eventually finishing up as a worthy runner-up. Both were important machines though and their legacy persists into the core make-up of today's mobile devices, with the pioneering concepts of both platform holders crucial to the make-up of the modern day smartphone - not to mention the Nintendo Switch.

In the latest DF Retro episode embedded below, John Linneman and I talk our way through each of the Sony and Nintendo press conferences, in what would be round one of the battle of the handhelds. It's fascinating to revisit a time where the nature of E3 briefings was very different to the flashy, glitzy events of the E3 of today. Comparing the two also highlights the beginning of a fundamental difference in philosophy between the two firms. Kaz Hirai's PSP reveal spends a good amount of time simply reeling off the technical specifications of the new handheld, right down to the physical dimensions and weight of the unit. Nintendo's Reggie Fil-Aime - making a remarkably combative E3 debut - makes the case for the experience being more important than the amount of horsepower behind it, a philosophy that is expanded upon in the presentation and persists at Nintendo even today.

But what's fascinating about this portable head-to-head is that both Sony and Nintendo did some crucial pioneering work in what would become the standard make-up for a mobile device. Sony saw PlayStation Portable as a mobile machine you could take anywhere that would perform a multitude of functions. You can play games, you can watch movies, you can listen to movies - and that's just for starters. On top of that, there were ambitions to push the functionality of the machine with add-on devices that would offer very smartphone-like features - like GPS tracking, for example. And in terms of the core hardware design, the concept of dedicated 3D acceleration hardware proved crucial in the success of the iPhone - the first smartphone to enjoy mainstream success and the template for the vast majority of phones on the market today

For its part, while a core feature of the DS was its dual-screen set-up, it was the notion of touch control that turned out to be the defining element that would eventually become the standard in all mobile devices. While touch screens were a part of embryonic smartphone designs like the Ericsson R380 (released four years previously) the DS served to highlight how touch could be incorporated into game design. Indeed, looking back at Nintendo's presentation, it's actually Sonic Team's Yuji Naka that focuses on this as the core appeal of the new handheld.

Join John Linneman and Rich Leadbetter for a look back at two E3 press conferences that would go on to define key concepts in mobile gaming that would persist to the present day.Watch on YouTube

There's a lot to enjoy in revisiting these presentations. First of all, there's the fact that just six months out from launch, Nintendo chose to reveal a pre-production DS design that was significantly revamped for its final release - something that just wouldn't happen today, suggesting that DS development very much went down to the wire. And during the presentations at least, there was a palpable lack of actual games as part of the story. Metroid Prime Hunters and Mario 64x4 were revealed, but that's it. There was more to show though: our video also includes some contemporary b-roll of in-development titles, some of which would eventually be released in very different states, while others were canned altogether.

Nintendo's presentation may have been lacking, but Sony's reveal also failed to impress in some respects, lacking any kind of killer app. Launch title king Ridge Racers was only represented by library PlayStation footage and it was clear the smattering of games actually running on PSP hardware were in a very early state. EA's offerings - introduced by a pre-Microsoft Don Mattrick, no less - included mock-up games running on hardware apparently designed to mimic PSP specs. Not surprisingly, these demos looked a lot better than anything else on show. But gaming was only one part of the show: Sony had a lot of ground to cover, including a deep-dive on UMD video, which began the firm's curious obsession with the Spider-Man 2 movie.

While handheld was the focus of the briefings, both presentations ended with a look to the future. Sony proudly discussed its Cell processor in terms of super-computing via its collaboration with IBM, while Nintendo's Satoru Iwata dropped the very first information on its Revolution project - the machine that eventually become the Wii. The future of console gaming was being architected there and then - again, with a profound difference in philosophy. Sony was aiming for the absolute state of the art, while Nintendo was effectively happy by tweaking the architecture it already had, instead focusing further on its fascination with input - a gamble that would pay off massively a couple of years later.

Our first E3 retrospective looks back at the divisive PlayStation 3 reveal at E3 2005. Just how much of it was real and how much was... not?Watch on YouTube

And this serves to highlight another change between the E3s of yesteryear and those of today. When a platform holder announces new console hardware, it effectively calls time on the machines of today. And yet back in 2004, both platform holders were discussing hardware that wouldn't reach the consumer for another two-and-a-half years. Of course, some might say that with GameCube's relative failure, Nintendo had nothing to lose. Meanwhile, at that point, Sony's roadmaps for PlayStation 3 would have been focused on a holiday 2005 release - a slot it eventually had to cede to Microsoft's Xbox 360. Regardless, both presentations have an openness about next-gen hardware that we have to wonder will be mirrored in this year's media briefings, as the PS4 and Xbox One reach their sunset years.

As for the PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS, their fortunes would set the template for the machines to follow. In PlayStation Vita, Sony doubled down on cutting-edge tech with a brilliant and beloved piece of hardware that failed to find critical success. Meanwhile, 3DS saw Nintendo attach a stereoscopic gimmick to another under-powered machine, which still enjoyed great success owing to the platform holder's incredible game-crafting skills. By this time, smart devices and mobile gaming were ubiquitous, and today's landscape sees Sony knocked out of contention as a result.

What's left in the here and now is a joyfully resurgent Nintendo, earning great success from a mobile hardware design that is Vita-like in many ways, and equally beloved as a result - bolstered with the platform holder's undeniable skills in innovative input devices and great game design. There was a point early on in the life-cycles of Vita and 3DS where the viability of dedicated mobile gaming was looking shaky to say the least - but in combining what made both Sony and Nintendo handhelds so appealing, the future's looking bright.

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