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TGS 2004: PlayStation Portable

Nintendo wants us to 'touch', but Sony actually let us get our hands on the PSP this week, and it's a shiny little fella.

The PSP is a beautiful thing. At this year's Tokyo Game Show we had the chance to spend some considerable time with the hardware and many of the games in progress. We were overwhelmed. Here's why.

Firstly, the hardware is just about perfectly crafted. It sits snugly in two hands, and no end of playing will cause hand cramps. The shoulder buttons - which make the Game Boy Advance and SP seem slightly unwieldy - are situated ideally for prolonged play. Four face buttons is another boon, making transition from PS2 to PSP virtually indistinguishable. And the D-pad is in fact much better than the Dual Shock 2's.

The screen is visible from virtually any angle. The backlight is so strong that games could be seen from outside Sony's booth. (Battery life wasn't confirmed at the Tokyo Game Show, so keep those fingers crossed.) The console's design is probably Sony's most eye-pleasing offering since the PSone. Even the plastic casing's finish feels luxurious, like the front of an iPod. The PSP wouldn't look out of place in Business Class and it will certainly turn heads on the streets.

And it's not merely a portable games console. With Sony's TGS announcement that the PSP will support MP3 playback, suddenly we have a machine capable of playing PS2-standard games, music and - in the future - UMD movies. Pick up the official white Sony earphones and you'll be the envy of your class/office/children. Pick up Talkman, a Sony-developed translation package, and you'll be able to speak eight languages at the press of a button. GCSEs' days are numbered.

At the Tokyo Game Show, we were also able to try out the PSP's IR link-up capability. And it works perfectly. Puyo Puyo Fever with a stranger on a train is certainly an intriguing prospect. Pro Evo, hypothetically speaking, is an even more exciting possibility. The future for games on the move is dazzlingly bright. And, indeed, what of those games, eh?

Metal Gear Acid, Konami's new tactical episode in its celebrated series, is an addictive title. (Acid without the hallucinations.) The premise is simple: Snake has only a limited number of cards to play, each of which deal a move of some import. With limited shots/grenades/whatever at Snake's disposal, Metal Gear Acid demands careful forethought. In a portable title, that's quite a rare asset; Acid will be a great challenge. While the gameplay is impressive, Acid's visuals approach the standard set by Sons of Liberty. On the PSP's wonderful screen it looks quite spectacular.

Rez creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi was on hand at the Tokyo Game Show to demonstrate his startup company's first project. Lumines is a puzzle game for the PSP, but there's more to it than that. Behind falling squares (which can be rotated) is a graphic equaliser which jumps away in response to the soundtrack. Deleting blocks by linking them together is good, but - as far as we could tell - deleting and/or increasing certain frequencies is more fun. Cleared stages bring on major audio and visual changes. The music sounds vaguely Underworld-ish and it suits the game's stylish aesthetic just perfectly. We look forward to spending many a train journey in Lumines' company.

Another highlight from the PSP's showing was a new Pipo Saru (Ape Escape) party game. Here two players can engage in teamwork simply by holding one PSP. Player one uses the D-pad, player two the face buttons; rather like Wario Ware's GBA multiplayer. Engaging diversions such as dodgeball and sports day events provide plenty of wacky moments. We fully expect Pipo Saru to be a very enjoyable compendium.

Vampire Chronicles: The Chaos Tower provided Capcom's stand with the visibly brightest of all PSP titles. Ten years on from Morrigan's classic debut, the series is finely honed. This new iteration takes the Vampire games into portable territory for the first time. Tight gameplay and gorgeous visuals should keep the fanboys happy.

For those who prefer their battle action robotic, Armored Core Formula Front is the title to watch. Graphically, it's one of the most amazing PSP games yet shown. Complex ‘bots with high poly counts move about the screen like ballet dancers - their animation is wondrously smooth. Big robots and big explosions doesn't always equate to big fun, but here in Formula Front the equation works out nicely.

The PSP will cater for racing fans, too. Those titles playable at TGS included Ridge Racer, Need For Speed Underground and a new Tokyo Highway Battle game from Genki. Car models are simpler than their PS2 equivalents, but the sensation of speed in these games is conveyed very well. Of course, Gran Turismo 4, also PSP-bound, is the one to look out for.

Puzzle games have always been popular on portable formats, and PSP's genre affiliation is no different. As well as Lumines, Puyo Puyo Fever and Puzzle Bobble (aka Bust-a-Move) are particularly strong titles. Puyo Puyo in infra-red two-player link mode is especially cool. More cerebral attractions were on offer from Marvelous Interactive. Marvelous demoed its AI range of titles, which comprises renditions of Japanese favourites such as Go, Shogi and Mah Jong - games for Japanese people to chill out to.

Staying in that relaxed zone, one of our favourite PSP titles at TGS was Minna No Golf, known in the west as Everybody's Golf. The PSP version looks lovely and plays with the comforting simplicity of an honest golfing sim. It will be the perfect game to play after a long day at the office. (Or during.)

Indeed, on this showing the PSP has every box checked. What's more, the hardware is a delight to use and the future possibilities - IR, wi-fi, MP3, movies - are an enticing proposition. We'll be queuing outside our favourite Tokyo games emporium before the Japanese release. When that actually is remains to be seen - cheers Ken - but rest assured whenever it is we'll be lined up waiting to tell all.

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