Hey guys. Before I begin I'd like to thank you all for the feedback and positive responses to my previous and first Tech Talks blog, posted back at the end of April. I've been busy with class and I have actually tried to write up one of these since - twice - but I was doing it on mobile and one slip of a finger made me go back a page and blog posts don't have auto-saved drafts. Oh well.
The jump from 2D to 3D graphics in gaming was undoubtedly one of the biggest technological revolutions in gaming history. Entirely new experiences were made possible and new genres spawned from the birth of 3D gaming. On PC, games like DOOM and Wolfenstein 3D attempted psuedo-3D graphics in 2D engines, but it was Quake that brought true 3D graphics to PC gamers in 1996. It made hardware manufacturers scramble to produce hardware capable of and competent at 3D rendering. Consoles received true 3D graphics at around the same time, with team Nintendo delivering Super Mario 64 in 1996 along with Turok and Goldeneye 007 in 1997 while Sony released Crash Bandicoot and Tomb Raider on PS1 to trade blows with Nintendo's N64. However, handhelds were still behind the curve; Atari's 1989 Lynx was still more powerful than any of Nintendo's handhelds for the rest of the 20th century until the GBA released and the Lynx couldn't do much better than psuedo-3D.
[Above: Blue Lightning on Atari Lynx, one of the system's most graphically convincing games]
The GBA was the first handheld with the ability to really pull off 3D graphics. Attempts had been made before, such as Faceball 2000 for GameBoy (thanks JellyPerson for an interesting example!), but nothing with the sophistication of GBA 3D. Of course, the GBA wasn't perfect and was still primarily a 2D system, but games like Asterix and Monkey Ball had true 3D graphics.
It wasn't long until a system that was genuinely designed for 3D was announced though; Sony annouced the PSP around the time of E3 2003, and Nintendo officially announced the DS in 2004. Both systems released in 2004 and changed the handheld landscape - the DS offered a sizable and welcome upgrade in hardware compared to the GBA, making it a system capable of 3D of a respectable standard comparable to N64 games. The PSP was a more serious system with the intention to be directly comparable to a PS2 quality experience on the go. So with that said, let's see how the two systems as well as the GBA sized up against each other.
CPU: 16.78MHz ARM7-based CPU
GPU: Custom 2D graphics core (not a discrete GPU - integrated into main processor core), 96KB VRAM
RAM: 32KB RAM, plus an additional 256KB of DRAM outside the CPU
CPU: 67MHz ARM9-based main CPU; 33MHz ARM7 coprocessor for background processes and GBA support (note: ARM7 CPU is not available for running code by devs - can be accessed through libraries for sound etc.)
GPU: Custom 2D graphics core and 3D core (managed by ARM9 CPU), 656KB VRAM (total)
Resolution: 256x192 (both screens)
CPU: 222-333MHz MIPS-based main CPU; identical secondary CPU (for decoding etc, with programmable sound capabilities); 1x Vector Unit (in simple terms, a coprocessor for certain tasks, usually related to number-heavy tasks) @ 3.2GFLOPS
GPU: 111-166MHz graphics core, 2MB VRAM
RAM: 32MB (usable for games; PSP-2000 and later had an additional 32MB for system tasks only)
So as you can see, the PSP wiped the floor in terms of specifications; it was clearly a closer match to 6th generation consoles compared to DS, which was closer to PS1/N64 tech. But what did this result in?
If you compare games on both system, it's clear; PSP received direct ports from PS2 whereas DS usually had to have its own specialised version of a game which was cut down to suit the DS. For the sake of comparison, I have included two games often heralded as technical showcases for their respective systems; Metroid Prime Hunter on DS and God of War: Ghost of Sparta on PSP. While this is a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, it does give an idea of the sort of visuals and tech that both systems were pushing.
(Note: I couldn't find an image that did Hunters justice at original 256x192 resolution so I opted for a slightly higher resolution image)
Metroid Prime Hunters was one of the closest games to GameCube standard on DS. It had nice dynamic lighting and some great textures and detail that really made the game shine on DS. It had online multiplayer and is considered to be one of the best action and adventure games on DS. The game's biggest drawback compared to the GC Metroid games was perhaps the less than incredible control scheme, but it is still regarded as one of the best looking games on the system.
God of War: Ghost of Sparta is one of the somewhat few PSP games designed for the full 333MHz mode. It's a beautiful game with a lot of detail that maintains a very high visual standard that comes very close or matches the PS2 God of War games with a strong 60FPS framerate, though it is prone to regular consistent drops.
Despite the hardware differences, sales tell a different story. PSP sold 80 million, while DS sold over 120 million - about 155 million if you include DSi models as well. While the PSP was no failure, it failed to keep up with Nintendo's sales. The DS was simply more friendly to more casual players, and lacked issues the PSP had such as proprietary memory cards and the slow, grinding UMD discs.
So, the verdict: what handhelds did it right? Between PSP and DS, it's personal preference; DS offers unique dual screen experiences that can't be replicated on a PSP, but PSP is a much more technologically advanced system. GBA was really the first true landmark system for 3D graphics, and while 3D GBA games were few and far between, they definitely existed and they should be accredited for being some of the first ever 3D games on a portable console.
Thank you for reading this lengthy post, and I apologise for the gap between my first article and this one. If you liked this, have any feedback/constructive criticism or want to see more please let me know in the comment section and if you thought this was a good article, don't be afraid to give it a like as well.
(Update: I'd also be interested in hearing what you want to see next.)
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