The PSP was Sony's first - and most successful - foray into the world of portable gaming. It amassed about 80 million sales and offered a convincingly console-quality experience for much of its lifetime. This post will have a look at what the PSP did right, what it tried and what games showed what the PSP could do. First, a quick spec overview:
CPU: 1-333MHz MIPS “Allegrex” CPU; 1-333MHz MIPS (modified) R4000-based “Media Engine” CPU (background processes only; non-programmable for commercial software, lacks a vector unit unlike the main CPU)
GPU: 1-166MHz “Graphics Core” (2MB eDRAM)
RAM: 32MB (PSP-1000), 64MB (all later models)
Storage: Memory Stick based; up to 128GB (possibly further with adapters)
The PSP 1000 came with 32MB RAM, but later models added an additional 32MB for a total of 64MB; however, this was only used as a UMD cache and as a much-needed expansion for some system software like the internet browser. Compared to the DS, the PSP was a much more capable device and it opened up a lot of possibilities. But outside of the hardware, what did the PSP bring to the table in terms of software?
The PSP was quite important because it was the first handheld console to have a full GUI operating system on it. The PSP was the first adaptation of the XMB interface to the gaming world (excluding the Japan-only PSX DVR) and the PSP offered a variety of options. It had native support for media formats such as h264 MP4 videos and MP3 audio, just like the codecs of today. It supported PNG, BMP and JPG photos and it also had USB connectivity for transferring movies, music, TV shows and pictures to your PSP. That sounds great, doesn’t it? It gets even better as they added a web browser, Skype and even more other software. So for its time, the PSP had some really revolutionary software.
The PSP Go is the “other” PSP model and was an interesting experiment from Sony. It featured the same hardware, but it had a smaller screen (3.8”, compared to 4.3”) as well as fold-up controls, a special "Pause Game" feature (similar to a save state), Bluetooth PS3 controller connectivity, and 16GB of expandable internal storage. The catch? There was no UMD drive. For some, this was a deal breaker, but as UMDs are dying off (they are louder, more battery draining and less convenient than digital copies) the PSP Go has become an increasingly viable option.
The PSP Go also tried something bold; it combined the PSP’s video output into a charging dock, exactly like the Nintendo Switch. It even had a “tabletop mode” with its fold-up controls and PS3 controllers! However, this idea may have come too early for its own good, as the PSP Go never took off. Still, it is fascinating to revisit these experiments of what was ahead of its time and what paved the way for later systems.
The PSP, however, did not get its full power available immediately. For the first few years, the PSP was restricted to just a 222MHz CPU mode and 111MHz GPU. This caused games such as SOCOM, Star Wars Battlefront and GTA - which all still looked comparable to their console counterparts - to run markedly worse than they should have. This was locked down due to initial concerns about battery life. Still, initial impressions were very positive.
In 2007, Sony unlocked the full 333MHz/166MHz speeds for the CPU/GPU. This was a big deal; games such as God of War immediately set to work utilising it. God of War immediately delivered; it looked extremely similar to the PS2 games, which were already praised as some of the best looking games on PS2.
Some franchises, such as Metal Gear Solid (below: Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker respectively), had games released before and after the clock speeds were unlocked. It is interesting to see what developers did with the 50% increase in CPU/GPU speed; Peace Walker refined the look of Portable Ops and made everything much more detailed, while also improving the framerate. PW oddly retained the cap of 20FPS, but using cheats to unlock this and force 30FPS/333MHz shows the game has no issue at a higher framerate. It is speculated Peace Walker used a middle ground speed - 266MHz - to balance battery and performance, and because the game does not drop a single frame at 20FPS it feels fine to play.
ATTACK OF THE HACKERS
Sony, however, were playing a constant cat-and-mouse game with hackers and were failing to keep the system software exploit-free. Homebrewers did some incredibly impressive things with the PSP hardware with the new exploits, though. An unofficial port of Quake III Arena was made, and a well-optimized, hardware-accelerated and moddable version of the Quake engine was ported to PSP. This was famously the base engine for many PSP homebrew games, the most famous one being Kurok - a fanmade game inspired by Turok: Dinosaur Hunter for N64. Other Quake-based homebrew games include Counter Strike: Portable, Nazi Zombies Portable, Halo Revamped, the cancelled Cause of War: 1944 and the work-in-progress projects Project Frost and Perfect Dark: Reloaded (both of which I’m involved in, on an unrelated note). These could use the whole 64MB RAM of later PSPs to their advantage, leading to more ambitious texture and map work.
Among other homebrew projects are a N64 emulator, a Minecraft remake and usual stuff like Linux. The N64 emulator is particularly impressive, and like the Minecraft remake is still actively maintained. The PSP scene still retains a healthy following.
The PSP was a very powerful handheld for its time and it has - especially had, in its prime - one of the most vibrant and ambitious hacking scenes ever seen. It was capable of many impressive feats and remains a fan favourite, even though the Vita and other systems may have superseded it. It remains a great choice as an emulation center, a media player or even simply an all-in-one, cheap gaming and multimedia device.
Thanks for reading this article, and if you enjoyed this, I’m happy to write more; tell me any feedback you have, including suggestions, as well.
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