Hands-on with the PSP at TGS

GameSpot finally gets to play around with freestanding examples of Sony's sexy new portable.

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TOKYO--The Tokyo Game Show marks the playable debut of Sony's PSP handheld. While the actual hardware made its first appearance at this year's E3, there was very little playable software for it, and the units themselves were firmly bolted down and flanked by security guards. Naturally, once at TGS, we headed straight for the Sony booth to check out the dozens of fully playable units on display.

Other than some minor cosmetic tweaks, the PSP hardware hasn't changed tremendously since E3. You'll find a pretty extensive array of buttons along the bottom of the unit, including volume controls, the standard PlayStation "select" and "start" buttons, as well as additional buttons such as "home," a monitor icon, and a musical note icon that toggles the hardware's various functions. The lower right side of the unit is home to the power button, while the lower left features controls for the wireless antenna. There is a very slick-looking speaker along the top of the unit and it is bookended by the clear Lucite shoulder buttons.

The face of the unit is, of course, dominated by the massive screen, which is even sexier in person. To the left of the screen is the now-standard Sony control-cross D pad. Just below the buttons is what we originally thought was an analog stick-style disc, but we couldn't get a good feel for how responsive it was. The right side of the unit's face is home to the familiar square, triangle, X, and circle buttons. The only other element of note on the unit's face is a loop for a carrying strap on the lower left side, below the analog stick. We expect a flood of PSP-themed straps, much like the scores of cell phone straps, to rain down on Japan when the unit hits. (We can only hope that the US market scores some similar accessories.) While the back of the PSP was hard to see due to the security measures in place, it was still possible to see the unit's slots for Sony memory sticks.

The first thing that struck us about the PSP is its natural feel. Frankly, we haven't had our hands on hardware that has been such a good fit since the original Game Boy Advance, and the PSP's svelte ergonomics bode well for the countless hours we expect to lose playing games on it. Our affections were also stolen by the screen, which is easily the most impressive display we've seen on a handheld gaming system. The lighted screen is a perfect showcase for the stunning visuals being cranked out by many PSP games, and it maintains a crisp display from nearly any angle. The hordes of lights and camera flashes did little to obscure our vision while playing the game on the unit. The wide-screen configuration and the screen light are a winning combination that breaks new ground on portable hardware, and it shows that more than a few people over at Sony are forward-thinking.

Of the many PSP units on the show floor, there were two basic flavors of hardware displays. Many kiosks and private demos were running off of developer kits connected to PSPs. But there were also plenty of freestanding, playable PSP units, although it appeared that they were running games off of a Sony memory stick. As a result, it was hard to definitively judge how the unit is going to handle running a game off a disc while maintaining a solid battery life. However, we expect Sony's engineers are serving up burnt offerings to the Dark Gods of Power Consumption to ensure that the PSP has a respectable amount of battery life.

Despite the fact that the noise level at the Tokyo Game Show is comparable to a train station at rush hour, the PSP's audio sounded surprisingly rich and clear through the din. Whether it’s the subtle tunes heard in Metal Gear Acid, the retro '90s Capcom music from Vampire Chronicle: The Chaos Tower, or the slick club beats from Bandai's Lumines, the PSP's versatile sound processor handled game audio with aplomb.

For those wondering just how the PSP hardware feels in comparison to Nintendo's upcoming DS, which we had the chance to play at this year's E3, the two are totally different animals. To be fair, we have yet to get our hands on the final DS hardware, which is undergoing a final round of tweaks. But, the DS that we've seen has been workmanlike in its style, whereas the PSP has a downright sexy design. Whereas the DS is larger and heavier, the PSP is considerably lighter and feels more comfortable. Of course, the unit's design doesn't have any effect on either platform's games. But for now, the PSP is certainly the most eye-catching and aesthetically pleasing of the two.

All told, despite the veil of secrecy surrounding it, the PSP has met our expectations and then some. The slick design and varied games on display at the Tokyo Game Show was a fine showcase for the portable unit's potential. The PSP is currently slated to ship later this year in Japan and next spring in the US. Look for more on the hardware soon. There will be plenty more from GameSpot's coverage of the Tokyo Game Show 2004.

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