It's been a tough week for Sony's handheld (at least in the States). NPD sales figures revealed that both the PlayStation Portable and Go variant have been sales busts as of late, and the highest-selling PSP title cracked only the top 150.
Well, I'm here to offer some holiday cheer for PSP owners and Sony-philes in the form of an extensive Buyer's Guide. The PSP is a favorite platform of mine: I've purchased the console itself four times over, and have (sadly, depending on your perspective) played a majority of the games available for the system. I can't really say the same for any other console, even my beloved Dreamcast… well, maybe the Neo Geo Pocket Color, Atari Lynx, and Virtual Boy, but those defunct systems are hardly worth the mention. (Have YOU played Scrapyard Dog? No? Consider yourself blessed.) Naturally, I haven't played every PSP game, but my experiences with the system (and prolific seller history on Ebay) would probably surprise even the most dedicated PSP columnists and reviewers.
Obviously, I've developed quite an attachment to the PSP and its library. I'm astonished when some claim that the PSP offers few quality games compared to its Nintendo counterpart, particularly in a year like this one. Not only does the PSP offer some of the finest 2009 releases; its four+ year-old library has generated more than a few must-play gems. Granted, some of these games have also been released on the DS (e.g., Puzzle Quest), but the PSP's superior hardware often makes for the definitive version of multi-platform handheld releases.
Even better, Sony has done a bang-up job of releasing its top-tier PSP software for download on the PlayStation Network. Yes, these downloads are usually offered for inflated prices (case in point: Pursuit Force is available for roughly $15 more than the UMD version offered at most major retailers). However, if you're a PSP Go owner, PSN downloads are your only option. Other PSP owners equipped with relatively inexpensive expandable memory may opt for convenience over cost. (Hey, it's nice to carry your library around with you without having to switch discs.) Either way, all of the following titles are available right now via the PSN Store.
There are few quality titles that have not yet arrived on PSN (namely Lumines II, Pirates, Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection, and Star Ocean: Second Evolution), but I am confident these titles will show up for download sooner rather than later. UMD collectors can run out and grab these titles at significant discounts right now.
If you never got to play Burnout 3 on last generation consoles, boy, are you in luck. The portable version is an authentic copy, complete with terrific sense of speed and exhilarating Crash Mode challenges. Granted, the jaggies are a bit more present and it's slightly harder to see oncoming traffic at full speed, but the graphics are still among the best to be seen on the PSP. If you did play Burnout 3, you can pass over this one, but you may be inclined to look into the sequel, Burnout: Dominator, which is a solid game in its own right.
One of the most unique and challenging puzzle games I've ever played, Crush tells the quirky psychoanalytical story of a young man with repressed memories and… well, now it's sounding a bit too much like Braid. Just know that you get to "flatten" 3D worlds from every angle, manipulating puzzles in two dimensions in ways that you couldn't in three. Needless to say, this makes for some very tough puzzles, with more than a few head-scratchers that will keep you stuck (yet gripped) for hours on end. Throw in a handful of collectibles and cleverly-hidden secrets and you have one of the downright best games on the system.
Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness
The definitive version of one of the preeminent turn-based strategy role-playing games. Accessible for strategy "n00bs" and hardcore players alike, Disgaea tells a hilarious (the series is known for its offbeat Japanese humor) and sometimes heartwarming story, beautifully translated by NIS America. Not only a faithful port of the PS2 classic, but also filled with secrets and extras, including an alternative storyline in which Etna kills Laharl.
God of War: Chains of Olympus
Chains of Olympus can only be considered "God of War Lite" in terms of its length, which caps out around five or so hours. While the game lacks the scope and length of its PS2 counterparts, this prequel is every bit their equal in terms of gameplay, graphics, and sheer imagination. Kratos has never been a particularly likeable protagonist, but you might warm up to him a bit in this one, as the finale features one of the more inventive—and heartbreaking—uses of button mashing I've seen in a video game (hint: it has to do with his daughter). If you already own a PSP, this could very well be the game that convinced you to take the plunge… and with good reason.
Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars
If the superlative reviews and scores haven't yet convinced you to check out Chinatown Wars, well, here's my Best of 2009 summary:
One would think that a return to top-down perspective would mark a regression for the Grand Theft Auto series, but on the contrary: Chinatown Wars is perhaps the strongest entry yet in one of gaming's most accomplished franchises. Gone are the usual cheeky voice acting and 3D exploration, but in their place are a slew of enjoyable mini-games, stunning mission variety, and precise controls. Even better is the long-awaited (and arguably long-needed) option to restart a mission directly from its originating point. And the trademark compelling/offbeat storyline? Still present, and as culturally pertinent as ever. After the disappointment of the "Stories" titles on PSP, Chinatown Wars shows that this sort of gameplay can be done right on a portable system.
My favorite PSP game. While Jeanne D'Arc lacks the complexity of Disgaea and the revered status of Final Fantasy Tactics (whose War of the Lions PSP port I find to be one of the more overrated and problematic—read: "blurry"—releases on the system), it is a turn-based role-playing masterpiece that oozes polish. Featuring a surprisingly strong storyline told primarily in beautiful anime cutscenes, Jeanne tells a magic-realism version of the history of France's Joan of Arc. Rather than a self-righteous nutball, the game's version of Joan is soft-spoken and empathetic, and she surrounds herself with a very likeable supporting cast. The graphics are crisp and fluid. Music and voice acting are top-notch. Gameplay offers just the right mix of straightforwardness and customization, and never relies on level grinding. Level 5 (of Professor Layton fame) has proven time and again that it is one of the best development studios in the biz, and Jeanne D'Arc is one of its brightest achievements.
As gorgeous as it is frustrating, Killzone: Liberation is the semi-sequel to the PS2 original that requires a great deal of patience to appreciate. On the one hand, Liberation offers one of the most unique shooting experiences on the system and is arguably the most well-rounded Killzone game in the trilogy (yes, even the online multiplayer—available as a downloadable patch—is quite fun). On the other hand, the game is very, very hard in some spots, and getting through the entire game, including the unlockable fifth chapter, will test many a gamer's willpower. Still, those with the perseverance will likely find the effort worth it, as Liberation makes for an exciting and compelling lead-in to Killzone 2's more complicated storyline. Just watch out for those spider bombs.
While it lacks the multiplayer fun of its big brother, the PSP version of Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet is every bit the attractive, inventive platformer. Complete with a thriving library of user-designed levels, LittleBigPlanet PSP offers the same assortment of beautiful graphics, addictive collectibles, and crazy packed-in levels… but you can play it on the bus. As with MotorStorm: Arctic Edge, it's more of the same, but that's not a bad thing. Not at all. In fact, I'd call it one of 2009's best portable games.
Speaking of great 2009 portable games…. Your tolerance for LocoRoco's saccharin color scheme and relentlessly upbeat atmosphere will hinge on your acceptance of all things Japanese and quirky, but if you go with it (and don't mind the endless singing), you'll find a magnificent sequel and a great platformer in its own right. LocoRoco 2 has you pressing the L and R buttons, tilting the game world, as your colorful blob goes on a search for other blobs to… ehem… absorb. In the process, you'll jump, swing, woosh through the air, slip through tunnels, operate a bizarre arrangement of mad scientist-like gears and levers, and don an afro. Yup, an afro. It's all pretty weird and delightful… and fans of the original have no reason to pass up the sequel.
MotorStorm: Arctic Edge
If you've played either of the PS3 iterations of MotorStorm, you've played Artic Edge. It features the same diverse array of outdoor environments with branching paths, the same crazy assortment of vehicles that have no business racing against one another, and the same sense of blazing, "Did my little dude just splat against that rock?" speed. Some reviewers knocked the game for its sense of sameness, but on the PSP, I'd call that an impressive achievement. Obviously, the graphics aren't on par with the stunning original and Pacific Rift, but they're admirable all the same. Unless you're entirely burnt out on the MotorStorm games, consider Arctic Edge worthy of your $40. It's one of the best racing titles on the system.
Another great 2009 title! A marked improvement over its barely-older progenitor, Patapon 2 expands upon the series' simple, beat-based gameplay with highly customizable and upgradeable units, leader units, and less of a feeling of randomness to item drops. Stunning cartoon graphics, hum-worthy rhythms, and nicely paced difficulty curve round out one of the best budget offerings on the system.
Pixeljunk Monsters: Deluxe
Monsters Deluxe marks Q-Games' first offering for the PSP, and it's a remarkably successful one. Featuring all of the same addictive gameplay of its PS3 counterpart, this downloadable exclusive is a must-own for anyone who always wanted to check out Pixeljunk Monsters' terrific tower defense gameplay but lacked the hardware.
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords
After subsequent releases on the PC, iPhone, Xbox Live, Wii, and PS3, chances are you already know about Puzzle Quest. For anyone who doesn't, just think Bejewled mixed with spells and hit points. The PSP version lacks the Plague Lord expansion pack found in some other copies, but it's still probably the best fit for Puzzle Quest's highly addictive pick-up-and-play gameplay, featuring crisper graphics than the Nintendo DS version. I became so addicted to the PSP game that I developed a bout of eye strain-related headaches and was forced to part with it… only to purchase it again on the PS3. So be forewarned: Puzzle Quest might just eat away at your free time like Kirby on a bender.
Grossly underrated by the gaming press, Sony Bend's take on Insomniac's famous FPS series is a fresh and lengthy addition to the PSP's rather underwhelming 3D shooter library. Bend decided to eschew the team's previous Syphon Filter FPS-style control scheme in favor of an automated target selection system… and I was quite impressed with the results. Not having to mess around with aiming via the face buttons frees the player up to deal with taking cover and switching weapons on the fly. It makes for exciting and seamless portable gameplay, and somehow doesn't manage to hurt the online multiplayer (which is relatively strong for the system) in the process. Cool mech-suit levels, huge enemies, and nicely hidden secrets (which actually add to the atmosphere, unlike Resistance 2's dull easter eggs) add a thick layer of polish to what is otherwise a very nice, mature shooting gallery.
Sega Genesis Collection
The PSP is the system of choice for collection-lovers. It's home to three Capcom Classics collections, a Metal Slug Anthology, the Power Stone Collection, the Gradius Collection, two Pinball Hall of Fame titles, the requisite Atari and Namco collections, and more. Perhaps the best of these is Sega's Genesis Collection, which includes such fondly remembered titles as Golden Axe, Sonic the Hedgehog, Vectorman, Comix Zone, Ecco the Dolphin, and perhaps most notably, Phantasy Star IV. Historical tidbits and unlockables abound. Of course, not every inclusion is a winner (Flicky and Gained Ground, ughhh) and it would have been nice to see more Sonic titles and the Streets of Rage series, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a better assortment of classic games on the cheap (around $10 for the UMD version, $20 on PSN) for the PSP.
Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow
Sony Bend's magnum opus prior to Resistance: Retribution may not feature that game's nifty targeting system, but it does have a wealth of well designed missions, exceptional 3D graphics, and a truly exciting end-game. Think Splinter Cell without a lot of the "wussy" stealth. Not much on plot, voice acting, or enemy A.I., but a completely enjoyable spy game nonetheless.
When a portable version of a brand new, top-tier fighting game installment is touted as being every bit as good as its console brethren, you know it's something special. Not entirely surprising, given how terrific Namco's work on the PSP version of Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection was. Tekken 6 on PSP is not to be missed by fans of portable fighting, and it may even be worth a purchase over the 360 and PS3 versions. At least you don't have to sift through that awful solo mode.
It's really a toss-up between Pure and Pulse as to which WipEout PSP game is better, but Pulse is the newer and flashier title, so I'd probably recommend this one over its forebear. If you've played WipEout HD on the PS3, a lot of this game will look remarkably familiar (that game features the same layout and courses in addition to content from Pure), but if you haven't, some of the most beautiful graphics and effects ever seen on a handheld await you.
Definitely Worth a Look
The following games aren't necessarily what I'd call "must-buys," but they are worth checking out for fans of their particular genres.
Capcom Classics Collection: Remixed
Disgaea 2: Dark Hero Days
Dissidia: Final Fantasy
Hot Shots Golf: Open Tee 2
Jak & Daxter: The Lost Frontier
Mega Man: Maverick Hunter X
Metal Slug Anthology
Midnight Club: LA Remix
Pinball Hall of Fame: The Gottlieb Collection
Power Stone Collection
Street Fighter Alpha 3 Max
Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror
Tomb Raider: Anniversary
Ultimate Ghosts and Goblins
If You've Got the Time and Money to Spare…
While by no means terrible or lackluster titles, these games are probably worth checking out only if you have the time, money, and have already looked into those listed above. I should note that I'm not a particularly big fan of Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, but enough people have enjoyed the extremely awkward pseudo RPG that I feel I owe the game a nod here.
Capcom Classics Collection: Reloaded
Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
Dark Stalkers Chronicle: The Dark Tower
Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions
Guilty Gear: Judgment
LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy
Mini: Pinball Fantasies
Monster Hunter Freedom: Unite
No Gravity: Plague of the Mind
Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero?
Pursuit Force: Extreme Justice
SOCOM: Fireteam Bravo 2
Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny
Compared to the impressive offerings on the Japanese PSN storefront, the smattering of PSOne titles available for download in the US and UK have been, let's say… anemic. Still, there are some titles worth checking out there, particularly given the opportunity to take them on the go. For example, Crash Bandicoot has held up surprisingly well over the years, and still looks quite good on the PSP's slick screen.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Note: If you purchase Dracula X Chronicles, you do NOT need to purchase Symphony of the Night, as it is included as an unlockable extra.)
Final Fantasy VII
Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver
Metal Gear Solid
Resident Evil 2
Resident Evil 3: Nemesis