Rather than ushering in anything radically new, the manufacturers have tweaked what their respective machines did well four years ago and filled in a few gaps – or repeated the same mistakes.
With Nintendo basking in Wii’s ascendancy while Sony looked for PlayStation 3’s escape velocity, the new handhelds were never going to be top priority. A shame, given the achievements of both portables – most obviously with the 80 million-selling DS, whose clever Touch Generations! games prepared the ground for both Wii’s radical control system and gaming’s push into the mainstream, but also for PSP, which once looked space age, provided top-up booster rations for several UK studios during the transition period, and which has itself sold an under-appreciated 40 million units.
Looking at the revamped Nintendo DSi first, the most immediately significant new feature is its dual cameras. Pundits bemoaning the lens’ lack of megapixels make the same mistake as those who scratched their heads at the stylus back in 2004: Nintendo has once again given inventive developers new tools with which to build innovative gameplay, and has already announced first-party fruit with the DSi-exclusive WarioWare: Photograph. At the least allowing for EyeToy gameplay in amusing public places, these two cameras will surely spark something unexpected before long.
The other big hardware change is an SD card slot plus built-in flash memory, and DS owners will now be able download games and other software from Nintendo’s DSi Shop – none of which needs much explaining these days. A console without the capacity to store and run substantial downloaded software is becoming as antiquated as a personal computer with a cassette deck, so the DS needed to catch up – though Nintendo will probably use these features to tackle piracy more than claw back revenues from retailers to begin with. Nobody can really expect an App Store-esque anything goes approach from Kyoto, but paid-up DS developers will doubtless be doing something unprecedented with downloadable content before long, too, potentially rousing the Japanese market from its recent apathy towards Nintendo’s once-revered machine.
Elsewhere, the DSi offers minor cosmetic and functional improvements such as a bigger screen and better speakers. Then again, that’s really all Sony’s PSP-3000 brings to the table. There’s even some debate as to whether the PSP-3000’s brighter screen is actually an improvement, while you’d need to be a Spot the Ball superstar to see much difference between PSP Slim & Lite and the 3000 model without your glasses.
The only hardware innovation of note is the addition of a built-in microphone, which will at least save owners from having to suffer the turkey in Talkman that I endured to get hold of one. While the built-in mic allied with Skype means the long-rumoured PSP phone can now be a cobbled-together half-reality, the DS always had a mic, and few developers will support it in gameplay when there are so many deaf PSPs about.
Backwards-compatibility would hamstring Sony even if it had wanted to introduce a touchscreen, accelerometer or the other sexy additions its fans anticipated. Rather, PSP continues to offer a steadily less remarkable portable multimedia experience, allied to suite of sometimes-excellent games that have failed to shrug off an air of déjà vu on a funny disc.
It’s particularly ironic that having just released the defining game of this console generation – Media Molecule’s superlative user-generated, Internet-enabled playground, LittleBigPlanet – Sony has left PSP’s potential for sharing, swapping gameplay go stillborn. That it’s only with firmware 5.0 that you can access the PlayStation Store directly via PSP says it all.
DSi and PSP-3000 won’t set the world alight, then, nor distract the industry from the ongoing living room battle. Given the consoles’ still fresh-ish 120 million combined installed base, you can understand why Nintendo and Sony would prefer to sweat their assets rather than risk radical surgery. But with mobile phones and Apple’s devices encroaching daily on their territory, both handhelds must spawn spectacular sequels come 2010.