Review of the Month; PSP and PSVita

Looking for a comprehensive history chart of handheld consoles turned out to be a useless exercise. The reason why I wanted to start with a chart like was to illustrate the design that across the ages game consoles have followed very similar design ideas, and the reason why this has happened is because there’s pretty much exactly two methods how to make a handheld console to work; vertical and horizontal. These two just work, there isn’t really any other way you put the screen without making the playing awkward in a way or another.

SONY’s handheld console line has been mainly using horizontal approach. This is mainly due to the screen that governs the face of the consoles. PlayStation Portable Go is an exception to the rule, which shows that you can have vertical design. The underlying sliding mechanics of Go allowed SONY to cram PSP into a far smaller size, thou I have heard some contradictory reports on the quality of the buttons. Unlike with the 3Ds review, I will review PSP and PS Vita with each, and as I don’t have an access to Go, it’ll have to be a separate curiosity. If I ever get my hands on it, I’ll review its design as well. The reason to this is that neither console saw any truly different iterations in their lifetime (outside Go), and as such the two allow a good point of comparisons how SONY moved from PSP to Vita.

The versions that I will use in this review are PSP-2004 and PCH-2016. Both are second versions of their respective console series, so the comparison point is either little off or spot on depending how you want to view it. I would’ve wanted to review the first versions, but I don’t have access to them. I’m using a pair of PS3 controller as stands for this review.

All those scratches and fingerprints. They may feel and look nice, but both of them attract high amounts of greasy fingerprints and scratches. I use screenguards for a good reason
All those scratches and fingerprints. They may feel and look nice at first, but both of them attract high amounts of greasy fingerprints and scratches. I use screenguards for a good reason. Sadly, a bubble slipped under Vita’s guard, and I’m too cheap to change it

One thing SONY always seems to emphasize with their consoles is that they feel nicely build. They’re sturdy. They don’t feel flimsy, they’re tight. Perhaps most importantly, they feel expensive. This is to differentiate the portable PlayStation line from its competitors and make a statement of worth. They make it rather well too, especially with overall glossy colouring and selected areas of silver with PSP, and overall uniform heft with Vita.

Silver in PSP goes around the console and that neat ring in the back, showcasing the spot where the UMD will be spinning, or as it often seems to be, not spinning because the drive is broken. Mine is working, though I've had to tweak it few times
Silver in PSP goes around the console and that neat ring in the back, showcasing the spot where the UMD will be spinning, or as it often seems to be, not spinning because the drive is broken. Mine is working, though I’ve had to tweak it few times. I also have a guard on the touchpad on Vita’s back. Note that Vita’s backside has matte plastic where there is no touch function, separating it. PSP has that glossy black all over, though I admit I personally do feel PSP’s plastic feels a bit cheap

However, there are few places on both PSP and Vita where this aim for higher worth is betrayed. With PSP the very first thing is the UMD drive. When opening the drive door, you notice that the door is very thin plastic and the metal parts are equally as flimsy. It does not only look untrusty, but feels like that too. The UMD format neat in of itself, but SONY should’ve used MiniDisc rather than invent a new format. The discs are relatively well protected, much like the drive they’re inserted, they feel flimsy. Their appearance is also rather toyetic, unlike the MiniDisc that still looks good to this day. It’s weird to see a handheld that aims to be rather mature in design only have relatively immature looking disc format.

The drive itself has a neat design, but it feels so damn cheap
The drive itself has a neat design, but it feels so damn flimsy. You could just snap it off just like that

That is not the only piece that feels cheap with PSP. The memory card slot is protected by a piece of hard plastic that is connected by soft plastic. The outward appearance is decent and follows the overall curves of the console, but feel and back of the piece lack any sort of refinement. Of course, the idea is that you don’t see behind it but once or twice. The Vita remedied this problem by having all the pieces uniform in colour and having much more stylised look to them. The pieces are very small and don’t come to mind too often, but details tend to mount fast over the larger strokes.

Vita's memory card slot has cleaner design too, but these two are the prominent ones on the systems
Vita’s memory card slot has cleaner design too, but these two are the prominent ones on the systems. Notice the small hole for the speaker on PSP, and how much gunk the PSP’s slide pad has gathered through all these years. I should clean that out, it looks filthy

Speaking of the larger strokes, let’s dive into the overall design of the consoles, starting with the PSP.

For its time, the PSP was a surprisingly flat handheld console, which kept getting flatter with each new variant. Flatness in itself is not a problem while playing a game, however, as the curves on each side of the console follow the natural geometry of human hands. This allows much more comfortable grip and puts the L and R buttons at a nice place for fingers to push them. In this general shape the PSP follows the GameBoy Advance, except it doesn’t have additional bulk in the back to conform more to the hands. This is unlike with the 3DS consoles, where the flatness and straight surfaces make playing games less comfortable.

The curves also dictate the placement of the buttons. When you grab the console, your thumbs should fall into place without any tweaking. PSP’s main action buttons are rather large, only a tad smaller than PS3 controller’s. Their distance is relatively the same as well, meaning that you should have easy time transitioning from a PlayStation controller to the PSP. The buttons themselves are slightly mushy and have a surprising amount of horizontal movement. They are nevertheless very responsive and have a nice tactile feedback to them, better than what either 3DS XL models have. The D-Pad on the other hand is a standard SONY fare. PSP’s D-Pad has 1mm smaller in circumference than PS3’s and is made of same hard crystal clear plastic as the action buttons. Because of this it feels more slippery and feels harder to play with. SONY’s D-Pads are rather love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing, but it is a sound design. It would’ve been better to use a textured surface on the D-Pad, but that would’ve broken the visual style of the console.

The Vita builds up from PSP’s base, curves and all. However, this time your thumbs fall unto buttons that are smaller than previously. While you’d think this would make the console smaller, the Vita is actually wider and higher console than the PSP, but it is about one-third thinner. There are two main things that separate Vita’s design from PSP. The first is that the Vita has no real corners in its design, it is very smooth console that has eliminated most if not all tight curves to sit in the hands more naturally. The second is that the touch surface in the behind has now created a need for intended space for the rest of the fingers. The Vita has two over regions in the back where you can have your middle fingers rest against or whatever position you feel the most comfortable with. However, as the touch area is rather large, the ovals are spaced rather close to the edges of the system, which can feel cramped to larger hands. I often find my middle fingers going beyond the ovals, but no game has taken any problems with this yet.

PSP used the same menu system as PS3. It works and is surprisingly compact, all thing considered
PSP used the same menu system as PS3. It works and is surprisingly compact, all thing considered

Vita’s smaller action buttons are similar in feel with the PSP’s, hard transparent plastic and all, but this time instead of having zebra rubber underneath them they sit on top of pushbuttons on the PCB. This changes feeling drastically, but on the long run it’s up to opinion which one feels better. The pushbutton ones don’t have any mushiness to them, but their tactile feedback is very sharp with not in-between zone. Personally, I’m am more worried about how long the buttons will last. On PSP I can always change the rubber underneath if it goes bad, but for PCB mounted pushbuttons I need to de-solder old ones off. The D-Pad is the same, pushbuttons underneath. However, the design has changed from previous SONY D-Pads, now being one whole unit instead of four separated directions. It is also smaller, but it feels nice. This is due to the fact that the plastic is different from previously. Yes, it is still transparent and glossy, but there is more friction to it. Without a doubt one of the best D-Pads out there, better than what the 3DS has to offer.

Both systems’ L and R buttons follow the overall shape of their consoles and are almost identical in feel. The main difference in them, outside the shape, is that the Vita allows the shoulder buttons to be pushed down from whatever point you wish. With the PSP you need to press from the corners because of pivot point inside. This is a clear design evolution to accommodate more hand sizes and ways of holding the console.

Both consoles’ function buttons (Start, Select etc) feel the exact same with pushbuttons on the PCB underneath. This clicky nature works for them, especially on PSP, where they are differentiated from the main buttons. Vita’s volume buttons placement is extremely strange, as instead of placing them somewhere easily accessible, they reside on top of the console between the game card slot and the R-Button. The Power button is opposite to them, which does feel more natural. The reason to this placement is because the face of the console was already full. Underneath the D-Pad you have the left stick and Menu button and underneath the action buttons you have the right stick, Start and Select. Both consoles’ faces’ are governed by their large screens. With PSP these buttons were placed under the screen in a more or less logical manner with other buttons, but it does make a busy looking face and in the end doesn’t look very good. With Vita the screen’s surroundings were cleaned, leaving only SONY and PSVITA logo above and under it. It does look better, but because of this some functionality is lost.

Vita has two sticks, which overall feel very nice and play games fine. They are better than PSP’s or 3DS’s Slide pads, but take more room. Perhaps they could’ve been slightly smaller by a millimetre or two. I don’t really play games that utilise them too much, so they’re a bit waste on me. However, shooting games likes Soldier Blade play really damn well.

Vita’s menu system uses bubbles, which looks gimmicky. If you want your themes to stand out, you need to position them properly. Both swiping the screen with your finger and using the D-Pad works just as fine. An interesting thing about this is that open Applications reside right, as in you swipe the screen to the left to access them. It works surprisingly well, eliminating some button usage

Handheld consoles never really had good speakers, but SONY tries to make them at least properly serviceable. The PSP has small speakers both sides of the screen, just angled up from the D-Pad and the action buttons. This is a good placement as the sound is not obstructed, but their relative closeness can cause some stereo to be lost. Vita on the other has its speakers on the very edges of the system, causing them to be under your thumbs. The sound quality doesn’t take a too large hit from this, but the closer your thumbs are to the surface of the console, the more muffled the sound will be. Of course, headphones are recommended when it comes to playing handheld games, but that doesn’t excuse the awkward if not stupid placement. I assume that the speaker elements are large enough to require more space, unlike the camera unit that’s residing just next to the action buttons.

This spot for a speaker is really damn weird
This spot for a speaker is really damn weird. This is also a nice indicator of the amount of fingerprints and how they stay on the system even after you’ve just showered. Vita attracts fingerprints and scratch marks like no other

Speaking of the camera, the only hard corners on the console can be found on its back on the main camera unit. For whatever reason it’s not smooth as the rest of the console, making it a bit curious spot.

Overall speaking, PSP and PSVita showcase the stronger suite in SONY’s design. The PSP still stands in terms of comfort and design when playing games on it, but the Vita is better in almost every respect. Hell, Vita’s battery life alone is an incredible improvement. In terms of design alone, they beat the DS and 3DS fair and square, but their library was weak. Vita is essentially dead in the water with no real games to carry it. All it is getting are ports, sequels or remakes. After some time, most of its games are ported to other platforms. The Vita has been made a useless console even by its own company, as SONY is pushing Gravity Rush for the PS4.

PSP was a neat console with only a  handful of unique games, and that will be Vita’s fate as well. It is sad to see a handheld console with such great design wasted.

“Have you ever heard of Adol Christin?”

In 1987 a small yet important computer game was released by Nihon Falcon. This game was Ancient Ys Vanished Omens for the PC-88.

As a side note, Ys is pronounced iːsɯ, much like ease.

The story begins with a small boy hearing of incredible tales of goddesses and devils, of heroes and villains. This young boy grows with these stories of old and at age leaves his home to travel to the world as an adventurer. With blazing red hair and just heart, this man would be known throughout the lands. Adol Christin would bind his name to the history of the world.

I had a good paragraph about the start, but then I remembered that this existed

Be sure to check at least this one

Adol wakes up a little hurt in the town of Minea. He has managed to break through the storm relatively safely. However, not everything is as it seems, as he soon hears that Esteria is overrun by monsters and demons. Silver has gone missing, people have been killed and the land seems to be in peril. Adol, the adventurer he is, takes matters in his own hands and solve the mystery what’s going on.

He is called upon by the fortune teller named Sara, who tells Adol that he might be the one told in the legends. She informs Adol of Six Books of Ys that he must seek in order to unravel not only the mystery behind the recent uprising of evil, but the history of Esteria itself. She also gives Adol her Crystal, as with this her aunt will recognize Adol as the one whom Sara has been talking about in her visions. With this knowledge Adol roams through Esteria, striking down evil in his path.

Adol meets with Sara’s aunt in the Zepik Village, where he hears more about the Books of Ys. He is instructed to wonder to the Shrine of Solomon, an old shrine dedicated to the Goddesses of Ys, which now lays in ruins. In the Shrine Adol finds a maiden locked in a dungeon. Her name is Feena, and she knows nothing else, not even how long she has been imprisoned in the dungeon. Adol escorts Feena back to the Zepik Village before wandering deeper to the Palace and defeating the monstrous guardian keeping the unwanted guests away from the one of the Books of Ys.

The Palace of Salomon and the Darm Tower

During his travels Adol meets with the high Roda Tree, and eats one of its fruits and thus gains the understanding of the ancient language of the Roda trees. He also returns to Sara to deliver the news about the Books he has acquired, only to to hear that she has been murdered. Adol also meets with another maiden named Reah, who is sad that her only memento the Silver Harmonica has been stolen as well. However, as Adol ascents the Minea’s mine he stumbles upon this harmonica and delivers it to Reah. However, in the same abandoned mine Adol founds yet another Book, again watched over by a guardian of evil origins.

Adol has found pieces of Silver Equipment as he has travelled, gaining more strength and courage to meet the dangers lying ahead in the Tower of Death, or the Darm Tower as it’s known. Before entering this high tower of no-return, he visits Feena.

Upon entering the Darm Tower, Adol is shut in. A group of thieves have made the base of the tower their headquarters in order to guard that no evil shall leave the tower. Goban, the leader, knows of the Books and the legends surrounding the ancient land of Ys.

The Darm Tower is a high place, filled with monsters, treasures and traps. Here Adol meets his long time travel companion, Dogi. Dogi’s well known for busting through walls of stone, and here he busts Adol out of dungeon he has been trapped into. He also finds more Books in the Tower… and find Reah in the tower as well. Reah allowed herself to be captured so that she could give Adol a magical item to ensure that he will make to the very top of the tower where answers lye.

At the very top of the Darm Tower stands the one who has been behind all the evil at large; Dark Fact. With his black cloak and blue skin, he commands an army of monsters and demons. He too has been seeking the Books and is the one who has been collecting all the silver. Challenging Adol into a fight over his possessions, he is defeated in a fierce battle, where magical Silver Equipment of Adol clash with the fires of Dark Fact.

Here we find the truth behind the Books of Ys and Dark Fact; the Books are the key to access the Land of Ys, floating far above in the sky amidst the clouds. As the power of the Books of Ys is released, Adol is propelled into the sky as Feena and Reah watch over him. Seven hundred years ago the Land of Ys faced rising evil from within. The two Goddesses had created the Black Pearl which granted the land wealth, fortune and the magic. However, soon they found that for every good bit of cleria it produced the evil within was tainting the Black Pearl, giving birth to the evil that is Darm.

Honestly, To Make End of Battle is my favourite rockin’ intro tune

Adol is found by a young woman named Lilia near the Ruins of Mondooria alongside the Books of Ys. She takes him to her house where Lilia and her grandmother take care of Adol’s wounds. When Adol is wakes up, he is astonished to hear where he truly is. Upon stepping to the edge of the world, seeing glimpse of the Darm Tower below with the crater where Ys once stood, he decides to continue his journey which started when he broke through the storm barrier. Stepping into the Ruins of Moondooria and the Noble District of Toal, Adol learns the tales of Ys from the Priests whom the Books belong to, and is granted the privilege to wield magic by the two Goddesses. He is instructed to march towards the Ice Ridges of Noltia, where more of Darm’s protectors await him.

The land of Ys is overrun by demons, controlled from the high Palace of Salomon, where the Black Pearl resides. Inside and beyond the Moat of Burnedbless waits new friends and new enemies, struggles and moments of happiness. All this time Adol has pressed onwards despite of the misfortunes he has seen and the demons he have had to slay. Ultimately, will the the evils of heart corrupt the magic he is wielding…?

In the end, we all know what a brave heart can accomplish.

Darm defeated, the Land of Ys is returned back to it’s rightful place on the land of Esteria, joining the long separated people together again.

Adol Christin, and the Goddesses of Ys

The above story is a very condensed version of the overall plot from the two first Ys games. Originally it was supposed to be one massive game, but PC-88 and the floppy discs of the time couldn’t handle that much data, so they decided to split the game in two. A wise decision, looking how larger and more refined Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished ~ The Final Chapter is. Alongside the Legend of Zelda, Ys is the game series that truly set into stone what it is to be an action RPG… alongside Hydlide, but the less we talk about Hydlide the better.

Ys I & II has been ported numerous times, and remade few times around. The first remake was for the PC-Engine, where the already good music got instrumental treatment. Sega Saturn version upped the ante even higher, only to be topped by Ys Eternal games released in the early 2000’s, which were later ported to the PSP with remade music. With every new incarnation the two original stories have become more elaborate, the battle system more refined and leanient, and the music has had new fittings.

What separated Ys from the bulk of action RPGs of the time, or even now, is the lack of battle system. The system itself is simple; you ram the enemy either in an angle, or just so that your sprite is off from the middle line from the enemies’ sprite. The rest is handled by how much Attack and Defence you have. There’s a kind of satisfaction to ram into your enemies, slice them into pieces and continue onwards. Of course, the boss battles become interesting in their own regard, as you’re ramming them in the same manner. In this regard Ys is a really fast paced game with no real moments to breathe. Ys II throws magic into the mix, basically changing some of the fights into light a STG. The main form of magic the player uses, the Fire Ball, is useful to attack enemies from afar, and for better or worse majority of Ys II’s bosses can only be damaged with the Fire Ball.

Ys I & II had the same development team that would later continue with Enix’s Soul Blader, Illusion of Gaia/Time and Terranigma. You can see the influence Ys had over them in every regard, even in the story. One of the main composers for Ys I & II was Yuzo Koshiro, best known for his Streets of Rage and Actraiser compositions among others. However, Yuzo Koshiro’s best works in my opinion can be found in Ys and assortments of PC-88/89 games like Misty Blue.

While extremely rough on the sides, Yuzo Koshiro’s early works really show how good the man was with FM-music. Later on he kinda mangled with real instruments and lost some of the awesome beats going on

If you wondering if that’s all for Ys I & II, you’re right. Ys is a minimalistic game with decent scale. None of its versions have grandiose FMVs outside intros and endings. Ys has been made by design to be a game first and story after. However, it all blends well together in a cohesive narrative, the music completing both story scenes, and more importantly, the main gameplay. In essence, Ys doesn’t need anything more than it already has. The overblown modern RPGs with complete orchestral music and plots that go about killing gods and becoming some sort of saviour to whole universes is something that Ys as a whole has managed to avoid, while pretty much every other RPG game, action or not, has fallen into the same pit. Granted, Dragon Quest did play fun on killing God by making Him a hidden boss, who even then plays it as a joke and tells the player “now you’re strong enough to kill even a God! Hohoho!”

With the success of the two first Ys games, Nihon Falcom decided to do a third game in the series. Following the same lines of thought as Nintendo with Zelda II, it was to be a 2D sidescrolling ARPG. Not the best of decision if you ask the fandom, but even this game has some good points in the gameplay, namely the chainsaw sword mechanic that basically allows you to saw through hoards of enemies… that is if you have good enough stats. The game was a hit & miss overall, but there’s one thing they overdid themselves; the music.

Listen to these two back to back

While Ys III ~Wanderers from Ys has been labelled the black sheep of the series, it has also been regarded to have the best music in the series, a sentiment I share. Much like Ys I & II, Wanderers got a remake in the mid-2000’s named Ys ~ The Oath in Felghana (OiF). This was the second time Ys series stepped into 3D, first being Ys VI ~ The Ark of Naphistim which was released some years earlier. OiF actually uses Naphistim’s refined game engine and Falcom has fine tuned this game to take every bit out of it. The gameplay, while in 3D, is still as fast as in Ys I & II with very similar magic system. What Nintendo failed to do with their 2D games Falcom succeeded; they managed to take everything that made the original two games so good and implanted them into 3D. Ark of Naphistim, while good and balanced, had some rough parts that made the game a little degrading here and there, but all that’s gone in Oath in Felghana. And the remade music happens to the best soundtrack in any video game. While I’m usually allowing myself to be swayed into a direction or another when discussing subjective matters, I will stand with my opinion that Oath in Felghana has the best soundtrack thus in any video game. I’m going to go a bit overboard here, but while some game series gets remixes after remixes after remixes, Ys’ original soundtracks have always been able to stand on their own. If you want to hear remixes, check out Ryo Yonemitsu’s remasters of Ys I & II on Perfect Collection. This man knew how to use a synthesizer.

Now you’re probably wondering why you should care about Ys. The question more likely is why the are you not caring about Ys. Ys has had more hidden impact on the game culture than you’d think. Vast majority of the western video game culture barely knows anything that has happened on PC-88. We mostly think that game music started sound like music somewhere around NES came around. Just listen to The Scheme’s track a little bit above again. Ys was one of the big things that really made video game music into a thing. It’s one of the earliest things ever to sell a music CD. Back in the 80’s it was almost unheard of that people were buying midi music because of a game. However, where Ys most hit was that it was a very well crafted game with good attention to detail. By it’s own rights Ys was an important step towards future games, even if west never really found about it until much later on. You can find small bits and pieces of Ys on lot of late 8-bit and 16-bit era games, which then have affected games at large.

It’s not just music that Ys is well known in Japan. It’s all the previously mentioned things; the battle mechanics, the minimalistic yet complete approach to the game design and the attention to details. While the same developers did make arguably better games in form of Illusion of Gaia/Time, one can’t help but see that the additional mechanics and size make the later games more convoluted and mugged down. The core of the Ys games didn’t carry over to their later works. Whoever is in charge of current Ys games since The Ark of Naphistim knows what he/she doing. This person might just be one of the few surviving game designers that know what a game needs to be.

There has been more Ys games than just mentioned here; Ys IV; Mask of Sun / The Dawn of Ys, a game that got two different version for Super Famicom and PC-Engine from two different developers under Falcom’s license (which is now getting a remake on PSVita named The Great Forests of Celcetta); Ys V ~ The Lost City of Kefin, which is pretty bland game overall and put Ys into Ys for some years; Ys VI ~The Ark of Naphistim, a game that relaunched the series into new era; Ys Origin, a prequel to this all and Ys Seven, a PSP exclusive game with a whole new engine. If I ever find proper interest outside my own, I’ll go through each Ys game mentioned here in some form.

Personally, Ys is a series close to my heart. Somewhere around 2003 I wandered the Internet for information about a game called Popful Mail. I have no recollection how I stumbled against this game, but I found Hardcore Gaming 101 through Google, and the few first paragraphs of the article they mention Ys. I’ve always been big on 80’s anime style for some reason, and the game series seemed really damn interesting from what article went over. Ultimately, I decided to check out the music, and I fell in love. I couldn’t really get my hands on Japanese-only PC ARPG series back in the day (saying that makes me feel old), but after seeing the trailer for Ys VI and the announcement that it would come to PS2 with Konami’s porting, I was excited. Getting my hands on Japanese console games wasn’t anything that hard. Ys VI’s trailer still hits like a million volts for me, as the Release of Far West Ocean is slightly different from anything else.

While you’re at it, track down vocal CD known as The Songs of Zemeth

Sad truth was that it was most likely that Ys VI would never see a release in West. I’m quite happy to say that my ponderings were wrong and that it did not only get released in the US, but in Europe as well. They luckily dropped the VI from the title (West never got IV or V) and The Ark of Naphistim was the fist Ys game to many new players around the world. While I had my hands on Ys Eternal before that I’d like to think The Ark of Naphistim my first Ys game. I’m extremely happy to see PSP release of Oath in Felghana in West as well, as well as the presence of Ys Seven. In the future I’ll be supporting anyone who’s bringing more Falcom games to the west, like the Legend of Heroes; Trails in the Sky.

It’s nearly been ten years since I got into Ys. It’s interesting to see how one game company has kept the core of a single series so close to its roots and still produces new successful games based on the same core idea. While Nintendo continues making non-Zelda Zelda games and CAPCOM keeps shitting on their fans, Falcom seems to like money and produce quality products. While I might rave on how Falcom needs more exposure and people should buy their games, there’s really no need. Ys has found its audience some time ago, and new fans are introduced to the series with every new game released in the West. While the games still sell, the fact is that Ys series is getting a little old with each game. I see no end to the series as such, but with Ys Seven there are marks that Ys has very little to do with the Land of Ys any more. However, renaming the franchise any other way would be bad decision as well, so we’ll have bear with it. Whether or not a series this old will keep surviving is a good question that I have no answer. As long as they can keep the core same in the future iterations as well, Ys might just survive next video game crash when it comes. I’m not sure about other third party products without their millions of dollars behind their driving force. The future is uncertain, but just like Adol, we’ll just have to walk onwards with a smile on our faces and courage burning in our hearts.

And oh, the core Ys games? Simple and fun gameplay with good music.