There’s nothing quite like a good console war to get the pulse racing and when Sony’s director of hardware marketing John Koller recently talked trash about Nintendo’s DSi he was merely adhering to a tried-and-tested principle that has been with us since the days of the ZX Spectrum and C64: pouring scorn on your rivals is undeniably good for business.
However, while much of what Koller had to say was purely intended to make his own product sound more desirable to what has so far been a relatively apathetic western audience, some of his points actually carry weight.
“Significant gamer demographic groups are being ignored,” squawked Koller, and although he failed to pinpoint who the shunned groups were, a passing glance at the Nintendo DS section of your local software boutique should give you a fairly solid indication of who the console is being marketed at these days.
Let's just say Imagine Fashion Model and Baby Pals possess a fairly narrow focus.
Alas, it’s the age-old ‘casual versus hardcore’ argument all over again. Both of Nintendo’s current machines are almost explicitly aimed at the ‘non-gamer’ section of society: people who don’t have a history of playing video games and appreciate a title that they can pick up and learn in the time it takes to brew a cup of tea (rumours that Ubisoft is currently working on Imagine Tea Break are unfounded at this moment in time, but it wouldn’t stop our hearts from beating, to be honest.)
For whatever reason - be it the lack of the ‘casual-friendly’ touchscreen interface or the technological advantage it has over the DS - the PSP has become the hardcore gamer’s machine of choice almost by default. If you don’t warm to the concept of babysitting virtual pets then you really only have one other portable avenue to travel down, and that’s Sony’s.
Nintendo’s console may have depth of support when it comes to third-party publishers but the three key ‘hardcore’ game disciplines - shooters, fighters and role-playing games - are all extraordinarily well represented on Sony’s handheld.
Since its release in 2005 we’ve seen PSP games such as Metal Slug Anthology, King of Fighters Collection: The Orochi Saga, Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, Street Fighter Alpha 3, Capcom Classics Collection Remixed, Resistance: Retribution and Gradius Collection.
If you cast the net even further to include import-only releases then you can add the likes of Salamander Portable, Parodius Portable, Sengoku Cannon, Macross: Ace Frontier, Star Soldier Collection, Princess Crown and (more recently) Mobile Suit Gundam: Senjou no Kizuna Portable, which is currently selling like hot cakes in its native Japan.
Of course, just because your typical DS game is aimed at ten-year-old girls who like horses doesn’t mean that the platform is lacking in similarly ‘hardcore’ experiences.
Indeed, the likes of Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, Bangai-O Spirits, Ketsui Death Label, Disgaea DS, Bleach: Dark Souls (or indeed prequel Bleach: Blade of Fate) and Nanostray 2 are all just as likely to appeal to serious gamers as any of the PSP titles previously mentioned.
However, the key difference is that in major retail outlets these fine slices of electronic entertainment are being overshadowed by endless ‘pet simulators’, intelligence training, biscuit baking, daisy growing and other casual titles.
With shelf space always in high demand, it’s likely that despite their depth and playability ‘niche’ hardcore titles will be substituted in favour of the type of game that is really making money on the DS at present: massmarket-friendly casual titles.
Although analysts initially predicted that GTA: Chinatown Wars - Nintendo's definitive hardcore statement - was bound for enormous sales, the weeks since the game's launch have been relatively disappointing, prompting EEDAR analyst Jesse Divnich to add a dissenting voice to a chorus of eulogies.
“EEDAR believes the results of GTA: Chinatown Wars confirms that attempting to release a major AAA title on the Nintendo DS, targeted at a mature demographic, carries significantly elevated risk."
While the PSP has recently enjoyed something of a renaissance in Japan, it’s unlikely that the current status quo here in the west will change anytime soon. The DS remains firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of gamers of all ages - and, crucially, game publishers of all nationalities - whereas the PSP is catering for a far narrower (yet arguably more dedicated) section of the market.
So while Koller is quite right when he says that Nintendo’s shiny new DSi is ignoring “significant gamer demographic groups”, the saddening reality is that the hardcore sector of the video game community is unlikely to help the PSP claw back the considerable amount of ground it has already lost to Nintendo here in Europe and in North America.
(Sony's recently renewed drive to push PSP feels like too little too late - and it may soon want to divert its energy onto PSP 2 / PSP 4000 anyway.)
Still, we’d take King of Fighters Collection over Pet Pals: Animal Doctor any day of the week.