Sony's PlayStation Portable seemed like a new and innovative device when it first came out, but in fact it owes most of its features to earlier devices in the history of handheld gaming consoles. If you missed Part One of this series, you might want to go back and read it now, as it sets the stage for the parts to follow. Part Three covers the underrated and rare Game Pocket Computer by Epoch of Japan, Part Four looks at Nintendo's iconic Game Boy, Part Five is about Atari's Lynx, Part Six covers NEC's TurboExpress, Part Seven is about Sega's Game Gear, Part 8 covers Watara's Supervision and the Mega Duck/Cougar Boy, while Part 9 is all about Sega's Nomad.
The history of handheld game consoles, as opposed to single-game handheld devices, begins with Mitlon Bradley's Microvision, designed by Smith Engineering. Introduced in 1979 at a retail price of $49.99, it was the first handheld gaming device for which additional games could be purchased separately.
Unlike the PSP, which uses optical media (not available when the Microvision came out), the Microvision used interchangeable cartridges. Of course, cartridges soon became the standard for both handheld and full-sized console games.
Like many of the single-game devices that came before it, and the PSP that came much later, the Microvision used an LCD screen. The graphics were simple, and each game cartridge had a transparent overlay to add any game-specific visuals.
Though the PSP can trace its LCD screen back to the very beginnings of handheld history, the difference between the Microvision's screen and the PSP's is huge. The Microvision's monochrome screen was a mere 16 by 16 pixels, and measured about and inch and a half square. In comparison, the PSP can display more than 16 million colors, with a resolution of 480 by 272 pixels, and is approximately 3 3/4 by 2 1/8 inches (about 3 1/4 by 2 for the PSPgo).
The controls on the Microvision consisted of 12 buttons and a paddle (or dial). Different combinations of buttons were used for different games, so each cartridge had a thin, flexible plastic film that overlaid the buttons, indicating which ones were used. This way, each game could have a unique button layout.
One game of particular significance for the development of handheld consoles (and even full-sized consoles), and ultimately the PSP, was Cosmic Hunter (released in 1981). This game is considered to have introduced the directional pad (aka d-pad), which was manipulated with the thumb to move the on-screen character up, down, left or right, to the handheld.
Not Enough Games
Many gamers, especially in the early years of the PSP, complained that there simply weren't enough PlayStation Portable games. That was even more true for the Microvision. Whether it was the lack of games that lead to poor-to-moderate sales of the Microvision, or low sales that led to few games, I don't know. What is certain is that only 11 games were released for the Microvision in North America (and that includes the game it came with), plus one more for Europe. An additional game was developed but never released.
These days we're actually quite spoiled for games.
Other specifications have also come a long way since the late 1970s. The Microvision's processor, for example, was 100 kHz compared to the PSP's 333 mHz (notice that that's kilohertz for the Microvision and megahertz for the PSP). The PSP has stereo speakers and a headphone jack, while the Microvision had only a piezo beeper for sound.
So while I've argued here, and in the first part of this series, that many of the PSP's features were adopted from earlier handheld devices, it's also plain to see that handheld gaming has come a long, long way since its beginnings.
"Comparison of handheld game consoles." Online at Wikipedia.
Demarla, Rusel and Johnny L. Wilson. High Score: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games. 2nd Ed. McGraw-Hill, 2003.
"Handheld game console." Online at Wikipedia.
Kent, Steve L. The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon and Beyond. Prima, 2001.
"Microvision." Online at Wikipedia.
"Milton Bradley Microvision (U.S.)." Online at Handheld Games Museum.