Midnight Club Racing is loading on my PSP. It’s pretty slow going, so I’ll work on this article while I wait. I know that once it loads, it’s going to be sweet. I know this because I’ve already played it on the Playstation 2 and this handheld version is almost identical. They’re both instances of Rockstar’s super-slick, super-fast city racing, traffic-smashing extravaganza (although the traffic on the PSP is lighter and the cars are a touch slower, because the PSP isn’t quite a Playstation 2, after all). So, yeah, it’ll be pretty nice. When it finally comes up. Yep.

At times like this, I wonder if they even know why we play their handhelds. Because if I had a lunch break at work, or was using it for a fifteen-minute commute on the subway, or was at an airport waiting for my flight to board, I don’t think I’d bother. Playing the PSP is a really involved experience, from the time investment to the hardcore next-gen-ish graphics and lighting effects and dynamic vertex whatnot. This isn’t something to be approached lightly. It’s for hunkering down and gaming when you’re away from home, for letting yourself fall into it, much the same way you fall into your computer or the TV in your living room. You play the PSP not to kill a little time, but because you find yourself parked somewhere without anything else around that can run a game.

The games that are best for the PSP are also, oddly enough, the games that are already best for your PS2 or Xbox. They’re racing games like Midnight Club – hold on let me check…nope, still loading – and especially, Wipeout Pure, with their fancy graphics, career progression, and really bad data management, so you don’t mind powering through a bunch of screens, do you? Because you’re going to be here for a while. The Diablo clone, Untold Legends, is great for passing a few hours hacking-and-slashing. You also have plenty of sports games. The few puzzle games on the PSP are almost an afterthought; it’s as if someone at Sony suddenly remembered how many Gameboys Tetris sold.

First-person shooters (that other genre for graphics whores, couch barnacles, and power PC builders with their $350 videocards) haven’t migrated to the PSP yet for the same reason RTSs haven’t migrated to consoles: they’re genres with control issues. You can’t play an RTS without a mouse and you can’t play a shooter with the PSP’s nubby little analog controller that doesn’t let you aim, so much as suggest a general direction. But Konami, Planet Moon, and Pandemic are all currently working on shooters for the PSP. Best of luck to you all…we’re waiting to see what you can do. If it doesn’t work out, there are other windmills that need tilting.

Here’s the deal: The PSP is a powerful system that happens to be the size of a handheld. Until developers start writing for people who might want to play it in quick and easy bursts – until they start writing for it the way developers used to write for the Gameboy Advance – it’s going to remain an expensive toy for gamers and a place where cool people skirt the fringes of geekdom. Walk down the aisles of a flight between LAX and DFW and you’re liable to see a few guys playing the Tiger Woods PSP port, blissfully unaware that they’re playing one of the worst golf games ever created. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the PSP.

But because the Nintendo DS is backward compatible, it’s got a huge library of sublime handheld games that were written for the Gameboy Advance, often easy to find for cheap. Just going by the law of averages, you’re far less likely to be stuck playing a game as bad as the PSP Tiger Woods. Of course, you’re wasting half of the DS’s screen real estate, and you’re playing on a big silver brick of a clamshell the size and shape of a six-year-old PDA. But we’re on the verge of a new generation of DS games that could make it all worthwhile. Take Kirby: Canvas Curse, a game about a stupid little pink blob. Oh, hold on a second, let me see if I can play Midnight Club yet…nope, still loading. Okay, where was I?

A Nintendo game about a stupid pink blob, right? That’s what you’d think. But what you might not realize is that it’s the first game that makes your DS a DS. You use your stylus like the finger of God, reaching into the game world to diddle around with the little pink guy. Sounds dirty, doesn’t it? But it’s an amazing interface because there’s no abstracted button pressing or D-padding between you and what you see onscreen. You’re in there, touching stuff and making it happen. Kirby: Canvas Curse is probably the last step before they start wet-wiring your brain.

It’s a slick and well-made game, to boot, unlike anything you’ve ever played because the DS is unlike anything that’s ever been made. The developers at Hal Laboratories did something that’s a lost art in these days of cross-platform development: They wrote a game for an actual system rather than an imagined audience. Kirby: Canvas Curse is really one of the shrewdest creations you’ll see this year. And, yeah, it’s worth getting a DS for it.

Besides, considering some of the upcoming titles playing to its strength as a platform, you’ll want a DS. In addition to some potentially complex mouse-driven strategy games, there’s Nintendogs, which will hopefully explode in popularity so I don’t feel like such a little girl when I’m playing it. Yeah, okay, it’s about a cute puppy, and The Sims is a dollhouse, but I’m just one of about five million people playing, so go make fun of them, too. Then there’s the upcoming Metroid game for the DS which uses the touchpad as a mouse to let you play a first person shooter. Just don’t mind the graphics.

Oh, right, speaking of graphics, I just know Midnight Club is going to look awesome. Let me have a look at how it’s coming along. Quel surprise!…still loading. But when that baby finally crams itself into how ever much memory the PSP has, I’m sure it’ll be sweet. Which reminds me: one of the best uses for a Nintendo DS is playing games while you’re waiting for your PSP to load.

The Escapist on Greg Gorden

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