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RIP, PSP: What the Vita can learn from Sony's late, great handheld

Sony's old gaming handheld is gone from this Earth. The Vita still has a slim fighting chance. But the handheld gaming landscape won't ever be the same again.

Good-bye, UMDs. Sarah Tew/CNET

I remember when I first tried the PSP , or Sony PlayStation Portable. It was early 2005. I was an editor at Maxim. Being in charge of the gadget coverage involved juggling a lot of novelties. Impressing the editor in chief was nearly impossible, especially since gadgets were a minor part of every issue.

He held the PSP, watched a copy of "Spiderman" on it -- played on one of its UMDs (Universal Media Discs) -- and felt like he'd seen the future.

My dad thought it was cool. Random coffee-shop baristas and waiters thought it was cool. There weren't any great media-playing smartphones yet, and an iPod that could play videos wouldn't exist until later that fall. In the March of 2005, most people looked at the PSP and said, "this would be better than using my portable DVD player." That was the media landscape of 10 years ago. Fast-forward to today: the PSP will be officially dead and buried as of the end of this year, and it's a memory of the last great hope of handheld entertainment before phones.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The PSP was in trouble from the moment it arrived, however, because the ability to play downloaded video files already existed; it's just that the PSP didn't make good use of this ability. Sony didn't have its own video and movie store. Instead, a half-baked "Sony Connect" service offered a handful of random demo videos. I hoped the PSP would eventually have a real movie store, something better than shopping for UMD movies, but Apple beat Sony to the punch with an embryonic iTunes video store later that year -- even if it had only "Lost" episodes to start with.

I remember Gamestop stores full of little shelves of UMD movies. I also remember the PSP's first games. A lot of them are still sitting in a shoebox in my bedroom. Some were truly great. Keeping them organized meant blowing dust out gently, and storing them in sleeves and big padded cases.

Sarah Tew/CNET

PSP Go: A bridge to nowhere

The PSP eventually got its shrunken-down successor, the PSP Go , and I bought that because it was so wonderfully small. It's still impressive to look at: like the Nintendo Game Boy Micro, it's an adorable compact toy. It's a shame that it didn't have any way to play UMDs or transfer the license to game downloads, because then I had to build a second digital game library. Those UMDs ended up sitting in that box, never played again.

Sony's problem was never technological prowess -- it was making the most of its opportunities.

Instead of making it easy to switch to a digital-only world on the PSP Go, most dedicated PSP gamers stuck with their older, noisier, clunkier systems. The downloadable game store became an afterthought.

The PSP ended up selling a lot of systems. More than you'd think -- more than 76 million systems sold. It was a big success. Then why does it feel like it was a failure? There were great games, but those began tapering off in the PSP's later years. I loved Loco Roco and Patapon, but that imagination began dissipating. Later on, I'd use the PSP to play ports of console games, or for compilation discs of retro games, like the phenomenal Genesis UMD that had over 20 games. You'd often hear about people using their PSPs as giant game emulators, playing downloaded ROMs. Maybe that's why the Vita, the PSP's successor, has its own annoying, expensive, proprietary memory cards.

PSP family: PSP 1000, PSP 2000, and PSP Go. Sarah Tew/CNET

Or maybe it's because, all throughout the PSP's lifecycle, something else was happening: Nintendo. The Nintendo that gave us the Wii and the Nintendo DS. The Nintendo DS debuted months before the PSP and ended up selling over 153.9 million systems, becoming the second-greatest-selling console platform of all time, next to the PlayStation 2.

And maybe that's the final reason why the PSP seemed like a failure: the PS2. The PlayStation 2 was a massive phenomenon: the no. 1 best-selling console of all time. At its height, it couldn't be stopped. The PSP is actually listed as the ninth-greatest-selling console of all time between the PlayStation 3 and NES, but when your console counterpart is no. 1, it's bound to feel like a letdown. The PSP was never the PS2 accessory it seemed like it should have been. I wanted it to be the PS2 in my pocket -- we all did. But it couldn't ever, really, be as good as the PS2. Plus, the PS2 played DVDs, a novelty at the time. UMDs were a poor stand-in.

The PSP wasn't a good PS3 accessory, either. Only now, with the PS Vita and PS4, has Sony begun really exploring cross-system compatibility.

The PSP Go and PS Vita: disc-free handhelds. Sarah Tew/CNET

PSP reborn: The Vita

The PlayStation Vita debuted in the US in February 2012, more than four years into the world of the iPhone, in a landscape where large-screened Android phones lurked everywhere. Playing videos meant using Netflix or YouTube, and playing games to most people meant Words with Friends or Angry Birds.

The Vita's potential, in terms of graphics and hardware, remains great. But its possibilities feel diminished every year, as gaming graphics and even controllers make phone games feel increasingly more impressive. Sony's apps and back catalog of games on the Vita are impressive. There's even a whole library of old digital PSP games.

The handful of downloaded PSP games I bought back in 2009 can still be downloaded to my Vita, the remaining ghost of the PSP days that were. At least Sony's made backward-compatibility easier for those who avoided UMDs.

To the casual eye, the Vita looks like a PSP. And when you consider that it still plays older digital PSP games, it's more of a system evolution, like the 3DS was to the DS. It's just a shame that it can't find a way to play those old UMDs.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Can the Vita avoid dying?

The Vita hasn't sold nearly as well as the PSP once did. To date, the Vita has sold around 8 million systems worldwide, compared to over 40 million Nintendo 3DS systems. It's not far from the sales letdown of the Nintendo Wii U, which ironically came out that same year.

The Vita has some great indie games, and its hardware and software work seamlessly with the PlayStation 4. Nintendo should take notes on how well Sony's systems work in tandem. I wish the 3DS and Wii U worked as well together.

The PSP is still the most successful handheld Sony ever had. The Vita, for all its potential, would be so lucky to approach what the PSP once was. Back then, it was the only game in town. I remember when people carried PSPs on the subways. Now, it's just one more screen that fits in your pocket. As E3 approaches, the Vita's chances remain alive. But it's not the big success story for Sony anymore; it's an afterthought. I can't help but be a little worried that, sooner than later, it'll follow the same path as its departed bigger brother.