On this day in 2009, the Gran Turismo franchise officially made its first foray onto something other than Sony’s home console.
Technically GT had appeared elsewhere before, thanks to the unofficial (but excellent) Bleemcast version of Gran Turismo 2. But this was something different. This was a dedicated handheld version of Polyphony Digital’s racer, lifting much of its content from GT4 for PlayStation Portable duty. A decade later it remains an anomaly in the franchise, so we’re taking a brief look back at it.
Gran Turismo On The Go
Let’s head back to 2009. Facebook was still so new The Social Network wasn’t out yet. And Gran Turismo fans were waiting. The PlayStation 3 was approaching midlife, and the full version of GT5 — not Prologue, which had released in late 2007 in Japan and spring 2008 elsewhere — was still free of anything resembling a firm release date.
Yet the wait was even longer for a different GT. Way back in 2004 Polyphony had first shown off the idea of a PSP version of Gran Turismo, alongside the system itself at that year’s E3. This was before GT4 even launched. For the next five years GT PSP was notable for its complete and utter absence, until suddenly showing up at E3, with an October release pencilled in.
From a technical perspective it was deeply impressive. Polyphony Digital has a reputation for technical expertise, and here it had managed to shrink down the gargantuan GT4. Over 800 cars, and 35 courses fit on the little UMD, crammed into just over 900MB of total file size. Sure, the game only had to render a 480 x 272 pixel image, but even there PD kept gameplay to a solid 60fps.
Added Content Previewed GT5
So Polyphony had succeeded in turning GT4 into a mobile game. Job done then? Nope: PSP was a Frankenstein of different titles, and in a few key ways, previewed what players could expect in GT5 arrived on PS3 a little over a year later.
For starters, there were new cars. A handful of GT5 Prologue models arrived like the GT by Citroën and the Ferrari F2007 — the latter being quite the challenge on the PSP’s little analog nub. But there was also the Ferrari Enzo, a pair of Lamborghini Countachs, Nissan’s new-age GT-R SpecV, and no less than the Bugatti Veyron. Oh, and the cover star, the Corvette C6 ZR-1.
When GT5 launched a year later, players would be able to transfer their mobile garages to the console game. There they’d be able to use any of their purchased cars in Arcade Mode.
Valencia circuit, a track from the bikes-only Tourist Trophy, also appeared in the list. This would be the only Gran Turismo title it would show up in.
Under the skin this was more than a straight GT4 port too. The physics used the 5 Prologue engine, which made cars livelier and generally more fun than the PS2 title’s understeer-prone engine. Playing it back-to-back with GT5, PSP certainly feels more like the newer game than the old, while retaining a friendly approachability suited to a portable title.
The Jay Lenoness of it All
PSP, moreso than any previous GT title, is about car collecting. So who better to guide players through the game than Jay Leno? The American automotive icon provided voiceovers for the game’s unique Driving Challenges. Franchise license tests by a different name, these taught players the ropes, culminating in a run around the Nurburgring Nordschleife in a 500hp BMW M5.
Strangely, Leno’s disembodied voice also replaced the timeless pre-race countdown.
That collecting aspect defines GT PSP. That’s because, outside of the Driving Challenges, there’s no progression structure. Players set their own races up to earn cash to buy more cars, which can become a hunt on its own thanks to the randomized aspect. The dealerships function like the used car lots of older Gran Turismos, with only four marques available every few game days, and up to 10 models available within them.
As a design choice to encourage players to keep racing, it makes sense. But it feels at odds with the pick-up-and-play nature of the game, since players will conceivably be on the hunt for their preferred cars just as much, if not more, than actually racing to earn the credits to buy them.
Revisiting GT PSP Today
As luck would have it, I uncovered my original PSP in a box this past summer. I lost everything else for it ages ago, but Gran Turismo survives on account of the UMD being in there. So for the first time in probably nine years, I load the old girl up.
The first thing that grabs me is the load times. This is from the GT5 era, where even menus take a while to appear. Yet the general GT-ness survives, and it’s easy enough to set up a race.
A decade removed, the handling sits right in the sweet spot of the arcade/sim divide. The analog nub isn’t ideal for small corrections, and putting in the right level of countersteer while drifting is a crapshoot. It’s forgiving enough that I can play it on public transit though, which surely must be the gold standard.
There’s quite a lot of ghosting to the image, but the frame rate is solid. Every track has hints of seams, faint lines popping up where PD had to no doubt cut polygons to keep the whole game together in a workable form. It’s nothing too bothersome for anybody who regularly revisits older, early 3D games, but coming from the visual splendor of current-gen titles it can be pretty shocking.
What else is pretty shocking is that Gran Turismo is still more fun to drive than any of the mobile games I have on my iPhone. The lack of events to do, and the (understandable) datedness of the car list is all that’s holding it back here in 2019.
Will we ever see another of its kind? It’s hard to say. PSP sold reasonably well for PD and Sony, no doubt thanks to the huge pent-up demand for a new title in the pre-GT5 era. But the game industry as a whole is blurring the lines between mobile and console market. As remote play opens up the possibility to game on any screen anywhere — and a huge portion of the current GT Sport experience is available via the official site on any browser — the spirit of PSP will live on.
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