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Thursday March 24, 2005 7:50 am

Sony PSP Midnight Launch Coverage

Posted by Hector Martinez Categories: Features, Handhelds, Video Games

PSP Midnight Launch  I was owned.  I mean, completely owned by the impending launch of this sexy device.  The PSP images swam in my head daily, the unquenchable desire of having it in my hand invaded my dreams, and its capabilities punctuated almost all my conversations.  It is handheld gaming taken to a whole new level, and after a great launch in Japan a few months ago it was finally coming to the US in grand fashion.  Today we’re covering the midnight launch experience in New York City, at the same time that we look at how this thing changed lives.

The Quiet Before The Storm

I remember when the device first hit Japan back in December.  Importers began paying big money to have the privilege of playing it before anyone else.  And why wouldn’t they?  The games were solid, the system would be compatible with any US-based games that would come later, and the multimedia capabilities were oh-so-alluring.  With all the hoopla going on overseas, I took the initiative to run to my trusty GameStop in midtown New York, and placed a deposit on the PSP.  They wanted $50 to make sure people were being serious about their pre-order.  Since I now knew the system was going to be worth it, I didn’t have a problem.  Still, maybe others were hesitant because of the amount, or maybe it was just too early.  Either way I think I was like one of the first 10 on the list.

We’ve all waited with anticipation to see how the games were stacking up.  Ridge Racers appeared to be the hottest title, with a creamy-smooth framerate and glossy visuals to boot.  A puzzler named Lumines was also widely praised for its unique blend of Tetris-like gameplay and mesmerizing music that actually affects your outcome.  Early impressions went up on boards across the web, and slowly but surely, the hype was given more life.  The hardcore knew that Sony was not playing around, and that Nintendo had something to seriously worry about, even if target audiences were different for each of the respective systems.  By January gamers were surely taking notice, and pre-orders were climbing at a steady pace. 

The Word On The Street

Even though gamers were beginning to eat up every piece of PSP news they could find online, the general public remained clueless.  After all, the Superbowl came and went without a single PSP-peep of a commercial for the handheld.  I thought Sony would follow the example of movie studios, that is, building hype for new releases months and months in advance.  Alas, it fell on the shoulders of the gamers themselves to inform the masses, in small but significant ways.  If you have a spouse for instance, you would need to explain to them why you were slowly setting aside a few bucks from each of your paychecks.  If your coworkers were curious about that new PSP image you had as your PC’s wallpaper, you were to enlighten them.  Of course they would ask how much was it going to be, and after you told them, they would raise their brows and nod in approval, commenting that it did a lot, for what Sony was asking.  Feels good to know you weren’t alone in your value assessment.

Pre-order Or Die

After Sony finally announced the price and launch details for the US, pre-orders skyrocketed.  The local GameStop was now considering a midnight launch in order to accommodate the numbers.  Many people like me scoured the ‘net to find where they could also secure a 1GB pro duo card for their media on the system.  It was so difficult that I ordered one both online and at an EBGames nearby.  I checked the shipping status on a nearly daily basis, wanting so badly to play movies off of the card on day one.  I still find myself waiting, but the games that have been announced might keep me busy enough in the meantime, so I pre-ordered three, with a $5 deposit for each.  The front runners were the aforementioned Ridge Racers, Tony Hawk Underground 2, and of course, WipeOut Pure.  The stores looked like they were getting plenty of games for the demand, and in fact, as we drew to the week before the launch, we were seeing some of the games already on the shelves.  Some folks were crazy enough to buy the games without having a system to play it on:

“I can read the manual,” they wrote on the message boards.  “I already have an import system,” said others.  Because of importers in fact, we were privy to advanced impressions of the US games.

The Week Before

Checking in with the store with only 5 days to go, they were recommending that I show up around 10:30 to get in line for the launch, though they couldn’t give me any solid numbers as to how many were going to be there.  One thing they did make clear was that it was for pre-ordered systems only, even though Sony committed to push a million systems to the shelves by day one.  Taking a look at the available accessories, I knew I was going to have to visit an import store site to order an Aero case.  To my utter shock, it came in through the mail within one business day.  It featured a tough interior, a soft exterior, compact size, and still enough room for storing a couple games and earbuds.  Indeed, the pieces of the launch were falling into place. 

Launch Night

The night of the launch brought some pretty nasty weather to the area.  I found myself unprepared, leaving the umbrella at home as was the case.  This was despite watching the forecasts for over a week.  Get this: the reason I left the umbrella was because I rushed out the house to meet a famous local weatherman, who was transmitting live near the train I take to work.  The irony of the situation is only exceeded by its embarrassment.  I ended up buying a new jumbo size umbrella, since we were now getting rain mixed with slushy snow.  I called up a friend of mine who was going to meet me at the launch line, and he said he wasn’t going to make it until 10:00 PM, but he did confirm with the store manager that they would not cancel the launch due to the weather.  It was pretty cold too, but I did remember to bring my gloves and scarf.  I stayed late at work to kill the time, reading up on PSP topics on various boards.  The folks online at least, weren’t planning on skipping the midnight launch.  As one person put it:

“I don’t care if the god of wind and fire and rain and snow and Condelezza Rice comes down from the heavens.  No stopping us getting the PSP!”

Well, when I finally got out of my job and headed out, the rain that had been steadily falling in the afternoon had turned to serious snow and hail.  I winced through the wind as it gave my new umbrella a workout.  Turning into Herald Square, I half-braced myself for the long line that might be there, even at the early hour of 8:30.  What actually awaited me was a small line of about 12 young folk, some huddled together snacking on donuts, while the others leaned against the store windows.  There were freshly written letters on the glass, proclaiming the midnight launch.  I walked to the back of the line and asked the lanky fellow if he was prepared to wait in this weather for 3 1/2 hours.  It turned out that he wasn’t even getting the system for himself, but for his techie girlfriend.  I shook my head smiling and struck up conversation with the other 20-somethings in the darkness.  Things quickly turned geek-centric with talk from Star Wars to Matrix, and all games sprouting from each franchise. 

My feet were starting to get cold though.  The store appeared to still be servicing customers, but they were obviously not there for the hardware.  When one of the older customers started forcing his opinions on others and taking over conversations, my eyes shifted to the warm haven of the Manhattan Mall across the street.  After a few more moments, there was some commotion at the front of the line.  We were trying to peer through umbrellas to see what was going on.  The store staff was apparently giving out thick shoe-string necklace straps with PSP related symbols marked on them. But either they ran out, or they didn’t care because none came our way, even though we were but a few feet away.

I braved more of the cold, and talked with the crowd about other launches.  As my right hand grew more numb, the idea of coming back tomorrow was beginning to look more appealing every second.  I placed a phone call to my friend to see if he was still coming, and that’s when I found out he was going to be stuck in Jersey, because they were getting a lot more snow.  The drifts were indeed beginning to turn into downpours, my umbrella protesting with every click of hail that bounced off its black surface.  There was a photographer there, taking pictures of the group for the city’s Daily News, but he wasn’t taking interviews.  Seeing how the line only grew by 5 people in a half hour, I finally decided to leave for the warmth of the nearest fast-food joint.  It felt a little like buying a new PC to me, walking away like that: I could have caved in and got my fix right away at a painful expense, or I could hold out for the optimal time to jump in, getting the better overall value.  With that justification in my thoughts, I noticed there was a McD’s just a block away.  Walked in, ordered a number “4"while shaking off the moisture in my gloves, and plopped upstairs to see the storm from the large windows.

The storm didn’t show any signs of letting up.  But the time flew as I thawed out and wrote about this very experience on my ancient—but still trustworthy—Palm m515.  It was quite empty there, so I sent off a few text-messages and made a couple phone calls to keep myself entertained.  I was looking forward to the days when that PSP would be in my bag at all times though, so these waits would be more bearable, enjoyable even.  As the clock approached 11, I decided to take another look at the line…

Again I expected the line to wrap around the block.  Instead, the line grew by only 20-30 people.  I did see the guys I chatted with earlier, but they seemed wary of me jumping a spot back on the line.  Whatever.  GameStop employees were patrolling the line, handing out fliers with game and accessory listings.  Looks like they aren’t getting the highly coveted 1GB duo memory cards until May.  Good thing I ordered online from another store already.  The reps were also claiming that GameStop’s warranty did not cover dead pixels, unless the PSP had more than 10, per Sony’s specifications.  I scoffed at the line and walked away yet again to a nearby pub.  It was Irish too. I ordered a margarita, and chatted with the bartender about how crazy it must have been on St. Patty’s a week earlier.  Garden State was playing Dallas on the tube too.  It was 11:45 before I knew it.  Time to head back out.

Not sure if heading to the bar was a wise move.  The line seemed to have doubled since I last saw it, and that didn’t count the score of people that were already in the store.  The weather felt even nastier, with threatening winds and a bone-cold chill in the air.  I hunkered down to the last spot in the line, and thankfully I had better company.  The person I met here didn’t even have a preorder, which I already mentioned was a requirement.  We would have to see if the reps would be merciful after his waiting in line.  I had a feeling he would be alright.  For now though, we had to just survive the wintry mix in the air.

We talked quite a bit at first, doing our best to disregard the wind, but as time wore on, I could feel less and less of my toes.  I was getting annoyed and restless.  They were letting folks in the store about 10 at a time.  It. felt. like. eternity.

It took us 2 1/2 hours just to get to the front door.  By that time, everyone was shaking uncontrollably, and it wasn’t over excitement.  We managed to get a few peeks inside the store.  A long line wrapped around some of the display stands, snaking alongside games and accessories for each system.  People were taking their sweet time it seemed, though miraculously no one got out of control.  In fact, the employees commented that this was one of the largest, yet calmest launch groups ever.  There were two patrol cars parked nearby though, so maybe that had something to do with it.

When we could bear no more, the doors finally swung open and we were ushered into the warmth inside.  The employees were cheerful and friendly though, and in a way it helped to melt away some of the regret I was feeling.  They did their best to pick up your reserved items before you even reached the counter, by asking for receipts ahead of time.

There were boxes upon boxes of PSPs on display, with rows of games sitting near the ceiling.  A few balloons labeled PSP flanked a couple displays, but really all of the decoration in the world would have been meaningless compared to getting some warmth and your friggin’ system in your hands so you can beat on home already.  Speaking of systems, my friend was indeed able to get one without the preorder.  I guess waiting in line for three hours is worth something at least.  Since I already had the Aero case, I just picked up my three reserved games, the system, and an extra power adapter so that I could leave one at home and one at work/travel.

It was all a relatively quiet affair.  Maybe it was because of the time.  I managed to get out around 2:45.  I was actually towards the tail end of the entire line.  As the last few peopled thawed out, there was already a sell-out of Wipe Out Pure.  My friend picked up Lumines just fine though.  I told him he doesn’t know how lucky he is.  I’m hoping the same rings true for me as well.  After this initial shipment, there is no word on when the next batch of units would be shipping in.  I stuffed my new toy in my bookbag, pushed open the door, and headed home on the subways hoping to get both myself and the system recharged before dawn.  If I ever do another midnight launch, I’ll make sure it’s in the summer.  Well, maybe not if it’s for the PSP2.

- Hector Martinez

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