Feature: What the Heck Is a PocketStation?
Posted by Kerry Brunskill
Lifting the lid on Japan's best PlayStation accessory
Back in the mists of time, when Tamagotchi was still a thing and we were all wondering if SEGA’s Dreamcast was really going to turn things around for the ailing hardware company, Sony took the Sonic the Hedgehog maker's new Visual Memory Unit concept – a portable memory card with a built-in LCD screen – and, well, seemingly copied it. Upon its Japanese release in 1999, the device sold out, but despite plans for a global launch, the impending PlayStation 2 meant that it never hit Western shores. So, what makes the curious peripheral special?
There are undeniable similarities between Sony and SEGA’s memory-cards-with-knobs-on, but a little date checking raises a few questions regarding the plagiarism myth. Indeed, the Dreamcast's diminutive VMU launched on 30th July 1998, several months before the console itself. During this time, it was marketed as a Godzilla branded Digimon-like toy, not as a way to transfer save data between arcades and home consoles – or to play transferrable minigames. Sony’s PocketStation had its first outing at the 1998 Tokyo Game Show – three months after SEGA's unit went on sale – and it was officially released shortly afterwards in January the next year. The dates seem a little too close to each other for Sony to have developed, tested, and mass-manufactured its own handheld unit in response to the “threat” of a portable pet Godzilla from a company that it was already utterly dominating.
So, what is it? Well, at its heart, the unit is a standard fifteen block memory card that can be used in the exact same way as any other PSone storage device. It's able to fit into any console by lifting up the control panel – which also doubles as a cover for the memory card's connectors – and slotting it in. Compatible games – which in Japan meant anything from Final Fantasy VIII to Street Fighter Alpha 3 to Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers – could then be used to transfer little minigames across for play on the go. Some titles were included just for the pleasure of having something extra to fiddle with, while others – like The Legend of Dragoon’s bitesized bonus – allowed you to transfer extra items, money, and other knick-knacks back to the main adventure.
The PocketStation is a wonderful device that manages to provide fun gaming opportunities over a decade after its debut
But some games went even further than that, and were so dependent on the PocketStation that they simply couldn’t be played without one – like the Dokodemo Issho series. The first game in this franchise launched in July 1999, and was exactly the “killer app” that the portable peripheral needed. It played perfectly to the gadget's strengths; a release that was not only quirky and fun, but was absolutely built around the device, allowing you to take mascot Toro and friends away from the PSone without really sacrificing anything other than graphics.
While at first glance the game may appear to be nothing more than yet another Tamagotchi clone, it’s actually more like having a very strange friend riding around in your pocket – one that likes to ask about anything from cake to television to love – than it is a poop-scooping simulator. Toro and friends can’t die and don’t require feeding, leaving you free to pop in at your leisure to partake in some oddball conversation, a quick word game, or perhaps teach your portable pal a new word or two. Once they’ve had enough – which generally takes a week or so – you can then use your PlayStation to check back through your little friend’s diary of their time with you – and then start the whole silly game over again, either with the same character or a different one entirely.
In the end, a wide range of titles supported the PocketStation to some degree – from fun little distractions like Grandia’s minigames to full-on experiences like the aforementioned. So successful was the little thing – five million units were sold in Japan alone during its brief lifespan – that three PlayStation 2 titles supported the gizmo as well, although whether you'd actually want to play minigames based on the curiously popular Densha de GO! train simulation series or Tokyo Bus Guide is another matter entirely.
Of course, it's perhaps worth mentioning that the gadget is certainly not the most convenient PlayStation import – to get the most out of it, you’ll need a PSone or PS2 capable of playing Japanese games before you can even think about whether you’d rather have your unit in white, clear, pink, or black. However, the rewards are worth the effort, with a diverse range of experiences from big names like Squaresoft and Capcom, as well as smaller publishers like Artdink, Arika, and Game Arts. It’ll never replace the PlayStation Vita – or, indeed, any other dedicated gaming handheld – but the PocketStation is a wonderful little device that still manages to provide some fun and unique gaming opportunities over a decade after its debut.
Have you ever owned a PocketStation? Are you tempted to track down one of the diminutive devices after reading this piece? Copy some data into the comments section below.