In 2004, I had a lot of friends who attended E3. They’d call me with updates about what games they’d seen or played.  Let me know which booths had the most crowds.  Today, I can’t remember a single game they mentioned.  I don’t know which publisher was hot that year.  But I do remember the one thing that my friends — all of them — kept saying again and again: “The screen.  Oh my God, you just can’t believe the screen.”  And that was the first thing I heard about the Sony PSP.

PSP celebrates its fifth birthday today.  Sure, the system has seen its ups and downs, but Sony has every reason to be proud.  The PSP was a bold, visionary entry into a handheld gaming market that had been monopolized by a single company, Nintendo, literally from the birth of the category.  The PSP was a far-seeing vision of the future of entertainment, bringing together games, movies, music, and eventually, wireless internet connectivity.  It had elegant design, raw power — it was the sexiest piece of technology you could hold in your hand.

On the morning PSP launched, March 24th 2005, the first game I booted up was WipEout Pure.  I had dearly loved Wipeout XL on the original PlayStation, but Sony had let the series languish.  Playing my first race — my first game at all — on the PSP was a transporting experience.  My friends had been right.  I literally could not believe how good the game looked.  A testament to the sheer technical gusto of the system, WipEout Pure still looks good today.  Other great games followed:  genre-defining puzzler Lumines, a great version of Ridge Racer, the endlessly re-playable Hot Shots Golf: Open Tee.

WipEout PureWipEout Pure, still beautiful today.

Over time, my focus shifted to console games.  Specifically, to the new generation that was just beginning to hit with the Xbox 360 at the end of 2005, and fully arrived when Nintendo and Sony joined in a year later.  You know us gamers, always on the lookout for the latest, shiniest thing.  But the PSP kept at it with newer and better games, and soon enough, I came back on board.  How could I resist God of War: Chains of Olympus, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy 7, and Resistance: Retribution.  Today, the hits just keep coming: LittleBigPlanet, Gran Turismo, and rumors of Uncharted.

To date, Sony has sold more than 17 million PSPs in North America alone.  PSP’s library includes over 520 games, and more than 20,000 movies/TV episodes.  It even has a digital comics reader.  Time was, no one believed any company could survive against Nintendo in the handheld market.  Today, I doubt anyone can imagine that same market without Sony.

Five years in, one can’t help but wonder what the future holds.  We have already seen several models of the PSP, including the fairly recent, significantly re-designed (and somewhat controversial) PSP go.  Sony has been aggressive, particularly in the last year, about expanding the PSP’s feature set, making new content available, and refining the PlayStation Store experience on PSP.  At this point, how much more can they add?

Understandably, recent events must be considered.  And though I suspect the PSP will remain a viable platform for some time to come, there is no ignoring the gauntlet thrown down by Nintendo’s 3DS announcement.  Rumors are rampant that Sony will be showing new hardware at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo.  Will we see PSP2 before the PSP’s 6th birthday?

So, especially if you haven’t for a while, break out your PSP today, and play a couple games.  Get on PSN and download some demos.  Read a digital comic.  And then, take a moment to look — really look — at your PSP, and marvel at how good that screen still looks today.

We’d love to read about your experiences with the PSP: favorite games, long trips made bearable by the system, anything.  Rant away below.

tags: PSP, Sony