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PlayStation Portable's full of pocket-size fun

It's a movie player. It's a music player. It's a digital photo album. The new Sony PlayStation Portable has so many functions you'd half expect to see Ron Popeil doing TV ads forit at 3 a.m.

But wait -- there's more. A whole lot more. Because the PSP is first and foremost a machine for playing games. As the name suggests, it's the hand-held heir to the most successful line of home video game consoles. The PSP was indeed designed as a pocket-size personal entertainment center. But it was mainly meant for those who get their kicks through a joystick.

So how much of a kick is it? It depends on the software, and as you might expect for a brand-new gaming device, the quality of the first-generation titles varies considerably. But a couple of weeks spent dabbling with PSP software turned up a couple of favorite titles, and a positive impression about the PSP gaming experience that left me eager for more.

Wondering if the PSP will consign your still-newish Nintendo DS (Dual Screen) game machine to the dustbin of history? Not a chance. With its light weight, relatively cheap price of $150, and excellent library of DS and Game Boy Advance software, the DS will make out just fine. But it's remarkable how the DS, only on the market for four months, looks a little dowdy next to the $250 PSP. Yes, there's the Sony's inevitable aura of newness, but there's also the little matter of design. Sony engineers just do it better. Where the Nintendo DS seems bluntly functional, the sleek, black PSP is overtly sensual, like an object that was made to be touched.

That figures; the designers shrewdly echo the style of the standard PlayStation game controller. Most of the old buttons are there. You lose the right-side joystick, and there is only one set of ''shoulder" buttons on the top edge of the PSP, instead of two. As for the left joystick, Sony has substituted a clever black button that lies almost flush against the surface of the PSP. It rotates with a nudge of the left thumb, letting you keep within reach of the directional buttons. It's a handy design that actually improves on the full-size PlayStation controller.

Between your two thumbs lies the loveliest color screen ever found on a hand-held game, or phone, or anything else. Though just about 4 inches wide, it's got the right width-to-height ratio for widescreen movies. It's also plenty of real estate for sharp-looking 3-D games.

Already a couple dozen PSP games have hit the street; a pretty good selection for a new game console. Many of them, alas, aren't my cup of gore -- too many sports games, not enough shooters. A few have managed to keep me entertained, though. Namco did a fine job of transferring its auto racing game Ridge Racer. Created for video arcade play, it's surprising how well the game fits a hand-held device. Controlling your ride is actually easier in the PSP version, so you'll leave fewer dings in the digital sheet metal.

The combination driving-shooting game Twisted Metal: Head-On was a little more problematic. With controls I found a little too tetchy, it was hard to steer and shoot at the same time. But my hand-eye coordination was never the best; younger, sharper players will probably eat it up.

I might have had more fun with Twisted Metal if I'd played against a human adversary. But I couldn't master one of the PSP's most vaunted features -- WiFi wireless networking that should let you play against other PSP owners over the Internet. I made the connection from my wireless router to a server where a couple hundred others were playing the game. But in two hours of trying, I couldn't synch up to another player. Word is that Sony is having teething problems with its network. Too bad. It's always fun to get vaporized again and again by some hyperactive adolescent.

There are guns aplenty in the PSP game Metal Gear Acid; too bad it's so hard to use them. The game opts for a turn-based approach; when you find yourself in a sticky situation, a series of cards appear on screen, each presenting a possible response -- using a machine gun, for instance, or opting for a silenced pistol. You pick your card, press the X button, and wait to see if you made the right choice. Some people love this kind of game; I want nonstop slaughter, uninterrupted by leisurely meditations on which caliber of bullet to use.

Maybe that's why my favorite PSP game so far is the crudest of the bunch -- Sony's Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade. It's a shameless ripoff of Blizzard Entertainment's classic Diablo II. You play a sword-wielding hero assigned to the usual heroic tasks of monster-slaying and maiden-rescuing. You pick up gold pieces and new weapons as you go, while accumulating ever more skill and power, which you'll need against the ever-more-deadly monsters.

The game levels load slowly. Much of the screen art looks crude and unpolished. The rinky-dink electronic music score is just as bad. And if the hero of this game needed to start a fire by rubbing together two original thoughts, he'd freeze solid. And yet, I can't stop playing the thing. It's just plain fun.

Still, there's no accounting for taste. Maybe you'll be enthralled by the PSP edition of Tony Hawk's Underground 2, or the colorful puzzle game Lumines, or the soccer, hockey, or basketball games. If you don't see something you like, just wait a few months. You can expect a healthy selection of games in every genre by Christmas.

The PSP's initial sales haven't lived up to expectations. Sony officials suggested they might burn through a million units in a day or two. Instead, retailers report that the devices are selling, but not spectacularly. Never mind. Come holiday time, there'll be several million PSPs on the streets, with at least one game apiece. And probably by then, more of those games will be worth playing.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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