Lost in Translation: The PocketStation's Missed Global Adventure

PlayStation in your pocket?

Lost in Translation: The PocketStation's Missed Global Adventure
Source: Silicon Era

Envision this: The year is 1999, and Sony unveils a captivating device that's essentially a spitting image of the Dreamcast VMU. The PocketStation. A dinky little number that would be released initially in two colours, white and transparent.

It was quite popular in Japan too, especially with a retail price of just 2,000 yen (about $20).

"PocketStation mania has hit Japan. Literally. Sony's new PlayStation-compatible PDA officially went on sale across the country on January 23, but even the most persistent shoppers have been hard-pressed to land one of the devices for their very own." - IGN

Back in the '90s and early 2000s, Japan was regarded as a hub for cool handheld gadgets. I guess that's still true today, but in the '90s, Japan was like a paradise for handheld tech.

Sony PocketStation Mini Console - White for sale online | eBay
A PocketStation package, including a Japanese manual. Source: eBay

It's for this reason, plus the original PlayStation's general popularity, that the Sony PocketStation quickly sold out. The Japanese public couldn't get enough of this diminutive PlayStation offering.

There were frequent episodes of widespread panic, extended lines, and Sony making announcements to reassure people that they were working hard to meet the high demand. The initial 60,000 units just weren't enough.

Regardless, no matter how Sony eased the Japanese public, there was a certain reality that Sony struggled to keep up with the demand. It was an unexpected hit, something that Sony hadn't prepared for.

"SCEI released its PocketStation last weekend, and the peripheral sold out instantly from retailers and now can't be found anywhere." - Yutaka Ohbuchi, Gamespot

Here was Sony with a certified hit on its hands. The PocketStation's popularity was plain to see, so presumably Sony would want to release it globally, right?

Fun fact: While most folks think the PocketStation came out exclusively in Japan, that's not entirely true. It was also released in limited numbers in Hong Kong, meaning it was sold with an English instruction manual.

Why Didn't it Go Worldwide?

Well, for one, the Japanese market is vastly different from any other market, especially the EU and US markets. There's no reason to believe the popularity of the device would translate elsewhere.

Something I imagine Sony was conscious of, even if they did plan to release outside of Japan. Alas, the PocketStation was cancelled before global plans even got off the ground, with Sony citing further production issues.

A Clear Blue PocketStation I had bought recently off eBay. Never seen a  blue model before. : r/psx
Cleartech. Big in the 90s. Source: Reddit

If they faced challenges in the Japanese market, meeting demand elsewhere would probably be tough. On the flip side, if the device didn't have much appeal beyond Japan, there might be a surplus of unsold units.

It essentially boils down to being a risky release for Sony, something too unpalatable, especially with the winding down of the PlayStation to make way for the PlayStation 2.

Fun fact: Then lead designer Teiyu Goto designed the PocketStation, just as he had the original PlayStation controller, PSOne, PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3. He was a busy man.

We don't know the details, and likely never will, but it would seem like the PocketStation just wasn't worth the additional logistical issues that would come with a global release.

It seems then there was some truth to the initial struggle to meet demand in Japan.

I'd also suggest the PocketStation came too late, even released at the beginning of 1999. Why? Japanese phone culture in the late 90s was exploding. This would continue well into the 2000s as phones became more technically impressive.

It wouldn't be long until gaming on phones became popular in Japan. Not to mention that the Gameboy Color was selling well for Nintendo, with the Gameboy Advance not too far off.

Sure, the PocketStation sold well, but it was a niche product designed around an ecosystem that would soon be obsolete.

Explaining Japan's feature phone fetish
Source: Engadget

And there you have it, the tale of the Sony PocketStation – a compact powerhouse that etched its mark in the gaming world, even though its dreams of a global conquest didn't quite materialise.

In my humble opinion, this is Teiyu Goto's best work by far.

He really nailed the aesthetic with this one, and for that reason, the PocketStation will always have a special place in my heart.