PSPGO.jpgUsually, when a new gaming console or handheld launches, even if it’s just an update to an existing model, it’s greeted with considerable enthusiasm. But it’s hard to remember a launch as ho-hum as the one for the PSP Go, Sony’s latest take on its PlayStation Portable handheld that hit stores Thursday.

Instead of feeling like an upgrade, the Go, which retails for $250, improves upon the current version of the PSP in some areas while simultaneously raising some head-scratching issues.

For starters, there’s the matter of the Go’s switch to the download-only format. Someone at Sony decided the company could make a lot more money by selling games directly to consumers as downloads, rather than going through the retail channels. While stores like GameStop and Best Buy won’t like this, the shift away from physical media seems like a forward-looking move. With a large percentage of gamers connected to the Internet, why pay money and burn up fossil fuels manufacturing and shipping your product?

But there’s a catch. Downloadable games for the PSP Go carry the same price tag as UMD disc-based games sold for older models of the PSP. (The PSP-3000, the current disc-based model, will remain on the market for $170, and major releases will release simultaneously on UMD disc and download.)

Downloadable games ought to be cheaper than physical copies. For one, downloads carry no manufacturing costs, and bandwidth costs are negligible. But more important, downloaded games essentially belong to the same person forever. Unless you’re willing to swap PSPs back and forth, there’s no passing them along to a friend or relative once you’ve finished. And there’s certainly no selling them back to GameStop or trading them for other games on While consumers have proved willing to shell out for albums on iTunes and even downloadable games for the iPhone and iPod Touch, most full-fledged retail PSP games sell for $40. That’s far more than you’re likely to pay for anything on iTunes or the App Store.

The deal breaker for anyone who already owns a PSP, however, is that Sony has no loyalty program in place for gamers who already own disc-based games. If you own “Dissidia: Final Fantasy,” “Rock Band Unplugged” and “God of War: Chains of Olympus” for your PSP-3000, sorry, you’ll have to buy them all again at full price if you want to play them on your PSP Go. (It’s hard to know what’s more galling, thinking that no such program exists or knowing that it does, but only if you live in Europe.) Oh, and none of the accessories you own for past versions of the PSP will work on the new handheld, either.

Of course, it’s not fair to talk about the PSP Go without mentioning the things it gets right. While it does have a smaller screen than its predecessor, it’s also the first PSP that can fit in your pocket. And with 16 gigabytes of internal flash memory, plus the ability to add more, you’ll be able to keep yourself amused for days without ever having to swap a memory stick. And it adds Bluetooth support, meaning you can tether it to a cellphone or even your PlayStation 3 controller.

GranTurismo.jpgStill, the PSP Go is a tough sell for anyone who’s invested any money in games or accessories for previous models. And the higher price tag and lack of a discount for download-only titles make it less appealing for those of us who’ve yet to buy a PSP. For what it’s worth, I’ve been on the verge of buying a PSP for a while now, and all the Go does is freeze me. On the one hand, I don’t want to pay a premium for a gadget that’s incompatible with its predecessor, or pay retail prices for download-only games. But then I also don’t want to shell out $170 for a PSP-3000 and invest money in games if it means that, when I do eventually buy a PSP Go, none of my games or accessories will work with it.

It is worth noting, though, that if you’re going to be buying a PSP Go, you should do it by the 10th. Those buying the PSP Go in the first 10 days it’s on the market will be able to download the racing game “Gran Turismo” for free.