Josh looks back on the collected works of Masayasu Ito, including his favourite piece of PlayStation hardware, the PlayStation Portable.
In a post on the PlayStation Blog from October 7th, 2020, one Masayasu Ito wrote, “Our team values a well thought out, beautifully designed architecture. Inside the console is an internal structure looking neat and tidy.” The console in question was the PlayStation 5, and what followed was a video in which one brave soul, risking, according to an on-screen warning, both electric shock and exposure to laser radiation, took the thing apart. Ito was the lead engineer on the PS5, but he was not the dismantler in question; that was Yasuhiro Ootori, the vice president of the mechanical design department, who sat with an array of tools and a smile. I like to think that Ito was taking comfort elsewhere, averting his gaze from this chipper gutting of his baby.
Ito is set to resign from his role at Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE) on October 1st. The role in question was executive vice president of hardware engineering and operation, and it meant that he oversaw the designs of PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, and, best of all, PlayStation Portable. He arrived at Sony in 1986 and alighted at Sony Computer Entertainment in 2000. There he was charged with working on peripherals, including the LCD Screen for the PS One. That device, a clip-on, flip-up porthole, flanked by stereo speakers, gave the console a movable edge; it still needed a plug, but it could be played during car journeys, sucking power from the cigarette lighter socket, or jammed into a suitcase. What better audition to begin work on the PSP?
“When it came to the PlayStation Portable, Mr. Kutaragi, who was the president at the time, told me to try it,” said Ito, in an interview with Famitsu. I love the casual nature of that reported conversation. Imagine Ken Kutaragi, then CEO of SIE, calling through and asking Ito, with the tone of a friendly recommendation, to “try it,” as though forging a console were akin to tasting a new dish, or holidaying somewhere fresh. In fairness, the PSP had its share of both: the flirtatious, take-me-anywhere form – able to brighten a boring flight or bring reassuring solitude to somewhere sunny – and that screen, 4.3 inches of liquid crystal, splotched with the likes of LocoRoco and Patapon, like a tasting menu of crunch and colour.
I happen to love that machine more than any Sony has made. Its silly dream was to take the full-fat experience of a console game and corset it into a handheld, lashed together with interminable load times. Only, the silliness seeped away when you glimpsed the dream in motion. The brilliance of the PSP was that its form was in perfect step with that stuttering ambition. The knurled nub of its lone analogue stick seemed like the future, but it foretold of camera-wrangling straight out of the past. That luminous acreage of glass was a sight to behold, but it haemorrhaged the battery. And I’ll never shake the sound of the disc drive as it supped on those little cassettes: a light metallic flutter, as if its heart were skipping a beat in solidarity with ours. It was a true Sony gizmo – innovative, striking, tempered for the rigours of daily use but mixed with a dash of stylish impracticality.
Not an awful lot has been written about Masayasu Ito, but no matter. The best way to ring in his retirement, and to reflect on the mark that he made while at Sony, is to fire up Astro’s Playroom. That game, a platformer which comes installed on every PlayStation 5, is, as much as it is anything else, an ode to Ito’s legacy. (Indeed, when his name appears in the credits, Team Asobi gives him “Special thanks for contributing to the creation of this game.”) The goal of its hero is to hoover up chunks of Sony’s history – memory cards, discs, microphones – and to herd them into a playpen, so to speak. Once all have been assembled, you can survey the weird geometry of Ito’s career: the chrome-and-creosote bulge of the launch-model PS3, the sharp peaks of the PS4, and the snowy shard of the PS5, giving off its cold glow. It’s almost as though it were designed to polarise.
Indeed, the look of most Sony consoles tends to split people. For every person that holds that the PlayStation 2 was a striated wonder straight out of Kubrick, there will be another ready to proclaim it a dull slab. Opinion doesn’t seem to fracture as vehemently when it comes to Nintendo and Microsoft; everyone knows that the GameCube was cute, the Xbox was a brute, and the Wii was weird but it worked. Perhaps what defines Ito’s work, however neat and tidy the internal structure, however well thought out or beautifully designed the architecture, is his willingness to continue that Sony tradition: to divide and conquer. Many would argue that the PS3, the first home console on which Ito worked, looked more suitable for toasting sandwiches than playing games – a crusty observation, but one that stuck. None, however, could quibble with the fact that it outsold the off-white curves of the Xbox 360 in the end.
All of which is a way of saying that the prevailing feature of Ito’s work is simple: success. “We have tried various things, but in the end we come back to this shape,” Ito said, in that Famitsu interview. He was talking about the DualShock controller, whose basic concept has stayed more or less unchanged since the beginning, and he makes a hit sound like something you surrender into with a sigh. As he retires, leaving Sony in good health, we have the chance to consider his impact; to offer special thanks, as Team Asobi did, for contributing to the creation of games; and, however you regard his machines, for making things that are different.
Or, in short, for trying it.
Images: Evan Amos