Sony Ericsson's Xperia Play combines an Android phone with a set of PlayStation-inspired controllers. I've been playing around with an early-release model and as someone who likes both Android and old-school, non-touch-screen gaming, I'm quite impressed so far.
On one level, the Play is a pretty standard Android phone, running the 2.3.2 Gingerbread release and offering all the typical Android goodness that has made the platform so popular amongst Lifehacker readers and the world at large. Sony Ericsson does make a few customisations (such as its handy pinch-to-overview option, which brings all the open widgets onto a single page). However, there's not too much going on in the way of major changes, and Sony Ericsson has promised to put more effort into ensuring regular updates are made available for its phones.
The real distinguishing feature of the Xperia Play is the slide-out panel which reveals, essentially, a duplicate set of PlayStation controls. There's the familiar D-Pad, four shape-emblazoned buttons, two analog controllers and a single pair of shoulder buttons. (For games which require the R2 and L2 buttons, you can remap the analog controllers to perform that function.)
Obviously, those controllers aren't going to be much use without games that support them. The shipping phone will include a number of titles, including a complete replica of the original Crash Bandicoot, FIFA 10, Bruce Lee, Star Batallion, SIMS 3 and Tetris. Sony Ericsson is projecting that there'll be more than 50 games available that use the feature when it launches the phone, and it has made the mappings available to any developer that wants to use them. (There's a built-in widget on the phone to search the Android Market for games which support the controls.) Pricing for the games isn't expected to exceed $10 in most cases.
Clearly, mobile gaming has managed to do ludicrously well as a category without these kinds of controls, and there are plenty of games (including my own touchscreen favourite Plants vs Zombies) which wouldn't work particularly well with traditional controls. But there's also a huge category of existing games -- platform titles and kart racers amongst them -- which just don't work on a touchscreen device that doesn't have dedicated buttons. Personally, just being able to play the original Crash properly on a mobile makes me happy; I recall trying out the iPod version of Crash Nitro Kart and being utterly disappointed. Some games just need old-fashhioned controls.
Adding that option increases the potential range of games you can enjoy, without eliminating the possibility of playing all the newer touch-oriented titles. If you want to play a wide range of genres, it's a very sensible approach.
The Xperia Play seems to be a fairly polarising phone. I'm quite taken with it, but my colleague Mark from Kotaku is yet to be convinced of the virtue of the approach. He reckons it's heavy for starters, but I think that reflects his relative inexperience with the huge range of phone sizes already out there. I might have to work on him a bit.
There's no finalised launch date or price for the Xperia Play yet beyond "around May/June", but it will be available on all three major carriers (Optus, Telstra and Vodafone/3), as well as an outright buy. Vodafone will have an initial exclusive on the white model, while everyone else makes do with the black.
Tempted by the thought of a game-enhanced Android phone? Prefer to stick with a separate gaming device or your existing trusted smart phone? Tell us in the comments. In the meantime, enjoy this slightly OTT photo of the "Lara Croft" lookalike that Sony Ericsson hired to escort me to the demo session earlier this week:
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