Update: New information on the GPI has arrived and we give you a first look at its functionality...
Update 2: Even more information and pictures of the GPI in action! Also, pics of the GP32 playing movies...
This afternoon the Insert Credit staff and myself had the opportunity to interview several key individuals within the Gamepark organization, makers of the upstart handheld the GP32. For those not in the know, the GP32 is a very industrious Korean handheld system which packs more raw power, and a larger, higher resolution screen than the Gameboy Advance, and also supports network connection, software based MP3 player and divx players. GP32 creator and CEO Hyoung Gun Jeon, Global & Creative Department head Paul Yoon, and Strategic Advisor/Translator Erin Lee were all on hand to answer the questions of the growing American fanbase.
Perhaps the biggest question for anyone interested in the GP32 is whether or not the system will be released stateside. The answer is a big 'maybe', as Gamepark is still a small fry in the hardware business. They have no immediate plans as of now to release the system to the US markets, as they need time to further establish their business in Korea, as well as their relations with 3rd party software giants in America. They feel that without some sort of major support in the US any venture here would be fruitless, given the market saturation and software monopoly of the GBA in America and Japan. Even so, many hardcore enthusiasts in the US have already seen their way to purchasing a system from Korea, and it's because of this that almost every existing GP32 game has been translated into English. And yes that does include Astonishia Story R, which was available for play with full English text on the show floor. So the desire is there on Gamepark's part, but the game plan is still being discussed.
As far as how well the system is faring in their native Korea, fewer than 10,000 GP32s have been sold thus far. This may sound like a small number, but it is important to recall that Gamepark were the pioneers in terms of introducing any type of console to Korea. After the successful launch of the GP32, the GBA and the PS2 were introduced, neither of which achieved great sales. So the challenge in Korea is how to reach an audience who has been raised on PC gaming, and entice them to move to the console world. This is why Gamepark has added network connectivity and the wireless adapter to the GP32; to keep the online gaming experience which is such an important market in that area. This element plus the fact that Gamepark has the only games developed from the start with full Korean dialogue (though some GBA and PS2 games are being translated) gives the GP32 a bit of an edge in the market. The difficulty is the reluctance of larger Korean software firms to port their games and support the fledgling system. Mr. Jeon mentioned that there have been rallies by rabid fans in front of the offices of many first-tier PC developers in efforts to influence their decision. Yet these companies retain a wait-and-see stance on the handheld, and will show far greater support once the console reaches the 100,000 mark for sales in Korea.
Gamepark plans on reaching this goal of 100,000 systems sold by the end of 2002, as by that time there will be 15 games published for the GP32, the quality of which they feel will inspire Korean gamers to take the console plunge. At that point Korean software giants should start to take notice, and the system's popularity should snowball as a result. But it's an uphill battle towards that first 100,000.
Hardcore fans will know that the GP32 has been distributed most reasonably and pervasively by Hong Kong exporters Lik-Sang. Lik-Sang also shipped the first copies of English language games for the system. But Gamepark doesn't really view Lik-Sang as a distributor for the GP32, more like a marketing promoter. Essentially the current availability of the GP32 is not only to test the waters of the North American and European markets, but also to promote knowledge and appreciation for the system. Gameparks perception is that the GP32 is currently viewed in English speaking countries as an obscure console which is mostly interesting to the hardcore fan. The difficulty with shipping English software is that while the most games are fully translated, the boxes and manuals have not been localized, as this costs a good deal of money. This is especially critical in cases like Astonishia Story R, as being an RPG an English manual is almost imperative.
The release of US games begs the question: why are some of the highest profile titles listed as Korean exclusives? Capcom, Spike and Arc Systems' titles are all planned exclusively for Korea due to the high costs of obtaining those licenses. Had the system already launched in America, these titles would likely be translated, but since this is not the case, and since the licenses were quite expensive, the likes of Rockman X5 and Street Fighter Alpha 3 will not see the light of day outside of Korea for some time. As an interesting aside, the aforementioned Japanese licensed games are not ports of GBA games as one might expect, but rather conversions of the PSone versions. As these ports can be very difficult, Gamepark is currently developing a tool for this purpose which should make the process much smoother, and thus entice more foreign software firms to bring their games to the system. Currently Japanese companies have only committed existing games to the GP32, no original titles. So as a result Gamepark does not yet have their 3rd party guidelines completely laid out at this time. On a more unfortunate note, it seems as though the announcement of King of Fighters GP32 was premature, as the developers have since backed out. This is a blow to SNK fans, but should in no way deter interest the system.
The next most concerning topic to English speaking audiences is likely the homebrew community. Gamepark is incredibly pleased with the interest people are showing in the system, especially since it hasn't been officially launched yet. They truly did not expect the kind of devotion they are seeing from fans and especially the development community in the US and Europe. Mr. Jeon was quite surprised that hardcore game enthusiasts took to the system up so quickly.
Officially Gamepark has to frown upon the many emulators circling the net. Currently the Gameboy Color, Wonderswan, Doom, Wolfenstein 3D and several arcade systems have been emulated with varied degrees of success. At the same time, they are proud that their system is powerful enough to emulate these systems and feel that the system's strength is such that it could even emulate the GBA. However, they do not want to associate themselves with any legal complications that could arise, thus the official negative stance towards emulation. In terms of original homebrew games, Gamepark is all for them, and hopes that the released SDK will be a powerful development aid for those who are interested. In all honesty I have never seen a home platform that was friendlier to independent developers.
I also asked a few specific questions about the hardware, and discovered that the GP32 will indeed support larger Smart Media Cards, the system's software medium, as they are released. However the compatibility depends entirely on the manufacturer. According to Gamepark anything from Samsung Electronics should be fully functional with the GP32. I also discovered that while the GP32 does not have an existing sprite library and software assistance as does the GBA, alpha blending (for use in transparencies, etc) is supported and used in existing games like Astonishia Story R. As far as sound, it is widely known that the MP3 player is software based. But we have long wondered whether or not the MP3 player can be utilized in software titles. The answer is this: since the MP3 player was licensed from another company, part of their agreement is that they will not use the MP3 player in Gamepark software. You can read that statement as you will. Even so, the system still has powerful midi support, which does sound truly excellent. The MP3 player apparently taxes the CPU to about 40% power capacity, and the system has an adjustable realtime clock. This means that the system can run anywhere from 40-133 MHz with a dip in the battery life the higher you go (12 hours for 40 MHz, 5 hours for 133 MHz).
Lastly I inquired about updates to the hardware. Is anything new planned, along the lines of the 200 MHz Samsung processor people have been talking about? Gamepark answered my question by showing a new prototype for an expanded GP32 system that doesn't update the system's power, but expands the uses several times over. The GPi as it is called was likened to the Handspring Treo. It plays GP32 games on its flip up screen, but also acts as an internet device, digital assistant and multimedia file player; the prototype which we were shown was able to play small MPEG video clips from the recent Star Wars movie.
Here are some shots of the impressive working prototype. I will release more information about this system as E3 progresses.
Should you have any further questions about the GP32, please don't hesitate to contact us ASAP, and I will update new information as it arrives. I thank Gamepark for their time and courtesy, and hope to see continued support in the US in the coming year. Look forward to my coming reviews of several English version GP32 games in the coming months.