After 12 years and more than 150 million consoles sold worldwide, Sony has announced it will stop production of the PlayStation 2. First going on sale in March 2000, the console defined an entire generation of videogames, featuring classics like Grand Theft Auto 3, Devil May Cry and God of War. With the passing of a former titan, it seems right to reflect on what made the PS2 great, and how its legacy lives on today.
The PS2 launched with a surreal £20 million ad campaign, welcoming gamers to the so-called ‘Third Place’. Noted Hollywood weird-meister David Lynch, most famous for Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet, directed one advert. It included a man vomiting up his own arm and a duck wearing a sharp suit. It didn’t show any game footage, or even mention it was for a videogame console. Instead, it captured the mood of the PS2: mature, dreamlike and vaguely threatening.
This approach extended to the design of the console itself. Its severe lines looked less like a toy than a prop from Alien. The black colour scheme and front-loading DVD tray were designed to blend in under the TV, where it wouldn’t embarrass you in front of your friends. It was also the first console that could be propped up on its side: a feature of all current-gen consoles. As a sign of Sony’s attention to detail, the PS2 badge on the front could be twisted round, so it always remained the right way up. Sony also lead the way when it came to redesigning its consoles. Over the years, the PS2 dropped size and weight like a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing.
The PS2’s main claim to fame was its use of DVDs. It is fair to say the console was more famous for sequels than launching new franchises. Nevertheless, it allowed many series to reach their full potential. The extra space and graphical grunt allowed for the sprawling world of Grand Theft Auto 3, while Metal Gear Solid 2 could pack in more cinematic video than your average multiplex. Whereas 3D graphics on the original PlayStation had been an ugly festival of blocks and sharp lines (looking back, Lara Croft was origami pornography), the PS2 was truly impressive.
The console was also many people’s first DVD player, and helped prod thousands into upgrading from VHS. It signalled the start of the videogame console as a full entertainment centre, capable of doing more than just play games. Its influence can be seen today: the PS3 fulfilled a similar role as ‘My First Blu-Ray Player’, and every current console offers movie and TV streaming.
As well as the improved visuals, developers used the extra disc space for reams of CD quality sound. More than any previous games console, the PS2 became intimately connected to music. The unmatched soundtrack of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City brought back the 1980s in all their neon glory, while the trippy Rez (also released for the Sega Dreamcast) had you flying through a throbbing, beat-matched computer server. Much like Wipeout on the first Playstation, Rez’s combination of pulsating visuals and relentless trance music felt like dropping ecstasy at a rave for androids.
As a side effect to this focus on music, the PS2 helped kickstart the rise of the plastic peripheral. Musical party games like Dance Dance Revolution, Singstar and Guitar Hero meant your living room was soon cluttered with miniature plastic guitars and microphones, like you were a roadie for a Smurf rock band. In Japan, even Rez came with a ‘Trance Vibrator’ that buzzed along to the beat, so you could ‘feel the music’. However, the console had some genuine innovations. The EyeToy (essentially a souped-up webcam) allowed players to enter into the game. Controlling the action (and making an idiot of themselves) by waving their arms about, there is a clear link between the EyeToy and the motion controls popularised by the Wii and Xbox Kinect.
Nintendo and Sega tended to rely on the games they made themselves, usually starring their mascots Mario or Sonic, to headline their consoles, But like all cool kids, Sony attracted lots of hangers-on. The PS2 had massive support from third party developers. To date, there have been almost 11,000 games released for the console. Incredibly, new games are still being produced for the aging platform. In Japan, an expansion to Final Fantasy XI will be released this March.
The massive library meant there was lots of dross to avoid (Crazy Frog Racer, anyone?), but also allowed smaller, weirder games to make their mark. The beautiful, touching Ico had you navigate your way out of a sun-bleached castle, leading a princess by the hand. It was followed by Shadow of the Colossus, a startling reinterpretation of David and Goliath. These games came closest to fulfilling the artistic pretensions of the Third Place adverts. They have their spiritual successors in the recent trend for downloadable ‘art games’, such as Journey on PS3. Meanwhile, the next game from Team Ico, called The Last Guardian, is languishing in development hell.
The PS2 confirmed Sony’s dominance of the videogame world. It walloped its two main competitors, the Sega Dreamcast and Nintendo Gamecube. With the failure of the Dreamcast, Sega stopped making their own hardware and started producing games for other companies’ consoles. Meanwhile Nintendo was reduced to a shadow of its former self. It had a major rethink, and emerged with the gloriously odd Nintendo DS and Wii. Sony’s console was so commanding, it even outsold the Playstation 3 for the first three years the replacement was available. To date, more than 150 million PS2s have been sold worldwide.
Coming of Age
If the original PlayStation represented the difficult teenage years for videogames (outgrowing the primary colours of childhood but covered with unsightly boils) the PlayStation 2 had the swagger and self-assurance of adulthood. The PS2 was when gaming stopped being a child’s toy, moving out of the playroom and into the living room.