PlayStation 2 at 20: the console that revealed the future of gaming

It has to be said, the launch titles were not great. When the PlayStation 2 arrived in Japan on 4 March 2000, the first games early purchasers got to take home with them included a mahjong sim and a digital train set. The big-name titles, Street Fighter EX3 and Ridge Racer 5, were formulaic entries in tired legacy franchises. Meanwhile, Sega’s Dreamcast machine, released a year earlier, was hosting innovative hits such as Shenmue, Crazy Taxi and Power Stone. Had Sony stumbled after its hugely successful and highly disruptive original PlayStation?

No, it had not. It just took developers time to understand the architecture of this forward-looking console – especially its hyperbolically named Emotion Engine, the 128-bit central processing unit at the core of the box, designed to generate large, explorable 3D environments and fill them with life.

Sony unveils the PS2 in Tokyo in 1999.

Sony unveils the PS2 in Tokyo in 1999. Photograph: Toshiyuki Aizawa/Reuters

Looking back, that might not have been the most significant hardware decision made by Ken Kuturagi, the engineering mastermind known as “the father of PlayStation”. His team also fitted the PS2 with a DVD player, allowing owners to watch movies as well as play games – and with a launch price of ¥39,800 ($299 in the US and £299 in the UK), it wasn’t vastly more expensive than dedicated DVD players of the era. This made the PS2 one of the first games consoles to truly graduate from teen bedroom to family living room – especially when a PlayStation TV remote control accessory was released.

Kuturagi also added online gaming support, and although original machines required a network adaptor and it took a year before the facility was really supported, this allowed potential customers to believe they were buying into the future. It also brought us Final Fantasy XI, a major move forward in the concept of massively multiplayer online role-playing games on consoles. Backwards compatibility with the original PlayStation also ensured brand loyalty from many millions of owners.

Despite looming competition from the Nintendo GameCube and the Microsoft Xbox, the PlayStation 2 was an instant smash, selling more than three million units in its first year in Japan alone and hitting 20m worldwide by the end of 2001. The machine effectively ushered in the modern era of highly cinematic blockbuster action adventures, with titles such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Metal Gear Solid 2 and Devil May Cry thrilling players with their depth, visual detail and mature themes.

PlayStation 2 titles such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City helped set the style of the open-world gaming era.

PlayStation 2 titles such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City helped set the style of the open-world gaming era. Photograph: Rockstar

But the sheer ubiquity of the console and its vast global user base also allowed for a growing pool of experimental titles, which used the power of the Emotion Engine in very different ways. From elegiac adventures Ico and Shadow of the Colossus to psychological horror classic Silent Hill 2 and hallucinogenic joyride Katamari Damacy, the PS2 was home to titles that inspired the nascent independent game development scene of the mid-2000s.

At the same time European publishers, desperate for content to satisfy the overwhelming demand for new titles, began importing an array of lesser-known Japanese titles that perhaps would never have appeared in the international market in previous console generations. The strange voyeuristic photography game Polaroid Pete (aka Gekisha Boy 2), the orchestra conducting sim Mad Maestro! and early Untitled Goose Game forerunner Mister Mosquito, in which you play an insect annoying a suburban family, were all imported by UK publishers looking for sleeper hits.

The console also heralded interesting experiments in user interfaces. The arrival of the Guitar Hero series with its elaborate controllers; the SingStar games with their USB microphones; Sony’s EyeToy camera, which brought augmented reality gaming to living rooms; and the successful Buzz! series of family quiz games that came with simple one-button joypads – all of these played with the idea of what it meant to control a game, most before the arrival of the Nintendo Wii.

Both the GameCube and Xbox brought new gaming pleasures to players in the early to mid-2000s, but the PlayStation 2 dominated, becoming the bestselling console of all time with sales of almost 160m units. Its legacy is felt in the open-world games we now play, such as Assassin’s Creed, The Elder Scrolls and Red Dead Redemption, and some of its biggest hits – God of War, Devil May Cry, GTA, Jak and Daxter – are still being repurposed and reinvented for today’s players.

At the time, gaming pundits rather scoffed at the grandiose Emotion Engine branding of the PlayStation 2 tech but in the end, the experiences it provided lived up to that promise. From riding a BMX bike to the summit of GTA’s Mount Chiliad to Colonel Campbell going mad in Metal Gear Solid 2 and trying to convince the player to switch off their console, it was a machine whose success and security allowed publishers and developers to play about with the rules, and to respect us as players and explorers. They were interesting times.


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