A BALLAD FOR THE PS2

These days, consoles are a rather sticky mess. They’re the necessary evil for those who feel unwilling to pay big bucks on a high-end PC. The Playstation Network gets hacked into more often than a log in a lumberyard, the Xbox One bursts into tears and breaks if you try to do anything more than look at it, and Nintendo appear to have just given up on the Wii U, already starting work on a new box of microchips that presumably won’t have controller hardware designed by a tea tray manufacturer. On top of all this they’re overpriced and restrictive with horrible user interfaces and a line of exclusives that’s more formulaic than Doctor Pepper.

But I suspect that this is about as good as it’s going to get for quite a while. Because the best console was two generations ago, and everyone seems to be neglecting what made it work. Hardly need to guess, do you? Yes, it’s the Playstation 2, Sony’s magnificent octopus (let’s see who gets THAT obscure reference), which set the bar for consoles at the time and was generally fantastic.

Not to say that everybody liked it, and I can think of one group of people who didn’t straight away – the Sega Corporation. Sony released the PS2 in March 2000, at which point sales for the Sega Dreamcast dropped like a cartoon anvil. The Dreamcast had only been out for two years, but the Xbox and GameCube hadn’t even been released yet, so the mighty PS2 was basically responsible for kicking the ladder out from underneath Sega’s final console. Within eighteen months of the Playstation’s release into the stores and homes of the world, the Dreamcast was discontinued in quiet sadness, much like the Sega Saturn before it.

The combination of two console failures seemed to break Sega as a company. Flagging profits, poor third-party support and rumours of disagreement at the upper echelons basically pushed them back to making games for other companies from then on.

So the PS2 had hit the ground running with blood in its teeth, but why was it doing this well? It was partly because the original Playstation had helped set it up, but it didn’t hurt that it had a massive advertising campaign that spanned the globe. Not to mention that backwards compatibility meant that those who bought it would know that their old games weren’t useless – remember what a nice feeling that was? Thus everyone who owned the original seemed pretty happy to buy the upgraded model. Ka-ching.

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Everybody – take off your hats in honour of this fallen hero.

To my mind, though, the big opening move that did them so much good was the DVD player. This was the first console that could play these new-fangled disc thingies, and would be the only one for a while. The GameCube and the Dreamcast had no idea what to do with such media, probably assuming they were some fragile form of coaster, and even the Xbox, released over a year later, would need an extra accessory to be able to read them properly.

But the PS2 could handle them right out of the gate, and that wasn’t nothing, especially when trying to get these consoles out to those who wouldn’t normally be interested in gaming. The Playstation 2 didn’t cost much more than a normal DVD player did, so picture this: you’re an average joe with a little disposable income and you’re out in an electronics store (back when you bought this kind of stuff in a physical store), with your heart set on a DVD player. But paying an extra twenty quid could allow you to get one, bundled with the brand new games console that all the cool kids are talking about…

Might as well, right?

And so the PS2 was suddenly a must-have both for the aspiring gamer and the film geek who likes their affordable home movie theatres. Sales just got ratcheted up another notch.

But all this is not to say that the actual launch was all onions and gravy. A lot of people were unimpressed with the lacklustre line-up of games for the PS2 when it came out, and it would have to make do with titles that were basically “good enough” like Timesplitters, a half-baked version of Unreal Tournament and the port of an arcade Tekken game.

However, this lasted it until Christmas and then to 2001, when a batch of high-profile, commercially successful games were released and really started making people sit up and take notice. Metal Gear Solid 2, Grand Theft Auto III, Tony’s Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, Silent Hill 2…The list goes on, filled with games that are still beloved today.

But we haven’t addressed the crux of the issue – this has all made the PS2 successful, but it hasn’t necessarily made it good. After all, heroin, The Big Bang Theory and Burger King all seem to be pretty popular, but that doesn’t make them worth much.

No, what made the PS2 superb was a commitment to third-party support, and being in the right place and the right time for the perfect level of technology for developers.

See, back then Sony understood that a games console is nothing more than a medium through which people want to play the actually interesting stuff. Nobody wanted a PS2 for its interface or visual appeal, they only bought it because there were video games and DVDs they wanted to try out, and this black and blue cuboid was a mandatory to accomplish that end.

And so, reasoned Sony, the best thing to do was to make sure that those interesting games are as numerous as possible, because that’s the bit that people are interested in. It was pretty tough to manage individual quality, so they just allowed everything and kept asking for more. In fact, a lot of trends got their footing on the Playstation 2 – remember the EyeToy? That thing felt like the embryo from which both the Wii and the Kinect grew, for better or worse. And though it was done basically as a response to the Xbox doing it later, Sony started selling adapters to play games online in 2002. Another big fad is born, the idea of online console gaming.

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… A chill rushes through the room. This is where the nightmare began.

Not that allowing every game and gimmick ever made onto your console is a move without risk. If everybody is submitting ideas, you run the risk of being the vanguard of a huge wave of crap games. One of the reasons that the Games Crash Of 1984 happened was an oversaturated market filled with sub-par titles, turning people off the medium altogether.

And sure, there were some shitty games on the PS2. Anybody who owned one probably got unlucky at least once or twice, I know I did. But with this new internet thing rapidly growing at the time and more review magazines for fans to read, it became pretty easy for high-quality games to bubble to the top and gain recognition. If critics liked a game by this new company nobody’s heard of yet named “Team Ico,” then sooner or later those who pay even a small amount of attention will hear about it.

So Sony went to work expanding their games library, perhaps as a sign of apology for the restrictive line-up they began with, and they did this very well. By the time the Playstation 2 was finally laid to rest in 2013, over a whole decade after it was invented, it had almost four thousand games under its ample belt. By comparison, the PS4 has about a quarter of that. Now, that’s not too bad considering that it’s only been out for about three years at time of writing, but consider this – there are more developers today than ever, so shouldn’t there be more games than that, as the proportions increase? Not only that, but what happened to the diversity and originality that made the PS2 library so colourful?

For that, we have to look at the mechanics of it again. At the time, the PS2 was starting to knock against the final barriers of technological representation, by which I mean that most of the things you could imagine could now be portrayed on it, as the processors were powerful enough. It might look a bit angular and polygonish (that’s a word now), but you could present nearly anything, hence the increase in new ideas coming out.

Hell, it was in this generation that the open-world sandbox – now a staple of mainstream game design – really began to catch on and become something plausible. Metroidvania games had been aspiring to the same sort of thing in 2D before then, but now it was within people’s reach to make a big city full of stuff to play with. Remember how liberating it felt to swing around in Spider-Man 2? That had only become a possibility for most designers back then.

So with more disk space and better tech to work with, people were getting creative, egged on by Sony to make as many games as possible, who were practically sending around development kits to everybody with two thumbs and a functioning brain. Everyone had a different idea of what the new big trends might be, and so people started putting a LOT of stuff out, with a greater spectrum of genres and styles than a combination Blockbuster Video and hair salon.

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Anybody who says that The Two Towers tie-in game sucks had better be ready to fight behind the bike sheds after school. I’m serious, I’ll go for the eyes if I have to.

But the barrier to entry back then wasn’t as restrictive as it was today. Today you can’t get anything on a major console without either having a huge name behind you (hence the frequently delayed Mighty No.9), or sporting photo-realistic graphics (hence The Order: 1886).

Yet for a lot of people, this isn’t possible. Designers might have a nice little idea that’s worth trying out, but it won’t get much traction on the major consoles if it’s not pretty and superficial. So nowadays it either gets dumped into Steam Early Access or just sent to the recycle bin.

But thankfully, this wasn’t so much of a problem back in the early 2000s. The technology was a lot less powerful, a lot less baffling and Sony might as well have been calling “Avengers, Assemble” when it came to developers, trying to get everybody they could find to make games. Basically, the PS2 was then what the iPhone is today – the springboard for developers who didn’t have the credit for anything more impressive, but was completely accepting of larger projects too. To continue the Marvel metaphor above, they were calling for Hawkeye and the Hulk to join their team.

So the PS2 had the kind of nuanced, experimental and wildly varied library which modern consoles can’t have these days, because the development community wasn’t limited by restrictive genre trends, inflated budgets and unreasonable standards of graphical quality. And yet the second PlayStation was one of the most technologically powerful consoles that had been made at the time, inspiring a creative wave of “what could we do with this” for those in the development business. A lovely midpoint to be in, and one that ended all too soon.

But it seems unlikely that this will be repeated. The only way it seems that this could happen again would be if companies stopped caring about graphical quality (unlikely), if easily-accessible programming equipment for developers overtook the strength of console hardware (very unlikely), and publishers didn’t feel the need to hop onto various bandwagons for the sake of the opportunistic buck (Ha!). God knows what may be happening thirty years from now, but in the near future, we shouldn’t get our hopes up.

… I feel I say that a lot these days.

The thing I find most fascinating is the clear-cut difference in style between the old consoles and the new ones. When I logged onto my old PS2, only two options came up: play the disc inside it or delete some files from storage to make room for more saved games. If you wanted to do anything else, you could fuck off – this was a gaming platform and anybody who wanted to do more could go and find a computer to piddle around on. Alright, we’ll let you play movies now and then, but that’s only on sufferance and we’d better see some time logged in with 007: Nightfire or Godhand later, you follow me?

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Maybe it’s wrong to be nostalgic over a gangland-shooting simulator, but that’s between me and my psychiatrist, thank you very much.

But when I turn on my flatmate’s Xbox One or PS4, I’m getting assaulted with various options, clambering over each other in a slightly distasteful manner. “Ooh, would you like to log into Facebook? Or search for videos online? I’ve got Amazon or Netflix if you want them? Perhaps I could interest you in uploading some photos or making a customised avatar for yourself?

“Wait, what’s that? You want to play a video game? Are you sure? Well, I suppose if you really want to. Let me start installing it, so if you could come back in a couple of hours I’ll just – ACK! OH MY GOD, YOU JUST DISCONNECTED FROM THE INTERNET! ARE YOU ALRIGHT? ARE YOU DEAD? I’M CALLING AN AMBULANCE, THIS IS ALL WRONG! AAAGH! AAAGH!”

Think of it like this. When Microsoft released the Xbox One, they proudly flaunted the second half of its name. It’s called the One because it’s the only device you’ll ever need, they told us. In fact, it’s more an entertainment system than a console.

But all the functions up above, the social media bollocks and video watching stuff? Well… I’ve got all those already. And I’m sure all of you with consoles probably do too. You have a tablet, or a laptop, or a computer, or an iPhone. Hell, most TVs come with Netflix and Amazon installed on them these days. So what’s all this additional nonsense clogging up the consoles for? It might not sound like much, but all these extra functions probably added a fair amount on to the price tag, not to mention using up processor and memory space you could’ve filled with more exploding buildings and RPG characters.

Ah, well. All we can do is play the old games on PC emulators and give a fond thought every now and then to the PS2, that faithful hound that sat by our television, proudly giving us the best experience it could manage. Oh, and you could drop it or knock it over without the thing internally self-destructing, remember that?

Yeah. Good times.

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