The PlayStation 2 and I share a birthday. Sony’s sequel console was released on my 20th, March 4th, 2000.
If you’re going to share your birthday with a games console, then the biggest selling device of all time is pretty good one. It’s difficult to express what a big deal PS2 was when it launched. Today’s online content tsunami tends to blunt the impact of new things, such is the competition for consumer eyeballs. But even back in the good old days of print ads and TV spots, few systems can genuinely be called a game changer. In fact, I would argue that no games console has ever attained that status from the moment it hit the shelves. None except for Sony’s PlayStation 2.
Having said all that I didn’t personally notice the launch on my birthday that year. This was because the 4th March launch was for Japan. The UK wouldn’t taste the PS2’s power until 24th November. In a world before smartphones (yes, millennials, such a time did exist!) a console launch on the other side of the world didn’t attract much attention. For some consoles this delay between launches could have allowed a competitor to steal a march and grab a big piece of the market before PS2 arrived. That’s exactly what Sega thought they’d done with Dreamcast. They didn’t reckon with Sony’s two secret weapons though. The first was a major part of my 20th birthday roistering: the original PlayStation.
Despite all the advantages of backwards compatibility, affording £399 for a new PS2 was still a challenge for a struggling student household.
In early 2000, I was at college in Chichester. I lived in a rarely clean but always full student house where the beer flowed very, very freely and the centrepiece of every evening was endless drunken competitions on the PlayStation. During the day, anyone who might have been without a class to go to could be found sneaking their way through the sublime Metal Gear Solid or staggering through the half-baked Jedi Power Battles (it was 2000!) In the evenings though, the gameplay would almost always involve at least 5 somewhat inebriated players jockeying for the controllers. The disc of choice at those times was usually Tekken 2.
The source of the original PlayStation’s appeal was its simplicity. It was cheap to buy, easy to use and had a spectacular line up of AAA games at preposterously low prices. My beloved N64 was always too pricey to buy much for, so if we wanted some Nintendo action, we were mostly restricted to endless GoldenEye deathmatches. Conversely, the PlayStation in our ramshackle shared house saw new titles being shoved into its disc drive on an almost weekly basis. This allowed us all to build huge game libraries on a student budget. We could even take risks on titles we thought might be good and didn’t feel too bad if they turned out to be awful (Masters of The Teras Kasi anyone?)
How is all this relevant to PS2 you might ask? Well, the first PlayStation boasted famously straightforward architecture. There was also little possibility that Sony would base their second console on anything other than an optical disc drive. So, PlayStation 2 deployed its first secret weapon: backwards compatibility! That’s right. If you half-starved, half-sober students can get your greasy mitts on a PS2 you don’t have to buy any new games for it at first. In fact, you can continue to use your existing memory cards and controllers on the new system (only for your PS1 games though). Stick that in your pipe Sega! By idiotically saying that Saturn is not your future you’ve royally shafted your existing install base and weakened Dreamcast’s appeal. 1-0 Sony.
Despite all the advantages of backwards compatibility, affording £399 for a new PS2 was still a challenge for a struggling student household. This meant it wasn’t until the following year that I was afforded my first proper go on the PlayStation’s second coming.
On December 7th, 2001 I was having a day out with a girl at Borough Market in London. By now I was at University and our cohort had relocated from Chichester to West London. I was in a pub near where Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was filmed when my delightfully primitive Nokia phone pinged. I stole a quick, impolite glance at the bright green screen (my date wasn’t going that well) and the blocky text message was from Karl, one of my housemates:
Karl: Mate, when are you coming home?
Me: Not sure yet. Back by 5:30 I think.
Karl: You bringing your date home with you?
Me: Unlikely at this point. Why?
Karl: Don’t bring her back. I’ve got something to show you when you get in and she won’t like it.
Me: Okay mate, I’m intrigued! See you in a bit.
This cryptic exchange left me puzzled, excited and slightly worried (my mates were pretty crazy in those days). Unsure whether the guys had vomited down the front of the house, pulled the curtains off the wall doing cartwheels or taken to watching footie in the nude I made my excuses and headed for the tube. To be fair my date seemed relieved.
Our semi-detached house in South Ealing was something of an upgrade over the Chichester one and we had recently splashed out on a new widescreen CRT TV (hired of course, young people didn’t actually buy TVs in the early 2000s!) I made my way into the hallway and Karl was waiting there with a beer for me. He motioned me into the lounge where our other housemate Steve was waiting for us. There was a tense atmosphere in the room. It was like they both wanted to tell me something but didn’t know how to begin. I was wondering whether they were about to announce they were evicting me in favour of someone more successful with women as I sat down on the sofa.
That’s when I saw it…
Sitting in front of the TV whirring away quietly was the PlayStation 2. An actual, real PlayStation 2. A sleek black block of awesome with a stunningly beautiful blue LED light shining away on the disc eject button. (Blue LEDs were very uncommon in those days.) It was and probably still is the most beautiful games console I had ever seen. I sat there staring like a besotted idiot. I simply couldn’t believe that this mother of all games systems, the one we’d all been lusting after for over a year was in our house and ready to play.
Me: Where the bloody hell did you get that!?
Karl: Electronics Boutique in Ealing.
Me: How in god’s name did you afford it?
Karl: Credit card.
Me: You mad bastard. But why now?
Karl: It’s Christmas.
He then produced an extra controller and three games that he’d carefully selected. One title to appeal to each of us. For Steve it was Tekken Tag Tournament allowing him to play as King and Armour King at the same time. Karl chose Grand Theft Auto III for himself as there was nothing that floated his boat more than stealing digital cars and crashing them (he still doesn’t have a real driver’s licence thankfully.) For me, being a racing game nut, I got to sample Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec and drive a Zonda at highly unsafe velocities. I was still stunned as I cradled the brand-new Dual Shock 2 controller in my hands when Karl produced yet another purchase. This one underscored why PS2 annihilated the competition. It relates to Sony’s second secret weapon on PlayStation 2: DVD playback.
As I examined the box of a newly purchased copy of The World Is Not Enough on DVD the thought occurred to me that this beautiful little PS2 was all we needed under our TV. Everyone had become aware over the previous couple of years that DVDs were the future. The discs were not only more durable than our venerable old VHS tapes, they were smaller. They didn’t lose picture and sound quality with multiple viewings and the ability to skip chapters and access special features was utterly revolutionary. The problem was DVD players in 2001 still cost a lot of money. No way could a household of twenty somethings afford a decent DVD player and a current-gen games console. PlayStation 2 solved that problem for us.
I would say at this point 2-0 Sony but by the end of 2001 it was irrelevant. Dreamcast had committed Seppuku in March of that year, the Sega executives drowning themselves with doubt and the company haemorrhaging money. Sega quit the hardware game and GameCube and Xbox wouldn’t hit British markets until the spring of 2002. The twin-engine juggernaut of backwards compatibility and DVD capability had created a relentless, briefly invincible monster. For a short, victorious time current gen hardware consisted of a single device: PlayStation 2. So total was Sony’s victory that they only stopped making PS2 in 2013, over a decade after launch.
Sony would eventually prove themselves of this Earth. The botched attempt to repeat PS2s DVD wheeze with the Blu Ray enhanced PS3 handed a huge slice of the gaming market pie to Microsoft’s attractive but hilariously unreliable Xbox 360. As we hurtle to the release of PlayStation 5 at the end of 2020 it seems unlikely that Sony will ever ride that high again. But with 155 million units sold there’s no doubt that for the foreseeable future PS2 will reign supreme as the world’s most successful video games console. Every player will have their own take on which system was subjectively the greatest, but of this I’m sure: no console has ever changed the game as decisively or as brilliantly as Sony’s PlayStation 2. Z
My favourite games
Tekken Tag Tournament
From the moment the stunning opening sequence kicks off you’re left in no doubt that PlayStation 2 is a seriously powerful machine. Tekken 2/3 nights at college had always been frenetic affairs on the original PlayStation. The team-based design of Tekken Tag Tournament turns the whole experience up to 11.
The strategic element introduced by working with a teammate adds a completely new dimension to the gameplay. This makes the game far more than just a graphical update of Tekken 3. Unlike the seminal 2D team-based fighter series, Marvel Vs Capcom, Tekken Tag Tournament doesn’t allow you to fight on alone. When one of your team is KO’d, you’re done. But if you tag in and out regularly, not only can you combine together for some double-teaming but beaten up fighters can recover some energy.
This was smart game design because it encourages players to constantly make use of the game’s core mechanic. By the time we’d played for a few hours it was hard to imagine going back to earlier 1-on-1 Tekken. Actually, the hardest part about the game when I first tried it was trying not to be distracted by the insanely detailed backgrounds. That Namco could put some much love and care into the moving carousel despite knowing that most people would be too focused on the fisticuffs to properly notice was a bravura statement of PlayStation 2’s power. Still a classic of the genre.
Grand Theft Auto III
The idea of a large, explorable environment wasn’t in itself a gaming revolution. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to The Past had created an amazing world to quest around on the SNES almost 10 years before GTA III hit the shelves. What made Rockstar’s break through sandbox epic so special was its sense of freedom. As the central character you were free to doggedly follow each mission and unravel the complex crime drama that is central to the game. Or you could go into business for yourself and hustle for dollars away from the game’s main narrative.
Or, you’re free to be an amoral asshole and steal cars, mow down innocent pedestrians and shoot it out to the death with the cops. This freedom to do what you want, when you wanted, for however long you wanted made GTA III something entirely new. How we approached these choices largely depended on what was going on in our house around the PS2. If it was a school night, you’d usually find us crowded round the screen taking it in turns to beat the games many missions. Each beautifully structured cinematic cut scene a tribute to our gaming skill.
If it was a Friday and the beer was flowing, you’d see us taking on side missions or seeing how many cars we could steal and respray while listening to GTA III’s many excellent radio stations. If it was early on a hungover morning, then whoever got to the console first could be found groggily trying to kill as many people as possible for absolutely no reason other than they could.
Over the years GTA as a franchise has been accused moral bankruptcy. I don’t know about that. For those of us playing GTA III on the PS2 in 2001 it was definitely serious, bloody fun!
Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec
Cars! Lots of them. Drive fast now. Drive faster. Crash. Driver Slower. Learn the track. Drive fast again. Faster. Faster! FASTER!!! Oh look, I can change the colour of my car. Drive again. Never. Stop. Driving!
That is the basis of all massive driving sims like Gran Turismo. Why was GT3: A-Spec better than the rest. Two things. One, it looked incredible and played more realistically than anything that had come before it. Two, you could rule the racing world while listening to Iggy Pop performing Aisha by Death in Vegas.
On the second thing at least, Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec has not been bettered.
And of course, that classic gamepad
DUAL SHOCK 2 Controller
The original Dual Shock controller had arrived a couple of years through the PlayStation’s life cycle. By adding the twin analogue sticks Sony had made a very good controller even better. It had also correctly predicted the ubiquity of twin analogue thumb sticks on future controllers.
A desire to streamline compatibility and keep existing PlayStation users on side would lead Sony to the very unusual decision to retain a minimally enhanced but otherwise identical Dual Shock controller for PS2. Typically, a new controller was one of the key selling points of a new console. Was it divine inspiration that convinced Sony to stick with Dual Shock for PlayStation 2? Was it a lack of invention? Or even complacency? How you feel probably depends on how much you like the Dual Shock in the first place.
Personally, I always preferred the bat-shit crazy inventiveness of Nintendo. However weird and unwieldy they could be, the N64 and GameCube controllers felt like tech events in their own right. After all gaming is all about doing something new and not just repackaging the same old nonsense over and over…erm…isn’t it?