Sony’s PlayStation 2 was a landmark console for both the games industry at large — and for many individuals of a certain age, too.
The console turned 20 years old on March 4, 2020 — assuming we’re going by its original Japanese release date, anyway — and thus that provides as good a reason as any to look back on this wonderful console, share some fond memories and explore how this remarkable machine is still relevant in my daily gaming life even today.
Grab a slice of cake and get ready to party, then; it’s time to celebrate.
This isn’t going to be another factual historical retrospective on the console; doubtless there are hundreds of those across the Internet already. Instead, I wanted to share a few specific personal feelings and recollections about the system — and if you’re as old as I am, I invite you, dear reader, to share your own stories down in the comments, too. This is a truly beloved console for many people — not just those who were around for it when it was current — and so I’m sure lots of us have many tales to tell!
For me, my first encounter with the PlayStation 2 was on a trip overseas to visit my brother. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, my brother John is ten years my senior, and in the late ’90s he jumped ship from our grotty little island to go and work for publisher Ziff-Davis on Electronic Gaming Monthly, the Official US PlayStation Magazine and, eventually, 1up.com. This meant he 1) had a very nice house and 2) it was very well equipped with both gaming hardware and a big collection of software to enjoy on said hardware.
On this particular occasion, it was, I guess, not long after the North American launch of the PlayStation 2 in October of 2000, and of course my brother had one — including most of the launch games. Of these titles, a couple in particular stick in my memory: Free Radical’s TimeSplitters, and Shade’s Orphen: Scion of Sorcery, the latter of which was published by Activision, of all people.
TimeSplitters stuck with me because it was one of the most powerful showcases of how much things had moved on since the previous generation of console hardware.
First-person shooters on the PS1 tended to be fairly clunky affairs that were held back somewhat by the system’s 3D hardware; at the time, console-based polygonal games were, for the most part, lagging significantly behind what 3D-accelerated DOS and Windows PCs were capable of. But the PS2 changed that; finally, we were getting experiences that were closer — not identical, but closer — to what home computers had on offer, for a fraction of the price, and with no need to download drivers, tinker with CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT or worry about whether the game you’d bought supported 3Dfx, PowerVR or some weird Matrox thing no-one had ever heard of.
TimeSplitters took the things that had made GoldenEye and Perfect Dark so great on Nintendo 64, and did two important things. Firstly, it put them on a dual analogue controller rather than the N64’s curious setup. And secondly, it bumped the frame rate up considerably, making use of motion blur — fashionable even back then — to make it look even smoother than it actually was.
The result was a game that very much had the feel of Rare’s legendary shooters — in no small part due to the fact that developer Free Radical was made up of many ex-Rare staffers who had previously worked on the aforementioned classics — but brought the experience right up to date.
The single-player experience was regarded as somewhat lacking at the time — largely due to the fact that it called itself a “Story” mode while delivering no narrative exposition whatsoever — but today, it’s aged very well, offering lively, arcadey fun with a distinctive structure, clear mechanics and lots of variety. And this was complemented beautifully by the multiplayer mode — which could also be enjoyed solo against bots, still a relative novelty at the time — and the difficult Challenge missions, which made creative use of the game’s mechanics to present you with tests of skill, speed and dexterity.
I played TimeSplitters so much that my brother’s neighbour came round to complain about the noise. My parents and my brother had gone out to do something or other, and I’d been left alone in his house with the PS2, so I’d cranked the volume up a bit as I enjoyed the game. And that series has some of the meatiest gun noises I’ve ever heard, so in retrospect I’m not altogether surprised I was asked to keep it down a bit. Lucky I hadn’t cranked up the volume when I found his collection of po–
Erm, anyway. Where were we?
Oh, right, Orphen: Scion of Sorcery. This was an unusual game, but I liked it a lot. I was particularly impressed by its heavy use of voice acting — also something of a novelty in this era, as we were only just moving from CD to DVD as a standard storage medium for software — and high-quality anime cutscenes, but I also found its unusual battle mechanics refreshing and enjoyable to engage with.
For the unfamiliar, Orphen: Scion of Sorcery is an adaptation of the manga and anime Sorcerous Stabber Orphen, featuring a grumpy black sorcerer and his teenaged companions. I didn’t know anything about the source material when I played it and still had a great time with it; I must confess I still don’t know much about the source material even today, but my own copy of the game remains proudly on my shelf.
I was particularly impressed by how much personality the characters in Orphen had. The more advanced 3D visuals of the PlayStation 2 allowed for greater expressiveness in character models than in the previous generation, and the combination of a decent dub and a witty localised script gave the experience a very distinctive feel that was quite unlike anything else I’d played before.
I actually beat Orphen during that trip; I recall my brother being surprised that I would rather play that than some of the more well-reviewed games from the PS2’s launch lineup, but I found myself hooked on the story — and, well, you know me; I’ve always been one for an underdog.
At this time, I was attending university. I was known among my friends as someone who was passionately interested in games, and I often had people in my room to enjoy multiplayer affairs such as Point Blank on PS1, or story-heavy games such as Final Fantasy VIII. And so everyone knew that I was always going to use part of that student loan payment to pick up a PS2.
Yes, student loans were supposed to be for living expenses and whatnot… but back then the amount of money we got given in one go felt like boundless riches, and so it only took a little mulling over for me to head down to my local GameStation and buy myself a PlayStation 2. It felt like a significant moment; it was the first console I’d bought entirely “myself” rather than either receiving it as a gift or getting money towards it from relatives.
The first game I got was Shadow of Memories by Konami. I made a conscious effort to choose something I’d never heard of as my first PS2 game. And while I knew I enjoyed TimeSplitters and Orphen: Scion of Sorcery, I wanted something new. So I browsed through the games that were available at the time, and eventually settled on the one that sounded the most interesting: Shadow of Memories by Konami.
I had no idea if this game was any good or not. I hadn’t seen any reviews of it, and the description on the back of the box was pretty vague as to what type of game it even was. But I thought I’d take a chance and see what it was all about… and it paid off.
Shadow of Memories, for the unfamiliar, is a time-travelling adventure game about a man who repeatedly gets murdered. By making clever use of the time-travel mechanic, you have to thwart increasingly elaborate schemes to kill him off, often making large jumps into the past to make major changes such as ensuring a tree that your assailant hides behind never gets planted and suchlike.
Along the way, protagonist Eike gets embroiled in a variety of fascinating narratives in each of the time periods. I believe this was my first encounter with a story that involved alchemy and the concept of “The Philosopher’s Stone”, and the whole thing had a delightfully unsettling atmosphere all of its own. Plus Charles Martinet, best known as the voice of Mario today, played Homunculus, one of the most gloriously creepy characters of any game I’d ever seen up until that point.
Shadow of Memories provided confirmation of something that I’d suspected for a while: that it was neither necessary nor desirable to rely on reviews and hype to determine if you wanted to play something. I picked out that game purely on a whim and ended up having a marvellous time with it; I didn’t even find myself looking up reviews after I’d played it to “validate” my purchase. I knew that I’d had a good time, and that was all that mattered.
In this way, I’d say my earliest experiences with the PlayStation 2 played a significant role in shaping the way I approach the gaming medium as a whole today. I don’t give a damn what popular opinion or critical consensus is on something — if something looks like it will appeal to me, it’s something I’ll explore for myself and make my own mind up about.
There are many, many more wonderful experiences I had with the PlayStation 2 that I could probably continue to share for many thousands more words — but I’m pretty sure that this is the most precious gift that console gave me.
The feeling of freedom to enjoy whatever you want, however you want, whenever you want, other people be damned; that’s a wonderful thing, and the PlayStation 2 era was the first time I was well and truly consciously aware of this as a desirable thing. And it’s a big part of why PS2 games are still a regular part of my gaming life today.
Happy birthday, PS2. You defined modern gaming for me, and you’ll always be beloved.
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