PlayStation 2. With the possible exception of Nintendo’s Gameboy, you’d be hard pressed to find another gaming platform that has remained a firm staple on the public consciousness than Sony’s seminal successor to its original, multi-million dollar selling grey box of tricks. Having shifted over a brain-numbing 145 million units since its inception in 2000, PS2 has cemented itself as the most successful selling home console of all time, capturing a vast, diverse audience spanning all ages long before the notion of wand-waggling Wii-motes even put dollar signs in the eyes of corporate bigwigs back at Nintendo HQ.
With ample third-party support and a host of first-party exclusives, Sony’s mammoth-selling machine was a pool of diverse creativity, a launch pad for some of the most innovative, genre-defining endeavours of the past generation for all to consume. PS2 didn’t just offer some of the best triple-A offerings for the hardcore buying public; it bought something to the table for everyone, from gaming goliaths such as Grand Theft Auto and Metal Gear Solid to nurturing more idiosyncratic gems such as ICO and Katamari Demacy. Indeed, while the Wii may have captivated grannies and soccer moms across the globe, PS2 planted the first seeds of enticing non-gamers over to the wonders of interactive digital entertainment, with the technological wonders of the likes of Eye Toy – not to mention a myriad of software that catered to kiddies and casuals alike – taking a sledgehammer to any pre-conceived notions that games were still synonymous with acne-ridden teenagers and sweaty, basement-dwelling introverts.
As such, the chaps at PSU Towers need little reason to acknowledge the PS2’s indisputable impact on the industry, but when you consider the fact the system this week turned a decade old in Europe, we thought the time was ripe to extol 10 of the most important games to hit the console during its unforgettable stint on the market. Join us now as we lift the lid on the 10 PlayStation 2 games that defined a generation.
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Attempting to extol the virtues of Fumito Ueda’s artsy boy-meets-girl romp is no easy task. Hopping in to the delicate shoes of a young chap with a horned hat, ICO has you partnered up with equally young, delicate lass as you attempt to navigate a sumptuously designed landscape full of imaginative environmental puzzles and pesky shadow beasts. As such, it’s easy to pigeonhole the game in to the trappings of generic labels due to its apparent simplicity, but the truth is though, ICO really does need to be played for yourself in order to grasp just how bloody great it is.
Oozing creativity from every nook and cranny, Ueda’s 2001 cult hit is a captivating concoction of immaculate technical wizardry, from sheer scale and cohesiveness of the environments to the gorgeous visual touches, including some of the most beautiful lighting and water effects seen in a videogame. Indeed, it’s these individual components that fuse together to create an almost indescribable dream-like quality to the proceedings that positively exudes atmosphere, while the narrative – despite being centred on a perpetually silent protagonist and a chick who’s vocabulary is limited to a series of unintelligible blabbering – still manages to enthral you in its web of intrigue. Sure, it’s a little on the short side, but the experience is something you’ll never forget and will surely want to relive again and again.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
There aren’t many franchises out there that can claim to have provoked as much controversy, flogged as many game systems or achieved such ubiquity within our industry as Grand Theft Auto. Indeed, since its inception in the late 90s, Rockstar’s multi-million selling crime juggernaut has remained a firm staple on the public consciousness, smashing sales records and raising the proverbial bar for the sandbox/adventure genre across all formats. GTA III was revolutionary, catapulting the series to blockbuster status as it made the transition to the third dimension. Though its 2002 follow-up, GTA: Vice City, came out a mere 12 months after, it felt more like a fully realized vision—complete with gorgeous game world, wildly inventive missions, and the gripping story of Tommy Vercetti, a daring Mafia hitman who won’t rest until he’s Vice City’s kingpin of crime.
Vice City, modeled after Miami, is a hotbed of 1980s American culture. As Vercitti, voiced by the masterful Ray Liotta, wades through the scantily clad beach-goers and late-night revelers of Vice City, he encounters a colorful cast of characters; the domineering Don Sonny Forelli, the neurotic lawyer Ken Rosenberg, and the laid-back Lance Vance (who spawned the Lance Vance Dance meme) all breathe life into Vercetti’s Scarface-inspired story. As for Vice City itself, it finds a happy medium between the tightly enclosed urban streets of GTA III and the desolate deserts of San Andreas, offering plenty of opportunities for captivating car chases and wild shoot-outs.
God of War II
Following up on the rip-roaring success of the original God of War, SCE Studios Santa Monica’s triumphant sequel set the benchmark for PS2 action games back in 2007, catapulting baldy badass Kratos in to the limelight once again with its thrilling boiling pot of visceral combat, mammoth boss battles and sumptuous visuals. Clearly adopting an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality, the sagacious chaps at Sony opted not to muck with a richly successfully formula, and as a result God of War II stuck to the well-oiled mechanics of the original – only this time, it did things ever better. Locations were more diverse and gorgeous to boot, pushing Sony’s seven-year old machine to its limits, while the core gameplay remained as intensely satisfying as ever.
This time, however, puzzles proved a little more taxing on the old grey matter, while the boss battles – already an epic centrepiece in Kratos’ inaugural adventure – proved an even more colossal affair second time around, rivalling the likes of Resident Evil 4 as some of the best the platform had to offer. It’s not all limb ripping and brain mashing, though; adhering to the fine tapestry of Greek Mythology, God of War II sews a compelling, gut-wrenching tale of betrayal and revenge, and in doing so, dexterously crafts one of the most memorable anti-hero’s of recent memory in the meaty, muscle-bound Kratos. Indeed, God of War may have kick started our love affair with the loin-cloth wearing slap head, but God of War II refined the experience and cemented Kratos’ second coming among the greatest action games of the decade.
Resident Evil 4
Controversially making the transition to PS2 back in 2005 after it was previously touted a GameCube exclusive, Shinji Mikami’s Resident Evil 4 may not have been as technically polished on Sony’s box as it was on Nintendo’s platform, but that didn’t stop it from selling by the bucket load – and with good reason. Indeed, whereas past entries stuck to the formulaic sensibilities of old-school mid-90s horror – where incremental upgrades were about as good as it got with each new iteration – RE4 gave the franchise a firm shot in the arm, inaugurating a new era for the million-selling Survival Horror franchise. Gone was the methodical, ammo conserving and riddle-solving antics of the past for an all-out blast fest filled with human-like foes, hulking bosses and jaw-dropping set pieces. Make no mistake; RE4 was revolutionary in every sense of the word.
Hopping in to veteran zombie slayer Leon S. Kennedy’s shoes from an over-the-shoulder perspective (an element which influenced countless other games, including EA’s Dead Space), Resi 4 cobbled together a myriad of familiar mechanics – from QTEs, RPG-style weapons upgrades to a nifty limb-targeting system – creating a cohesive, action-packed spectacle that doesn’t let up until the climax. Challenging, relentless and oozing with atmosphere, RE4’s amalgamation of action, horror and head-scratching riddles cemented it as the one of the premier single-player adventure games of not just the PS2 era, but of any time, period. Five years on, and it’s still a blast to play – and miles better than the sequel to boot.
Gran Turismo 4
Emerging from the creative pool of Polyphony Digital, the Gran Turismo franchise has become perhaps as synonymous with tumultuous development cycles and release scheduling as it has providing one of the most authentic driving experiences on the market. Indeed, when it comes to Kazunori Yamauchi’s lauded simulator, you can pretty much guarantee two things – 1) it’s going to take a bloody long time to arrive, and 2) it’ll blow your socks off when it does. Unsurprisingly, GT4 was no different when it cruised in to shops back in 2005. Adhering to the fundamental principles that Yamauchi-san set in stone back in 1997, the one-and-a-half-year delayed (yes, really) racer delivered an unquestionably competent, realistic simulator offering that petrol heads instantly lapped up, but expanded upon its predecessors in just about the only way possible – by chucking in a boat load of fresh content.
Unsurprisingly, GT4 ended up being the most comprehensive outing in the franchise up until that point, packing in a whopping 700 scrumptiously detailed motors under its hood, heaps of diverse and beautifully realised tracks to whiz around to your hearts content, and a meaty career to tackle. Car customisation also shifted up a gear, offering users the chance to tweak and fine-tune their rides down to the subtlest of details, providing a fine showcase for the game’s utterly brilliant visual presentation, which still makes for some jaw-dropping moments even under the scrutiny of today’s HD-savvy wiz kids. Throw in some meaty physics and an online mode, and it’s an automobile aficionados’ wet dream.
Shadow of the Colossus
Masterminded by renowned developer Fumito Ueda, Shadow of the Colossus isn’t just a defining moment in the PS2’s illustrious career, but unequivocally one of the decade’s crowning achievements in interactive entertainment, period. Boasting a heap of awards to its name – including bagging the prestigious Outstanding Achievement in Air Direction accolade at DICE 2006 – SotC offers an unparalleled onslaught of technical brilliance, taking unsuspecting players on an emotionally charged roller coaster adventure punctuated by eye-popping aesthetics and sumptuous audio work. Tasked with the seemingly insurmountable quest of defeating sixteen mighty Colossi to save the life of his bit of skirt – ahem, sorry, his beloved – our hero Wander mounts his noble steed Agro, before embarking on an epic journey that’ll flex your grey matter as much as your fingers as you tirelessly work them to the bone in an effort to dispatch the gargantuan beasts.
Indeed, the most satisfying thing about Colossus is how deceptive it is in terms of concept – on paper, it sounds like an exercise in sheer monotony. However, it soon becomes abundantly clear after spending just a few minutes on the back of your trusty steed that Ueda-san has crafted an adventure that goes beyond the initial goal of simply slaying the beasts and saving the day. Indeed, as genius as the battles are, the real lure is when you allow yourself to be immersed by the sheer scale of what’s on offer. It’s the subtleties, the sprinkle of personal experiences that accentuate the sheer mind-blowing qualities of Wander’s epic outing, whether that might be embracing the freedom of galloping majestically across the game’s beautiful environments or allowing yourself to be seduced by the gorgeous audio work. And when it comes to taking down the mighty Colossi themselves, nothing breeds as much satisfaction as locating that crucial weak point single-handily and watching your adversary crumple to the floor in a rocky heap. Suffice to say, you’ll never play another game like it – at least, not until The Last Guardian shows up.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
When it comes to extolling the virtues of the PlayStation 2’s vast array of triple-A third party support, nothing quite carries more weight than the output of one man – Hideo Kojima. Indeed, the legendary developer has snuggled up to camp Sony for a good decade or so now, with the iconic Metal Gear Solid franchise remaining synonymous with the PlayStation brand since 1998’s eponymous stealth ‘em up. Just like the original was among the cream of the crop of the original PlayStation’s library of software, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater became an instant classic upon its release in 2004, pitting gamers in the shoes of legendary solider (and daddy to twins Solid & Liquid), Naked Snake in an emotionally-charged Cold War-era epic. Packing in more stealth than MGS2’s slightly action-focused opus, Snake Eater weaves a quintessentially 1960s spy-influenced tale of love, friendship and betrayal brewing with heavy political undertones, as the gruff Snake surreptitiously enemy slits throats and gobbles down indigenous wildlife and plants in the midst of a sprawling forest zone.
Brimming with intrigue and suspense, spot on pacing, not to mention boasting some of the most meticulously crafted visuals on Sony’s 128-bit work horse, Snake Eater is perhaps one of the most intelligently crafted adventure games ever conceived. Stealth play is a skilful, methodical beast that ultimately yields immense gratification, while the action segments and boss battles that punctuate Snake’s slippery bush crawling remain as competent and strategic of an affair as previous entries. Meanwhile, the pressure of keeping our hero’s rumbling stomach at bay in order to remain combat efficient injects a satisfying twist on the traditional MGS template, adding a new dimension to what is otherwise a familiarly functional stealth romp. Still, as captivating as the game is to play, it’s Snake Eater’s cinematic qualities that really pushed the boundaries back in ‘04, with Kojima’s PS2 epic being one of the only games in recent memory to make grown men shed tears by the bucket load. Moving, memorable and utterly mind-blowing stuff.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3
Though today EA holds the hearts (and dollars) of extreme sports enthusiasts with its superb Skate series, the Tony Hawk name used to be synonymous with quality skateboarding games. Generally considered the apex of the franchise, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 added the revert maneuver to the medley of grabs, grinds, flips, and manuals seen in the first two games. The revert allowed for combos that encompassed both vert and flatground tricks, opening up a whole new world of gameplay possibilities.
The control scheme, though dated by today’s standards, was quite innovative at the time. In the air, the right direction and square did one kickflip. In Pro Skater 3, if you pressed it two or three times, it’d result in a double or triple kickflip—or a bail. The graphics were superb for a holiday 2001 title, and the game ran at a smooth clip on Sony’s black box. The vertically-aware level designs, too, were some of the best of the series. Skaters and gaming enthusiasts alike flocked to the then-next generation of machines to lead Tony and crew to million-plus point combos in Pro Skater 3. What followed that release, unfortunately, was a pattern of stifled innovation and general misdirection.
The brainchild of the now sadly defunct Clover Studios, Okami didn’t just turn heads in amazement among hardcore gaming aficionados’ when it arrived on shelves back in 2006, it twisted them clean off. Branded by many as the PS2’s answer to the Legend of Zelda, Hideki Kamiya’s mesmerising, quintessentially Japanese epic – which sees players controlling a heroic wolf named Amaterasu – is far from your rudimentary adventure romp. Set in one of the most awe-inspiring and down right beautiful game worlds you’ll ever likely to clap eyes on, Okami’s use of sumptuous cel-shaded aesthetics create the stunning backdrop for one of the most innovative gaming endeavours of the past generation of consoles.
It isn’t just the game’s immaculate visual template that sets it apart from its contemporaries; chief among the game’s highlights is the uniquely brilliant Celestial Brush mechanic, allowing you to intuitively ‘draw’ attacks in battle, resurrect colourless plant life and tackle brain-taxing riddles dotted throughout the landscape. Throw in a heap of side quests, a meaty 40-60 hours worth of exhilarating gameplay, and you’ll quickly find yourself caught up in Okami’s beautiful landscapes for copious couch-bound hours of pure gaming bliss. Indeed, Okami isn’t just fundamentally a brilliant adventure game at its core; it transcends anything done up until that point, calving out an identity of its own almost, and above all, makes one question the sceptics who insist that videogames can never be considered a true work of art.
Final Fantasy X
Part and parcel of the PlayStation brand since 1997’s seminal seventh instalment, Square’s Final Fantasy franchise arrived on PS2 back in 2001 and proved just as much of a revolutionary head-spinner as Cloud Strife’s magnum opus did six years earlier. Much of this can be attributed to the increased technical oomph afforded by Sony’s black box, which accommodated the series’ transition to fully 3D environments, scrumptious facial-animations and banished the use of text-boxes to the fiery pits of retro oblivion by incorporating voice acting to advance a decidedly intricate plot. Focusing on floppy-haired hero Tidus and his diverse rabble of do-gooders as they embarked on a quest to subvert the evil Sin, FFX sprinkled fresh ideas all over the shop, including the comprehensively designed – if slightly fiddly – Sphere Grid system, which injected a degree of interactivity to the process of levelling up your characters.
The battle system also received some poking and prodding from the chaps at Square, with then newly introduced CTB system coughing up some subtle, yet invigoratingly fresh tweaks that allowed for a far more coherent and rewarding combat experience. Chief among these new additions included the fact battles were now entirely turn-based with no lingering time pressure, the ability to switch up players on the fly, plus a revamped summon system whereby you’d call upon a mighty beast and – unlike previous entries – have it replace your entire party as a fully-functional combatant and wage all-out destruction against your foes. Indeed, FFX was a mature step forward for the series, effectively taking the brand by the scruff of the neck, slapping it about until it was able to swing back, and catapulting it back in to the ring for another bout – with some new tricks up its sleeves. Nearly a decade on, and Tidus’s epic quest has proven its worth as a landmark release that’s stood the rest of time, coming up trumps as one of the most beautifully realised, immersive RPG romps you’ll ever get your grubby mitts on.
Got a specific memory of the PS2 launch or its games that you’d like to share with us? Don’t hesitate to post it in the comments section below.
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Eric Blattberg contributed reporting.