Part 1 – The Rise: PlayStation 2
It’s March 2000 and the Sony PlayStation 2 is released in Japan to epic fanfare and shortage of stock. Ken Kutaragi, the designer of the system heralded it as a breakthrough in technology citing the ’emotion’ engine as the reason for the generation leap. Wild claims were being thrown around at this point such as the infamous quote that the U.S. government could fire nuclear weapons using the system. The PlayStation 2 packed in a DVD drive too and at the time it was impressive, a system that was quite clearly an attempt at future proofing itself given that DVD technology was still a few years away from being mainstream. Of course all this technology came at a price, in the US it was $299, and while this was the same price the original PlayStation launched at, it was still probably $100 more than what the average consumer wanted to pay at launch. In Australia it was even dearer, costing a cool $750 for the console itself. At the time the Australian dollar was 0.50 cents to 1 American dollar, but for the game consumer it was an expensive hobby. Still it was justified at the time by its inclusion of a DVD drive and the feeling of owning brand new tech.
In its 18 year existence, Sony’s PlayStation 2 was at the peak of Sony’s domination over the industry. On units sold alone, the PlayStation 2 worldwide sold 153 million units while its competitors the Nintendo Gamecube and Microsoft Xbox sold 22 and 24 million units respectively. A huge difference when you consider the next generation the Nintendo Wii sold 100 million units to the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 80 million units each.
Despite numerous issues over the course of its lifetime, the PlayStation 2 destroyed the competition. The launch was plagued with technical issues such as constant shimmering of games and jagged edges, the marquee launch title Ridge Racer V was affected by such problems, and make the game by todays standards incredibly rough to look at.
The PlayStation 2 was a machine at the right place and right time. It launched a year after the Sega Dreamcast and was marketed as the most powerful machine with the addition of a DVD player. After about a year on the market the PlayStation 2 really began to hit its stride with incredible third party titles that Sega, Nintendo and Microsoft couldn’t match. Games like Devil May Cry, Star Wars Starfighter, Ico, Silent Hill 2, Pro Evolution Soccer, Dark Cloud, Onimusha, Klonoa 2 offered a range compelling software for the gamers that had matured from the 16, 32 and 64 bit era. Then the big guns hit, Final Fantasy X caused a massive stir both in its home nation and abroad. It was a massive adventure and massive spectacle (that was quote unquote only available on the power of the PlayStation 2). Gran Turismo 3 a system seller based on the quality of the graphics alone, perhaps one of the last few times I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. And of course who could forget possibly the greatest 8 minutes of video game trailer the world had ever seen up to that point Metal Gear Solid 2. The atmosphere was cinematic and it has been a template for developers to model to ever since.
But if Sony had just stopped there, it may have only sold 50 maybe 60 million units. Sony’s strength was and continues to be providing support to its systems for a long time. Much of the support comes from experiments, some of which worked better than others. The internet modem adapter and hard drive proved too costly and didn’t have enough software support to gain any traction, with Final Fantasy XI being pretty much the only major game that absolutely required the added hardware, other games still had compelling single player modes that were enough to not warrant the purchase. Other experiments include turning the console into a family oriented system (much like the first PlayStation console had turned into with software such as Crash Team Racing and Spyro). This time it was peripherals such as the Eye Toy which started the motion gaming craze, Buzz the quizmaster game and Singstar which turned the console into a Karaoke machine.
The biggest seller of the peripherals was a music game called Guitar Hero an instant hit that made crazy amounts of money for Activision the publisher. It was the type of game you get out at parties where everybody wanted to have a go.
The PlayStation 2 was finally discontinued from manufacturing in January 2013 almost a full 13 years after it was launched. It retired as the greatest console ever, at least in terms of units sold and software on the system with over 3500 titles launched. There’s been more influential titles like Tetris, Mario, Pacman and Pong but there’s never been a system with greater reach over the mainstream.