PlayStation 2: A Tribute

Though the PlayStation 5 is nearly here, it’s worth noting that we’re also celebrating a major milestone for a big Sony game system from the past, as the PlayStation 2 reaches its 20th anniversary.

20 years after its birth, the PlayStation 2 still lives in our hearts. This was a console with so much staying power that it debuted on March 4, 2000 in Japan — followed by October 26, 2000 in North America and November 24, 2000 in Europe and Australia — and yet it wouldn’t be until September 2018 that Sony announced that its PlayStation clinic in Iwate Prefecture, Japan would no longer be accepting requests for broken PS2s to be fixed.

It followed the decision to end the manufacture of new units in January 2013 – although it’s a testament to the strength of the machine’s fanbase that, even then, a handful of big titles (Pro Evolution Soccer 2014, Final Fantasy XI: Seekers Of Adoulin being the two most notable) continued to be released until the end of that year. Prior to that, the PlayStation 2 sold approximately 150 million units.

‘Pro Evolution Soccer 2014’ was one of the final ever releases for Sony's unstoppable console.

It’s worth noting that sales would have been even higher but for manufacturing problems. When the PS2 came to be released in the UK, for example, it did so with only 80,000 units. They didn’t last long. Sony also survived a tabloid-fuelled rumour that Saddam Hussain and the Iraq army were stockpiling PS2 consoles to be concerted into weaponry, such was their awesome power.

To give all of this some context, PlayStation 3, launched in 2006, clocked around 83.8 million sales, while the PlayStation 4, launched in 2013, was nearing 113 million sold as of August 2020. And the first PlayStation? That sold around 102 million units. With the PlayStation 5 arriving in November, that PS2 number is still a stunning achievement none of the other PlayStations have been able to equal.

Just to ramp home what a phenomenon the PS2 was, the original Xbox, released around a year after the PS2, sold just 24 million machines total.

LAND ON YOUR OWN MOON

Kingdom-Hearts
Square and Disney's surprise mashup was one of the most beloved gams of the PS2's lifespan.

Remember that noise? What was that noise? The sigh of an android? The first note of Martian heavy metal? The sound a star makes when it dies? BREEEEEEEANGGGGGG! For a generation, maybe even two given the machine’s unwillingness to go quietly into the night, that sound is not only the sound of happiness – but the sound of escape.

There’s never been a console like the PlayStation 2. There never will again. It’s a different world now. Filled with, for the largest part, a different sort of gamer. Though online functionality was possible, for most of us, it was the last time we truly experienced solo, immersive gameplay. There’s no wonder that the console was home to the greatest run of survival horror experiences that gaming has ever known (Silent Hill 2, Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly, Forbidden Siren and of course Resident Evil 4, to name a handful).

‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ was the best selling game on PS2.

Ditto that with 2004’s San Andreas – the biggest selling game on the PS2, ever, with 17.33 million sales recorded – the Grand Theft Auto franchise took its first stride towards being the phenomenon it is today. Then there were the RPGs – for many, the PS2 is Final Fantasy, for others Kingdom Hearts. The great run of form showed by the Pro Evolution Soccer series. The birth of God Of War.

From the off, the machine was positioned as a gateway to the imagination – ‘The Third Place’ as they called it – Sony marketing its machine via a series of some of the most innovative, or maybe just strange advertisements ever used to try to flog games consoles. No features were listed, instead, the advertisements attempted to project what can only be described as a feeling. Sony even commissioned surrealist godhead and Twin Peaks director David Lynch to direct some promotional material.

There was the ill-advised Kama Sutra advert, in which the man had ceased coitus and, presumably, gone to play on his PS2. Not the most inclusive message to send to female gamers. Not the best Christmas marketing strategy for parents looking at what to buy their little ones. There was the tattooed baby (no idea what was going on there), there was the homeless person smelling ladies’ underwear (same), there was the grown man emerging grimacing from a vagina (…), there were the child’s toys committing suicide (only in Italy that one). And you know what? Things got even weirder when they came to launch the PS3. And let’s not even talk about the PSP…

Unquestionably brilliant though, visionary even, was 1999’s ‘Mental Wealth’ advertisement, in which a teenage Scottish girl, who might have been an alien but just as easily might not, was beamed into homes everywhere, most likely freaking out or at least intriguing anyone who came into contact with it. Directed by Chris Cunningham, who was best known for his promo video work with Aphex Twin and Bjork, the advertisement lasted just a minute.

The footage looked homemade. Like it had been recorded somewhere deep underground. In it, the girl spoke to the camera. “Land on your own moon,” she says. “It’s no longer about what they can achieve, out there on your behalf. It’s about what we can experience, up here. In our own time. It’s called Mental Wealth.” Then she looks off camera and laughs, manically.

Nothing to do with a games console. Everything to do with PS2.

LIVE IN YOUR WORLD. PLAY IN OURS

A thing of beauty.

People loved their PS2. As testified by the outpouring of grief that has accompanied the news that no longer is your machine liable for repairs, it’s clear that the people held a connection with their console that transcended the box merely being a machine. For many, it was more – it was the entertainment hub that saw them through school, college, the dole, or allowed them to escape after work. Of course, some people took their love too far. In 2002, frustrated by being unable to find a vicar who would marry him and his beloved PlayStation 2, it was reported that one Dan Holmes, 29 of Banbury, Oxfordshire, decided to legally change his name to PlayStation 2. Yes, really.

It’s impossible to pin the PlayStation 2’s success on just one factor. High on the list was backwards compatibility with the PlayStation, meaning there was a ready-made archive of games to dip into, even at launch. Then, over the course of the machine’s lifespan, there were 3,874 new titles released. And it helped that so many of gaming’s most iconic, pivotal moments – RE4, Metal Gear Solid, GTA, the Guitar Hero boom, and more – occurred on said machine. Not only that, but if you were Brazilian, you even had early access to Netflix, with the steaming library coming as an install disc years before the rest of the world received it.

And crucially the machine was cool. It looked like a piece of kit and not like a toy. PlayStation art director Teiyu Goto designed the machine to represent existence itself. The blue logo for the earth. The black casing for outer space. Next to that, the Xbox couldn’t help but look ugly. It also featured the coolest firmware ever; the swirling orbs that were a clock, the towers that reflected saved data. And then there was that sound.

Yet it’s impossible to deny how smart Sony’s strategy of including the ability to play DVD discs was, especially since the machine retailed at less of the price than many high-end DVD players. For many, the PS2 was the first time they owned a DVD player. It arguably popularised the medium and kept that format in circulation far longer than it should have.

Sony “took inspiration” from the ill-fated Atari console the Falcon 030 Microbox when it came to the PS2's aesthetic.

The actual design of the machine provides a fascinating ‘what if’. The machine itself was heavily modeled upon an aborted Atari prototype, which took the name ‘Falcon030 Microbox’. Sadly – and isn’t hindsight just a wonderful thing – the iconic games pioneers decided to focus on the Atari Jaguar instead of pursuing the idea, and Sony swooped in to nab the concept – it’s even named as an influence in Sony’s patent applications! It’s astonishing to see the similarities between the two machines sat side by side, which thankfully the internet provides. Which reminds us, it’s 20 years later and we bet you still haven’t decided whether the PlayStation 2 was supposed to sit on your desk horizontally or vertically…

Let us take a moment to remember the beautiful black box. The places it took us. The adventures we had. The period in 2002 when Sony had miscalculated the export of memory cards and we all had to leave our consoles on 24/7 so that we wouldn’t lose our games.

PS2, you were unlike any console before and any that have come since…

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