After a period of dominance by Sega and Nintendo, a new player enters the game. And the videogame landscape would never look the same again.
More talented writers than me will be able to talk about the cultural impact of Sony’s first foray in games consoles and the fascinating history of how it came into being. I will instead focus on what made this such a great console.
Strangely I don’t recall how and when I came to own this but I suspect it was funded by my student loan. Certainly some of my clearest memories are from 1998, the World Cup marked by that famous petulant kick out by David Beckham before England’s inevitable early exit.
Reflecting that, a lot of my early time with the machine was spent with FIFA: Road to the World Cup, a cracker of a football game and in many ways the launching pad for more recent iterations.
But let’s take a step back. After the Amiga and my early PC experiences, the Playstation was like a different world. Incredible 3D graphics, amazing sound, great controller. This was a machine of power, capable of running games that no other console could. No longer would the arcade be home to the pinnacle of gaming, the Playstation was here.
The list of classic games will vary depending on who you ask but a few titles stand out. Tomb Raider was exceptional, creating a template that has been adopted, refined and improved on dozens of times since. Games such as Uncharted owe a direct debt of gratitude to this ground breaking title. In 1996, the graphics were amazing but it was the atmosphere that drew you in, making you feel as if you really were traipsing round a long forgotten hidden tomb. And no-one who has played it will forget THAT moment with the dinosaur.
One of the launch titles was Ridge Racer, a game that redefined what I thought home racers were, capturing the essence of the arcade racer. And the classics kept coming; Wipeout 2097, Crash Bandicoot and Gran Turismo amongst others, not to mention weirder games, like Abe’s Odyssey that my flatmates and I spent an inordinate amount of time on despite never quite understanding it.
Another game that saw a lot of playtime would likely never be considered a ‘classic’ by the critics but International Track And Field was great multiplayer fun, taking me right back to my arcade roots. I’m not sure that my high jump of 2.73m is likely to be beaten any time soon. In a similar vein was Olympic Soccer with it’s bizarre commentary (‘I don’t think they’re bosom buddies’) and Everybody’s Golf, that somehow managed to take a sport I had no interest in and make it fun and accessible.
As ever there were numerous great games that I never owned. Colin Macrae, TOCA, Silent Hill, Driver, Final Fantasy and Tony Hawk among dozens of others.
Many of the classic games I owned but never actually completed. Metal Gear Solid completely redefined what gaming was and I was thrilled to finally complete it a couple of years ago. Similarly Resident Evil, so original and fresh on release, was a game I only finished in 2014. And others yet to be truly explored, such as Fear Effect and Alundra.
These games are perhaps representative of a trend that, if not started on PS1, was certainly moved forward; that of the cinematic experience, a drive to create games where you would feel like you were part of an interactive story.
Testament to the brilliance of the Playstation is the number of franchises that either started life or found mainstream success here that continue to resonate. The aforementioned Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Gran Turismo, Grand Theft Auto, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear amongst many others.
There was competition of course, principally from Sega and Nintendo. But neither the Jaguar or the N64 could hope to compete with Sony’s leviathan.
The console continued to evolve over its lifetime, the games becoming more sophisticated, matched by the peripherals. The initial controller design was improved, adding rumble capability, something that seemed a gimmick at the time but soon became a staple, and the ultimate evolution of the dual analogue sticks. And of course the memory cards, the misplacing of which could crush your dreams in one fell swoop.
For a console so well supported there were, as may be expected, a number of magazines. I tried a few, ultimately settling on the Official Magazine. Part of me enjoyed the read, part of me enjoyed the demos but part of me was just desperate to find a magazine that could compare to the mighty Amiga Power. OPM was good but, needless to say, it never came close.
Sadly my recollections of the PS1 are somewhat blighted by a recognition that this period of my life saw the first signs of mental illness, a theme I will explore in another feature.
All good things must come to an end of course but uniquely, Sony’s reign as king of the consoles would see them dethroned only by themselves.
And so it is with the launch of the PS2.
1999. I was quite happy with my PS1. Sure, it was a little old by now but it was still a competent machine. But then one fateful evening I took a trip to a friend’s flat to see his new machine. As I walked in he was playing Tekken Tag. I tried to look away, my eyes desperate to spare my heart the aching pain of disillusionment. Then another disc was slipped in, an unknown game, apparently a first person shooter (whatever that was). And then the moment of truth arrived, the words that echoed through time and will stay with me forever.
‘Do you want a go?’
That game was Time Splitters and I was instantly hooked. It has been surpassed by any number of shooters since of course but my first experience with it was mesmerising. It was so quick, fluid, graceful. The action was intense, the levels exciting, bits of glass going flying as you sprayed bullets through them to reach a hiding enemy.
That evening I slunk back home to my PS1 and early PC games, hoping for a fix of something similar from Klingon Honour Guard. But it wasn’t to be. I was hooked. I needed a regular fix.
So it came to pass that I too purchased a PS2 and thus owned what may just be the finest console of all time.
Everything that made the PS1 awesome was ramped up to 11. The graphics and sound, the look and feel of the machine, the cool black controller. And it played DVD’s! It may seem quaint now but to many of us, the PS2 was our first proper DVD player, complete with sound that went out of synch with the picture on longer films.
The games evolved. Early WWF / WWE games laid the foundations for future instalments with the Smackdown! series. Outrun Coast 2 Coast saw a glorious return to form for one of the great driving franchises. Boxing games such as Ready 2 Rumble and Fight Night offered contrasting but compelling experiences.
And then there was Grand Theft Auto.
I remember when the first game came out on the PS1. My friend (the one who keeps popping up as my Cannon Fodder cohort, FIFA partner and PS2 dealer) and I were shopping in HMV and we came across it. I remember reading the blurb on the back and saying, ‘Any game that trumpets how many colours it uses must be rubbish,’ before finding that it was actually a fun, original game.
But none of this could prepare me for the experience of GTA 3.
Or more precisely, GTA Vice City. I made some headway in GTA 3 but for some reason put it to one side. I spent far more time with Vice City, playing it through to completion some time around 2005. Many words have been written on this seminal title so perhaps I will simply say this; if you haven’t blazed along the docks on a motorbike at full speed listening to Billie Jean then you haven’t lived.
On completion I dived straight into San Andreas, the change in pace between the games jarring but soon giving way as I realised that somehow San Andreas was bigger, bolder and better.
Another series that grabbed my attention, despite not pushing any technical boundaries, was the Lego games, starting with Lego Star Wars. This was a game I could play with the missus (I know, I had somehow scored an honest-to-goodness real woman) and it has of course gone on to spawn a range of sequels. It was fun, it was simple, it was clever and it was strangely accurate to the films despite the lack of speech.
Other series got a polish. Metal Gear, Gran Turismo, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil. And other franchises found their footing; Devil May Cry, Ratchet & Clank, God Of War, Star Wars Battlefront.
In truth, I never played that many of the true classics. Once again, there is an element of my time with the machine that I look back on with regret as Football Manager came to dominate my gaming experiences. As a result, I again found a stack of games went purchased but underplayed – MGS2, Freedom Fighters, 24 – whilst other games were admired from afar but never purchased.
But the games that I did spend serious time with – GTA, Lego, Prince of Persia – stick with me all these years later and I retain a strong desire to go back and experience some of my unplayed games.
There is a reason why the PS2 was the biggest selling games console in history. Because it is simply the best games machine of all time.
In part 3 we come to the next gen consoles as PS3 and X-Box launch a new format war.