Why the PS2 still remains the console to beat

Nine years on, PlayStation 2 sales remain surprisingly strong

PlayStation 2 Ridge Racer V

It's nine years today since Sony launched the PlayStation 2 in Japan. Since then, Sony has sold over 140 million PlayStation 2s worldwide. And, incredibly, the nine year-old console is STILL selling. Long after rivals like the Microsoft Xbox, the Nintendo GameCube and the Sega Dreamcast have been consigned to the scrap heap, the PS2 continues to be the world's best-selling games machine.

In fact, over 130 games were released for the PS2 in 2008. They added to an enviable back catalogue that now totals around 1,800 titles. The PS2 is the console that gave us the first 3D Grand Theft Auto (GTA III), Ico, God of War, Splinter Cell and untold hours of Final Fantasy. And there are still over 50 new games planned for the PS2 this year.

This staying power shouldn't come as a surprise. Sony initially imagined a 10-year lifespan for the PlayStation 2 and now the £95 console provides a reliable, low-budget option alongside the still-pricey PlayStation 3.

A fanatical and problematic launch

First announced in March 1999, the PS2 was an instant hit when it was launched a year later. Slapping down 39,800 Yen (£293) in an Akihabara electronics store bought you a next-gen bundle that featured the matt-black console, a Dual-Shock controller, an 8MB memory card, AV multi-cable and a demo disc.

Of course, the PS2's Japanese launch wasn't without its problems. Fanatical Japanese gamers crashed the Sony website attempting to pre-order the console, while developers had complained that the PS2 was difficult to code for (sound familiar?).

So much so that some games promised for the PS2 weren't ready for the 4 March 2000 launch. Software highlights did include: StreetFighter EX3, Kessen, Eternal Ring, DrumMania and an almost arcade-perfect Ridge Racer V.

"Many weren't impressed," wrote Roger Yim in the San Francisco Chronicle back in 2000. He pointed out that gamers had complained about the PS2's "long load times, jagged graphics and badly designed games – problems gamers had hoped the PS2 would vanquish. Others were disappointed that the games didn't look any better than those of Sega's rival 128-bit system, Dreamcast, which was introduced in September 1999."

The PS2 as a DVD player

Nevertheless, Sony sold 980,000 PS2s in the first three days in Japan. Five months later and sales had ballooned to 3 million units, despite the supply shortages that seem to plague every console launch. By the end of 2000, sales had nudged past the 10 million mark. It took the original PlayStation three years to shift the same number.

The PS2 was considerably more powerful than its predecessor. It boasted a 128-bit 'Emotion Engine' CPU (co-developed by Sony and Toshiba), which was designed for faster graphics processing. But it was DVD playback that would prove a killer app, perfectly timed to take advantage of a video market that was in transition from VHS to DVD.

Unlike the PS3's Blu-ray drive, upgrading to DVD didn't require any new technology bar the DVD player itself. Fearing that this gave the PS2 too much of a leg up in the console war, Sega planned to bundle the Dreamcast with a multi-region DVD player in an attempt to derail Sony's momentum.

Many PS2 customers in Japan bought the PS2 to use it as a cheap DVD deck. With a hack you could bypass the region lock on the early models.

Can the PlayStation 3 get anywhere close?

If the original PlayStation changed the face of gaming and drew in a more mainstream audience, then the PS2 tapped into this "Generation PlayStation" to offer a true, mass-market home entertainment system. Sony's strategy of overlapping its consoles and offering some degree of backwards compatibility with the first PlayStation also encouraged people to upgrade.

Nine years on and Sony has successfully repositioned the PS2 as more of a family-friendly machine. Indeed, it's a whole five years since the console went slimline. Sony's 'My First Games Console' approach for the PS2 is reinforced by a 2009 software line-up that includes SingStar and Buzz, plus cheap-and-cheerful movie tie-ins like Bolt and Hannah Montana: The Movie Game.

Sony's big problem is that while PS2 sales are slowly declining, PS2 owners aren't automatically being converted into PS3 owners. January's NPD numbers showed that PS3 sales have flagged by 25 per cent year-on-year, while PS2 popularity has dropped by 62 per cent.

Ultimately though, the Nintendo Wii now rules this generation of games console hardware, just as the PlayStation 2 dominated the last one.


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