I don’t want to mourn a machine. It makes me feel a little stupid. Yet this week, I find myself pouring one out for the PlayStation 2. The little black box was set to turn 13 years old in March, but Sony flat-lined the PlayStation 2 at the end of last year, stopping production worldwide. After a run that saw 156 million boxes sold and a library of more than 2,000 games, the PS2 is dead. Good on you, you noisy little bastard! Without you I never would have held Yorda’s hand in Ico or kissed complete strangers in Chulip. Salud!
Back in 2000, most electronics aside from PCs still only served a single function. Cameras were cameras, and phones were phones, for the most part. But in the lead-up to its release—a period of media hype that was novel then but practically standard for gadgets today—you’d think the PS2 could do anything shy of providing your kids a college education. The hilariously named “Emotion Engine” processor was purportedly so powerful that Japan’s Ministry Of Trade limited exports because it could be used for missile guidance systems. Newsweek and Time ran cover stories about its potential with nary a trace of the usual business about video games eroding the culture. At $300, the PS2 was also a relatively affordable DVD player, the video format of the future! Those things have deleted scenes and director commentaries on them. For serious.
Truth is, the PlayStation 2 only did one thing particularly well: play video games. Even though there were plenty of people in the ’00s who used the PS2 as a DVD player, it was awkward for watching movies. The audio on DVDs was always really low, and you had to contend with squirrelly controls, either using on-screen prompts or by blindly fiddling with the game controller. Nothing says fun like watching Dark City and accidentally skipping ahead two scenes because you accidentally bumped the controller plugged into your DVD player.
But as a gaming machine, it was indispensable. When it debuted, the PlayStation 2 was pretty barren of interesting games—as are most consoles when they launch. But by the end of 2001, the PS2 was coming into its own. It upheld its predecessor’s reputation as a platform for gleeful experimentation. Devil May Cry was one of the first games to make violent acrobatics feel precise in three dimensions. SSX made video game snowboarding feel like one huge, fantastic party.
There were also a number of genetic ancestors to some of the best contemporary games. There would be no Dark Souls without From Software’s early PS2 experiments Evergrace and Eternal Ring. Veteran studios used the platform to make sequels that were experimental rather than familiar. Gaming’s most emotionally raw and hilarious mindfucks—Silent Hill 2 and Metal Gear Solid 2 respectively—both hit during that first year of the PS2’s existence.
The games were good, so people bought PlayStation 2s. It killed Sega’s game console business for good, drowning the Dreamcast within two years. Nintendo’s Gamecube and Microsoft’s Xbox never caught up despite being more capable machines in terms of technical specs. The PS2 was ubiquitous by the middle of the decade, and as a result, almost every game maker in the business was working with the hardware. Even Sony itself stuck with the PS2 after it had released the PlayStation 3, putting out impressive stuff like God Of War 2 as late as 2007.
That ubiquity was a double-edged sword in some cases. Japanese game makers in particular were so committed to the PlayStation 2 that they struggled to adjust to more technologically capable platforms when it came time to jump. Square Enix, Capcom, and Atlus haven’t released games on TV consoles as interesting as their late-stage PS2 games like Final Fantasy XII, Okami, and Persona 4. Even after those sorts of handcrafted games started drying up, the machine itself kept plugging along. In 2009, when players in the United States were talking about Batman: Arkham Asylum and Uncharted 2, the PS2 had only just come out in Brazil.
In a way, that history of great games illustrates why the PlayStation 2 couldn’t survive in 2013. No piece of consumer electronics, gaming machine or otherwise, can just do one thing really well. Every device, from the cheapest mobile phone to expensive luxury items like the PS Vita—the PlayStation 2’s haughty, entitled nephew living fat off the family’s dwindling fortune—need to be multipurpose entertainment tools. They need Netflix and Facebook integration and a steady ability to connect to the internet—something else the PlayStation 2 struggled to do competently.
Just look at Nintendo’s Wii U, a machine so desperate for modern market approval that Nintendo built a social network into the machine’s front page. The PlayStation 2 didn’t even have a front page. You put a game in and turned it on (or you left the tray open to tweak settings or futz with memory cards). It just played video games well, and it’s the last commercial machine that will do only that.
My mourning is fueled in part by nostalgia, it’s true. There is something romantic about architecture built for a single purpose. Video game hardware, at its inception, was the most basic structure. Arcade cabinets were shelters for individual ideas. Game consoles were houses—more complex environments with architecture that allow for greater variety and experimentation. Today, gaming machines are just doors, and while they give access to almost limitless opportunity, they feel less like homes. The console as it was dies with the PlayStation 2. Cheers to the box. May it rest well.