Retrospective: the top 10 PlayStation 2 games of all time
January 14, 2013
What with the inevitable gadget-frenzy that comes with an event like CES, you'd be forgiven if you'd missed the gloomy news that, after 12 years, Sony has ceased the manufacture of the PlayStation 2 – arguably the finest console ever made. By any yardstick, the PlayStation 2 was a phenomenally successful machine for Sony, shifting in excess of 150 million units and a staggering 1.5 billion games. But it isn't all sad news. The end of a console's life is an ideal time to pick up bargain hardware and software, and compile a final, definitive collection of the finest games available. In that spirit, Gizmag picks out its 10 favorite PlayStation 2 games from the nearly 11,000 launched … no easy task.
Perhaps the most controversial entry in our top ten, Criterion's Black split opinion upon its release in early 2006. But coming after the launch of the Xbox 360, it proved that the established generation had something to contribute to the first-person shooter genre, still yet to emerge as dominant in Western console gaming. Indeed, Black offered armchair gamers a gritty take on modern warfare nearly two years ahead of Call of Duty 4. With its destructible environments and AI enemies that embarrass even some of today's efforts, Black is more than deserving of a place in your collection, and stands up as a quality FPS today.
9. Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
Jostling with Final Fantasy X for the epic JRPG in our top ten, Level 5's Dragon Quest VIII wins out for taking a fresh stylistic approach notable for its glorious cel shaded creatures, while remaining absolutely true to its 8-bit heritage. It didn't hurt that Square Enix invested time and attention for its English-language release. But Dragon Quest VIII really stands out for perfect execution of the RPG holy trinity: explore, fight, level up – even if this came at the expense of originality. If it doesn't appear nearer the number one spot, that's only because it'll take you the better part of 100 hours to finish it outright.
8. Beyond Good & Evil
Take a first pass at any video game top ten and you'll be beset with sequels to familiar franchises. Its originality alone, then, would all but justify Beyond Good & Evil's place on the list, but, given that it was an excellent game to boot, we are spared the torment of a tricky decision. The game's straddling of adventure and puzzle genres was distinctly Zelda-esque (with a measure of stealth thrown in), but a darker tone and more mature themes ensure that Beyond Good & Evil stands apart.
7. Persona 4
If Persona 4 doesn't compete directly with the Dragon Quests and Final Fantasies, it's because, at least in one sense, the Persona series is far from epic. By day, Persona 4, like Persona 3 before it, casts the player in the role of anonymous high school student; its narrative unfolding over the course of a year. By night, the player takes to procedurally generated dungeons to do turn-based battle against the looming Shadows, calling on the titular Personas: Jungian manifestations of the inner selves of the protagonist and his allies. Snappy combat and the game's inherently cyclical structure suck the player through the game, but its characters and setting are ultimately the draw. It may be unabashedly Japanese (and the better for it), but its cast of high school misfits and introverts is familiar to us all.
6. Burnout 3: Takedown
Reasoning that there was only room for one racer in the top ten, we're left with an agonizing choice between the hyper-real (Gran Turismo 4) and the hyper-adrenal. Racing purists may decry our decision, but the hedonists will thank us. Perhaps the pinnacle of the series, Burnout 3: Takedown not only rewards players for bad driving, but in Crash Junction mode, pits players head to head in causing carnage at an intersection … possibly in a fire truck: one of the best, most inclusive party games ever created. In the more vanilla race modes, the addition of slow-motion aftertouch in the event of a collision that gave players a chance to take out other racers, transforming inevitable crashes from a drag into an opportunity. Squeezing between two unwitting autos at 200 mph on a bend is where Burnout 3 lives, though. Arguably, it's never been bettered.
5. Katamari Damacy
If we're awarding points for originality, the exclusion of Katamari Damacy would be a crime against creativity. On a mission to replace the heavenly bodies, which have somehow been destroyed due to an unfortunate narrative premise, the player must roll around an ever-growing ball of stuff (a katamari), picking up detritus such from small tacks, through umbrellas, lipstick and Fresian cows, all the way up to whole mountains. Generally against the clock, Katamari Damacy transforms the humble marble-roller to a relentlessly charming and fun, not to mention empowering, creation myth.
Without doubt the most visually beautiful game on the list, Okami is rendered in the style of a Japanese ink wash painting. Adopting the role of sun goddess Amaterasu in the form of a white wolf, the player must save the world from evil spirits in another adventure game that takes cues from the Zelda series. Unique to Okami, though, is the Celestial Brush, with which players can paint in ink with a few flicks of an analog stick, calling upon magical powers to defeat enemies and solve puzzles. Steeped in Japanese folklore, Okami repackaged familiar adventure tropes into a package that was new, unfamiliar, and yet entirely consistent and completely compelling.
3. Resident Evil 4
Okay, so Resident Evil 4 appeared first on Nintendo's Gamecube, but it felt right at home in its expanded PlayStation 2 incarnation. Resident Evil 4 featured a number of firsts for the series that had previously defined, if not invented, the survival horror genre: an over-the-shoulder view, an emphasis on action (abetted by the laser sight for Leon's gun), and a lack of zombies (replaced instead by extremely inhospitable villagers). The emphasis may have shifted to action, but the otherworldly setting, limited ammo and inventory space, as well as the perpetual impending threat of boss battles make for a relentlessly tense experience. Add in the cast iron control system and you're close to gaming perfection.
2. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
With its The Sands of Time reboot, Ubisoft Montreal dragged a 2D platforming classic into the sixth generation of game consoles, and the first capable of bringing such a game to fruition. Something of a proto-Assassin's Creed, The Sands of Time delivered a perfectly-weighted blend of free-running, puzzle-platforming and combat, while introducing the now-familiar time-rewind mechanic thanks to the Dagger of Time. Its fluid, intuitive controls seal the deal: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is simply one of the best games ever committed to optical disc.
In a list of tough choices, the number one spot presents the toughest of all: which of Team Ico's spectacular PlayStation 2 outings should top it? In fairness, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, though similar in tone, are worlds apart in respect of gameplay, and both demand to be played. For us, though, the heart-breaking beauty of Ico pips it. Despite having next to no dialog, the game tells the irresistible tale of friendship. A boy, imprisoned for being born with horns, escapes an enormous castle and takes fellow-prisoner Yorda along with him. The player must solve puzzles to see the pair safely through the castle, while fending off demonic shadows that try to steal Yorda away. It's the friendship between the two, conveyed only through unintelligible utterings, hand-holding, and the overcoming of adversity that is utterly affecting. For all its horse-riding and monster-battling, Shadow of the Colossus tells an equally emotional story – but its epic scale renders it a shade less personal. If there was any justice both games would make the list, but, such are the inexplicable self-imposed rules I'm operating under, my hands are tied.
It's funny to think that it's now more than a decade since, when it became clear Sega's Dreamcast – the same generation and a direct rival to the PlayStation 2 – had reached the end of its life, I snapped up a discount console and ten or so of the best games. Only now can the same be done for the PlayStation 2. It may be the emergence of the PlayStation 4 that spells doom for the PlayStation 2, as the PlayStation 3 fills the market niche as Sony's reasonably priced console.
Until then, though, let's take up our DualShocks once more, and relive some of the finest experiences gaming has to offer, thanks to Sony's mighty black box. If a space alien from outer space landed in your back yard tomorrow and asked you imploringly what on Earth video games are, you could do worse than sit it down with a PlayStation 2 and three or four of the above games for a day.
Rez? Grand Theft Auto III? Guitar Hero II? Inevitably we'll have missed some of your favorites. Let us know in the comments.
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