In December 2000, reports began to circulate within intelligence communities in the United States and Europe of a powerful new technology acquired by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It would allow Saddam to upgrade his guided missile programme and place many targets in the west within reach, went the whisperings. The name of the technology was the Sony PlayStation 2.
Speculation that Saddam was “hoarding” hundreds of box-fresh PS2s in order to harness their extraordinary processing power was eventually debunked. But not before the Pentagon had thoroughly investigated the rumours. Sony, meanwhile, had to obtain a special permit from the Tokyo Trade Ministry to export a device that, in theory at least, “could be adapted for military use”. At that point, eight months after the PlayStation 2’s launch in Japan, it seemed the console could do virtually anything.
PlayStation 2 must certainly have felt like a weapon of mass destruction to Sony’s rivals when it was unveiled in Japan 20 years ago today. PS2 saw off Sega’s Dreamcast, selling $250m (£200m) worth of kit in its first day compared to the Dreamcast’s $95m. And it would trump Microsoft’s more technically advanced Xbox. The PS2 ultimately shifted 155 million units worldwide against Xbox’s 25 million (and Nintendo GameCube’s 22 million).
Twenty years on, it remains the best-selling console of all time. That achievement is even more impressive considering the next four highest-selling games devices are all cheaper hand-held machines from Nintendo (the DS is in second place, followed by the GameBoy). The PS2 re-shaped the face of gaming, home entertainment and even popular culture.
“It was a big game-changer,” says Richard Lee Breslin, editor of gaming website Push Start Play. “Going from the PS1 to PS2 really took it to the next level. Two of my favourite games from the PS1 were Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid.
“But Silent Hill 2 on PS2 was really something else. It was a massive leap in the quality of visuals. And while Metal Gear Solid 2 wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it really excelled in terms of gameplay, not to mention Metal Gear Solid 3 that soon followed. Both Silent Hill 2 and Metal Gear Solid 2 set a benchmark in story-telling for videogames.”
Games were already part of the mainstream in 2000. But it was PS2 hits such as Grand Theft Auto III and Call of Duty that confirmed gaming’s evolution from a pastime, largely for kids and teenagers, into a juggernaut more lucrative than movies or music. The age of the blockbuster video game was also the age of the PS2.
“It offered a new level of visuals, gameplay, and story-telling as it gave developers even greater tools to tell their story. And not only in-game. I also remember being blown anyway by the FMV [full motion video] cut-scenes,” says Breslin. “Don’t get me wrong, I loved the N64 and it told some great stories. But with the PS2 game being on DVD and not on a cartridge, I felt so many aspects of a game’s overall quality benefited.”
One surprise, as we look back, is just how obscure the origins of the PS2 and its predecessor, the original 1994 PlayStation, remain. The sense among many gamers is that the Sony hive-mind willed these extraordinary devices into existence from its bunker-style HQ in Tokyo’s Minato ward. And, hey presto, there they were on our shelves.
In fact, the PlayStation story is the story of one man and his vision. As with Apple and the maverick Steve Jobs, the PS2 and its forerunner were essentially the product of the force of will of a singular individual, Ken Kutaragi – known to his underlings as “Crazy Ken”.
Kutaragi had joined Sony as an engineer in its digital research labs in his twenties. By the early Nineties, when he was in his forties, he had become convinced gaming was the next big growth area for tech. He pushed his bosses towards an alliance with the king of the industry, Nintendo.
His big idea was for Sony to produce an accessory for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. There was a sense in the early 1990s that the SNES was limited by Nintendo’s reliance on game cartridges. These had a relatively puny capacity, maxing out at around four megabytes. The hot new trend was the CD-Rom, which could store upwards of 600 megabytes. This made it possible to include movie-style cut scenes and to flesh out the cinematic aspect of the gaming experience.
Nintendo was wary because CD-Roms could lag, for as long as 15 seconds, when loading data. This, it was felt, would detract from the slick experience that was part of the Nintendo brand.
Kutaragi’s suggestion was that Nintendo outsource the problem. Sony would produce a SNES-compatible CD-Rom device. But Sony drove a tough bargain. It wanted a share of the profits from software sold for the device, excluding Nintendo from any cut (it got 30 per cent of all cartridge sales for the SNES).
Nintendo initially assented. But then, to Sony’s shock, it backed out at the final moment and instead announced an alliance with Philips at a 1991 press conference. Sony “had learned about the pending press conference 48 hours earlier, and were… stunned”, wrote David Sheff in his 1993 book Game Over.
Kutaragi was devastated. He was also convinced he had seen the future – a future in which Sony got into gaming independently of Nintendo. Sony had actually made a prototype device to show to Nintendo. It even had a name: the Nintendo PlayStation. What if Sony ditched the Nintendo angle and proceeded with the rest of the plan? What if it did PlayStation on its own?
Against considerable internal opposition, Kutaragi made his dream a reality. He even overcame the doubts of Sony founder Akio Morita, who saw the merit in video games but hated the name PlayStation. Fate intervened in the cruellest fashion when Morita suffered a stroke. By the time he recovered, it was too late. “PlayStation” had been copyrighted by Sony, and the project was too advanced to call a halt.
“We had to win the battle against Nintendo; we had to win over the internal opposition within Sony; we had to get this entire endeavour off the ground. I was swept away with this feeling and committed myself to succeeding,” recalled Shigeo Maruyama, former chair of Sony Computer Entertainment.
“Kutaragi was the main reason why. He’s an extremely charismatic individual ... and he forced his staff to comply with what he wanted, like a madman. I don’t think there was anything that the staff pushed back on and told him couldn’t be done.”
Yet even as the original PlayStation became a smash, Kutaragi was looking to the future. It is said that the week the PS1 was released he was already drawing up plans for a second console.
It would have to be more powerful, he knew. With the PlayStation, Sony had produced a more accomplished package than the Sega Saturn or the N64. Sony had also won the marketing war with a savvy and often surreal advertising campaign.
But it couldn’t rest on its accomplishments, especially with rumours swirling that none other than software giant Microsoft was thinking of getting into gaming. Clearly, there was room for one newcomer in a sector historically dominated by Nintendo and Sega. But two?
As with the lead-up to the PlayStation launch, Kutaragi was not one for taking prisoners at Sony. Superiors recalled him speaking to them as if they worked for him, rather than the other way around. In one key meeting with Sony North America executives, two senior members of the company’s board, who had flown in from Tokyo, found themselves reduced to translating for Kutaragi as he laid out his vision for where the PS2 would take Sony.
His big idea – the one that arguably secured victory for Sony in this latest round of the console wars – was to bundle a DVD player with the PS2. At the time, DVDs were the hot new format. But players were horrendously expensive, with an entry-level device costing around £600.
At less than half that price, the PS2 was the perfect stealth technology. Now parents had a justification for shelling out on one for their kids. And kids had a legitimate cause to lobby their parents to spring for a games machine: it could play movies too!
Kutaragi also pushed the company to make a great fuss about the PS2’s “Emotion Engine” – a processing unit tailored to running sophisticated 3D games. The other unique selling point was backwards compatibility. With some exceptions, you could play your old PlayStation faves on the new console.
“Backwards compatibility was a very cool feature,” says Oli Welsh, editor of Eurogamer. “It really helped make a purchasing decision on a new console if you knew you would still be able to use your old games on it. Unfortunately it set an expectation the games industry wouldn’t be able to meet. It’s been a very rare feature on games consoles since, and will only really finally become standard when PS5 and Xbox Series X launch later this year, 20 years after PS2 did it.
“Much more important to PS2’s success than backwards compatibility, though, was its ability to play DVDs,” he continues. “DVD was a relatively new format at the time and PS2 was competitively priced with standalone DVD players, but could play games as well. That made the purchase a no-brainer in a lot of households.
Still, it was by no means an entirely miraculous device. Under the hood, the PS2 was notoriously tricky to get a handle on. Developers found the vaunted Emotion Engine a nightmare to programme for. Which might explain the underwhelming slate of launch titles, of which only snowboarding simulation SSX is remembered fondly today.
“You are handed a 10-inch thick stack of manuals written by Japanese hardware engineers,” is how developer Cory Bloyd described coding for the PS2 in a Reddit post. “The first time you read the stack, nothing makes any sense at all. The second time you read the stack, the third book makes a bit more sense because of what you learned in the eighth book. The machine has 10 different processors and six different memory spaces that all work in completely different ways.”
Sony, however, had learnt from the success of its PlayStation marketing campaign. If its PS2 launch slate was wildly iffy, the pitch to gamers was laser-focused. It wasn’t just selling a console – it was selling an entirely new vision of what gaming could be.
The resonances continue to this day. Sam Mendes’s Oscar-nominated 1917, for instance, is essentially a first-person shooter as reimagined by Stanley Kubrick. Video games are in the DNA of mass-market entertainment and popular art. Without the PS2, that surely would never have come to pass.
“Sony’s marketing for PS2 was even more ambitious, really selling the idea of games as a cinematic, emotional storytelling experience,” says Welsh.
“The games weren’t quite there yet, but almost. Over time, though, as the machine racked up huge sales, the focus broadened into a very mass-market pitch, with family friendly software and poppy, non-traditional stuff like Singstar sitting alongside Sony’s ‘cool’ stock-in-trade.”
Slowly but surely, developers got to grips with the knotty hardware. And soon the PS2, which created an industry standard with its vibrating “dualshock” controller, was redefining gaming. There was the ethereal Ico, the gaming-as-philosophical-treatise Shadow of the Colossus, the incredibly realistic Grand Turismo 3: A-Spec. Oh, and Grand Theft Auto III, a game about stealing cars and shooting people in the face. As the PS2 sold and sold, so did the games – in 2004 Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas broke all records in moving 21.3 million copies, of which 17.3 million were for the PS2.
Some technologies serve their purpose and are forgotten. Then there are those so perfectly of the moment that they become woven into the cultural fabric. Examples include the original Volkswagen Beetle, the Sony Walkman, the Apple Macintosh, the indestructible Nokia 3310. To this club we must also add the PS2, which remained in production until 2013. It was only two years ago that Sony announced it was ending its PS2 repair programme. By then, its place in the annals of era-defining tech was assured.
“The most impressive thing about PS2 was that it did have a personality, despite its total ubiquity,” says Welsh. “Maybe it wasn’t as quirky as GameCube or Dreamcast, but one thing Sony has always excelled at is promoting creativity with image-defining in-house games, like Ico. That encouraged others in turn to take risks, and you found all sorts of amazing, off-the-wall stuff on PS2, from Katamari Damacy to Frequency to Rez to Manhunt. These all redefined what games could be in one way or another. The game that really defined the console was Grand Theft Auto III, though. Sony still owes Rockstar a few beers for that one.”
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