After reports streamed in at the tail end of 2012 of the end to the PlayStation 2’s nearly 13-year lifespan, the predictable response might be “so what?” After all, the end was inevitable - even the most popular game consoles don't last forever. Microsoft gave its first Xbox the axe here in the U.S. in 2008 while Nintendo discontinued the Gamecube in 2007. On top of that, the PS2's swan song has long been thought to be 2007’s God of War 2 - every game after that was merely a multi-platform port.
But while your own PS2 may be in its fourth or fifth year of collecting dust in the closet, we should take the time to recognize the console’s place in gaming history. Not only was it he most successful console ever - with more than 150 million unites sold worldwide - it was home to some of the most influential gaming franchises in history. For the generation of gamers who cut their teeth on the PS2, no other platform will ever take its place.
Joy-Sticking Down Memory Lane
I can remember the exact moment when, in a fit of passionate salesmanship, I managed to successfully convince my parents that a certain, now-landmark title for the PS2 was not only worth $50, but also nowhere near as violent and morally depraved as everyone said it was.
At the time, I had no idea whether or not that was true (and I’m pretty sure now that it wasn’t). I had never played Grand Theft Auto III, and my only knowledge of it beyond the title consisted of lunchtime stories swapped by classmates lucky enough (or at least without as much parental supervision concerning entertainment) to have a copy.
But I did know that my young adult self was yearning to experience what was being called the greatest video game of all time, and some clever convincing of my parents that I was adult enough to handle it seemed worth the trouble. I’m glad I did because after its release in fall of 2001, the PS2 became the pinnacle of gaming possibility and the medium was irreversibly thrust into a new era.
It might be difficult to argue in retrospect for GTA III’s artistic value. The phrase “video games as art” wasn’t yet being uttered by mainstream media critics, and not until games like Bioshock and Red Dead Redemption was anyone forced to reconsider their boundaries, though Roger Ebert remains unconvinced by even highly anticipated titles like The Last of Us. But while the ability to steal cars, run over civilians and wage urban gun battles with police officers may not be exactly artistic, it was certainly revolutionary when coupled with the game’s structure and immersive environment.
Opening The World
Gameplay before GTA III was blatantly restricted, with stories often rooted in linear gameplay and a lack of 3D environments hindering how one could “free roam.” Nintendo classics like Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time offered some of the first expansive 3D environments, but tied them to a narrative that often ferried players from location to location by way of necessary items or story events.
GTA III unleashed3D gameplay with a non-linear story, a morally ambiguous character and an entire city teaming with the possibilities of player choice. Never before could you take a seaplane and simply fly it at the horizon to see what would happen, or on a whim decide to go up against increasingly aggressive artificial intelligence in an all-out war on the city streets - tanks and SWAT vans included.
The ripple effects on the gaming industry was tremendous. Nearly every gaming genre was transformed by the potential of “sandbox” design, from side-scrolling platform games to role-playing games to first-person shooters. There was even a spate of games dubbed “Grand Theft Auto clones” for their blatant use of the game’s design, especially its signature circular map hub littered with capital letters to indicate your various mission contacts.
The GTA franchise and its creator Rockstar Games went on to world-wide acclaim, not only with subsequent PS2 iterations of Grand Theft Auto, but also by branching out with period-piece titles like the early 20th century western Red Dead Redemption and the post-war detective game L.A. Noire.
And let us not forget that GTA IV, currently the only game in the series to be rendered in HD, remains arguably the best game ever made, building on everything we experienced first in 2001 to produce a near-masterpiece that still inspires awe five years after its release.
So if you've still got a PS2 lying aroudn the house (a late model slim version or the bulky original), dust off a copy of GTA III and take it for a spin. The PS2 deserves a proper sendoff, and nothing would be more appropriate than to steal a car or two and take a joyride around the Liberty City we first got to know and love more than a decade ago. Sure, you could always download the iOS or Android version instead, but we all know how unfitting that would be.
Image courtesy of Sony.