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Back to the ’90s
The 3D graphics are weak, but the fun is real.
Back to the ’90s
The 3D graphics are weak, but the fun is real.
For almost two weeks, I’ve been living life like it was 1994 thanks to Sony’s PlayStation Classic.
Sony’s tiny console is a fraction of the size of the original (and unfortunately doesn’t play original PS1 CDs) and comes with two faithfully reproduced controllers.
It’s one of the nicest throwback tech products in years and made me nostalgic of the early days of games with 3D graphics, while simultaneously making me realize I’m now old. I was seven when the PlayStation launched in Japan in 1994 and nine when my childhood best friend got one for Christmas two years later and we got to eventually play classics like Rayman, Crash Bandicoot, and Final Fantasy VII in his attic.
The PlayStation goes down in history for popularizing 3D gaming and lighting the path toward more mature titles with the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Resident Evil. Still, all of us spoiled by today’s lush and photorealistic graphics often forget just how ugly most games on the console were.
Unlike the timeless, colorful 2D sprites of Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past that still look as beautiful today as they did 35 and 27 years ago, respectively, many of the once cutting-edge 3D graphics from the 20 included games on the PlayStation Classic simply don’t hold up in 2018.
The PlayStation Classic’s also missing many of the original console’s greatest hits. Don’t get me wrong, Final Fantasy VII — a game that took up three discs and defined bleeding-edge 3D graphics when it came out in 1997 — rekindled fond memories of Japan’s then-rise as a technology powerhouse and is worth the price alone.
But many people might look at the list of games and be disappointed by the omission of console classics such as Gran Turismo, Spyro the Dragon, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.
- Comes with 20 games
- Controller cables are nice and long
- “Final Fantasy VII” — ’nuff said!
- Many PS1 graphics don’t hold up
- Some games are European version
- No power adapter included
- Controllers don’t have analog sticks
Sony’s PlayStation Classic is a fun throwback to the early days of 3D gaming, but the included games won’t please everyone.
Bang for the Buck4
If you’re just getting here, retro games have had quite the revival over the past couple of years, so you can’t really blame Sony for jumping on the bandwagon. Consumers (myself included) have jumped through ridiculous hoops to secure an NES Classic and SNES Classic when those throwback consoles were released.
It’s not like Nintendo has been the only one, and retro tech hasn’t been confined to classic game consoles. HMD-owned Nokia drummed up quite the buzz with a revamped version of the iconic 3310 “dumb” phone, complete with Snake and then again with the 8810 “banana phone.” TCL’s been busy trying breathe new life into BlackBerry phones, and even the Palm brand back is back from the grave with a tiny Zoolander-worthy phone.
Wait, there’s more. Vinyl saw a 19.2 percent jump with sales hitting 7.6 million records sold in the U.S. in the first half of 2018, according to Nielsen Music.
Similarly, Nielsen’s data also reported cassette tape sales grew by 35 percent in the U.S. and a staggering 112 percent in the UK in 2017. This unexpected growth is no doubt one reason Crosley’s selling boombox-style cassette players (albeit outfitted with a few modern features).
With the nostalgic tech trend already underway for years and the PlayStation brand the strongest asset in Sony’s portfolio, the PlayStation Classic was perhaps inevitable.
BLAST FROM THE PAST
Dec. 3 marks the 24th anniversary of the original Sony PlayStation and the official launch of the new PlayStation Classic. It’s just one year shy of the PlayStation’s 25-year milestone, but it’s close enough. Besides, if we’re being technical, the PlayStation launched on Dec. 3, 1994 in Japan, even though it didn’t arrive in the U.S. until September 1995.
Back then, video game console releases came with epic stories of corporate backstabbings. While the PlayStation wasn’t the first home console capable of 3D graphics — Nintendo’s SNES sorta did 3D with the Super FX chip built into some game cartridges like Star Fox and the Sega Saturn also supported 3D graphics — it was the first to be architected with polygonal graphics at its core.
I could sit here all day and unpack the story of how Nintendo had originally partnered up with Sony to release the PlayStation as a disc-based add-on for the SNES before the deal fell apart and Sony, betrayed, decided to release its own console and send Nintendo into the dark ages for two hardware generations. But there are plenty of gaming publications and YouTube videos that have covered that fascinating piece of videogame history in great detail.
What made the original PlayStation so monumental was how forward-thinking it was. While stubborn Nintendo couldn’t see beyond cartridges for both the SNES and its next-gen console (which would become the Nintendo 64), Sony, bolstered by its booming consumer electronics business, did.
The PlayStation took all of the shortcomings of the consoles at the time dunked on them. Sony went with CDs instead of cartridges because they were both cheaper to produce and provided more storage for developers to create larger, more robust titles.
CDs also allowed Sony to position the PlayStation as a 3D-first console. Despite 2D games hitting their prime with titles like Super Mario World and Mortal Kombat 3, advancing computer graphics from games such as Doom gave everyone a glimpse of more realistic gameplay.
The craving for realism gave Sony the opening it needed to create a platform for more mature, and at times violent, video games.
Without the original PlayStation, who knows what turn video game consoles and graphics would have taken. The Nintendo 64 probably might have had the third-party developer support it needed to continue dominating the home console race. Maybe the Sega Dreamcast would have had a longer and more impactful lifespan. And maybe Microsoft might’ve never felt it needed the Xbox.
I’m sure the increasing CGI advancements in Hollywood would have still inevitably filled game developers looking to up the level of realism in their games, but modern gaming might have been so very different had Sony never released the PlayStation.
A classic reborn… smaller
The PlayStation Classic is a faithful plastic miniaturization of the original console. The little guy is 45 percent smaller than the original with nearly every little detail — from the gray color to the heatsink-styled sides to the LED light to the proportions of the buttons and their springiness when pressed — accurately reproduced.
Obviously, the top doesn’t pop up and take CDs (though how cool would it have been if it played mini CDs?), and the two memory card slots above the controllers aren’t real.
The two included controllers (non analog stick ones) connect via USB and plug firmly into the front. There’s almost no chance they’ll accidentally come undone if things get heated in a PvP match of Tekken 3 or Twisted Metal. It’s also really generous of Sony to make the controller cables 4.9 feet long. The super-short controller cables were a big complaint about the NES Classic, though Nintendo remedied the cable-length issue when it came time for the SNES Classic.
Some people have said the new controllers feel lighter and smaller than the original, but I dug up an original controller and compared the two. The original controller has a much thicker cable and the plastic case is shinier (probably from years of use), but besides these small differences, they feel the same to me.
If Sony could rewind time before production of the PlayStation Classic, I’d ask them to make one change: include the Dual Shock version of the controller, which comes with two analog sticks so you can better control 3D games and experience built-in rumble feedback.
On the rear of the Classic you’ll find an HDMI port for connecting it to an HDTV or HDMI-equipped monitor. A 6.5-foot-long HDMI cable is included and there’s also a micro USB-to-USB-A cable for connecting to power. Unfortunately, just like Nintendo’s mini consoles, there’s no USB power adapter in the box.
Fine, you probably already have a spare 5-volt power adapter from an old phone or tablet that’ll work with the PlayStation Classic, but can you imagine if a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One didn’t come with a power adapter and you had to buy one separately in order to turn the dang thing on? Yes, I’m aware those systems are way more powerful, and Nintendo doesn’t include an AC adapter with the New 3DS and 3DS XL because they’re betting you already have one, but still — shame on them for being so cheap.
I would guess Sony’s justification is that the lack of a power plug is one less cost passed onto buyers (who likely already have an adapter), or you might just plug the PlayStation Classic into a TV’s USB port for power. That may be true, but it doesn’t make it right.
On the top of the Classic are three functional buttons. Power is self-explanatory and turns the console on and off. Reset quits the game you’re playing, saves exactly a “resume point” from where you left off, and returns you to the game’s carousel home screen. And the Open button changes the virtual discs for games that required more than one CD.
Sony even made a seemingly openable flap for the serial port that was used for debugging and appeared on the original consoles. But alas, the flap doesn’t actually open.
Unlike today where many console games are created using similar engines (the most popular one being Epic’s Unreal Engine) so there’s more consistency in the quality of graphics and physics, games from the PlayStation era pretty much all ran on their own proprietary game engines, and as a result spanned a wide spectrum in graphics and gameplay.
On the PlayStation Classic, all 20 of the included games are accessed from the home screen’s carousel. Each game comes with its own virtual memory card for storing game saves and has a shortcut to dive back into the last automatic resume point after you hit the Reset button.
And that’s kind of it. Besides two basic options for a screensaver (dims the screen after five minutes) and power saving mode (turns console off after 60 minutes of inactivity), there’s nothing in the way of display settings like you get on the NES and SNES Classic consoles.
Games load up in 4:3 aspect ratio with letterboxing (black bars on the top and bottom) and pillarboxing (black bars on the left and right). Unlike the Nintendo’s mini consoles, Sony has no settings such as a CRT filter that adds faux scanlines to make games looks a little better on an HDTV or monitor. And whereas the SNES Classic has settings to display colored backgrounds instead of black bars, there’s no equivalent on the PlayStation Classic. Nor is there a way to stretch the 4:3 aspect ratio to properly fill out a 16:9 display.
The software booting up the PlayStation games is also nothing special. In fact, if you go into the Legal Notice section within the settings menu, you’ll discover the the PlayStation Classic uses the PCSX ReARMed open-source PlayStation emulator made to run on devices powered by an ARM chip (mobile chips found in everything from smartphones to tablets to low-end laptops).
Whether this means the PlayStation Classic can be hacked to load legal ROMs of games you own (Mashable doesn’t condone piracy) is unclear, but it leaves the door open than if Sony developed their own emulator and locked it down.
Technical capabilities aside, all 20 of the games ran perfectly fine for me. The emulator loaded every single game without fail and I didn’t see even one crash in any game no matter if I was playing the first minute or the first hour. The PlayStation Classic’s game emulation works flawlessly.
How the individual games themselves hold up after so many years is a different story. Naturally, what I like and what you like won’t be the same, and games I think look great or terrible may not to you.
The titles are far from the perfect list of PlayStation legends — it pains me these fan favorites like Crash Bandicoot, Gran Turismo, Spyro the Dragon, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Wipeout XL didn’t make the cut — but at the same time I get that whittling down an enormous library of nearly 8,000 published games throughout the PlayStation’s lifetime down to 20 that would’ve pleased everyone is basically impossible.
These are my reviews of the 20 games first released some 20-something years ago that Sony curated for the PlayStation Classic. So take it easy and try not to bite my head off if you disagree. Ratings are based out of five 🕹️.
Battle Arena Toshinden
Genre: Fighting • Original release: 1995
Tekken 3 is the better of the two included fighting games on the PlayStation Classic, but Battle Arena Toshinden is pretty decent. At the time, the game broke new ground by adding weapons to the traditional fighting game and was the precursor to the critically acclaimed Soulcalibur series. Though the visual comparison to the original blocky Virtua Fighter is deserved and the number of players and moves are limited, Battle Arena Toshinden still makes for fun matches.
- Genre: Fighting
- Original release: 1995
- Rating: ⅗
Cool Boarders 2
Genre: Sports • Original release: 1997
In the 1990s, extreme sports video games were starting to get popular and every game publisher rushed out to release one. Cool Boarders 2 wouldn’t have been my pick to include on the PlayStation Classic (Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 was my jam) because it’s cringe-worthy at literally every turn of your snowboard. From the stiff controls to the hollow thump sound effects when you hit a mountain wall to the corny announcer’s “go, go, go!” and “it’s too early to go to sleep!” cheering, Cool Boarders 2 is one game better left buried in the snow.
Genre: Racing • Original release: 1995
Psygnosis’ Destruction Derby is not as easy as it looks. You pick a car and then score points by ramming it into other cars to destroy them. In 1995, the game’s physics was groundbreaking, but now it’s pretty bad. It’s playable, but the graphics and the geometry of the cars and speedways are basic. But even with awful and confusing menus, Destruction Derby’s far from the worst game on the PlayStation Classic.
Final Fantasy VII
Genre: Role-playing game • Original release: 1997
The story of how Sony convinced Squaresoft (now Square Enix) to dump Nintendo and exclusively develop Final Fantasy games for the PlayStation is as epic as Cloud’s adventure to save Midgar from the evil planet-energy-draining Shinra corporation in Final Fantasy VII. Originally spanning three CDs, the Classic version, naturally, doesn’t need any disc-swapping. The character models are comical by today’s standards, but the story and traditional turn-based battle system still hold up. Even the then state-of-the-art CGI cutscenes don’t look terrible. Final Fantasy VII is still a long game (I’ve played it a handful of times across different platforms) and somehow still have no qualms throwing away 40 hours to finish it.
Grand Theft Auto
Genre: Action • Original release: 1997
Video game design is better because Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto all those years ago. Youngsters won’t recognize the top-down camera, but it still warms my heart. GTA 2‘s my personal favorite in the series (the 2D top-down style is more fun than the 3D third-person versions in my opinion), but the original GTA‘s missions still play well. The open world design was truly refreshing at the time and the humor is still as crass and entertaining as it was way back then.
Genre: Puzzle • Original release: 1997
In all the genres of video games, puzzle games never go out style since they depend more on clever gameplay than on visual fidelity. Intelligent Qube isn’t a looker, but the game’s addictive cube-clearing stages make up for its lackluster color palette. Once you get the hang of IQ, it’s easy to stop looking at the barebones graphics. There are plenty of IQ-like games on iOS, but replaying this original made me pine for a proper remake with a more vibrant stage designs.
Genre: First-person platformer shooter • Original release: 1995
Jumping Flash! looks cute at first, but as one of the earliest PlayStation games, the quirky first-person platformer/shooter’s camera controls were pretty awful. You need extra fingers for each hand to grasp the controls and the graphics are also so clearly a product of its time, looking like a barely better version of some of the pseudo-3D games that graced the end of the Super Nintendo’s life. It ties with Cool Boarders 2 as the worst of the PlayStation Classic’s included games.
Metal Gear Solid
Genre: Action Adventure • Original release: 1998
Like Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid was a showcase of the PlayStation’s storage format. The game successfully mixed 3D worlds with high polygon counts, cinematic in-game scenes, top-notch voice acting, and a fantastic soundtrack into a two-disc action-stealth blockbuster. Hideo Kojima’s classic is blockier on an HDTV, but everything that made it such a genre-defining game on the original console still checks out 20 years later.
Genre: Puzzle • Original release: 2000
Fun fact: The adorable Mr. Driller is the son of the character from Dig Dug. You need only look at the cover art to know the game is adorable and fun. As with the other puzzle games, Mr. Driller stands the test of time because its super simple gameplay is complemented by its cartoonish graphics style, and not dragged down because of it. It’s one of a few block/jewel-matching puzzle games on the PlayStation Classic, but the cute spin on drilling and running out of air as you drill deeper underground spices the genre up.
Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee
Genre: Platformer • Original release: 1997
I was never a fan of the Oddworld series. I thought the character and level designs were hideous and the humor forced and, frankly, kind of lame. Though I recall it being well-received back in 1997, the game still doesn’t resonate with me in my adulthood. Of the many 2D side-scrollers that were released on the original PlayStation, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee is one of the weaker ones to me and remains so on the Classic. It also doesn’t help the graphics look terrible.
Genre: Platformer • Original release: 1995
Nintendo had Mario, Sega had Sonic, and Sony got… Rayman. Ubisoft’s 2D platformer was the first PlayStation game I ever played and held a special place in my heart because of the similar spelling to my name. While Rayman never reached the same heights as Mario or Sonic, the game and character did champion the PlayStation’s 2D capabilities back in 1995. The gorgeous sprites, dropped into well-designed side-scrolling levels, still look and play great 23 years later.
Resident Evil Director’s Cut
Genre: Survival adventure • Original release: 1997
Though nowhere as photorealistic as the latest Resident Evil, Capcom’s terrifying original game still managed to scare me to a certain degree. (I hate scary movies and games.) The cubic blood splatters likely won’t give you nightmares anymore, but if you get scared easily, the game’s eerie mansion music might be enough to keep you from getting a good night’s rest.
Genre: Role-playing game • Original release: 1996
Role-playing games ruled the ‘90s and every Japanese game publisher under the sun seemed to have an RPG ready to go. Persona wasn’t like Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest. For one, the game’s isometric view was literally a different perspective. The game’s slow to start, but if you can get through the beginning and basically press “X” all the way through, you’ll find an entertaining story and an engaging battle system that didn’t age too badly.
Ridge Racer Type 4
Genre: Racing • Original release: 1999
Before there was Forza or Need for Speed, there was Ridge Racer. Namco’s arcade racer only dialed up my obsession with cars, driving, and speed. Ridge Racer Type 4 is considered to be the best game in the series on the PlayStation, but its once cutting-edge 3D models can sometimes look like a blocky mess in motion. The game’s draw distance and pixelated text is hard to see at times and is a giveaway this was a game before HD. But damn it, the electronic music is still superb.
Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo
Genre: Puzzle • Original release: 1996
Bejeweled has nothing on Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo. While it wasn’t the first game in the block-matching puzzle genre, Capcom spliced chibi versions of its iconic Street Fighter characters and transformed the game into a puzzle fighting game. SPFIIT’s simple enough for beginners to pick up and simultaneously deep enough for hardcore gamers to school people in. Few things are as satisfying as creating a huge combo of jewels and dumping them onto your opponent’s puzzle space.
Genre: Third-person shooter • Original release: 1999
Syphon Filter was one of my favorite PlayStation games back in the day and I was happy to see it make the list. Unfortunately, without analog sticks, the game’s not a lot fun to play. Locking onto enemies is harder and my thumbs kept reaching down to the analog sticks that aren’t on the controller, even several missions into the game. Syphon Filter was another one of those PlayStation games that really pushed the limits of the console to new heights by blending in-game 3D graphics and cutscenes and it was excellent at its time. Shame the game’s mechanics haven’t aged as well, though. It would be a completely different story if the Classic’s controllers were had analog sticks, though.
Genre: Fighting • Original release: 1998
Tekken 3 is without a doubt one of the console’s gems. Released to crush Sega’s Virtua Fighter, Tekken became the PlayStation’s fighting game poster child. Tekken 3’s visuals aren’t terrible in 2018 and successfully pulling off a difficult combo move is still worth celebrating so long as you can get over the game’s physics, which makes fights feel like they’re happening in slow motion. It’s no Street Fighter Alpha 3, but Tekken 3 is still one of the best fighters — the best 3D fighter for sure — to ever grace the PlayStation.
Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six
Genre: First-person shooter • Original release: 2000
Twin analog sticks are the norm for first-person shooters today, but not during the PlayStation era. While it’s possible to make your way through Rainbow Six’s strategic gameplay without analog sticks — it’s painful thinking of playing run-and-guns like Medal of Honor and Quake II without them — the game isn’t as engrossing when you’re forced to spend so much time fiddling with the shoulder buttons to aim properly.
Genre: Vehicular combat • Original release: 1995
Cars + weapons. That was enough to sell anyone on Twisted Metal. Like many PlayStation games, Twisted Metal was state-of-the-art, but is more like state-of-the-fart now. The vehicular combat game where your sole goal is to destroy the other car(s) is so dizzying to play through and the battle arenas so small relative to the cars themselves, I can only assume I must have relied a lot on my imagination and elementary trash-talking skills to make this game more immersive than it really was.
Genre: Role-playing game • Original release: 1997
I never played Wild Arms (it’s apparently more popular in Japan than in the West) so I was surprised to find such a thrilling JRPG besides Final Fantasy VII. The game’s a classic JRPG that combines a top-down view with 3D turn-based battles against monsters. If you like JRPGs, you’ll enjoy Wild Arms. The story’s clichéd and leveling up makes enemies easier to defeat, but I still had a blast grinding through it. It’s a satisfaction not many gamers know anymore.
Throwback to a classic era
Dated as many PlayStation graphics look, if you grew up with the console — maybe it was your first one or perhaps it helped forge friendships — Sony’s PlayStation Classic has its charms.
The game lineup could’ve been better curated, but with the way all of the video game licenses have traded hands over the years, securing many of the original console’s beloved titles either wasn’t possible or would have required Sony to write big checks to third-party game publishers.
That Sony couldn’t be bothered to develop its own emulator sorta tells you all you need to know about how much the company was willing to sink into this throwback, I think.
Still, if you add up the value of all of these games purchased separately as digital downloads on Sony’s PlayStation Network (PSN), thirteen of the titles total up to $90, with the remaining seven not available for purchase. Assuming the average $5.99 price of many of the digital downloads (some of the titles are $9.99), the PlayStation Classic still gives you well over $100 worth of games.
Funnily enough, many of the titles I wished came with the PlayStation Classic are available on PSN. If the list of games for the PlayStation Classic don’t impress you, buying the ones you want à la crate via PSN (provided you have a PS3, PS4, or PS4) will save you some cash.
If you look at the PlayStation Classic as just a tiny plastic box running games using an emulator, the console’s entire reason to exist seems kind of like a quick cash grab since the games don’t really offer anything the PSN versions or an emulator on your PC running legally ripped versions of games you already own don’t.
But if you approach the PlayStation Classic as a retro toy — as a nice look at the early days of 3D graphics — and a game console that asks for your full attention for the sole sake of enjoying an expansive adventure, two-player brawl, or silly weapon-tricked-out-vehicle battle without the many trappings (Netflix, music, and messaging, etc.) of a modern internet-connected console, the thing is damn fun to play with, especially with a friend.
The poor graphics and game physics will make you laugh your guts out, but isn’t that what video games are all about? Too many games these days are too serious and complicated. The PlayStation Classic is a refreshing reminder of a simpler time when the only interruption to your gaming time was a bathroom break or snack run.
Senior Tech Correspondent
Video game footage