Times are tough, money is tight, and new consoles & games are expensive. But older consoles and games? Much cheaper, and just as good!
Think back to the years between, oh, around 2000-2006. A lucky few among you would have owned all three gaming consoles, but for the majority, a lot of great systems, and great games, will have passed you by.
Maybe you owned a PS2 but not an Xbox. Maybe it was the other way around. Maybe you were at college, stuck on an old PC and an N64 and lacking the cash to try out the "latest" consoles. Maybe you were never aware the GameCube even existed.
Maybe it was all of those, maybe it was none of them. Doesn't matter! Thanks to a happy coincidence of an econcomic crisis, generational timing and the continued availability of games for these machines, there's never been a better time to try some of yesterday's best games. Catch up on what you may have missed out on. And catch up on it on the cheap.
In this guide, we'll be presenting you with everything you need to know about buying into an outdated console generation. Which console best suits you, how much you'll pay for it, where you can still buy it, what you'll need to buy for it, and most importantly, what games you should get for it.
Before we get right into it, though, let's establish a few things first, cover some general basics.
The HD Generation - While much has been made of the 360 and PS3 being the first "High Definition" gaming consoles, that doesn't mean the previous generation of machines will look like crap on your new 50" LCD. All three enable the use of component cables and progressive scan, while the PS2 and Xbox also output (if the game supports it) in true 5.1 surround sound.
So you'll want to get your hands on both component and optical audio cables if you want to get the most out of the older machines on newer television sets & sound systems. Just be careful if you're picking up a GameCube, as machines manufactured after May 2004 dropped component video out after Nintendo figured nobody was using it. So check the date before buying.
Nintendo no longer sell component cables for the GameCube, so you'll have to track those down online (try eBay). Sony still sell PS2 cables through their online store (though you'll find them cheaper elsewhere), while for the Xbox, you'll want an Advanced AV Pack, which enables both component video and optical audio out (again, try eBay first)
Get Digging - There's a reason we're posting this guide now, and that's because we're at the perfect point between accessibility and affordability when it comes to the last generation's games. They're cheap enough to buy in bulk, but you'll still be able to find them on store shelves.
But you won't for long. Indeed, many of the best Xbox and GameCube games won't have seen a retail shelf for years now, and PS2 shelf spaces surely don't have much time left either, meaning that if your local GameStop doesn't have a decent pre-owned section, you're going to need to get off your butts and do a little digging. For big business lovers, GameStop's online store and Amazon are a good place to start, while importers like Play-Asia also stock a lot of older US-compatible games.
If you're a little braver, however, or are looking for something a little harder to find, you'll of course want to go dust off that eBay account.
OK! Now that's out of the way, this is how we're going to do this. Each of the three systems will be broken down like this:
Why: The best reasons to buy the console.
Why Not: The best reasons not to buy the console (weigh both up, see how it fits for you)
Price: A rough guide to how much you can expect to pay for a working console in good condition.
Peripherals: Any peripherals and/or accessories that you either need to buy or really, really should buy.
Games: Eight games to get you started. They're not necessarily the best games on the console, but they strike a nice balance between being brilliant games and being reasonably easy to get hold of. We'll also only list games that are either console exclusive (ie you can only get them for that console) or had a game come out on that console first (in the case of games like GTA and Resident Evil 4).
Got all that? OK, let's get into it!
The undisputed king of the last generation of hardware. Sold more consoles than the Xbox and GameCube combined, has more games available than the other two combined and, incredibly, is still being produced new and is still for sale over eight years after it was first released.
Why: It's still "new", available and stocked at every game store on Earth, so it's easy to get hold of under warranty. It's got by far the biggest library of games amongst the old three. The Slim version of the hardware is also the smallest of these old consoles, so it'll take up the least amount of room on your shelf.
Why Not: There's a high crap-to-quality ratio on most of those games, especially those available new these days. Because all but the earliest PS3s lack backwards-compatibility, if you move to a PS3 later down the line, you won't be able to play these discs on your new system (whereas the Wii will play GameCube games, and the 360 will play most Xbox games).
Price: There are two models of the PS2, the original, blocky, grilled version and the more recent "slim". The slim is $130 (new), $50-100 (used), and we'd recommend you avoid the older model if possible, because it's nowhere near as reliable.
Peripherals: At least one memory card, though you'll probably want two if you've got roommates or kids around. You'll also want a second DualShock 2 controller, though Logitech's wireless PS2 pad ($10-$30) is a great, if more expensive, alternative.
Ico – Lonely, desolate platformer is as packed with atmosphere and ingenuity as it's lacking in bells and whistles.
Final Fantasy XII – Forget your nostalgic attachment to Final Fantasy VII. This is the best Final Fantasy game ever made. Guaranteed to steal at least 100 hours of your time.
Shadow of the Colossus – By the same guys who made Ico. But instead of platforming, it focuses on naught but boss battles. Brilliant.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City – Other GTAs are bigger, and perhaps badder, but none manage to recreate an entire world as well as Vice's take on 1986 Miami.
Metal Gear Solid 2 – The better of the two Metal Gear titles on the PS2, even if it does pull a cheap shot or two.
Okami – Zelda for the PS2, albeit with unskippable cutscenes. Little rough around the edges, but will repay your diligence with a magic, 40 hours + experience.
Guitar Hero – The original. Developed by Harmonix. They're all covers, they're a mixed bag of songs, but playing Texas Flood and Helmet's Unsung back-to-back is an experience not even Rock Band can match.
Gran Turismo 4 – The laziest update to the Gran Turismo franchise yet, but that's not the point. This is still the best in the series, making it the best driving game on the PS2 (though if you hate GT's realism, try Burnout 2 for its crash mode instead).
You may also want to look into...Devil May Cry, God of War, Odin Sphere, Persona 4, Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal, Gregory Horror Show.
The Xbox was Microsoft's first attempt at a gaming console, and was met at launch with a mixture of both fear and bewilderment. It was big, it was ugly, it was a console. From Microsoft. But then came Halo. And people realised that in-built HDD was useful. And nobody was laughing anymore.
Why: It's reliable, and is a decent DVD player. A surprising number of quality games relative to the number released. Can be easily modified to become a great home media server.
Why Not: It's big. Real big. Most of the best games aren't available new anymore, making tracking them down a little harder and a little more expensive than they're worth. The 360 now allows downloads of Xbox titles, which in a year or two may make owning an actual Xbox redundant.
Price: $110-140 (new), $30-80 (used)
Peripherals: It's got a built-in HDD, so you won't need a memory card. What you will need are three extra controllers (make sure they're the smaller S-pads and not the older "Duke"), because the console supports four without the need of a multi-tap. And because you can't play Halo with only three people.
Fable – Peter Molyneux's over-hyped RPG still oozes charm, even today, and unlike the sequel, its linearity can be overlooked on the older console.
Halo – You must buy Halo, you must buy three extra controllers, you must play Blood Gulch with friends over and over and over.
Jet Set Radio Future – More of a re-imagining than a port of the Dreamcast classic. It's not as colourful, but it's still an amazing piece of art.
Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath – You may have trouble finding this, but your search will be worth it. The best game in the Oddworld series, hands down, and a great shooter in its own right.
Knights of the Old Republic – Lucasarts' X-Wing series aside, this RPG captures the "feel" of Star Wars better than any other game on the market.
Project Gotham Racing 2 – Still the best Project Gotham game, as it makes you earn a ride in those super-fast supercars. It's a perfect blend of realism and arcade thrills.
Ninja Gaiden Black – Like Devil May Cry, if Devil May Cry was about nothing but kicking you in the balls every five minutes.
The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay: The best-looking game of the last generation. No contest. Put this on and you'll think you're playing a 360 game.
You may also want to look into...Halo 2, Forza, Jade Empire, Full Spectrum Warrior, Metal Arms.
By 2006, Nintendo's GameCube was dead in the water. A clear loser in the battle for the last generation's console crown. Yet the success of Nintendo's follow-up machine, the Wii – which shares some of the GameCube's peripherals and is able to play every single GameCube game – has brought the little box back from the dead.
Why: It's cheap. It's cute. Pound for pound, it has probably the strongest library of games of the three. You'll be able to recycle its peripherals and memory cards on the Wii. Indeed, at less than half the price and with much better games, at the moment it's probably a better investment than a Wii should you still be unable to get your hands on Nintendo's latest console.
Why Not: If you have a Wii, you don't need the GameCube console, just the games. The best games are hard to find. The console came in a number of colours: black and silver ones are nice, but most of the available ones are…purple.
Price: $110-$130 (new), $20-$80 (used)
Peripherals: Like the Xbox, you'll want an extra three controllers, as the Cube supports four without assistance. At least one of those will have to be a wireless Wavebird ($15-$40), though, the first ever official wireless controller and perhaps the Cube's greatest legacy. Buy at least two memory cards, as some games – like Animal Crossing – take up a whole card on their own. If you're feeling really adventurous, you can try tracking down a GameCube Broadband Adapter ($10-$15 used), which will allow for massive networked games of Mario Kart.
F-Zero GX – A forgotten classic. The best futuristic racer since WipeOut 2097. The singleplayer race along a cliff's edge - at breakneck speed – is worth the price alone.
Animal Crossing – You fish. You talk to animals. No bosses, no goals, no limits. Just cartoon town life. Oh, and it includes a ton of free NES games as well.
Resident Evil 4 – A total reimagining of the Resident Evil series. Less spooks, more gunplay, and after Riddick it's the second best-looking game of the generation.
Metroid Prime – The best first-person shooter on the Wii. Converts a classic 2D platformer into a brooding, original first-person adventure.
Paper Mario & the Thousand Year Door – Cute Role-playing game that takes classic Mario characters and turns them into 2D paper cut-outs. Is a lot tougher than it looks.
Pikmin – Doesn't look it, but this is the best real-time strategy game on any console. You've a space pilot who has crashed on an alien planet and has to enlist the help of dozens of walking weeds to get you off.
Mario Kart: Double Dash - Mario Kart "purists" will tell you this is the worst game of the series. Don't listen to them. This is in fact the best game of the series (well...except for the DS one), at least in terms of multiplayer, with imaginative track design and an underrated co-op mode. Becomes simply amazing if you can find a broadband adapter and a ton of friends.
Eternal Darkness - You may read about Denis Dyack and wonder "why are people still talking about this guy if his games are so rubbish"? It's because he made this game, and people are still cutting him some slack. A horror game that hits you in the face with multiple time periods and some fourth-wall-smashing.
You may also want to look into...Super Mario Sunshine, Luigi's Mansion, Viewtiful Joe, Rigue Squadron 2: Rogue Leader, Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Super Monkey Ball 2.
And The Rest...
Those 24 games up there are some of the best each console had to offer. There are of course plenty more exclusive (or near enough) titles, but those are a good place to start. Anyway. That's just a start.
There are even more games that appeared across two and even all three consoles. Once you've settled on which of the older machines you're going to buy, you can dip into these games.
Psychonauts (PS2, Xbox)- Great platformer, funny game. Little hard to find these days, but it's worth the elbow grease in tracking it down.
Beyond Good & Evil (PS2, Xbox, GC) - An overlooked masterpiece. If you want to know what a cartoony, sci-fi take on Zelda is like, get this.
Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (PS2, Xbox, GC) - Another platformer, yes, but it's beautiful. And original. And also cheap and easy to find.
Soul Calibur II (PS2, Xbox, GC) - Probably the best Soul Calibur game, making it probably the best fighter on a console that's not made by Capcom. As an added bonus, each version came with a platform-specific bonus character: Zelda's Link for the GameCube, Todd McFarlane's Spawn on Xbox and Tekken's Heihachi Mishima on PS2.
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 (PS2, Xbox, GC) - Forget the last five years of Tony Hawk games. The flying toilet seats, the Jackass cameos. Once was a time Tony Hawks' games were great, and none are better than THPS3.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (PS2, Xbox, GC) - Sneaking is normally something to be avoided in games. Mostly because games do it wrong. But Splinter Cell does it right. And Chaos Theory is the best of the lot, because it's got great multiplayer game modes and was the last game before the series got a bit silly.
ESPN NFL 2K5 (PS2, Xbox) - The last great football game. Madden may know how to make a game look like an NFL broadcast, but only the 2K series really knew how to make a game play like an NFL game. Unavailable on GameCube, but NFL2K3 is, so prospective Cube owners can get that instead.
Pro Evolution Soccer 5 (PS2, Xbox) - Every year, Konami's once-great series continues its slow, lazy decline into mediocrity. This game, though? It was the series at its peak. A must-buy for football lovers.
And...that does it! That's all you need to know. If you're low on cash but heavy on spare time, take note of what you've just read and go get yourself an older console and an armful of games. But hey, if there's anything you think we left out, let us know.
UPDATE - No, there's no Dreamcast. This is an everyman's guide, and these days, the Dreamcast and its better games aren't the easiest things for an everyman to track down for a reasonable price.