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PlayStation Classic: The Kotaku Review

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PlayStation Classic is a faithful reproduction of the experience of playing original PlayStation games in the mid-1990s. In that respect, it succeeds. What it lacks is passion.

This piece originally appeared 11/27/18. We’re bumping it today for the PlayStation Classic’s release.

With Nintendo roundly rejecting the idea of a Nintendo 64 Classic in the foreseeable future, PlayStation Classic has the low-polygon nostalgia market, to whatever extent it exists, all sewn up for itself. A tiny version of Sony’s world-changing first gaming console, the Classic is a throwback to the era of 32 bits, CD-ROMs, and full motion video. To be released December 3, it costs $100 and includes 20 games, which are a mix of true time-tested classics and, well, more questionable entries.

Much like Nintendo’s classic consoles, the hardware is a tiny perfect replica of the original box, the controller a full-size recreation of the precise feel of the original. Hook it up, start up a game of Final Fantasy VII and you’re back in 1997 again. The emulation looks and sounds good, the two included controllers feel just right. (They’re based on the original, pre-analog stick versions.)

PlayStation Classic Games, Ranked

The experience is technically accurate, but PlayStation Classic doesn’t feel like it was created by a company with a true and abiding passion for the games of this era, or even with the good sense to fake one. The interface is utilitarian and drab instead of fun and stylish. The feature set is bare-bones, even though a few extra options and features would have added so much to the experience. And the game selection, while studded with gems here and there, is far from a solid overview of the best content on the platform.

My nostalgia for the PlayStation 1 is a different sort than what I feel for the NES and SNES. Those two systems were gifts from my parents when I was 7 and 11 years old, respectively. They are largely tied up in childhood memories. But I bought the PlayStation when I was 17, with money from my first job. When I look at the PlayStation I see early adulthood, that first taste of what it was like to splash out cash for new technology.

And that was the market that Sony pursued with PlayStation—the older teens, the college kids. The games had more violence, more sex, more drugs, more curse words. It was more common for the hot new game to get a “Teen” rating, or even “Mature.” PlayStation Classic leans in to this, its game library filled with adult-oriented games and a big M rating on the box. The ESRB description of the device reads like a glowing review in a 1995 issue of Die Hard Game Fan magazine:

A few games depict impalements as well as decapitation/dismemberment, resulting in large blood stains on the ground and underneath bodies. The compilation also includes some sexual material: dialogue that states, “Bubby’s got a sticky love nest…” and “My brother knows I’m b*nging his wife…”; demons with phallic-shaped heads and/or vulva-shaped torsos. The words “sh*t” and “as*hole” appear in the game; one song contains the word “f**k.”

Like, gnarly, dude!

How much of that Mature content you’d like to experience with the PlayStation Classic is entirely up to you. I don’t think I’m going to play far enough into the original Grand Theft Auto to hear any dialogue about b*nging a love nest. I’m too busy working my way through Wild Arms again. I think Wild Arms, an RPG by Sony, was actually the first PlayStation game I ever bought, but only because Final Fantasy VII wasn’t out yet. It’s a mishmash of 2D and 3D; the field graphics look like a Super Nintendo game while the battles are fully polygonal. It’s got a killer Western-movie soundtrack, and its main theme is overlaid onto an anime introduction movie that blew me away when I first saw it. Feel the raw power of CD-ROM!

Wild Arms is a solid pick. Other solid picks include Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil: Director’s Cut, Mr. Driller, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, Tekken 3, Ridge Racer Type 4, and Intelligent Qube. These hold up pretty well, and give the PlayStation Classic a well-distributed range of game genres: racing, puzzle, fighting, platforming, RPG.

It’s the other 10 games whose presence here is of arguable worthiness. The original Rayman has stunning 2D animation, but the gameplay isn’t as polished. Grand Theft Auto might be one of today’s biggest series, but the original 2D, top-down version captures little of its appeal. Ditto Revelations: Persona, which is certainly an interesting game but has lots of bad design decisions that made my couple hours of playtime feel like a chore. (It wasn’t until their third iterations that both of those series evolved into something closer to what we know and love today.)

While some games don’t age well, others, like Cool Boarders 2 and Destruction Derby, got middling reviews even when they were originally released. I didn’t have much fun playing shooters like Syphon Filter and Rainbow Six without analog sticks (and I don’t know how much fun they’d have been even with them.)

And including very early 3D games like Jumping Flash and Battle Arena Toshinden is sort of as if Nintendo had included Pilotwings on the Super NES Classic, which it did not. (Pilotwings is a fun game, but feels more like a demo for the cool tech tricks that Super NES could do rather than a truly mature expression of the platform.) If you’re only going to include 20 games, better to make way for the good stuff.

The real problem with PlayStation Classic, then, is all the good stuff that’s not here. No library is going to satisfy everybody, but the misses here are so prominent that it’s hard to not bring them up. Where’s Parappa the Rapper, or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, or Silent Hill? Where’s any of the Crash Bandicoot or Spyro or Tomb Raider games? Why Super Puzzle Fighter but not an actual Street Fighter fighting game? Where’s Parasite Eve? (Oh, that one’s on the Japanese version, which also includes Gradius Gaiden and Arc the Lad among others.)

Some of the games on the American version of the Classic, including Tekken 3, Jumping Flash, and Battle Arena Toshinden, are actually based on the European PAL versions of the games. PAL versions of the games are sometimes slower and run at a lower framerate than NTSC versions. Comparing them to the original U.S. games running on a PlayStation 2 on my CRT television, the PlayStation Classic ones did seem to run more slowly.

Even with a library half-full of mediocrity, PlayStation Classic could have improved its image somewhat by adding features that enhance the basic experience. The NES Classic is not exactly what you would call a feature-rich product, but even then, it has a cool menu screen with an original theme song, a few basic display options like fake CRT scan lines, and four “save anywhere” slots per game that let you suspend and resume your gameplay anywhere. The SNES Classic upped the ante with a rewind feature and pretty borders that fill up the blank space around the 4:3 game image.

PlayStation Classic does almost none of this. The menu is drab and joyless. There are no display options, no borders. There is only one “save anywhere” slot per game, and the implementation isn’t great—when you press the Reset button on the console to go back to the menu screen, it asks you if you want to overwrite your previous save with your new position in the game, and it’s easy to accidentally press “No” and lose your progress, especially if, say, you’ve been playing a game where O is select and X is cancel before you jump back into the menu where X is select and O is cancel.

You can, at least, access a virtual Memory Card for each game, where you can see your saved-game icons just like they appeared on the original PlayStation. This is the only little nod to the past that you’ll find on the PlayStation Classic, outside of the games themselves.

Playing with the PlayStation Classic, it’s hard not to imagine a version of this machine that was done with more passion. Where the people in charge banged down Activision and Konami’s doors to let them get permission to put Crash or Symphony of the Night on this box. Where someone made and won an argument that putting Parappa the Rapper on it wouldn’t negatively affect the sales of the PlayStation 4 remaster—or whatever the reason for skipping it. Where the interface gave players more options for how they wanted to play the games that made it onto the system.

Just last year, a PlayStation executive went on the record to ask why anyone would still want to play these “ancient” games. Clearly, Sony at large believes people would. But instead of a PlayStation Classic that really celebrates the shared love for this bygone era of games, it’s a product that feels like it was delivered in the spirit of “Oh, you guys still like these old games? Well, here this is, we guess.” The PlayStation’s games are still beautiful, but the wrapping around them is something like putting a Picasso into an $8.99 plastic frame.