This week marks twenty whole years since the second generation of PlayStation consoles. That’s right — the PlayStation 2 is now just one year away from the legal drinking age in North America. By the start of the new millennium, the original PlayStation was beloved across the world, and demonstrated that the right hardware and software could upstage Nintendo and Sega.
The PlayStation became one of the most influential consoles of all time, changing the face of gaming and launching countless franchises. But in the next generation, facing up against the Nintendo GameCube, a strong play from Microsoft in the form of their first Xbox and the SEGA Dreamcast, the next PlayStation was under tremendous pressure to repeat that success.
And man, did Sony deliver. Riding on the tremendous goodwill of the previous console, the PlayStation 2 delivered exciting experiences and some of the most enduring icons in gaming history. Where its competitors faltered, the PlayStation 2 flourished. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Sony doubled down on successes in action and role-playing and letting studios push the envelope artistically.
Here are just eight of the most iconic games of the PlayStation 2.
8. Final Fantasy 12
Widely dismissed by the English-speaking games media as a magi-punk take on Star Wars, Final Fantasy XII is actually the best mainline Final Fantasy game on the PlayStation 2. While it lacks the operatic grandeur of previous installments, XII makes up for it with a politically intense narrative and unique gameplay mechanics.
If you wrote FFXII off before, give it a second look. Its programmable gambit system lets players automate grinding so they can focus on exploration and puzzle-solving. Strong character work abounds as well, as heroes like Ashe and villains like Gabranth all possess complex motivations. Final Fantasy XII is one-of-a-kind.
7. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
Metal Gear Solid was already an iconic name in tactical espionage action on the original PlayStation, but Metal Gear Solid 2 proved that Konami and Hideo Kojima were ready to take the franchise to wild, ambitious places. It could be argued that Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was the deeper game with even more bold storytelling choices, but Sons of Liberty’s daring twists, audacious cinematic style, and heady themes made for a dizzying combo.
6. Silent Hill 2
Konami’s Team Silent broke ground on the original PlayStation with Silent Hill, introducing gamers to a horror setting that put the emphasis on psychological terror and small-town weirdness. But it’s Silent Hill 2 that’s garnered the iconic standing by plumbing darker fears and emotions, deepening the vague lore of its world and introducing us to an iconic monster in the form of Pyramid Head.
When the average person name-checks Silent Hill, it’s very often that they’re referring to number 2. While the first Silent Hill originated the hellish otherworld that is the series trademark, Silent Hill 2 made that world about the guilt and fears of its main character, making for a more memorable and powerful experience.
When it first came out, Ōkami didn’t get the recognition it deserved. Clover Studio, the same developers behind the also excellent Viewtiful Joe, put together a unique game in which players wield a celestial brush to aid the goddess Amaterasu – a sun deity in wolf form – in saving the world from a great evil. Now recognized as a masterpiece, Ōkami is one of the many classic games that pushed the envelope for what was artistically possible on the PlayStation 2.
It’s often been said that Ico was ahead of its time for the PlayStation 2, but it’s even more amazing to know that it was one of the first games on the console as it was released barely a year into its lifespan. Ico centers on the bond between a young boy (Ico) and girl (Yorda) trapped in an elaborate castle surrounded by hostile shadows.
While traversal puzzles drove the experience, the connection between Ico and Yorda became the game’s most memorable element, symbolized by the importance of holding hands. Ico received such critical acclaim that it made the equally iconic Shadow of the Colossus possible; but it’s Ico that features a more intimate and potent combination of premise, execution, and artistry.
3. Persona 4
Japanese role-playing games (JRPG) have always been the bread and butter of console gaming but no other franchise plays anything like the Persona series. Featuring a groovy score and a thoughtful battle system, Persona 4 is an iconic blend of soapy teenage drama, intriguing murder mystery, and psychological introspection. It’s the kind of videogame brew that’s so classic, it’s been enhanced for PC and PlayStation Vita since.
2. God of War
The entire generation that spanned the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox was littered with phenomenal action games, but it’s God of War that is still worth remembering. While cut from the same kind of dark, brooding, edgelord cloth as many of his contemporaries, at the time Kratos was more like a throwback thanks to his over the top 1990s level capacity for violence and twisted humor.
Many a hyper-violent hero has come and gone since the PlayStation 2 — miss you, Soul Reaver and Prince of Persia! – but few have endured the way God of War has. It has even survived the ignominy of some terribly written sequels to return in 2018 in an emotionally resonant installment for the PlayStation 4.
1. Kingdom Hearts
Few things illustrate video games at the height of their power than a wild and crazy marriage between one legendary publisher and an iconic media giant. That’s the essence of the arrangement that gave birth to Kingdom Hearts, a role-playing game that merges the tropes of Square Enix’s own brand of JRPG storytelling with the characters and worlds of the Walt Disney Company.
Kingdom Hearts’ legacy grew wildly out of control with various spin-offs and a story that took nearly two decades to tell. But regardless of how individual gamers feel about Kingdom Hearts, its earnest sentimentality and wild take on beloved Disney characters have become iconic and hold a cherished place in the shared lore of video game fans.
Which of these iconic Playstation 2 games did you enjoy the most?