When PlayStation first hit the market in the mid-’90s, Sony famously didn’t want to call it a toy. That was Nintendo’s territory, after all. And PlayStation, the theory went, was something different. Something more powerful. Something targeted at an older demographic. Something that would create its own market rather than fight for the existing one.
It was a sentiment that began in the company’s early behind-the-scenes discussions about collaborating with Nintendo and carried through into the PlayStation’s marketing once it became its own thing.
And to a significant degree, the approach paid off. Sony built its own playground, customers and third-party studios graduated to it from other platforms, and over the years Sony’s reputation as a major electronics company even began to loosen, with many thinking of it as more of a games and entertainment company.
This all came to mind earlier this week, after checking out the new PlayStation Classic mini-console at a Sony press event. Because from the size to the weight to the price to the way the games hold up today, and the simplicity of the whole package, I couldn’t shake one thought: Sony has finally made the PlayStation into a toy.
And its best and worst qualities all seem to hover around this idea.
Much like with the NES Classic and SNES Classic, the first thing that stands out with PlayStation Classic is how small it looks. Being shorter than its controllers, it looks like a hobby model that you’d put on your desk, or one of those game-branded cartons filled with candy.
It’s also extremely light and feels durable, seeming — like any good toy — like it would be fine if you threw it against the wall. The controller feels similarly light, as expected, given the lack of rumble motors and analog sticks that have since become standard.
The console has many of the details you may remember from the old days, down to the ridges on the sides and a fake expansion port panel in the back. While neither that slot nor the “lid” opens, the three buttons on top of the unit all work. Power does what it’s always done, while Open now serves as a virtual disc-swap button for games like Metal Gear Solid. Reset has also changed its functionality, which I’ll get into shortly.
Overall, the unit looks and feels great. What used to look like a toilet bowl now looks like a coaster, and what used to feel delicate now feels strong.
Turn on the PlayStation Classic and you get a familiar boot-up sound and the Sony Interactive Entertainment logo. Then it’s right into the game menu. There’s no sizzle trailer, no elaborate graphics or animation. It makes it clear right away that this is a console that prioritizes speed and convenience over frills and bonus features.
Each game appears with an image of its box art, a “virtual memory card” to let you save games without having to plug anything in, and — perhaps the best part of the interface — a “resume game” option to pick up where you left off.
The Reset button on the console acts like the PlayStation button on a DualShock 4, in that it pauses your game and takes you back to the home screen, with the key difference being that you don’t have to close one game to start a new one here. You’re free to start and stop each of the 20 preloaded games; the machine will automatically store all of those spots, even when you turn off the power and return to it later. From a convenience perspective, it’s hard to beat. (And in Rayman, a game that has its own password system built in, this means you end up with three ways to save your game.)
The main downside of the PlayStation Classic’s interface is that it doesn’t include much in the way of options or bonus features. There are no concept art galleries, developer interviews or anything else to learn about the history of these games or approach them in different ways. At a time when Nintendo is handing out Star Fox 2, the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection is setting new standards for retro compilations, and even the Analogue Super Nt got Super Turrican: Director’s Cut, Sony’s mini-console feels straightforward in comparison — at least, assuming there are no secret unlockable extras we don’t know about yet.
You also get a minor sense of inconsistency when jumping between games, as this was the era when Sony wasn’t able to get everyone on board with whether to use X or Circle to select things in the Western versions of their games. So it’s slightly awkward to go from Rayman, Grand Theft Auto and Twisted Metal (which use X) to Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy 7 and R4 (which use Circle), though that's nothing that holds the console back to any real degree.
And if you think that’s a minor complaint, I’ll push it one further — the menu icon for Resident Evil: Director’s Cut advertises the inclusion of a Resident Evil 2 demo and $5 off coupon (via barely readable text carried over from the original box art), neither of which exists here.
So yeah, minor nitpicking, but overall the interface is fast and simple and works well. It just doesn’t seem to come with anything extra.
When Sony announced the PlayStation Classic launch lineup in October, fans came away with mixed feelings. The list included big names like Grand Theft Auto, Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid, and quirky fan favorites like Jumping Flash, Mr. Driller and Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo, but it left off quite a few games that helped define the platform — including some developed internally at Sony.
Relative to the NES Classic and SNES Classic lineups, Sony’s list of 20 doesn’t contain as comprehensive a snapshot of the biggest games to hit the platform, nor seemingly as consistent a methodology for why certain games were chosen. On the former end, it’s missing big franchises like Castlevania, Crash Bandicoot, Gran Turismo, Tomb Raider and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. On the latter end, it’s a bit unusual to see Sony include sequels in some franchises to represent the best games in those series — R4, Tekken 3, Cool Boarders 2 — but then to include games like Twisted Metal rather than Twisted Metal 2, which most fans would describe as the opposite approach.
I don’t know the reasoning behind these decisions, and Sony didn’t have any spokespeople at its event to field these sorts of questions. It could be a combination of expired licensing rights, costs, file sizes or marketing strategies. Twisted Metal creator David Jaffe theorized in a recent stream that Sony must be planning multiple versions of the PlayStation Classic to spread out different games across each. It’s also true that the original PlayStation lineup consisted of a wide swath of popular games, and Sony would likely need to include twice as many games as it has before a majority of fans would begin to be satisfied.
Whatever the reasons involved, Sony’s lineup provides a good sense of genre variety and a nice mix of quirky and mainstream titles. It just has too many key omissions to be a definitive look at what made the original PlayStation great.
How the games hold up
The other side of the lineup coin is that regardless of their historical importance, many of the games on the PlayStation Classic list haven’t held up as well as those on the NES and SNES Classic lists have.
This is, in part, because many PlayStation games were experiments in how to work with early 3D graphics, and game developers were figuring things out as they went. So looking back on those games now, not only do their graphics appear dated — especially in some highly compressed cutscenes — but some of their controls feel sluggish, making you feel like you’re moving underwater.
Some games hold up better than others. Tekken 3, in particular, feels relatively modern, and Syphon Filter is still quite playable, all things considered. But broadly speaking, 2D games like Mr. Driller and Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo feel more precise than the 3D games that make up most of the list.
The 2D/3D split isn’t the only factor at play, either. Some games in here feel outdated due to their old control schemes — playing Resident Evil, at this point, is more or less a science experiment — and others like Battle Arena Toshinden hold up better than expected, despite being primarily a 3D graphics showcase back then, thanks to a smooth frame rate.
There are also still some open questions, like whether Konami’s fourth wall-breaking features in Metal Gear Solid will find their way in here somehow, and whether each game will run smoothly from start to finish, since I was only able to sample them each for short periods of time at Sony’s press event. I also noticed some occasional volume spikes, with games like R4 playing louder than others on default settings, though I have yet to be able to fully test the volume on each game in a controlled setting to see the degree to which this could be an issue.
But essentially, this is a package of games that, in many cases, got famous for innovating rather than refining. And those tend to bring back good memories, but don’t always hold up as well in the long run.
It’s good, just simple
The PlayStation Classic goes on sale Dec. 3, which is the 24th anniversary of the original system’s launch date in Japan. It’s hard not to wonder what else Sony could add if it took another year and waited until the milestone anniversary came around next year — what kinds of extra features it could include beyond the games themselves.
Instead, it seems like Sony went for something simple. Less of something for a collector or core fan looking to immerse themselves in PlayStation history, and more of something for those with a passing interest to pick up as a $99.99 impulse buy.
Still, it’s a lot of fun jumping into the collection — the lineup may not please everyone, but it has enough variety to make for a fun day or two of sampling the different games included, and the ease of moving between everything quickly makes it all quite painless.
It all makes for a nice hit of nostalgia, just not one that oozes passion and care and feels like it’ll be an important part of PlayStation history in the long run.