Sony’s PlayStation celebrates its 25th anniversary next December. Of course, Sony has never been one for dragging its feet, so the company has already kicked off its birthday celebration with a commemorative mini-PlayStation console crammed full of 20 games. Some of those selections make perfect sense — if you’re out to make huge stacks of cash, you’re obviously going to include Final Fantasy 7 — while others ... well, let’s just say that Battle Arena Toshinden wasn’t all that remarkable back in 1995, and time hasn’t been especially kind to it.
The PlayStation Classic’s lineup feels a little muddy, so now seems a perfect opportunity for me to take a step back and define, objectively, the 20 actual best games released in the U.S. for the original PlayStation. I’m not necessarily saying these are the games that should have been on the PlayStation Classic, but ... these are the games that should have been on the PlayStation Classic.
20. Chrono Cross
The Final Fantasy games were Square’s heavy hitters on PlayStation, but it’s this semi-sequel to Chrono Trigger that shows the company at its experimental 32-bit best. Look beyond the controversial slap-to-the-fan’s-faces story connections to its classic Super NES predecessor and you’ll find one of the most innovative role-playing experiences ever to appear on a console.
Everything about Chrono Cross speaks to a game whose creators decided to challenge RPG dogma at each step. It rewards players who come to terms with its intricate battle system, in which every action you take and even the party you assemble has a consequence — though you can always run away, even from boss battles, if things don’t go your way. Multiple routes through the story ensure the composition of the player’s party (built of dozens of recruitable weirdos hiding throughout the world) changes every time, and the stunning music and gorgeous (if choppy) visuals make the game an absolute delight. Well, at least until you get to the part where you find out all the characters you loved in Chrono Trigger are now dead. But hey. Omelets and eggs, and all that.
19. Colony Wars
Colony Wars represented Sony’s entrée into the space sim genre, a fresh take on the likes of Elite, Star Control and Wing Commander. The scenarios and ships presented here don’t break much new ground, especially for anyone who’s spent any amount of time with LucasArts classics like X-Wing, but that doesn’t really matter. The important thing about Colony Wars is that this game, unlike all those others, was created from the ground up for PlayStation rather than beginning life on a personal computer. As such, it’s more limited both in terms of the scale of its missions and in what you can actually do during combat. But that’s hardly a flaw here; Colony Wars harnesses its technical limitations in order to give players a highly focused adventure that brings a distinct arcade sensibility to the genre. Did Colony Wars reinvent the shooter? Not at all. Is it a fine and highly replayable shooter that makes the most of the PlayStation’s strengths? Heck yeah.
18. Jumping Flash!
A visual stunner and proof of the PlayStation’s horsepower at launch, this freewheeling multi-format action game has held up remarkably well through the years. Players take the controls of Robbit, a robotic bunny armed with an arsenal of explosive carrots, and leap ... then leap again ... and again. Jumping Flash! looks for all the world like a first-person shooter (we called ’em “Doom clones” back then), and some of the levels even play out through cramped corridors that call back to the likes of Wolfenstein 3D. But for the most part, Jumping Flash! explores the vertical potential of 3D graphics, allowing players to ascend high into the sky by chaining together consecutive rocket-propelled bunny hops. The robo-cartoon theme does a lot to wallpaper over the painfully low-resolution graphics, and a succession of forward-thinking innovations (such as the automatic downward camera tilt to help you stick your landings on tiny platforms) ensure Jumping Flash! has aged like fine carrot wine.
17. Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee
(Oddworld Inhabitants, 1997)
Designed in the spirit of methodical classics like Prince of Persia but possessing a style all its own, the original Oddworld journey stands out as one of the few PlayStation games to dwell unapologetically in pure, old-school 2D. Yet the public’s supposed contempt for traditional game graphics in the late ’90s didn’t stop Abe’s odyssey from becoming a hit. Maybe the dark, gross-out vibe helped sell it — Abe’s Oddysee leans heavily into the “exploding Yoshi fanatic commercial” mindset so prevalent during that era, allowing you to destroy other characters (both good and bad) in countless graphic ways. There’s also a dedicated fart button, if that helps you pin down where Oddworld Inhabitants’ minds were at.
But unlike so many other gross-out games of the era, Abe’s Oddysee had the depth to back it up, combining Out of This World-style precision platforming with the ability to possess foes or otherwise manipulate them for protagonist Abe’s own ends. The result is a vast, dark, immersive puzzle centered around freeing the innocent while crushing industrial capitalism ... a message that continues to resonate 20 years later.
16. Arc the Lad Collection
(G-Craft/Sony Computer Entertainment, 2002)
The Arc the Lad games almost didn’t make their way over to the U.S.; it was only this beefy compilation from Working Designs at the very end of the console’s life that allowed American RPG fans to experience a game that had launched alongside the hardware in Japan. The first Arc is admittedly a lightweight hiccup of a game, and the third is forgettable ... but right there in the middle you have Arc the Lad 2, one of the biggest and most involving RPGs of this or any era. Combining tactical-style play with traditional console RPG mechanics and exploration, Arc 2 tells a tale that spans a world, two games’ worth of heroes, and dozens of hours of combat and storytelling. The other games in the set are decent enough, but Arc 2 is a PlayStation essential.
15. Wipeout XL
The original Wipeout pretty much just combined everybody’s two favorite Super NES racing games — F-Zero and Super Mario Kart — by dropping the competitive combat mechanics of the latter into the high-speed techno-world of the former. It didn’t feel derivative, though, because it went about the whole affair with immense style and confidence. With its thumping electronic score and sleek ’90s Euro-futuristic visuals, Wipeout was one of those demo kiosk showcases that convinced curious shoppers to become PlayStation owners back in the console’s tender early days.
The sequel, Wipeout XL, does these same things all over again ... but it does more of them, and better. More tracks, more vehicles, more energetic techno tunes, more ... well, everything, really. The one downside to this gorgeous, high-adrenaline racer is that you need to connect to a second PlayStation (complete with its own television!?) in order to enjoy multiplayer.
14. Bushido Blade
(Light Weight, 1997)
As a rule, early 3D fighting games tend to not age very well. Clumsy mechanics, floaty physics and ugly graphics have given those games far less durability than 2D contemporaries like The King of Fighters ’98 or Street Fighter 3. Bushido Blade is a welcome exception to this rule. Oh, sure, it’s ugly as sin, and it’s pretty clumsy, too ... but that’s sort of the point. Bushido Blade plays like no other fighter before or after it — not even its own sequels and successors.
Players take up arms as one of roughly a dozen modern-day samurai seeking to escape the corruption of their clan, and everyone plays for keeps. Each one-on-one bout takes place in a large, open arena situated on the grounds of a Japanese castle, where factors like elevation or groves of destructible bamboo shape your combat strategy. Bushido Blade lacks life bars and time limits; it’s just you versus your foe, each trying to land a fatal blow against the other — a task that becomes much easier if you manage to strike and permanently disable their limbs. Every blade handles differently, and each character has their own weapon proficiency. The enormous depth and unflinching immediacy of Bushido Blade’s combat more than makes up for its rough tech.
13. Mega Man Legends
Once you get past the fact that Legends isn’t simply the classic Mega Man formula rendered in polygons, you’ll find one of the best and brightest action games of its era. Capcom imbued this adventure with the look and energy of classic anime, and the characters that inhabit its world possess all the charm you’d find in a vintage Tatsunoko Productions cartoon.
The action here is solid enough (although its pre-Ocarina of Time lock-on shooting hasn’t aged well), but what really makes Legends work is the world Mega Man explores. Everything takes place on an island called Kattelox, and it’s a pleasure to work your way through the interconnected labyrinths beneath the surface while solving the citizens’ crises above ground. These tasks range from helping a pregnant lady reach the hospital before she goes into labor to finding cool bugs for a bunch of kids to preventing a death-laser satellite from wiping out all life on the island — yeah, the story escalates quickly. Oh, and the would-be villains of the piece, a family of Ghibli-inspired air pirates called the Bonnes, end up stealing the show.
As an early 3D action game, Legends feels a bit clunky at times. But its good-hearted dialogue strikes a rare balance between sincere and cloying that remains all too rare in video games, 20 years later.
12. Tomb Raider 2
(Core Design, 1997)
Tomb Raider became a massive hit right out of the gate, most notably on PlayStation. Naturally, for the sequel, developer Core Design sat down and gave us more — more — MORE! Tomb Raider 2 manages to build on the great ideas and mechanics of the original game without becoming bogged down in repetition or overloaded by elements grafted clumsily onto an aging game engine. It is, in short, the optimal classic Tomb Raider experience.
Tomb Raider 2 sends Lara Croft around the world, from the Great Wall of China to the canals of Venice to the drowned wreck of the luxury liner Maria Doria, and at every step it combines complex environmental puzzle solving with harrowing combat to present players with a perfectly paced adventure. The endless browns and grays of the first game’s ruins and caverns give way to vivid and varied settings, and hired goons replace innocent wildlife to give Lara a greater challenge that you don’t have to feel guilty about riddling with bullets. Things would go quickly downhill for the series in subsequent games, but for this one adventure, Lara delivered on the promise inherent in her inventive but unpolished debut outing.
11. Street Fighter Alpha 3
A true video game miracle. The PlayStation’s internal architecture was poorly suited to handling traditional 2D graphics, especially those as varied and fast-paced as you find in a fighting game. Somehow, though, Capcom managed to finagle the system into supporting an excellent rendition of its gorgeous, anime-inspired arcade brawler Street Fighter Alpha 3 with only a few compromises. Only the most hardcore of enthusiasts noticed the few lost animation frames here and there, and even those fanatics were hard-pressed to deny the extraordinary depth this port offered over and above its coin-op incarnation.
The PS1 conversion expanded the game’s roster and introduced new modes while turning hidden features of the arcade game (such as the story-driven two-against-one Dramatic Battle) into upfront options. Sure, the Saturn and Dreamcast ports turned out better a few years later, but this was as good as 2D fighting got on PlayStation: rich in features, boasting dozens of beautifully drawn characters, and sporting a huge array of fighting styles to suit all tastes.
10. Klonoa: Door to Phantomile
The advent of Super Mario 64 may have quashed the public’s taste for classic 2D graphics and platformers, but that didn’t stop developers from attempting to sneak them into the mix anyway. Klonoa is one of the best of those stealth efforts, a rock-solid run-and-jump action game that pretends to be a polygon-powered modern-day experience.
In truth, though, it plays more like Yoshi’s Island than Super Mario 64: Protagonist Klonoa can extend his leaps with a brief hover ability, grab and toss enemies as projectiles, and launch himself off captive foes for a double jump. But it all plays out in two dimensions, despite putting on a good show with its gorgeous 3D-looking environments, presented to dazzling effect by dramatic camera movements. Heavily inspired by Sega’s faux-3D adventure Nights into Dreams, Klonoa updates a classic game formula with newfangled visuals, smart level design and a surprisingly heart-wrenching story to stand as one of the PlayStation’s greats.
Much like Klonoa, Einhänder is one part old-school game and one part flimflam artist. It seemingly takes many of its design cues from Technosoft’s Thunder Force games for Sega Genesis, including its weapon swapping mechanic (your ship has one hand that can snatch guns and energy blades from defeated foes). You’d never mistake this for a Genesis game, though. Its intricate polygonal landscapes pitch and zoom to play with perspective, pumping new life in the aging arcade shoot-’em-up genre without ever abandoning the format’s core tenets. All of this arrives in the care of a pulsing techno-EDM soundtrack worth listening to on its own. Squaresoft made its name on PlayStation as a purveyor of top-flight role-playing games, but like Bushido Blade, Einhänder demonstrated that the company had impressive chops regardless of genre.
8. Incredible Crisis
(Polygon Magic, 2000)
The PlayStation presented developers with an appealing combination of technical factors that had never been available before: a powerful piece of hardware with a massive audience and an inexpensive media format. The platform quickly became home to inventive, experimental games with profound niche appeal — works like Kenichi Nishi’s Incredible Crisis.
A game like this could never have worked on, say, Super NES, and not just because it’s jammed full of rollicking CD-quality music by the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra. It’s just that Incredible Crisis is extremely weird and hard to define, a collection of oddball minigames built around a loopy premise. A loving nuclear Japanese family sets out to buy birthday gifts for their grandmother and ends up becoming involved in dance-offs, outracing Indiana Jones-style boulders, foiling bank robberies and battling Godzilla-sized teddy bears. The madcap variety of Incredible Crisis almost certainly helped inspire the WarioWare series, but this is a wonderfully ludicrous must-play experience in its own right.
7. Final Fantasy Tactics
The PlayStation had no shortage of Final Fantasy games, but none of the numbered entries have aged quite so well as this spinoff from the team behind Tactics Ogre. Essentially a chess game enriched with Final Fantasy job classes and magic spells, Tactics drops players into a succession of turn-based battles in which positioning, elevation and time have a massive impact on the outcome of every single action. The system has a few bottleneck encounters (remember, always create a second save before Riovanes Castle!) and tends to be a bit of a cakewalk toward the end, but the breadth and depth of the systems together make for the single most replayable chapter of the Final Fantasy franchise — every single trip through the story can take a radically different form.
It’s a shame the wildly inconsistent English localization often renders a fascinating War of the Roses-meets-fantasy-apocalypse storyline into an incoherent mess ... but even if the actors here sometimes speak like blunt head trauma victims, the combat mechanics and just-one-more-battle skill-unlock loop keep players coming back again and again.
6. R4: Ridge Racer Type 4
Namco’s impressively faithful port of arcade driving game Ridge Racer helped sell the PlayStation at launch. With the fourth chapter of the series — designed exclusively for this platform — Ridge Racer hit its creative peak. Its graphics and fleet of unlockable cars didn’t quite match the immensity of Polyphony’s ultra-hot Gran Turismo games, but R4 let players do something that’s impossible in the taxing GT series: simply enjoy driving. Spiritually, R4 feels almost like a successor to Sega’s Out Run, setting its courses along gorgeous European roads and allowing drivers to just chill. It plays down the hard-rocking intensity of earlier Ridge Racers in favor of easygoing Eurobeat tunes, making the simple act of cruising down the highway a delight.
Of course, fans of classic racing aren’t left in the cold here; R4 contains a story mode, refined drifting mechanics, car customization and even a 60-frames-per-second remake of the original Ridge Racer. It’s truly a racing game for everyone, not just car fans and adrenaline junkies, and it’s a must-play experience.
5. Resident Evil 2
The original Resident Evil was, let’s be honest, Capcom’s big ripoff of Infogrames’ Alone in the Dark. With the sequel, the series established itself as a distinct venture in its own right. The action shifts here from the confines of a creepy mansion to spill across the streets of a city choked with zombies, and players take control of two different characters whose paths combine and crisscross to paint the full story of the Raccoon City crisis.
Resident Evil 2 is a huge, cinematic adventure crammed with secrets and bursting with replay value. Like the best sequels, it builds on its predecessor by giving players more of everything: more characters, more challenges, more monsters to overcome and — most of all — more tension. Resident Evil 2 doesn’t change everything, though; it retains the original game’s fixed camera angles, character-oriented controls and strict inventory mechanics. While those design choices don’t sit well with everyone these days, they make possible Capcom’s core vision for classic Resident Evil: a challenging adventure that rarely affords players the opportunity to feel safe. In a game where zombie hordes roam the streets of suburban America, it’s only fitting.
4. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
For some weird reason, Konami decided the Castlevania series’ PlayStation debut should be a ... 2D sequel to a poorly selling Japan-only PC Engine title. Everything about that description would seem doomed to failure on paper — the final nail in Dracula’s coffin, as it were. In practice, however, Symphony turned out to be not only one of the finest entries in the long-running Castlevania series, but also one of the high points of the entire PlayStation library. Some extremely clever technical flimflammery allowed Symphony’s designers to trick the PS1 hardware into handling 2D graphics better than anyone would have expected, resulting in an utterly beautiful action RPG packed with all kinds of detail.
Symphony represented (at the time) a significant rethinking of what “Castlevania” meant, but every inch of it shines with both genuine affection for the franchise and a desire to make the best game possible. From vanity footwear whose only use is to make protagonist Alucard a few pixels taller to the hidden secret ending that doubles the length of the adventure, Symphony is a best-case scenario of what happens when you give passionate developers the tools to express their vision.
3. Vagrant Story
Vagrant Story has only one significant flaw, really: It’s too long. If the developers hadn’t padded it out to head off the complaints that its spiritual predecessor Parasite Eve had been too short, it might well be a perfect work. The minds behind Final Fantasy Tactics sat down to create an adventure in the Resident Evil/Metal Gear Solid mold, and they came up with something wholly unique in video game history.
Presented with a quirky narrative format that blends comic book and fantasy film aesthetics, and told with a rich English-language script that gives its fantasy-horror pulp an almost Shakespearean air, Vagrant Story remains perhaps the single most technically impressive PS1 title ever assembled. It’s not all flowery prose and wyvern-stabbing drama, though; Vagrant Story is held together by absolutely brilliant action mechanics that weave together platforming, puzzle solving and a complex battle system that takes on the feel of a rhythm game at times. Truly a game like no other, which makes it absolute justification for owning a PlayStation.
2. PaRappa the Rapper
When the CD-ROM format debuted, developers weren’t quite sure what to do with all that extra space. Throw in some movies? CD-quality music? Not bad ideas, but ultimately those embellishments turned out to be little more than window dressing for standard video game concepts. It wasn’t until PaRappa the Rapper came along that CD-quality audio became truly integral to the game itself. Sony (in collaboration with artist Rodney Greenblat and developer Masaya Matsuura) turned the music itself into a game, demanding players triumph in a series of rap battles in order to win the heart of the protagonist’s would-be girlfriend.
PaRappa synthesized a lot of mismatched ideas that had been floating around the games industry for a while and turned them into a single clever, charismatic musical adventure that takes full advantage of the PS1 hardware. The technology powering the ever-changing raps combines the dynamic music of LucasArts’ iMUSE system with the aspiring-producer gimmick of Peter Gabriel’s Xplora1 and transforms it all into a silly and memorable experience. What other game would dare ask players to guide a lovestruck puppy as he learns to out-rap a UB40-soundalike reggae frog at a flea market? Together with its sequel UmJammer Lammy, PaRappa the Rapper embodied Sony’s innovative, anything-goes approach to publishing — an attitude that had everything to do with PS1’s triumph over the console war competition.
1. Metal Gear Solid
Sony never managed to produce precise counterprogramming for landmark Nintendo 64 hits like Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (sorry, Ape Escape fans). Luckily, Konami stepped up and delivered Metal Gear Solid, which took the same spiritual approach as Mario and Zelda’s latest adventures at the time — that is, updating a classic formula — and advanced it an extra step ahead.
Like Nintendo’s hits, Metal Gear Solid took a concept from an earlier console generation and reinvented it for three dimensions. Director Hideo Kojima barely strayed from the mechanics and design of 8-bit Metal Gear here, but the simple act of reworking stealth warrior Solid Snake and his world into polygons brought new life to those well-worn concepts. Sneaking around wasn’t a new idea when Metal Gear Solid debuted, yet evading (instead of fighting) foes in a three-dimensional space felt far more real than it had in 2D, opening the door for a new philosophy of action game design. It also introduced gamers to a new style of immersive storytelling; thanks to its thrilling real-time cutscenes and extensive, voice-acted “codec” conversations, Metal Gear Solid is as much a movie or radio play as a video game.
Sure, the storyline is plenty corny, and the villain’s awkward climactic speech about genetic super-babies goes on for about 10 minutes longer than it should, but it’s hard to hold that kind of fumbling exuberance against a game that turns every moment of gameplay into a dazzling set-piece or tense cat-and-mouse challenge. Metal Gear Solid debuted almost simultaneously with Half-Life and Ocarina of Time, and it had just as much impact on the future of the medium as they did ... and it cemented PlayStation’s reputation as the place to go for cutting-edge experiences in the process.