In the absence of a miniature Nintendo 64, Sony has decided to keep the new holiday tradition of tiny, retro throwback consoles alive with its PlayStation Classic. If you’re at all familiar with Nintendo’s “classic edition” line — which includes both the NES and SNES — you know just what to expect. The PlayStation Classic is an incredibly small version of the original PlayStation, but instead of playing your old discs, it has 20 games built right in. It’s essentially a high-quality plug-and-play box that works seamlessly with modern televisions and costs $99.99.
It’s a pretty bare-bones setup. In fact, in many ways, Sony’s machine is actually less robust than Nintendo’s offerings. But the hardware and functionality aren’t what’s most interesting about the PlayStation Classic. Whereas previous mini consoles focused on the pixelated worlds of Mario and Mega Man, Sony’s offering explores a very different time. It’s a glimpse into the earliest days of 3D when developers were still trying to figure out exactly what these three-dimensional spaces would look like and how we’d navigate them.
At first glance, the list of available games on the PlayStation Classic has some notable omissions. There’s no Gran Turismo, Parappa the Rapper, or Crash Bandicoot. It’s a bit weird not having those iconic games on the device. But taken as a whole, the PlayStation Classic is a fascinating and refreshing look at a very specific and important time, offering not only some of the best early attempts at 3D, but also some of the most awkward.
The actual console is, as you’d imagine, incredibly tiny. Sony says it’s 45 percent smaller than the original console, and it’s lighter than the smartphone in your pocket. Aesthetically, it looks just like the original, only on a smaller scale. It’s that same retro shade of gray with all of the same buttons. Not everything is functional, of course: the disc tray doesn’t open, and the reset button now serves as the console’s home button.
When you turn it on, there’s the familiar PlayStation boot screen, and you’re then presented with all 20 games, accessible via a carousel. They’re listed in alphabetical order, and there’s no way to sort or filter them. The PlayStation Classic’s menu is as basic as it could be. All you can do is look through the games and access your various save files. There is a suspend option — you can leave a game and come back to it without actually saving — but no other additions, like the SNES Classic’s very welcome rewind feature or the ability to tweak the visuals with filters.
Not only is the PlayStation Classic incredibly simple, but it also manages to re-create the two biggest issues with Nintendo’s mini console line. For one thing, the two bundled controllers are wired, with a 59.1-inch cord connecting them to the console. It’s a decent length, but it’s no substitute for a wireless option. Even worse, though, is that there is no home button or any way to exit a game from the controller. Every time you want to switch games, you need to get up and physically hit the reset button on the PlayStation Classic. It’s a needlessly frustrating feature, especially since it was probably the biggest issue with the NES and SNES Classics. If Sony is going to copy Nintendo’s idea, the least it could do is fix some of the problems.
Aside from the two controllers and the console, the only other things in the box are an HDMI cable and a USB cable for power. (Though, curiously, there’s no USB adaptor included. You’ll have to provide your own.)
The most important part of the package is the controllers. For the PlayStation Classic, Sony decided to go with the original gamepad that launched alongside the console, not the DualShock, which was introduced later on. That means no dual sticks and no vibration. It also means playing the PlayStation Classic is a jarring trip back in time.
As a quick refresher, here are all of the games that are available on the PlayStation Classic, which span about half a decade of video game history:
- Battle Arena Toshinden
- Cool Boarders 2
- Destruction Derby
- Final Fantasy VII
- Grand Theft Auto
- Intelligent Qube
- Jumping Flash
- Metal Gear Solid
- Mr Driller
- Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee
- Resident Evil Director’s Cut
- Revelations: Persona
- Ridge Racer Type 4
- Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo
- Syphon Filter
- Tekken 3
- Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six
- Twisted Metal
- Wild Arms
As with Nintendo’s mini consoles, that list will remain unchanged. Outside of hacking, there’s no way to add new titles to the PlayStation Classic. It can’t even connect to the internet. The good news is that it means you never have to worry about sitting through a system update when you really just want to play a game. There are some genuine blockbusters on that list, including Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil, and Final Fantasy VII. But what I’ve found while spending quite a bit of time with the collection is that even many of the less-heralded games offer something interesting. They don’t all hold up in 2018, but many of these games are great showcases for a medium that was undergoing a period of significant change.
A perfect example is Syphon Filter. Developed by the now-defunct 989 Studios, Syphon Filter isn’t exactly fondly remembered. It’s a cliché action game where, despite playing through multiple entries in the series, I can’t remember a single character’s name. But it’s also a blueprint for these kinds of games. Many of the things we take for granted today are things that were pioneered in games like Syphon Filter. Some of them seem small, like the way the hero will dramatically smash through a glass door if you run straight at one. Others are more important, like the way the lead character will point his weapon at whatever enemy is being targeted, a natural way of showing who or what you’re aiming at.
Is Syphon Filter fun to play in 2018? Not especially. You need to dig through a menu to do something as simple as swapping your gun, and playing a third-person shooter without the ability to control the camera is incredibly frustrating. But as a snapshot of early 3D action games, Syphon Filter is a fantastic choice. The same goes for a number of other titles. Intelligent Qube is a fairly simple puzzle game that’s heightened by dramatic camera angles and music that create a sense of tension that wasn’t possible with previous technology. Jumping Flash feels like a mess today, but its vibrant world is a great example of how designers struggled to translate platforming gameplay to three-dimensional spaces.
Overall, it was a really awkward time for games. This is true even of the big names. After years of hearing professional actors perform in games, going back to the stilted, choppy delivery in Resident Evil is jarring. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy VII, arguably the biggest name on the PlayStation Classic, was a strange hybrid of flashy CG visuals and classic design sensibilities. It was even visually confusing: sometimes, characters would appear properly proportioned; other times, they were squat and deformed. It starts out as a gritty cyberpunk story before becoming a more typical fantasy adventure. Then there’s Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, a game about saving an entire alien race from becoming the latest fast-food craze, where you mostly interact by talking.
Of course, that weirdness is part of the appeal. They don’t make blockbusters quite as strange anymore. Today’s AAA video games are polished to perfection, their rough edges largely smoothed away.
This isn’t to say that the games on the PlayStation Classic aren’t fun anymore. Tekken 3 holds up remarkably well, with its intuitive controls and shockingly competent camera. It, along with the comfortingly arcade-y Ridge Racer Type 4, are perfect reasons to bring your tiny new console to a friend’s house. I also really loved playing the original Rayman, which was one of the rare examples of how advanced technology like the PlayStation’s could actually make 2D games look more beautiful. There’s the nostalgia angle as well. I’ve played through the first six hours of Final Fantasy VII probably a dozen times, but that didn’t stop me from getting sucked right back into the battle against Shinra on the PlayStation Classic.
As much as I enjoyed (most) of the 20 included games, the absence of some of the console’s most iconic titles is keenly felt, and it’s especially strange since many of them were first-party titles created by Sony studios. I also wish there were more sequels included in the package. It’s cool to go back and play the original Resident Evil, but it would be even better to be able to re-experience how the series evolved over the PlayStation’s lifespan. It’s also worth noting that a handful of the titles on the PlayStation Classic are the European versions, which run at a slightly slower 50Hz (compared to 60Hz for North America). It’s not something that really bothered me while playing Tekken, but your mileage may vary.
There’s a lot that could have been done differently with the PlayStation Classic. The lack of wireless controllers and a dedicated home button are baffling, and there is a list of other classic games that should have been included over the likes of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six or Cool Boarders 2. Meanwhile, the fact that there are no real modern features at all, such as rewind or visual customization options, makes the PlayStation Classic feel like a minimum effort product from Sony.
When you really sit back and experience the device, though, it’s actually a fitting representation of the mid- to late-‘90s. No, the PlayStation Classic doesn’t have all of your favorite classic PlayStation games, and there’s a very good chance that you’re never going to actually play Destruction Derby. But what you are getting for your $99.99, aside from a blast of nostalgia, is a refreshingly honest glimpse at what the early days of the PlayStation were like, right down to getting up from your comfy seat to switch to a different game.
It wasn’t always pretty, and it was frequently confusing and awkward, but it was also incredibly exciting. And now, that feeling is captured in a tiny gray box.
The PlayStation Classic launches on December 3rd.