A history of videogame hardware: Sony PlayStation 2

PS2

Year: March 2000 Manufacturer: Sony Original Cost: ¥39,800

For a video game system that scraped its way into existence by way of a simple grudge, the original PlayStation exceeded the meagre expectations of Sony’s management who had once viewed the idea with such disdain. By 1999, Sony’s Computer Entertainment division was responsible for a sizeable 40 percent of the company’s revenues, establishing itself as a key pillar in the business. Not only that, but the system had reshaped the way in which developers and publishers worked with console platform holders, reigniting an industry that was lagging in the mid-nineties, much as its rival, Nintendo, had done a decade earlier.

Expectations for the PlayStation 2 contrasted to those of its predecessor. Consumer excitement played a key factor in burying Sega’s Dreamcast, as people held off subscribing to the ‘next generation’ of game hardware in anticipation of Sony’s next creation. Behind the company’s closed doors Ken Kutaragi, the man who had so doggedly believed in the original PlayStation project, was hard at work, now with the benefit of a huge R&D team and the full support and confidence of the Sony board.

The PlayStation 2 was unveiled in March 1999, a year ahead of its release, and exceeded expectations. At the core of both Sony’s marketing plan and the machine itself was the ‘Emotion Engine’, a CPU chip that contained 10.5 million transistors on a die measuring 240mm, power that would, Sony claimed, allow video games to communicate emotion like never before.

Out of context, and with the hindsight of the PS2’s lacklustre launch line-up, the claims were pretentious. But there was science behind Kutaragi’s spiel: he wanted to create a CPU capable not just of number- crunching, but of delivering the mathematical capability required to simulate emotion. When Sony staff first unveiled their academic plans for the Emotion Engine at a silicon chip conference in San Francisco in 1999, few in attendance believed the company could manufacture such a thing, let alone in the volume required for a global console launch.

This feature is an extract from Simon Parkin’s book, An Illustrated History of 151 Videogames.

The system’s other specifications impressed with DVD-playback, backward compatibility, and an extension of the analogue functionality of the Dual Shock controller to its face buttons. But not everyone remained convinced. At a special showing at the start of 2000, the PS2’s first batch of titles did little to communicate the great potential of this black slab: Fantavision, a firework-exploding puzzle game, and Dark Cloud, a routine Japanese RPG, appearing as if they’d been developed for the original PlayStation, not this brave new world of digitized emotion.

An even greater problem for Sony was manufacturing sufficient numbers of consoles to meet initial demand. On the system’s Japanese launch, on Sunday 4 March 2000, the allocated 600,000 consoles sold out immediately, one empty-handed customer even throwing himself off a roof in Tokyo’s electronics district, Akihabara. The US launch on October 26 was mixed too, the initial shipment of 1 million consoles revised down to 500,000 at the last minute, while the UK launch on November 24, 2000 offered a mere 80,000 consoles, brought into the country by four chartered Russian jets who flew to Japan to pick them up, aircraft procured by Sony Europe when they heard Europe wasn’t to receive its PS2 allocation in time for Christmas. Meanwhile, BBC TV show Watchdog targeted the system as part of a ‘Rip-off Britain’ exposé thanks to its £300 price point.

In the system’s first year there were many developer gripes with the system’s architecture, which, according to Capcom’s Shinji Mikami, lacked adequate development tools. However, by the system’s second year, Rockstar’s vast and original Grand Theft Auto III illustrated PS2’s tightly wound potential. As developers mastered the hardware, and games began to match the machine’s promise, the PS2 gained huge momentum. In 2010 it became the best-selling console ever, with 148 million units sold around the globe, success that took video games into more homes than any other system. The emotion engine had, in part at least, lived up to its lofty name.