Version tested: PlayStation 3
With the addition of the first PS one titles to the European PlayStation Store all the pieces are finally in place for the secondary battlefront of the Next Gen war - online downloads. These impulse purchases have been the Holy Grail for the games industry for many years, enabling publishers to make use of their back catalogue and drive new formats at the same time. The Wii Virtual Console leads the pack as far as choice goes - with over 100 emulated console classics to choose from - but has disappointed many with its seemingly random choices and unhelpful interface. Xbox Live Arcade, on the other hand, has set a high benchmark for original content as well as offering updated versions of gaming classics.
So where does the PlayStation Store fit into this digital wonderland? The original content has been tentative at best and the choice is still rather sparse. However, it could be that the PS3 makes its stand on pricing. Not only do you get to see exactly how much your download costs in actual currency, but the prices for the first batch of original PlayStation classics are more than reasonable. Just GBP 3.49 (or around EUR 5) is a small price to pay for beloved 32bit titles, especially when compared to the cost of N64 games on the Wii. Even though the fact that the original PlayStation is now officially "retro" makes me feel very, very old, there's a huge list of titles I'm aching to revisit.
Of course, if you own a PS3 and PSP there's an added bonus. Update to the latest firmware, register the PSP with the PS3 and you can transfer your PS one downloads across to your handheld simply by connecting them with a USB cable and selecting "Copy". It's a remarkably simple process, and the transfer speeds are impressively fast - over 400Mb of Crash Bandicoot rattled down the wire in just a few minutes.
Given that PS one graphics look very chunky and blocky to our modern hi-def eyes, even when upscaled, this will probably be the preferred route for visual purists as the PSP screen is much more forgiving than a HD telly. You can even resize the image, from a stretched widescreen view to a smaller, but crisper, size comparable to the Nintendo DS. You can also move your save games from the PS3 to PSP. To do this, go to your PS1 memory card on the PS3, select the save and then select the "Copy" option and it will convert it to format the PSP can recognise [Thank you forumites - Ed].
So, the PS one downloads are finally here. Let's see if the PlayStation Network has what it takes to challenge the 360 and the Wii in the retro stakes, or if it's just (wait for it) PSN in the wind...
Price: GBP 3.49
Although he hasn't been seen in a proper platform outing since 2004's Crash Twinsanity (and, yes, we're purposefully forgetting Crash Boom Bang, last year's mini-game offering) only a fool would underestimate the appeal of that mute bandicoot. He's headlined thirteen titles, shifted literally squillions of games and even acquired the indisputable trophy of modern fame - his own toy line. But, for now, let's unga-bunga back in time to 1996, and his very first appearance.
Arriving at the same time as the free-roaming Mario 64 didn't do the orange-furred mascot many favours, trapped as he is in a series of tight corridors stuffed with boxes and mangoes, but taken as a pseudo-3D spin on the twitch platformers of yesteryear it still has the power to charm. It takes some time to get reacquainted with non-analogue controls in a polygon world, with some precision jumps proving a lot trickier than they did before modern joypads spoiled us, overall the experience has aged fairly well. It's still over reliant on one-hit kills and sudden death drops, but balances this out with generous extra lives and an unstoppable spin attack. So it's both annoyingly hard and incredibly easy at the same time which is more than a little weird, but evens out to something quite fun.
There's very little depth to worry about - you simply get Crash to the end of each stage, dodging or killing enemies, smashing as many boxes as you can find - but the relatively short levels and variety of twists on the formula make it a very easy game to become addicted to. Indy-style boulder chases, side-on sections and riding on the back of a rampaging boar are all used to mix things up, while staying close to the established tone. Of course, as save points only occur every other level (and then only if you complete a hidden bonus stage) the need to keep going isn't solely down to giddy immersion.
The wow factor of the cartoon visuals has obviously diminished but, for all its limitations, Crash's debut is still a well-designed and cheerfully uncomplicated little distraction that kick started Naughty Dog's unbroken decade of brilliance. Now if we can just get Crash Team Racing...
Price: GBP 3.49
My memories of Jumping Flash are mixed as I only ever played it as part of an interview at Psygnosis for a games testing job. I had to play the same section for three hours and write down any bugs I found. I had assumed my experience of writing for Amiga magazines would impress them, but instead I found myself on the receiving end of a rant from a disgruntled producer about how reviewers "just say games are crap without thinking about how long people spend making them." To which I responded "Don't spend so long making crap games then".
It was around this point that the interview came to an abrupt halt.
Jumping Flash, as it happens, isn't crap. One of the very first PlayStation titles it's obviously not as polished as later offerings, but compensates with the sort of inventiveness and ambition that often gets squashed once a platform is established. A clunky 3D platformer, you play as a giant rabbit-shaped robot vehicle and must track down all the carrot-shaped jetpods in each level before heading for the exit. Blocking your way is a veritable army of angry fauna, including frogs in top hats and fire-breathing dragons. To help you out, you can collect various weapons and also have a pleasingly powerful double-jump, which lets you sproing up to floating platforms with admirable athleticism. Your view automatically tilts down as you do this, and the view of the entire level spread out beneath your metallic bunny feet was enough to assure gamers that the (old) next gen had truly arrived.
Looking back, the game seems out of place on the PlayStation - to look at its offbeat style and cute cyber-animal themes you'd swear it was a Nintendo game - but it's nice to see that its place in PS history hasn't been overlooked. Beneath the 3D exterior lurks a fairly uneventful game but if you can put up with the slow pace and stiff movement, there's plenty to enjoy in this unsung quirky gem from the dawn of the 32bit era.
Price: GBP 3.49
As I admitted when reviewing F-Zero X on the Virtual Console, I never really warmed to Wipeout. Shocking, I know. The tight, twisting corners and need to master the airbrakes just never gelled with my personal preference for crudely wellying around tracks. I could only sit forlornly by and watch the cool kids as they belted along to the sounds of Orbital and Leftfield, stroking their limited edition double vinyl clubland soundtracks and whooping like weasels.
Of course, I always realised what a watershed moment the game represented for gaming in general. It briefly made sitting on your arse with a joypad an act of urban sophistication and I can see why so many became entranced by its sleek style and slick aesthetic.
Viewed twelve years later, those factors still impress even though the game no longer feels like the unstoppable adrenalin rush it once did. Just as the halls of your old primary school seem impossibly tiny through adult eyes, the speed rush of Wipeout now looks a lot more sedate. It's no slouch, of course, but what was once on the eye-popping cutting edge no longer looks quite so special. Luckily, it has its infamously fiendish tracks and precision gameplay to fall back on, and those still work like a charm.
Personally, I'd rather see Rollcage available for download but I suppose that doesn't have quite the same cultural cachet. Even so, a few quid for a legend like Wipeout is an absolute no-brainer. Snag it.