The best PS2 games - on PlayStation 2's 20th anniversary

20 years, 30 classics.

PlayStation 2 is 20 years old today; 4th March 2000 is the date of its Japanese release, although it wouldn't make it to the West until the end of the year. And what a way to kick off a new millennium - with a futuristic games console and (probably) a DVD of The Matrix.

At 155 million units sold, PS2 is the best-selling home console of all time, and during its time it enjoyed a hegemony over console gaming that hasn't been seen since. Part of that was down to its trailblazing predecessor and Sony's canny branding - classy, cool, and above all grown-up. Part of that was because it played the new DVD format relatively cheaply. But most of it was down to the console's astonishing software library, which matched quantity with quality all the way down. So many all-time greats made their debut on this machine, and so many creative, left-field gems too.

So it seemed like the only fair way to celebrate PS2's birthday was by running down 30 of our favourite games for it. What a machine!

(Quick pedantry note: we've avoided games that debuted first on other machines - sorry, Resident Evil 4 - but made an exception for Rez, because the PS2 version is by far the best.)

Beyond Good & Evil

A dreamy, European take on sci-fi that's more interested in giving you a camera than a gun, Beyond Good & Evil epitomised a new kind of action-adventure game. It was interested in places and people, delivering you to the anthropomorphised animal paradise of Hillys where canals are your main means of getting around and the local mechanics are all rhinos. A soulful classic.

Burnout 3: Takedown

The brilliance of the Burnout games is that they chart a single flaming idea from its origin to its ultimate incarnation - what if driving really badly was the best way of driving really well? Speeding, trading paint, hugging firmly to the contours of the oncoming lane, Burnout's never been better than it is in its third installment, when crash mode was joined by aftertouch takedowns. Beautiful.

Devil May Cry 3

The best Devil May Cry yet? Until 5 came along it was a clear case, and while there's not much to choose between Dante's 2005 outing and last year's entry you could make a convincing case for either. Devil May Cry 3 is Capcom action at its maximalist best, its depths still begging to be explored all these years later - and combat has certainly never looked cooler.

Dragon Quest 8

It'd be nice to say that this was the moment that Dragon Quest, perhaps Japan's most popular game series, finally broke the West but that's not quite true - though it wasn't for want of trying. A truly lavish production is wrapped around what is at heart - and what will forever be the case with a series as widely-loved as this in its native Japan - a very traditional JRPG. It might be too conservative for some, but know this - if it's a traditional JRPG you're after, they really don't get much better than this.

Final Fantasy 12

Many Final Fantasy diehards will insist that 10 is the pick from the PS2 era, or even its effervescent spin-off 10-2. It's true that 12, with its rather political plot, lacks some of the operatic sheen that people associate with Final Fantasy storylines. But it makes up for that with a revolutionary battle system, based on programmable Gambits, that upends everything you know about role-playing games. 14 years on, it's still one of a kind.

Freedom Fighters

You remember when the USSR invaded New York and a plumber had to save the day? Welcome to Freedom Fighters, a third-person shooter that's all about using your personal charisma to win over allies. As you might expect, the results are both gleefully stupid and absolutely wonderful.

Frequency

Before Guitar Hero came along and tore up the rhythm action rulebook - and was just as quickly torn down as it went from global headliner to near obscurity in the blink of an eye - Harmonix found its groove with Frequency. It's gloriously stark when compared to what followed, but it's also gloriously pure too - Frequency's pulsing lanes get you right to the heart of the music straight away, and as such it's as intoxicating to play now as it was back in its day.

Gitaroo Man

In contrast to Frequency's minimalist approach, sporting cool licensed music, Gitaroo Man belongs to the same lineage of music games as PaRappa and Ouendan - games that dared to tell (completely barmy) stories through frantic J-pop and intense rhythm action. This is still one of the most euphoric - and challenging - rhythm games ever made.

God Hand

I'm not sure you could ever get a game like God Hand today; effortlessly bonkers, it's Shinji Mikami and his team letting off steam after delivering the modern masterpiece that was Resident Evil 4. It's an energetic brawler that never lets up, with over-the-top action, non-stop gags and a scattershot style that can't sit still. The real reason you'd never get a game like God Hand today, though, is that drinking in excess while developing is kind of frowned upon these days.

God of War 2

Long before Kratos was a moody dad with a serious beard, he lived in these spry and witty slash-'em-ups that played brilliantly loose with the classical canon. Anger powered the hero, but the games themselves were in love with Harryhausen gimickry and scale-bending excess. And they were dazzling.

Gradius 5

The PS2 isn't short of good shooters, though they're all imbued with a kind of melancholy - this was the genre's last stand, in the mainstream at least, and there's a sense of finality to so many of them. R-Type Final put that upfront, but it's a bit more subtle in Gradius 5, a perfectly pitched retooling of that grand dame of shmups. Sadly, it wasn't just to be the end of high profile outings for the series - you could argue that it was developer Treasure's last truly great game too.

Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec

Really we should feature Gran Turismo 4 here; it's still an astonishing attempt to encapsulate all of motoring history in a single game, and is much better served for content and features than its predecessor. But it's GT3 that lingers in the memory as a defining game for PS2, with its gobsmacking, photoreal attract mode that must have sold many thousands of machines from TVs in shop windows.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

Without a doubt, Grant Theft Auto 3 is the most influential PS2 game - indeed, the most influential game of its entire era, whose presence is still felt in the dominance of open-world action games two decades later. But Vice City was the one that nailed GTA's potent, pungent pop-cultural formula, with is brash setting, perfect soundtrack needle drops and macho Miami Vice strut. GTA3 revolutionised game design, but Vice City revolutionised game attitude.

Gregory Horror Show

A game about semi-cute cardboard characters turns out to be anything but semi-cute when you spend some time with it. This is Capcom's skill at horror translated into a hideous Saturday morning cartoon. Can you survive an evening in this very strange house? Unlikely.

Ico

Ico's setting is so memorable it can take a minute or two to remember that there's a wonderful game in here too. A child explores a craggy tumbledown castle in the company of a ghostly girl. Dark spirits intrude and the sepulchral environments encourage strange interpretations. And the DualShock rumble has rarely been put to better use.

Magic Pengel: The Quest for Colour

Magic Pengel takes elements of Pokemon and the spirit of doodling to create a game in which you can draw monsters that then come to life. It's a wonderfully simple premise, and a bit of a surprise that nobody's really tried to build on it since.

Manhunt

Manhunt brilliant explores the murky links between violence and entertainment that most other games are happy to merely trade in. It's horrible and thought provoking and makes you do wretched things. It's a fascinating piece of work.

Metal Arms: Glitch in the System

No game has ever done plucky robots quite as well as Metal Arms, a platforming and combat game that occupies a warm place in the hearts of everyone who played it. Besides the innate loveability, there's a wonderful material reality to everything. This is the most metallic video game ever made. It's a corker.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Peak PS2 fever might have been the moment the dumbfounding trailer for Metal Gear Solid 2 dropped at E3 2000, after the Japanese launch but before the machine was available in the west. Such drama, such evocative cinematic visuals! And yet we still had no idea of the sucker punch Kojima had in store with the game's daring, protagonist-switching storyline. The following MGS3: Snake Eater might have been a technically deeper game, but this is Metal Gear at its most iconic.

Okami

PlayStation finally got its Zelda courtesy of Clover Studio, an incredibly creative Capcom outfit founded by Shinji Mikami, Atsushi Inaba and Hideki Kamiya. Kamiya's Okami is a stunning, sprawling adventure based on Japanese folklore and rendered in thick, inky brushstrokes and washes of watercolour on parchment. Mixing the irreverent wit that Clover and later Platinum would be known for with an aching soulfulness, it's a wonderful game and the pinnacle of the explosion of aesthetic creativity that marked out the PS2's later years.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Bloom has never been more beautifully deployed than in this brilliant updating of a nimble hero from the classic era of computer games. The prince's world is one of gravity-cheating platforming and skewer-heavy combat, and it's all delivered with ancient storytelling flair.

Pro Evolution Soccer 3

Picking a fave from the PS2-era PES games is a near-impossible task, though the momentum seemed strongest with Konami's football sim with the third entry, responsible for many a broken controller over late-night head-to-heads. It's hard to overstate how much of a revelation PES was back then, it's fluid football and insistence on real-world tactics a complete game-changer for the genre.

Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy

Do you want to set someone on fire or loft them through the air and throw them into the abyss? What not do both in this beautifully schlocky take on direct-to-video action films. You're a crewcut badass with all manner of magical mind powers. Carnage ensues.

Ratchet & Clank

Naughty Dog's Jak and Daxter games were the burnished, technically slick standard bearers for PS2 in the cartoon action game wars, but it is the scrappier Ratchet & Clank series by Insomniac that has lived on in the imagination (and in sequels and remakes). There's something about its colourful, gizmo-laden blasting that is refreshingly carefree, even (especially) after all these years.

Rez

It was a defining game for the Sega Dreamcast, but Tetsuya Mizuguchi's trippy journey into the machine actually got its definitive version on PlayStation 2, with smooth 60 frames per second visuals and the infamous, headline-grabbing Trance Vibrator accessory.

Second Sight

Along with Psi-Ops, Second Sight represents a high-water mark for games about psychic powers. Whereas Psi-Ops was a sandbox, however, Second Sight is a thriller with an ingenious source of narrative propulsion. Stick around for the twist.

Shadow of the Colossus

Fumito Ueda followed up Ico with a similarly haunting, even more imposing game: a kind of tragic boss-rush in which a young adventurer clambers over the bulk of a series of giant stone colossi, bringing them down for ends which may not justify the means. A mournful, soulful masterpiece.

Silent Hill 2

I could - and should - talk about how Silent Hill 2 remains the perfect mood piece, a convincingly eerie treatise on love and loss and mourning, but really the best reason to champion one of Konami's greatest games is its secret ending that reveals all of your troubles and strife have been the work of a shiba inu pulling the levers behind the scenes.

Sly Cooper

Cartoon platforming has rarely been as stylish as it is here, in a game that blends jumping around with generous stealth. What brings it all together is the charm of it - this is a comic book world filled with characters who are loveable and intriguing. And the sequels are brilliant too.

We Love Katamari

By rights, the first Katamari Damacy belongs in this list - Keita Takahashi's surrealist masterpiece, in which you have to roll objects into a ball, starting with paperclips and ending with planets, is an unrepeatable original. But then Namco asked him to repeat it, and the result was a hilariously grudging sequel that is almost a satire of its own making - as well as, arguably, a more enjoyable and refined game. (It also got a European release.)

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