On the 24th of last month, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe sent out a birthday card and a discount voucher to its many registered PlayStation 2 owners, to celebrate the end of the console's first year on the market in Europe. When the PlayStation 2 launched on November 24th 2000, there were approximately 500,000 units available in Europe, approximately 50,000 of them to be found in the UK. They all went to pre-orders, just as their brothers and sisters had done in the USA a month previously. PlayStation 2 was a hot commodity, the follow-up to the enormously successful PlayStation console with the promise of more than double the power, and it sold on the strength of its predecessor's reputation.
Were it any other console, the PlayStation 2 might never have gotten off the ground. To put it bluntly, she had a less than stellar launch line-up, with disappointing sequels like Ridge Racer V and Tekken Tag Tournament joined by the likes of gimmicky puzzler Fantavision and a number of unremarkable sports titles. Amongst this crowd of also-rans a handful of titles stood out - TimeSplitters from Eidos, Dynasty Warriors 2 from Koei, Midnight Club and Smuggler's Run from Take 2, and SSX from EA's 'Big' label. But although they were critically acclaimed, these were not killer apps. This was a console unlike any other, and it would persist in selling off its predecessor's reputation for the rest of its launch year. By the end of 2000, Sony had shipped some 110,000 units in the UK and a larger number across Europe as a whole. New releases on the console included Dead or Alive 2 - arguably inferior to its 'Hardcore' Dreamcast sibling - and even more worthless sports remakes. The first few months of the PlayStation 2's life were tumultuous to say the least, filled with inexplicably large sales figures on the hardware side and fewer units on the software side. While the press ripped the console to shreds, it continued to sell despite the relative lack of quality games and a price point of £299.99.
The first few months of 2001 didn't see any improvement. Not until March did we have anything especially memorable, with Star Wars: Starfighter from LucasArts disproving the old theory that good games based on bad films don't happen. But it came in somewhat over its multi-million-dollar budget, and scarcely sold more than a handful of copies. Joining it at retail was a peculiar action-adventure game from Konami's legendary Hideo Kojima, ZOE. ZOE was an odd one, but it sold through the roof arguably because it shipped with a demo of Kojima-san's other PlayStation 2 project, Metal Gear Solid 2. Nevertheless, PS2 sales were slowing down, and the games that would actually sell the console didn't really start coming until the middle of 2001. At about this point Sony lost its main competitor, Sega, and with Nintendo's N64 floundering and Microsoft's Xbox many months off, PlayStation 2 had the market all to itself. After locking tusks with Sega over popular issues like online play though, Sony suddenly backed down and its interests (which as we learned later on involved hard disks and Telewest's blueyonder broadband service) would take a back seat to the software. To this date, PlayStation 2 remains a console for the local area lounge. June brought with it Sega's first big PlayStation 2 release, Crazy Taxi, which despite being identical to its Dreamcast predecessor sold through the roof. June also saw the release of an interesting turn-based strategy game from the school of Mecha, called Ring of Red, as well as the first person shooter Red Faction from Descent creators Volition. This enjoyed widespread success as one of the most innovative console action games since GoldenEye, despite apparently borrowing its entire premise from Schwarzenegger classic Total Recall. Despite a few successful launches though, eight months on the PlayStation 2 still lacked a killer app, with SSX and Red Faction amongst the few games that could arguably take up that position. It wasn't until July that Sony finally released a game that could sell the console on its strength alone, and that game was Gran Turismo 3.
GT3 was a monster of a game, comprising some of the most spectacular visuals of any video game ever, some of the most astoundingly addictive gameplay, and one of the most complete packages to boot. Launched in the blazing sun of a hot July Friday with the aid of supermodels and rock stars, Gran Turismo 3 looked set to pave the way for a golden era of PS2 sales. But whaddya know, it didn't. After a brief spike in hardware sales, the figure fell back to approximately 10,000 a week, just as it had been before the release of Gran Turismo 3. The high profile Capcom adventure Onimusha Warlords also shipped in July, but failed to make that crucial difference. Across the next two months, Sony's console would see the release of the excellent Extreme G3 Racing, the peculiar Dark Cloud from Sony and the first (and last) PS2 instalment of Capcom's never-ending survival horror series - Resident Evil: Code Veronica X. But things were shaping up for Christmas, and October would finally bring with it a game big enough to shoulder the burden of an entire industry… Grand Theft Auto III is the best video game ever made at this point in time, surpassing all others in terms of scope and execution. In the weeks following its release GTA3 sold thousands upon thousands of copies, and kick-started PS2 sales in the run up to Christmas. For once in the big black brick's life people were going out with their purse strings loosened with the sole intention of picking up a PlayStation 2 and a copy of its number one game, helped by the recent price drop of £100.
The Future's Bright
All of which leads us neatly back to the present day. In the last few weeks yet more Triple-A titles have materialized in the shape of Pro Evolution Soccer and Silent Hill 2, and for the animal in all of us THQ's brutal WWF Smackdown: Just Bring It! SSX Tricky, the phenomenal follow-up to the console's best launch title, and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 will shortly be joined by the likes of Half-Life, Jak & Daxter and Devil May Cry, and in the New Year we can look forward to ICO, Metal Gear Solid 2 and plenty more. A year on and selling for two thirds of its original price, now is definitely the time to own a PlayStation 2. It's more than a software argument, PlayStation 2 is the console industry in Europe for the moment in the absence of Nintendo and Microsoft, and it boasts a collection of incredibly fine games with more on the way. To say that the first year of the PS2's existence was a rollercoaster would be silly. The first year was a flatline compared to everything that had come before it. Consider the Mega Drive, the Saturn, the Dreamcast; all of these consoles experienced a major change in competition within their first year or so of existence, and then there were consoles like the Super Nintendo and later the original PlayStation, which were simply driven by software impetus. In the PS2's short lifespan, it has watched the competition crumble and increasingly inexplicable hardware sales driven by reputation and a certain amount of software intrigue. The battle is far from over, indeed it hasn't even started in Europe. The real success or failure of PlayStation 2 will be carved out of the year 2002. But with software development at the level it is now, it will be hard to prevent Sony from continuing on its rampage. As far as gamers are concerned though, it's all good… Happy Birthday PlayStation 2, and many happy returns of the day.