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PlayStation Classic Console
Gaming Reviews

PlayStation Classic Console

A lackluster game selection and poor emulation make this PlayStation throwback a mediocre cash grab.

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If you’ve ever found yourself strolling along one of the busy, packed-like-sardine like streets of just about every Chinatown in the world – or for you industry types, the seedier, yet more interesting sections of a show like CES – you’ll no doubt recall the sheer number of videogame console bootlets, knockoffs, fakes and other fraudulent emulator-backed “collection consoles” on display. These would be those self-contained machines, packed to the gills with tons ‘o games, encased in a plastic shell that plugged directly into your television for immediate gaming satisfaction.

Needless to say, few people who took gaming seriously took these oddities seriously, especially as most were either cheap knockoffs or stacked with forgettable titles from forgettable platforms. So it’s amazing how one of the more remarkable transformations in recent years was how Nintendo, right in the middle of selling us hybrid home/mobile Switch consoles, managed to make plug ‘n plays – normally stocked in discount marts and convenience stores – respectable. Given the subject we’re going to talk about here, the one that immediately springs to mind is last year’s SNES Classic.

Had the history of Nintendo’s 16-bitter followed its plotted course things would have turned out very differently for the Super Nintendo, and Sony’s PlayStation. For starters, the latter would have never existed, at least not in the recognizable form the PlayStation Classic attempts to exploit. As much as it pains me to say it,

TL;DR

If you’re just interested in knowing whether or not you should pick up the PlayStation Classic, skip this section entirely. It’s full of history and ruminations, not solid facts about the crassness of the PS Classic’s miscalculations or details about its poor software emulation.

It’s hard to imagine such a scenario today, but back in the early years of the 1990s the gaming landscape was clogged with junk. Sure, some of it was highly entertaining junk (#3DO) but junk nonetheless. Just years after Nintendo managed to piece the gaming industry back together with the NES, it sure looked like another catastrophe was on the horizon as the impending generational shift was overflowing with pretenders to the throne, a hodgepodge of interesting and total failures that included such ignobles like the Amiga CD32, Pioneer LaserActive, Phillips CD-i (more on this turd below) and the Atari Jaguar (both with or without its toilet-shaped CD attachment) to name a few.

The list is too long and too hilarious to dredge up here, but those curious to learn more should check out Evan Amos’ decent photographic retrospective on the subject, The Game Console. Failure never looked so good!

“CD-ROM” was quickly tagged The Next Big Thing, a trend both Sega and Nintendo desperately wanted in on. Sega, unfortunately, introduced a glut of mediocre hardware enhancements that helped turn their beloved Genesis into a Voltron-like monstrosity of plastic fiascos (Genesis + CD + 32X = Meh), setting up a downward spiral that would lead to their inevitable exit from the console business entirely. Their failure to homogenize the ‘SEGA’ brand would help pave the way for Sony’s eventual arrival as gaming’s more consistent, stabilizing force. I won’t get into the details here, but research the launches of both the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation to see a masterclass is executing a perfect introduction of a new game platform.

At one time, Nintendo had similar designs to enhance their Super Famicom/Nintendo – they included an expansion port right underneath for that very reason. The goal would be to introduce a powerful 32-bit CD-ROM attachment that would extend the life of the console, all while reducing the costs of producing games from expensive cartridge to penny-cheap CDs. For this, they sought help from Sony, the leader in home electronics at the time. The name of this hypothetical videogame dream machine? The Nintendo PlayStation.

Long story short: things didn’t go as planned. Nintendo fudged on the deal, instead partnering with Sony rival Philips for the Philips CD-i, whose hardware and software offerings were so catastrophically insipid they continue to serve as cautionary tales. Sony, on the other hand, took Nintendo’s betrayal in stride and struck out on their own. The result was a complete rebirth of the gaming industry, forged in their own corporate image, that we continue to live and play inside to this day.

Design + Hardware:

Let’s talk about the design of the PS Classic – can you say ADORABLE? Thank goodness Sony opted for Ken Kutaragi’s original design and not the smaller, yet also quite adorable PS one variant that came later in its development. There’s just something to the original PlayStation that remains so elegant and alluring, unlike the recent PlayStation 4 with its jarring, unnecessary angles; it’s an iconic design that remains so. The PS Classic is also incredibly tiny (a big factor in its adorableness), housed in a roughly 6” x 4” x 1” frame roughly 80 percent smaller than the original.

Aesthetically, the PS Classic looks pretty much just like the original PlayStation did at launch, minus any of its original AV/power cables or propriety cords. You’ve got an HDMI port for those now, and there’s no CD lid, of course; that large “OPEN” button is mostly cosmetic – though some games prompt you to ‘change discs’ by pressing it. Nearly everything uses USB ports, including the console itself with a single micro-USB port and both controller ports. Just make sure you’ve got an extra USB power brick handy as Sony went cheap, unlike Nintendo, by not including one in the package.

Speaking of controllers, Sony was kind enough to include two reproductions of the original PlayStation controller in the box. These aren’t DualShocks, mind you, so no fancy analog sticks or rumbles are here to help smooth things out when you’d like them to. I’m perfectly fine with this as the controllers look and feel just like they should, with generous five foot cables connecting controller to console. Actually, this is the one – and only one – area the PS Classic bests its Nintendo counterparts.

Hardware-wise, however, the PS Classic has nothing in common with its namesake. Powering its internals are a Quad-Core ARM Cortex-A35 processor, which will become very important for all those tech-heads here very shortly when we talk about software performance and how the actual games run – or don’t run – like they should. The Classic limits its visual output to 720p resolution, not a bad choice given the age of the software.

There’s not much to speak of with regards to the Classic’s interface, if you can really call it that. Rather than take the hyper-stylized, celebratory path Nintendo chose with their retro consoles the Classic opts for minimalism – as in sparse. Power the system on and you’ll hear the familiar PS ‘boot up’ music before entering the main menu system, which appears to have aped the original PlayStation interface colors for its shades of blue and menu prisms. It’s not unattractive, but it’s clear no effort was made to give the PS Classic any modern styling or zing – fonts are chunky pixels while the game boxes themselves, curiously, are the only hi-resolution items in the entire package.

You’ll select one of the 20 available games in a circular rotating carousel that demonstrates, once again, just how little effort was put into this product: you’ll get the game’s name, publisher, year of release and number of players. Modern collections, especially digital-only ones like Capcom’s Mega Man Legacy or the Street Fighter Anniversary Collections, usually load up on facts, interesting trivia, miscellaneous artwork or other package-expanding goodies that help put their games in historical perspective. We’ve got nothing like that here indicating why these games were chosen, or what made them special.

The only other options available are Settings, Guides, Memory Card (all virtualized, of course) and the single Resume Point available per game. Who thought the original PS memory card system was so cool they based an entire UI around its gaudy colors? The system settings barely qualify as settings as there’s nothing for you to customize or change here, apart from a power saver option.

One button, tantalizingly labeled “Guides”, offers nothing more than a QR-code URL to the Classic’s own webpage and a ‘guide’ how to use the Classic itself. You’d think there might be useful info on the games, maybe even some digital strategy guides or helpful game-centric hints or pointers. You’d be wrong for assuming any care or love was put into such a mediocre product. At least one of the included games, Metal Gear Solid, requires a specific piece of information listed on the back of original game’s box – which you don’t have access to here.

Emulation Miscalculation

The PS Classic is, essentially, just low-powered mobile hardware inside an adorable PS shell, meaning there’s no CD playback available; don’t laugh as the box makes this clear! Instead of optical media the games utilize an emulator called PCSX ReARMed, a reworked version of the popular open-source PCSX software designed to function with ARM hardware (hence the name). Fans of gaming history will note the irony of Sony now endorsing PS emulation when twenty years ago they’d have sued these guys out of existence. Remember Bleem!?

Regardless, the choice of emulator shouldn’t have been that big a deal; PlayStation emulator, especially of the first-generation PS hardware, is one of the most well-documented and widely available emulation efforts out there. It’s basically been perfected, which makes the rationale for Sony using shoddy software like PCSX ReARMed so disappointing. I won’t get into all the technical issues here, but let’s just say that many of the included games don’t look, function or even sound like they should. One could easily forgive the lackluster effort put into the Classic’s interface or bonus features had the games ran properly as they should.

It won’t take long to realize something’s not right with how the PS Classic recreates the experience of how these games originally looked and played. Even without knowing why, I could sense things weren’t right within minutes of booting up Tekken 3. The game felt…off. Controls felt unresponsive, almost as if there were input lag that simply didn’t exist when the game was released twenty years ago. Ridge Racer didn’t fare much better as the game looked noticeably worse that it originally did, and I’m sure as shinola that Final Fantasy VII’s soundtrack never slowed down.

Worse still, nearly half of the games use their European PAL versions, which only further degrades the experience as the Euro standard’s 50Hz is dragged, kicking and screaming, into the PS Classic’s quicker 60Hz output. This results in jittery visuals, inaccurate lag input and even slowdown in both gameplay and music (!). Yes, in the year 2018 we’re still dealing with poor replications of games released over 20 years ago. It’s disappointing as these games – even the less memorable ones – deserve better. If you really want to dig into the nitty-gritty about just how poorly the PS Classic emulates these games check out Digital Foundry’s comprehensive look on their YouTube Channel.

Poor emulation aside, there are other issues with how the PS Classic presents its games to users. Which it does with minimum effort. Again, I hate to keep bringing up rival hardware but Nintendo’s include a wide range of options that help modernize their game libraries without compromising their authenticity. Each game has four individual save spots, rewind features (for those ‘uh oh!’ moments) and, of course, a nice assortment of fidelity options to make the older titles look better on modern displays. Did I forget the incredibly playful menu system, complete with era-appropriate background music?

On the PS Classic, however, the cupboard is entirely bare, which is both disappointing and embarrassing. Each game is limited to a single ‘resume’ spot for those times you need to leave in a hurry. And…that’s it. There’s nothing else. There’s no options to make any of the games look or perform better here, which given the poor emulation sure would have been nice.

Games, Games…Games?

As with any plug ‘n play console you’re limited to a set number of available games and the PS Classic includes 20, and chances are you’ll like at least a few of them. Honestly, it’s not a terrible collection, but it’s not great, either. A compilation of what’s not here actually reads like a better, more appropriate list of actual PlayStation ‘classics’ that would have offered a more accurate snapshot of what users were actually playing when the PlayStation was still churning out active blockbusters. Maybe big franchises began their adventures here, or in some cases experienced franchise rebirths.

It wouldn’t be difficult to imagine a selection of games that better represented the PlayStation’s legacy than the mish-mash catalog offered here. A quick look at the Wiki page for the PlayStation’s greatest (and greatest selling) really brings this point home. Missing games include: Crash Bandicoot, PaRappa the Rapper, Spyro the Dragon, Tomb Raider, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, DOOM, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Wipeout, Soul Blade, Bust A Groove, Suikoden, Medal of Honor…the list goes on and on. We don’t even get Gran Turismo, the best-selling PlayStation game of all-time. What’s more galling is many of these games were released by Sony themselves, and could (nay, should) have been considered for inclusion here.

Can you imagine Nintendo releasing their Classic consoles without Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Donkey Kong Country or Kid Icarus? Well, you don’t have to because they weren’t that foolish. It’s best you don’t agonize over what’s not included with the PS Classic, because when you think about how poorly the games that did make the cut function, maybe being left off the list was a blessing in disguise.

I’ve separated the available games into two groups: launch titles and heavy-hitters, for obvious reasons. I won’t go into great detail here, but know that when the original PS launched (outside of Japan) back in 1995 these games meant something to audiences unaccustomed to seeing advanced polygonal graphics in their homes. Even if the actual games’ themselves didn’t live up to their futuristic potential, they sure did look futuristic.

Launch Titles:
Battle Arena Toshinden, Jumping Flash, Rayman, Twisted Metal, Destruction Derby

Heavy-Hitters:
Final Fantasy VII, Wild Arms, Persona, Tekken 3, Ridge Racer Type 4, Resident Evil: Director’s Cut, Metal Gear Solid, Cool Boarders 2, Grand Theft Auto, Intelligent Qube, Mr. Driller, OddWorld: Abe’s Oddysee, Syphon Filter, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six

Was Battle Arena Toshinden as good as Sega’s competing Virtua Fighter? Ha! Not even close. But it did have S&M doms and gameplay ‘close enough’ to Street Fighter to make it work. Likewise, we had the Super Mario-esque charms of the original Rayman (saved from obscurity – it was originally developed for the Atari Jaguar), as well as the first true PlayStation megahit with Twisted Metal.

Honestly, that list of heavy-hitters hits pretty damn hard, though it’s loaded with caveats that potential buyers should consider. Many are rightfully considered true classics and deserve recognition, but they also deserve better treatment than this.

Square’s Final Fantasy 7 was a game-changer – literally – that would help reshape the industry in critical ways while Capcom’s Resident Evil would become the template for all survival-horror games. Konami’s Metal Gear Solid was a revelation when it was released and (mostly) survives the Classic’s unfortunately poor presentation – though we can’t say the same about the lack of DualShock vibration support and the missing box art.

Opinions may be divided on Sony’s Wild Arms and Atlus’ Revelations: Persona relevance today (though both remain JRPG highlights) but each offers substantial value. Unsurprisingly, Capcom’s Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo and Namco’s Mr. Driller are both pretty great as puzzle games seem tailor-made for plug ‘n play consoles like this, as does Sony’s I.Q.: Intelligent Qube with its minimalistic visuals.

Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six may have started a franchise juggernaut, but the original game was a poor choice for inclusion here, as was Sony’s own Syphon Filter. Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto isn’t the GTA you’re thinking of – or looking for. Again, poor emulation makes these versions inferior to their original counterparts, often devastatingly so. Namco’s Tekken 3 becomes nearly unplayable due to input lag and mushy performance that wasn’t present in the original game while poor Ridge Racer suffers from jittery visuals that don’t do those 20 year-old polygons any favors.

Personally, Ridge Racer Type 4 is my pick for best of the bunch; it’s still my all-time favorite racer and just hearing that amazing soundtrack again brought back the feels. As did OddWorld, a game I hadn’t thought about in years, and yet only minutes after booting up did I start recalling every single hilarious, morbid detail about Abe and his infectious “Abe-speak” like it was yesterday. Did you know there was a gorgeous remake of this game just a few years ago called Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty? Hello! Follow Me! Okay!

I’d wager the reason for the PlayStation Classic’s high retail price has everything to do with licensing fees for many of these games, an unavoidable reality given how much the original PlayStation was so reliant on third-party support.

Also Missing:

More than any console before it, perhaps owing to its parent company, the PlayStation was a multimedia gaming powerhouse that made you feel like you were experiencing the future of gaming. That Sony, with all their corporate powers, would decide to release such an incomplete product adorned with the PlayStation brand is troubling. It wouldn’t take that much imagination to see how much better the PS Classic might have been, and do so without adding to its already inflated asking price.

So what else could have been included? How about viewable gaming guides for some of the games, especially those more complex JRPGs or intense action epics? Or maybe some basic metadata on the games, some screenshots, video trailers, anything at all really.

Or how about a selection of Sony’s famous media blitz (U R Not E) showcasing the PlayStation’s place in gaming history? Or maybe a video retrospective about the history of the PlayStation itself, with some of its hardware or early software developers reminiscing about how much Sony helped push the gaming industry forward with a console that felt more sophisticated than anything else. Heck, we see YouTube stars create content like this all the time – some of it very good. If asked, they probably would have given their content to Sony in exchange for a console.

Any of these would have helped distinguish the PS Classic from the competition and wouldn’t have cost much to produce. A little brand-awareness would have done wonders to help smooth over some of the PS Classic’s most egregious missteps. Even bargain-bin DVDs usually include a few special features with their terrible movies.

Conclusion: Stay Away!

The PlayStation Classic is ghastly piece of trickery, easily the least enjoyable experience I’ve ever had with an alleged “PlayStation” product. It’s such a fundamental failure, in every way that matters, it steals the title from the PlayStation TV as the worst use of the PS Brand. Whereas Nintendo found a nearly-perfect balance between authentically retro – with a dash of modernity – in reviving their 8/16-bit legacies, Sony’s effort feels cheap and exploitative, almost as if nobody involved in its production gave a damn about what made the original PlayStation so special. This should have been a celebration of an iconic gaming console; instead, it’s just a cash-grab, and not a good one. Like a kidney stone – even an adorable kidney stone – this one’s a hard pass.