The PlayStation 2 dominated the gaming landscape for the first seven years, at least, of this still-new millennium. The best-selling console in the world, Sony's successor to its breakthrough original PlayStation shifted over 150 million units between its 2000 launch and official discontinuation in early 2013. Thirteen years at the top, fending off stiff competition from the likes of SEGA, Nintendo, and Microsoft.
The PS2 was host to perhaps the most diverse gaming library of all time, one that respected the past but always had an eye on the future. Like its predecessor, the system represented a new platform for bigger, more ambitious games, and a space for more experimental titles. Naturally, there are games that everybody remembers, huge hits that in their own ways altered the course of gaming history—Grand Theft Auto III, anyone? But it's the amazing array of experiences that the console offered that comprises its true legacy, something that this article is designed to celebrate.
So no, there's none of your usual suspects listed below. No games from the Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, or GTA series. They've been covered so thoroughly already that we'd merely be retreading old ground; and besides, you know they're good enough to still be enjoyed today. Titles in the Jak and Daxter and Ratchet and Clank series had their highs, but none of them could hold a candle to Nintendo's 3D platforming at its best. Sure, they might have been important to you at the time. That's okay. You didn't know any better.
These games are flashbacks to a simpler time, when playing with friends online didn't mean risking abuse from angry teenagers on another continent entirely. A time when a day-one patch was something you sewed onto a new jacket. A time when Nolan North was just another voice actor. Microtransactions? Nope, no idea what you're talking about. PS2s are filthy cheap to pick up, and while you can still pay a premium for some of the games highlighted here, really, what would you rather play: another Assassin's Creed, or the uniquely surreal celebration of violence that is God Hand?
(If you seriously went for Assassin's Creed, maybe go read something else.)
Gradius V (2004)
Gradius was a genre-defining arcade shoot 'em up of the 1980s. Its fourth sequel, developed by Treasure and published by Konami, is part evolution and part tribute to what came before it. Featuring more control over "Options," glowing orbs that mimic your every move, along with custom weapon loadouts, it nevertheless retains the spirit of classic Gradius, and is a pure test of your reactions. Even over a decade on, it looks utterly stunning. This is likely to be the last numbered Gradius, but what a title to go out on.
Contra: Shattered Soldier (2002)
Like Gradius V, this is another Konami update, and a canonical sequel to the SNES classic Contra III: The Alien Wars. Shattered Soldier provided a subtle twist on the classic run-and-gun gameplay, introducing a skill-based rating system to an already significant challenge. Its gritty visuals were complemented by a soundtrack by Akira Yamaoka (composer on several Silent Hill games) and Sota Fujimori, mixing chugging guitars with pounding techno. Cruelly ignored upon its release, this is up there with the series' best.
Persona 4 (2008)
I swore off JRPGs in the PS1 days. But Persona 4 broke through my genre prejudice and kept me invested in its murder mystery, making me nostalgic for a time I never lived in. I could write about its series of interlocking systems involving friendship, tarot cards, and a combat tactic that's basically someone shouting "BUNDLE." But, y'know, word count. It'd be a disservice to not also mention the captivatingly quirky art direction and the quality of storytelling. I came to love its routine of high school and part-time work punctuated with dungeon crawling and days out with a wonderfully realized cast. And the music is lush, too.
Silent Hill 2 (2001)
Cards on the table: in my opinion, this is the finest horror game of all time. I know YouTubers, and their viewers, love the jump scares; but James Sunderland's descent into hell still stands tall. The original Silent Hill's ambitions stretched beyond the PS1's technical reach, but it was still a genuinely unnerving experience. Its PS2 sequel was the nightmare fully realized. Silent Hill 2 still looks damn fine despite its age, and Akira Yamaoka's incredible sound design perfectly complements the creepy visuals. The controls aren't great and combat is functional at best, but the game's power lies in its compelling story, expertly woven, handling mature topics gracefully, and having player actions lead to consequences in meaningful ways long before Telltale's adventure titles became popular. Skip over the botched HD edition and play survival horror's greatest masterpiece how it was meant to be, on the original hardware.
Devil May Cry 3 (2005)
Dante, the protagonist of DMC 3, is a cock. A great big swaggering cock. But, he's the kind of cock who can perform amazingly acrobatic feats. And when this game's combat finally clicks into place, you'll be skating on demon's backs across the floor with guns blazing. Ninja Theory's DmC reboot of 2013 wisely elected not to compete with this installment's deep combat, which even after Platinum's Bayonetta remains the pinnacle of hacking and slashing.
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God Hand (2006)
A niche gem that was criminally misunderstood by some on its release, God Hand is Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami's wholly unique take on the walk-along beat 'em up, mixing broad humor with strategic combat. The unusual camera angle placed behind the player-controlled Gene means you have to keep aware of all that's around you, but get used to it and this game just sings. Today's crop of all-action games are mostly so far up their own asses that it's hard to care about any inventive systems at play; God Hand, though, is refreshingly free of pretension. It gleefully throws razor-sharp wit, inspired ideas, and vibrant color at the player. Gears of War wants you to empathize with a group of grunting animated meat men. In God Hand, you punch a Luchador gorilla repeatedly in the face. No contest.
Shadow of Memories (2001)
Out of all the games on this list, Shadow of Memories has aged the worst. Even back in 2001, it looked a little ropey and can be incredibly confusing to play. However, its storytelling ambitions cannot be denied. It's a densely plotted time-traveling tale where you play Eike, a man attempting to prevent his own murder by hopping back and forth through several eras, and another PS2 game where the player's actions have far-reaching consequences.
The Thing (2002)
Coming 20 years after the famed John Carpenter movie, The Thing is at heart a decent squad-based shooter. But its ingenuity lies with the way it successfully intertwines the film's mystery and paranoia with its gameplay. Team members react to you depending on their level of trust, and can be infected at almost any time, quickly becoming a formidable foe. A similar trust mechanic was also built into SEGA's underrated 2012 shooter Binary Domain. To be honest, you're probably better off playing that, unless you're a real horror buff.
Guitar Hero II (2006)
The boom-bust lifespan of rhythm games makes it hard to remember just how ground breaking the original Guitar Hero was. For me though, its sequel was when the series really became essential, adding much-needed practice and co-op modes. Harmonix's amazing character and environment work really showed off the PS2's capabilities, but naturally the tracklist was what made the game. Guitar Hero II's on-disc selection combined the populist and the obscure with Nirvana, Foo Fighters, and Rage Against the Machine sitting alongside Reverend Horton Heat, Lamb of God, and The Butthole Surfers.
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God of War (2005) and God of War II (2007)
The first chapter of Kratos' epic quest of titan slaying and making angry faces may look like a Devil May Cry rip-off on first glance. But the hugely accessible yet satisfying combat mixed with puzzles and platforming mark God of War as its own beast. It's not particularly original, granted, but every aspect of the game's executed with some real flair, all of it taking place across some stunningly rich and vibrant environments that push the PS2 to its limits. Both the original and its 2007 sequel were huge technical achievements for their time and since it's hard to recommend one over the other, why not give them both a spin? (Does that count? Is this cheating?)
With Ico, director Fumita Uedo stripped everything about video games back and reached new heights of creativity for the medium. Its stark minimalism and atmosphere of isolation made for a more meditative experience than you'd expect to find in games. Its take on the age old rescue-the-princess plot was fresh and bold, leading up to one of the most affecting moments in interactive entertainment. Many developers have tried to recapture the magic of Ico and its spiritual sequel Shadow of the Colossus (which you should play too, as we explained over here). Only thatgamecompany's Journey has really managed it, although who knows what Uedo's The Last Guardian will finally deliver.
Timesplitters 2 (2002)
TimeSplitters, developed by former Rare staffers, was the PS2's take on GoldenEye 007 that focused on pure gunplay, throwing in an assortment of multiplayer options and challenges as well as the option to create your own maps. The sequel improves on the original in every way with 125 playable characters, customizable story missions, and link-up multiplayer. Over a decade on, its stylized looks have aged incredibly well, a colorful antidote to today's gritty FPS games. In a just world, we'd all be running around as cowboys/girls, robots, and man-sized ducks online instead of bland, white, shootymen. This is not a just world.
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