With the arrival of the PlayStation 2 in 2000, Sony further cemented the notion that gaming was for people of all ages.
While games like PaRappa the Rapper 2 and Ape Escape 2 were no doubt aimed at a younger audience, more cinematic releases such as God of War and Silent Hill 2 were laden with violence and sex. And more power meant that developers could create bigger worlds with more complex gameplay mechanics. The result was a hugely varied line-up that helped to make Sony’s magic black rectangle the best-selling console of all time.
Needless to say, the PS2 is an iconic console. And, decades later, it’s recognised as the home of some of the finest games ever made. Whatever floats your gaming boat, chances are you’ll find something to occupy your time on PS2; from RPGs you can get lost in to “play in the dark if you dare” horror classics.
Here’s our take on the 10 best PS2 games of all time. Read on, and when you inevitably disagree hit us up on Twitter @Game_Spew and state the case for your favourites.
1. Burnout 3 Takedown
Now that pretty much every console game runs in 1080p and 60fps, it’s hard to convey just how thrilling the speed of Burnout 3 Takedown was back in 2004. Even before you hit the boost button, the world sped by in an impressionist blur. And when you did, things got so quick that the result was a beautifully pure adrenaline rush.
Even now, Burnout 3 Takedown is an absolutely thrilling game, its beautifully balanced mechanics (risky driving plus making other racers crash equals the boost you’ll need for first place) making you constantly drive on the very limits of your control, dodging traffic and drifting round corners as you hunt down your rivals. And the inevitable collisions were glorious, almost balletic symphonies of twisted metal that were so satisfying they got their own mode.
If any experience defines the soul of Burnout, it’s Crash Mode: a hedonistic quest to cause as much destruction as possible that initially feels straightforward, but quickly requires careful strategy to make sure that you get that ricochet into the oil tanker just right. Burnout 3 Takedown is quite simply one of the best racing games ever made.
2. Silent Hill 2
A Japanese take on the mysteries of small town America and a psychological horror that thoroughly interrogates its protagonist’s sanity, Silent Hill 2 is pretty much universally acknowledged as one of the best PS2 games and one of the finest horror games of all time.
Much of that acclaim is due to the fact that rather than favouring jump scares, this survival horror classic concentrates on creating atmosphere and telling a corkscrewing narrative with multiple endings that leave you questioning whether any of the events depicted actually took place at all.
Taking place in a town perpetually shrouded in fog, you’re never quite sure what lies ahead of you, with iconic monsters such as Pyramid Head representing a different part of aforementioned protagonist James Sunderland’s personality. Through these grotesque monstrosities and other side characters, the game explores adult subject matter that most developers would shy away from even now, including James’ guilt regarding his wife’s death, incest and sexual abuse. All of this produces a remarkably unsettling experience that stays with you long after the credits roll.
Related: The Silent Hill games, ranked from worst to best
3. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Looking back, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was a remarkable game; both a reboot of a series whose original entry came out in 1989 and a game that felt incredibly modern, with balletic combat, intricate puzzles and a central mechanic that still feels revolutionary.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, you see, granted you the power to rewind time. Simply hit L1, spool back a few seconds and you’d get another go at that tricky bit of platforming. Attributed to the power of the prince’s mythical dagger, you also got other opportunities to mess with the laws of physics, such as freezing enemies before you cut them in two.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear to see that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time also laid the groundwork for the Uncharted series that has defined subsequent PlayStation eras. Both feature a charismatic protagonist wooing a complicated love interest while battling to save the world, and have gameplay that shifts between platforming, puzzles and combat. They also both have plots that mix history with the supernatural.
In its day, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was an utterly gorgeous, fluid, ultra dynamic adventure that, way before Nathan Drake, boasted thrilling set pieces and the sort of emotional big-screen storytelling that has enabled games to truly gatecrash the mainstream.
4. SSX Tricky
SSX Tricky was gloriously bonkers, a snowboarding game that revelled in the sheer ludicrousness of it all.
More of an update of the first game than a true sequel, it added a few new tracks, rejigged a few courses and introduced Uber moves – truly incredible feats of gymnastics that included tricks like “guillotine air”, where the board spun round where the rider’s neck should be. Needless to say, realism was not really a word in SSX Tricky‘s vocabulary, and this love of technicolour excess gave the game its charm. The defining track was Tokyo Megaplex, a mind bending festival of neon and garishly coloured snow that was inspired by a pinball machine, and was full of opportunities to soar into the air with the greatest of ease.
After Tricky, SSX continued to evolve, with SSX 3 set in an open world on a single mountain and a reboot in 2012 incorporating real world locations and taking it all a bit more seriously. It’s this game though that feels like the pure essence of the series, a game where nothing got in the way of hurtling down a mountain and pulling off the craziest stunts you can in the compelling hunt for that elusive gold medal.
Bully (or Canis Canem Edit in the UK) is one of Rockstar’s most beloved titles for one simple reason: it’s set in and around a fictional American boarding school, and therefore has a charming, low-key feel that contrasts sharply with the city-spanning criminality of the GTA titles or even the epic Wild West shootouts of the Red Dead games.
In Bully you get the opportunity to do all the naughty stuff you never dared to do when you were actually at school. While you’re generally on the side of good, it’s often hard to resist the temptation to roam the halls giving wedgies and throwing stink bombs at whoever you deem a deserving target. But no matter what you get up to, in comparison with most of Rockstar’s output, it all feels rather quaint – a world of cut lips, embarrassment and being sent to the principal’s office instead of bullet wounds, explosions and jail. You even have to go to lessons, with the subjects tasking you with everything from creating words from given letters (English) to dissecting a frog (Biology), and successful completion giving you various new abilities.
Rockstar may have developed some of the best games in history, but their greatest achievement might be that they made it fun to go to school.
6. Final Fantasy X
In all senses of the word, Final Fantasy X was a big game. It cost around $32.3 million to develop, compared with an average PS2 development cost of $5-$10 million.
It told an epic story over approximately 50 hours. And it took on big philosophical themes like the necessity of change and, ultimately, the meaning of life itself. That it managed to do this while cramming in everything everyone loves about JRPGs – eccentric characters, massively OTT boss battles and wacky minigames – sums up just why the genre is such a perennial favourite. It looked gorgeous too, with picture-postcard white sand beaches and fights against hulking behemoths pushing the PS2 to its absolute limits.
While much of the plot was fairly standard good vs evil stuff, how the story was told was very different, as Final Fantasy X was not only the first game in the series to use 3D areas instead of pre-rendered backdrops, but also the first to have voice acting. Beyond these headlines though, there’s a sense throughout the game that the development team wanted to redefine the series, to make bold new creative decisions and produce a Final Fantasy that felt different from those that had gone before. They did exactly that, and made a beloved game that proudly stands as not only one of the best PS2 games ever released, but also one of the greatest RPGs of all time.
Related: Check out our review of Final Fantasy X | X-2 HD Remaster
7. Gran Turismo 4
The Gran Turismo series is the sim to end all sims, a procession of games whose objective has been to unerringly replicate just how it feels to drive a race car (or, in Gran Turismo 4, one of 700 race cars).
Everything that affects how a car drives in the real world must also be present in the game, from the oversteer/understeer generated by different cars to the subtle undulations of different tracks. Play with a wheel and pedals and it really does feel like you’re driving a car, with the success of this endeavour underlined by the GT Academy, which turns the Gran Turismo elite into real world racers.
For many, Gran Turismo 4 is still a high point for the series, a racing game that looked stunning and whose representation of racing felt real, with a visceral intensity coming from a frankly demented attention to detail. There were licenses that had to be studied for, a career that took you from racing hatchbacks to driving some of the finest cars ever made, and a genuine sense that this was a game that would consume your life if you let it. For petrol heads and anyone who’s ever wondered just how it actually feels to drive a supercar at 200mph, Gran Turismo 4 was simply irresistible.
8. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
There’s a real argument that both Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 deserve a place on this list.
Both are among the greatest games ever made and, taken together, beautifully illustrate the limitless creativity of Hideo Kojima. They are also hugely different from each other. Metal Gear Solid 2 is an intelligent Hollywood blockbuster, a game of grand spectacle and a sprawling plot that takes in everything from vast global conspiracies to social engineering and the nature of truth. Metal Gear Solid 3 is set in the sixties, takes place in the jungle, includes a camo index that shows how well hidden you are, and has a sniper boss fight that can literally take hours (or be avoided entirely by not playing for a week). It’s a compelling arthouse flick. So, whichever you choose as your favourite ultimately comes down to personal preference.
Obviously it was Metal Gear Solid 2 that made the cut for our list of the best PS2 games. Why? Because there’s something almost indefinitely glorious about it; the sneaking around, the endless searching lights of enemy guards, the achingly cinematic boss fights, and the sense that this is a game utterly confident in itself, one that’s on a mission to redefine what a video game story can be. It is quite simply one of the greatest games of all time and a title that shaped game development for years, if not decades, to come.
9. God of War II
A bloodthirsty carnival of swirling blades and dismembered foes, God of War II built on its outstanding predecessor by adopting what could be called the maximalist approach. Basically, more was better.
There were more boss fights and they were bigger and more epic than ever, there were more weapons which gave you more ways to dispatch your hapless foes, and new magic abilities made combat feel more dynamic. Amid the bloodshed and carnage though, God of War II also found room for character development, with the protagonist Kratos’s physical strength matched by his mental fragility. Tortured by memories of his slain wife and children, he fights for revenge because he feels he has nothing else left to fight for, because he has already lost that which he truly cherished.
In a game defined by its combat system, the ultimate calling card was its boss fights, titanic encounters (in some cases literally) that saw Kratos pitted against enemies many times his size with hulking health bars that needed to be worn down before they were finally dispatched with graceful feats of brutal violence. Thrilling, compelling and moving in equal measure, God of War II was a title that defined the PS2 era and had an enduring impact on everyone that played it.
10. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Grand Theft Auto 3 is probably the most influential game of all time. It conjured a living, breathing city and let gamers take it in at their own pace.
Go wherever you want and do whatever you want was the simple message, and this development brought game worlds to life like never before. Grand Theft Auto Vice City, though, bettered its predecessor in every single way, taking the open world framework and filing it vibrant colour, a host of memorable characters and a bunch of great 80s music.
The silent protagonist of Grand Theft Auto 3 was replaced by Tommy Vercetti, a classic mafioso that burst off the screen and was the perfect foil for discovering all that Vice City had to offer, from cruising the neon-drenched streets to flying planes and taking over the criminal underworld. And everywhere you went was packed with period detail; the girls roller skating by the beach, the Haitian gangsters in lowriders, the suits with rolled up sleeves, and the all pervading sense that excess was a way of life in this hedonistic paradise.
In its often OTT nature, its stunning sunsets, its superb soundtrack and its compelling character development, Grand Theft Auto Vice City encapsulated everything that was great about PS2 gaming and comprehensively raised the bar for everything that followed. Simply put, it was the PS2 game.