PlayStation 2 on PlayStation 4: The Good, the Bad, the Plain Ol' Ugly

PlayStation 2 on PlayStation 4: The Good, the Bad, the Plain Ol' Ugly

Curious about the new old games on PS4? There's good news, and a little bit of bad.

It had been rumored for a while, but the arrival of PlayStation 2 games on PlayStation 4 immediately following Sony's PlayStation Experience keynote presentation this past weekend nevertheless came as something of a surprise. Sort of.

Surprising: The first wave of releases mostly consists of high-quality third-party content. Somewhat surprising: These digital versions are not the same as PS2 games sold via PSN for use on PlayStation 3 and must be purchased anew. Not surprising: Sony isn't offering a turnkey solution for owners of the physical editions of these PS2 games; instead, customers have to buy the games all over again through PSN. Not surprising, but kinda scandalous: The prices, which range from a reasonable $9.99 to a steep $14.99.

The available games for now include:

  • Dark Cloud (Level-5, action RPG, $9.99)
  • War of the Monsters (Incognito/Sony, brawler, $9.99)
  • Rogue Galaxy (Level-5, action RPG, $14.99)
  • Twisted Metal Black (Incognito/Sony, vehicular combat, $14.99)
  • Grand Theft Auto III (DMA/Rockstar, open world, $14.99)
  • Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Rockstar North, open world, $14.99)
  • Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar North, open world, $14.99)

That's a pretty solid list, but are these games worth the asking price? Are there any benefits to ownership besides not having to dust off your PS2 and dealing with how awful pre-HD consoles look on modern TVs? I've purchased a handful of titles (including several Grand Theft Autos and Rogue Galaxy) and put them to the test. I've also uploaded some direct high-definition feed so you can get a sense of how the games actually look on PlayStation 4—expand those to full-screen size for full impact.

Direct feed of Rogue Galaxy's opening moments. The real-time graphics hold up nicely thanks to Level-5's deft use of cel shading. The exception: Certain "cel shading" detail elements like characters' noses, which don't up-rez the same way that textures do and appear to "float" over the characters.

The good:

Up-rezzing: The most obvious benefit of Sony's PS2 emulation shell shines through clearly in the video above. PS2 games were generally designed to run at 480i resolution, the highest format supported by standard-definition televisions, but on PS4 they're clearly running at an HD resolution. I won't pretend to have the expertise (or patience) to count lines of resolution, but Rogue Galaxy definitely benefits from the added detail. Polygons output in higher rez, and textures appear upscaled to fit. It's a step beyond PS2's backward compatibility with PS1 games (which optionally smoothed over some textures) and the original PS3 model's PS2 compatibility (which output at 480p). The overall effect of this style may remind you of Steam ports of older 3D games, but for a title with art design as strong as Rogue Galaxy's, you could almost mistake these games for early PlayStation 3 titles.

Trophies: Unlike PS2 games published for PS3, these releases support Trophies. This, one assumes, is why we're not simply seeing PSN's previous PS2 titles carried over directly. The addition of Trophy data requires some degree of programming and establishes these games as "new" titles. Your feelings on the merits of this tradeoff will likely depend on how much you care about Trophies—for me the answer is "not at all" and I'd really like to be able to carry over my PS3 editions of games like Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne to PS4. But alas.

Self-contained memory cards: Not that we often ran out of space on PS2's capacious memory cards, but there's definitely no fear of that here. Each game emulates its own dedicated card, so you can create as many save states of individual titles as you like. Please note that I don't mean save states in the traditional emulation sense—as far as I can tell, these games only allow you to save the old-fashioned way. However, they do support PS4's standard suspend feature.

Solid emulation: For the most part, the few hours I've spent with these games have been satisfactory in terms of port quality. Frame rates seem smoother than I remember on PS2, and the only downside comes from the fact that a lot of games (especially the GTA titles) relied on a sort of "ghosting" effect to create a dreamy, film-like quality for their visuals. These effects don't render as smoothly as the underlying graphics, giving those games a slightly choppy sensation. I've also experienced a few split-second audio dropouts. One interesting and welcome emulation choice: The PS4 trackpad replicates the function of the Select and Start buttons so that players can stream instantly with the Share button if they like.

Please note that these technical observations only apply to the U.S. versions! Our friends at Eurogamer have found the PAL versions of these games are being subjected to some terrible abuse, perhaps as a reminder of how awful console gaming used to be in PAL territories.

Direct feed of the first few minutes of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The opening full-motion video and all static illustrations look dreadful, but the game visuals themselves hold up nicely... provided you can stomach the garish colored lighting.

The bad:

Visual inconsistencies: While the PS4 emulation shell does a stunning job of upscaling polygonal graphics and prettying up textures, not everything benefits equally from these running improvements. Static 2D visuals look terrible, rendering with a smeary, blurred appearance. Prerendered full-motion video fares even more poorly, blowing up to reveal all kinds of inherent compression artifacts made all the worse by the blurriness of the up-rezzing process. I made the mistake of playing Grand Theft Auto III as my induction to this set of games, and it left a terrible first impression: Everything from the PlayStation 2 startup graphic to the credits and cutscenes looked dreadful. Fortunately once the game proper began, my eyes hurt much less, but it was an unhappy way to begin this odyssey. And just because you survive the intro screens doesn't mean the pain is necessarily over; as you can see in the Rogue Galaxy video, menu screens and tutorial pop-ups look every bit as awful. Plus, the PS2's display fonts remain chunky and huge on an HD screen.

No mechanical refinements: While Sony (or someone) has tinkered with the original game code enough to add in Trophy triggers, that's the full extent of the changes. For the asking price Sony has slapped on these reissues, you'd hope for some minor refinements—even the option to use the right stick to control the camera rather than drop into first-person mode in GTA. Sadly, between the gross-looking FMVs and the source fidelity, we can almost definitely count on the one PS2 game that would most benefit from a reissue—Final Fantasy XII—to remain sidelined. No way Square Enix would let it into the wild looking anything less than perfect, or without some bonus feature to crow about.

The plain ol' ugly:

The price: There's no getting around this one. I try not to review based on price, but Sony's really pushing it by peddling moderately tweaked games from 15 years ago for 15 bucks. The $10 titles are an easier sell, assuming for some reason you actually want to play the original Dark Cloud (spoilers: It's not very fun), but anything over that seems a bit precious for archival releases. Your mileage may vary, of course, but I can't think of too many PS2 games I'm so eager to play in HD that I wouldn't just grab a much cheaper copy on disc from eBay. The few games that seem especially likely to benefit from the PS4 tweaks largely overlap with the games that seem especially unlikely to be released into the wild this way (Dragon Quest VIII, Final Fantasy XII).

The verdict:

Overall, a pretty solid showing for the service, though pricing undermines the potential for impulse purchases. Where PS4's PS2 emulation service stands to benefit most is in bringing niche or overlooked games back to light—minor hits like Katamari Damacy and obscure gems like Raw Danger or Steambot Chronicles. The PS2's enormous library had a whole lot of badly aged mediocrity in it, and we're probably going to have wade through a ton of that stuff to find the treasures.

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