PlayStation Classic review: A far-from-classic experience

Following the success of Nintendo’s hot-selling series of “Classic Edition” plug-and-play HDMI systems, Sony is jumping into the fray this week with the PlayStation Classic. Unfortunately, the $100 emulation box, collecting 20 early CD-ROM games, is a bare-bones experience that comes with a lot of compromises that get in the way of even nostalgic appreciation for the era.

It starts from the moment you turn the system on, with a pixelated, no-frills menu that doesn’t even offer placeholder background music while you navigate. Don’t go looking for on-screen game manuals or any sort of museum-style, behind-the-scenes features either—the best you’ll get is a QR code link to an online manual (which returns a 404 error as of this writing).

PlayStation Classic game selection (US)

* – Emulated from 50Hz PAL version

Despite running on a pretty robust open source emulator, the PlayStation Classic also doesn’t offer any of the improvements or tweaks you might be accustomed to from PC-based emulation. There’s no way to tune the default graphical or audio settings (such as adding filters to recreate CRT scanlines, for instance), and you can’t rewind and/or speed up the emulation itself, either.

Every title on the PlayStation Classic gets its own dedicated “virtual” memory card, meaning you don’t really have to worry about running out of space for “legit” saves made through the games’ original interfaces. Unlike Nintendo’s Classic Edition hardware, though, the PlayStation Classic only offers one automatic “suspend point” save state per game. When you hit the reset button on the box to stop a play session, you have to decide whether to overwrite that save state with new data. It’s a baffling decision considering how little it would cost to put the extra storage space in the box.

Speaking of the box, the hardware is housed in a lightweight and accurate miniature replica of the original PlayStation itself. The only apparent visual differences are the HDMI port and USB power on the back and the USB controller ports on the front. Be warned, though: the unit doesn’t come with a USB power converter for a standard wall outlet, and it doesn’t work with any USB controllers other than those that ship with the system itself.

Those included controllers also lack analog sticks, which didn’t become standard for the PlayStation line until midway through the original system’s lifespan. From a modern perspective, controlling 3D games with that distinctly ancient control scheme feels like a bit of an anachronism. It’s especially noticeable in driving games like and , where constant tapping on the d-pad feels like a distinct step back from simply tilting an analog stick. Shooters like and also feel almost painful to control without the now standard dual-stick move-and-aim approach.

Uneven games, uneven graphics

So much has already been written about the PlayStation Classic’s uneven selection of “classic” games. I won’t bother with detailed reviews of every title on offer; if you’re in the market for the system, it’s likely because you already have fond memories of some of the included titles, and finding contemporary reviews for the others is not difficult.

It hertz

Just before the PlayStation Classic was released, Sony revealed in an FAQ that fully half the games on the system are being emulated from PAL versions, which were designed to run at 50Hz rather than the now-standard 60Hz of NTSC.

I wasn’t able to detect much of a visual issue with this change, even though more technical frame-by-frame analyses do detect some differences. That said, the slight timing change does seem to affect the tight move timings in a game like .

What I will say, generally, is that many of these games have probably aged worse than you would expect. This is especially true of the sizable chunk of the Classic lineup that comes from the earliest years of the PlayStation’s life cycle (1995-96). That’s the era when console developers were still getting a handle on the very basics of how to make 3D graphics and gameplay comprehensible with limited hardware power, and it shows.

A few of these early titles, like , manage to hold up thanks to strong, brightly colored character design and deliberate pacing. Others, like and , end up as hard-to-control, muddy messes with frustrating camera work. The incredible stiffness of the characters in games like and don’t come off well over two decades later, either.

Mid-generation 3D PlayStation titles like , , , and have aged a bit better, both graphically and in terms of game design. But even with these titles, the “upgrade” to HD graphics doesn’t do many favors. All these games were designed for standard-definition CRTs, where the inherent blur of scanlines and phosphors helped smooth out rough edges. Blown up to a big-screen HDTV through the PlayStation Classic, though, you can see every jagged polygonal edge and rough color-gradient texture in stark contrast.

Text that was aliased to look good on those old screens often looks muddy and hard to read on an HD screen as well. And while all these graphical problems are a bit reduced if you sit farther away from the screen, the PlayStation Classic’s 1.5-meter controller cords make that difficult to do.

Given all these problems, the standouts of the PlayStation Classic library might just be the purely 2D games. Titles like , , and pop with the detailed, vibrant sprites and tight controls, even when blown up to modern TV scale. These games serve as highlights of a robust 2D game-design tradition, rather than the rough beginnings of a 3D era that was far from maturity at the time.

If you’re looking for an excuse to replay or and don’t have any other convenient way to access them, you could certainly do worse than the workman-like emulation of the PlayStation Classic. For $100, though, we expected more than the anemic game selection and suite of options on offer here. If a PS2 classic is forthcoming, we can only hope Sony will put a little more effort into both areas.

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