Sony’s PlayStation 2 home gaming console launched in North America on October 26, 2000, going onto sell over 150 million units worldwide by 2011 and putting itself in a distant first place in terms of sales against its closest competitors, Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s GameCube (24 million and 21.7 million units sold, respectively) in the process. Bear in mind that this was a console that was technologically inferior to its competitors, as the Xbox and GameCube both had more powerful hardware than the PS2. So how did the least powerful gaming console of its era decimate its competitors and become the best-selling console of all time? Well, that’s a complicated question with many different factors, but if you were to nail down the best reasons for the PlayStation 2’s overwhelming success, the following would be it.
10. One Year Headstart
Although hitting the market early is not always a guarantee of success (one only need look at Sega’s Dreamcast for that, a console that ironically failed largely due to the PS2’s entry into the market a year later), but it worked in Sony’s favor when it came to the PS2 itself. Although it didn’t have a great launch lineup by any stretch, Sony spent the PS2’s first year making it the go-to console for new, innovative gaming experiences. The PS2’s fall 2001 lineup alone is one of the best ever, with titles such as Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Devil May Cry, Final Fantasy X, and of course, Grand Theft Auto III offering consumers a dizzying amount of choice.
When the Xbox and Gamecube launched in November of that same year, they each brought a much better lineup of titles than Sony had a year earlier, but by that point, the PS2 had come into its own and offered the stronger, more varied game library. Factor in other selling points such as the built-in DVD player and backwards compatibility (more on those later) and you get a pretty good idea of why the PS2’s extra year on the market gave it a significant edge over the Xbox and GameCube.
9. Longer Lifespan
Sony likes to tout that each of its consoles have a 10 year lifespan, but this is much more than corporate hyperbole, as proven by the PS2’s ability to outlast the Xbox and Gamecube on the market. Most of us think of the seventh console generation as officially ending when the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii arrived on the scene in late 2006, but the PS2 continued to enjoy success years into its successor’s lifecycle. While things definitely began to drop off once developers started focusing on the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii, the PS2 still enjoyed a healthy amount of support years after those consoles hit the market.
Late generation releases like God of War II and Persona 4 helped bolster the system’s already impressive library of must-have games, while annualized series such as Madden kept up their yearly releases, meaning that many consumers held off on upgrading to next generation consoles altogether. By the time the PS2 finally hit the “sweet spot” price of $99 in April 2009, it was still selling surprisingly well for a 9-year-old console and would continue to do so until Sony finally halted production in 2013. The PS2 effectively enjoyed a whole other console generation long after the Xbox and GameCube were abandoned, which only helped add to its already ridiculously high sales figures.
8. Market Share and Word of Mouth
As has been proven repeatedly over the past few console generations, early momentum is incredibly important to continued success. The PlayStation 4 is a more attractive purchase than the Xbox One for many consumers in part because they likely know more people who own one and the same held true for the Xbox 360, which became the console of choice for online gaming in its respective generation. The PS2 also enjoyed this advantage, as Sony’s console became the “definitive” gaming machine of its era thanks to being in so many living rooms. More consumers ended up choosing the PS2 because many of their friends and family already owned one or were at least considering it, creating an ever-expanding surge of sales that Sony rode to victory.
7. Design Aesthetics
When it comes to console designs, the sixth generation series was overall a rather ugly bunch. The Xbox was a heavy monstrosity and the GameCube looked like a Fisher-Price toy (although we still admire the uniqueness of Nintendo’s design). Even the PlayStation 2 wasn’t all that great looking, but its sleeker profile still gave it an edge over the competition.
The PS2’s superior design aesthetics didn’t play as important a role in the console’s success as some of its other features, but if you don’t think consumers will choose a tech product based primarily on looks, you clearly haven’t paid attention to what Apple’s been doing for the better part of the last two decades. As much as the visual design of a console has absolutely no bearing on its ability to play games, Sony reaped the benefits of the PS2’s more attractive design all the way to the bank and even improved things considerably when they released the PS2 Slim — arguably one of the best-looking consoles ever made — in 2004.
6. The Controller
Sony took a “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to the PS2’s controller design, as the DualShock 2 was largely identical to the PS1’s pad, barring a few minor tweaks and additions. At the time, consumers were used to seeing dramatic controller design changes between console generations, which made Sony’s decision to not rock the boat surprising, but it was a decision that ultimately paid off. Frankly, the DualShock 2 benefited as much from its own excellent functionality as it did from Microsoft and Nintendo’s gaffes when it came to their own controllers.
The original Xbox pad was objectively bad, as it was simply way too large to be used comfortably by anyone who didn’t possess basketball player-sized hands. The GameCube controller, while much more comfortable than what the Xbox initially offered, had a few issues of its own that held it back, namely its bizarre button layout, inferior second analog stick, and the lack of a fourth shoulder button. Microsoft and Nintendo would go on to release much-improved controller designs, but they still arguably weren’t as good or as popular as the DualShock 2, which still stands as one of the greatest video game controllers of all time.
5. Strong Third Party Support
If you were to point to a single game that tipped the scales and put the PlayStation 2 generation in Sony’s favor, Grand Theft Auto III would likely be it, as Rockstar’s open world crime adventure was revolutionary in terms of 3D game design … and it was only available on the PS2 (at least initially). While GTA III was an important factor in the PS2’s early success, Sony’s console enjoyed these sort of moments continuously throughout its lifecycle thanks to strong support from third-party developers.
Thanks in large part to Criterion licensing out its RenderWare design software, which made it much easier for developers to make games for the PS2’s complex system architecture, companies were able to pump out games cheaply and quickly, bolstering the PS2’s library of titles. The GameCube had terrible third-party support, so they were barely a factor in that particular race, and while the Xbox had very strong third-party support, it still didn’t rival the PS2’s, even if the Xbox versions of multi-platform games were typically superior to their PS2 counterparts, thanks to the Xbox’s beefier system specs.
4. More Exclusive Games
While the PS2’s incredible level of third-party support is often cited as one of the main drivers of its success, people tend to overlook just how strong the system’s lineup of exclusive games was. The Xbox and GameCube may have had the “best” exclusives overall in the form of titles like Halo and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, but the PS2 had way more of them and most of them have become true classics.
God of War, Ratchet and Clank, Jak and Daxter, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus … these were just a few of the titles and series that were born on the PS2 and helped make it an exclusives powerhouse. Factor in the staggering number of JRPGs that could only be played on PS2 and you have a library that was delivering must-play titles at a rapid pace, whereas the best Xbox and GameCube exclusives were few and far between. Having the most exclusives isn’t always an important factor in a console’s success (both the Xbox One and Wii U arguably have a much stronger slate of exclusive games than the PS4, yet that console continues to outsell them), but it sure didn’t hurt the PlayStation 2.
3. Backwards Compatibility
Backwards compatibility continues to be an important talking point in the games industry to this day, as evidenced by the overwhelmingly-positive reaction to Microsoft’s Xbox One backwards compatibility announcement last year. The PS2 may have launched with a lackluster lineup of games, but it had an ace up its sleeve that would prove to be important to its early success: the ability to play the PS1’s large collection of games. This effectively expanded the PS2’s library of titles and was an advantage that the Xbox and GameCube could never hope to match.
As Microsoft’s first home gaming console, the Xbox had no library to go back to, and playing Nintendo 64 games on GameCube would have been functionally impossible without some sort of expensive add-on given Nintendo’s change from cartrdige-based media to mini DVDs. Overall, backwards compatibility will never be the main selling point of any piece of gaming hardware, but it definitely played an important role in the PS2’s early years.
2. DVD Player
Sony’s consoles have built a reputation of being trojan horses for fledgling new media technologies, as evidenced by how the PlayStation’s built-in Blu-ray drive helped establish the format as the industry standard over its competitor HD-DVD. Before Blu-ray of course, there was DVD, and the PlayStation 2 happened to include DVD playback as a key feature right out of the gate. Back in 2000, DVD players were still quite expensive, so when Sony arrived on the market with a gaming console that doubled as a pretty decent DVD player, it was an attractive proposition for value-conscious consumers.
While it is true that the Xbox had a DVD player as well (which also gave that console an edge over the GameCube and its lack of DVD playback) and that there is some debate about the level to which the PS2 helped drive the DVD format, there’s no disputing that the feature was a large contributor to the console’s early success, especially considering how few must-have games were available when it launched.
The key reason the PS2 was so successful was due to Sony’s ability to initially brand it as the console of the future — and when everyone eventually found out that the PS2’s technical abilities were grossly overhyped post-launch — the ability to transition and brand the console as the gaming destination for adults. The original PlayStation enjoyed a reputation of being a gaming console for grown-ups, as opposed to the Nintendo 64’s (somewhat unfair) reputation as a toy for kids and young teens. If anything, the PlayStation 2 doubled down on this adult branding and established itself as the go-to platform for realistic, grown-up games. The Xbox was able to cultivate a similar audience, but it just didn’t have PlayStation’s name recognition at that time.
When you boil things down, the PlayStation 2 was neither the most powerful or most capable console of its era, but it was the best option for pure gaming, and that’s the main reason why consumers gravitated to it and helped it become the most successful console of all time.