The PlayStation 2 launched with an all-time awful list of losers

Clockwise from left: Evergrace (Screenshot: From Software), SSX (Screenshot: EA Sports), Kessen (Screenshot: Koei Tecmo Games), Q-Ball (Screenshot: Take-Two Interactive), X-Squad (Screenshot: EA Games), Eternal Ring (Screenshot: From Software), Orphen (Screenshot: Activision)
Clockwise from left: Evergrace (Screenshot: From Software), SSX (Screenshot: EA Sports), Kessen (Screenshot: Koei Tecmo Games), Q-Ball (Screenshot: Take-Two Interactive), X-Squad (Screenshot: EA Games), Eternal Ring (Screenshot: From Software), Orphen (Screenshot: Activision)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples, Photo: Jesse Wild

Few video game consoles, dating back to the days of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, have had as heavy or as lasting an impact as Sony’s PlayStation 2, which arrived in North America in October 2000 to massive hype, massive demand, and one of the most massively awful launch lineups in the history of the medium. Sure, the PS2 would eventually play host to some of the greatest games of all time—many of them arriving as soon as the middle of the following year. But for anyone who actually managed to brave the hordes and secure a PS2 on its Y2K launch day, the pickings were shockingly slim, split between half-assed racing games, cheapo sports titles, and a truly bizarre selection of Japanese role-playing games and other oddities.

Discounting ports of games from the arcades or other consoles—including the latest entry in the venerable, system-shifting Madden franchise—the PlayStation 2 offered up 22 titles to the perplexed U.S. consumer, any one of which was almost guaranteed to disappoint someone looking to justify their $299 purchase. In the interest of exploring that same sense of “Wait, why was I so excited for this?” confusion, we here at The A.V. Club have gone back and offered up a frank assessment of all 22 games of this exclusive day-one lineup, from the all right, to the awful, to the “Why are they charging me $50 for this lousy fireworks simulator?” And, in the interest of us thinking it’d be funny, we’ve also assigned each game a rating, ranging from zero PlayStations (bad) to two PlayStations, the most PlayStations it was possible to have at the time.

(A note on selection: We’ve tried to limit these reviews only to games that were available on, and only on, the U.S. PlayStation 2 in the last week of October 2000, when the console launched. Release records from this era can be a little spotty, so we can only hope you’ll extend us the same compassion that the gaming public extended to the creators of Surfing H3O.)

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Armored Core 2 (FromSoftware)

Armored Core 2 (FromSoftware)

The second installment of FromSoftware’s long-running mech combat series isn’t a game; it’s actual military mech training software from the future that somehow runs on a PS2. There are too many things happening onscreen, too many little systems to manage, and the big robots are all a little sluggish. But it’s all okay, because that’s how it would probably work in real life. Plus, the chunky robots and grim future environments are a great use of the PS2’s relative boost in processing power.
Rating: Two PlayStations (out of two)

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Dynasty Warriors 2 (Omega Force)

Dynasty Warriors 2 (Omega Force)

The first Dynasty Warriors was a fighting game, so it wasn’t until the second game that the series established the format it’s now known for: Your character drops down into a massive battlefield full of a million enemy dudes that you can kill by repeatedly hitting the same button, broken up by fights with slightly more formidable officers. The only catch here is that the PS2 couldn’t actually handle showing a million guys at once—especially when Omega Force was still learning how to work with the system in its early days—so in practice… it’s more like a dozen. Still: Beating up a dozen guys at a time is surprisingly fun.
Rating: Two PlayStations (out of two)

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ESPN Winter X Games Snowboarding (Konami)

ESPN Winter X Games Snowboarding (Konami)

The first real stinker of the bunch, this is one of many “also ran” extreme sports game of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater era. This one is just like all of the others, except for a few small factors: It’s about snowboarding, it has both ESPN and X Games branding, and it’s, you know, not as good as Tony Hawk. It’s clunkier, the levels are a little uglier, and none of the selectable snowboarders are The Birdman. Also, skateboarding is just cooler than snowboarding. (With the possible exception of one notable game a little further down this list.)
Rating: Zero PlayStations (out of two)

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Eternal Ring (FromSoftware)

Eternal Ring (FromSoftware)

Illustration for article titled The PlayStation 2 launched with an all-time awful list of losers
Screenshot: FromSoftware

For a system that had been in the works for the better part of a decade, there’s something strangely unprepared about the PS2 launch lineup—nowhere clearer than in the total absence of games from Square, the company whose various Final Fantasys and other RPGs had sold oh so many copies of the PlayStation One. Into that gap stepped future Dark Souls developer FromSoftware, which hopefully provided a whopping three titles for the new system’s launch—Armored Core 2, action-RPG Evergrace, and Eternal Ring, a clear successor to the company’s King’s Field series of first-person dungeon crawls. Eternal Ring is actually pretty fun—if you like wandering mazes and stabbing crabs on behalf of town guards with laughably thick New York accents, anyway—but it’s also extremely awkward. It’s especially bad in terms of the game’s obvious discomfort with the DualShock 2’s twin-stick controller configuration, which leaves you fiddling with buttons trying to look up and down while an angry frog man wastes no time impaling you in the back.
Rating: One PlayStation (out of two)

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Evergrace (FromSoftware)

Evergrace (FromSoftware)

Illustration for article titled The PlayStation 2 launched with an all-time awful list of losers
Screenshot: FromSoftware

This is what you get when you ask FromSoftware to make a “more traditional” role-playing game, apparently: A bizarre mishmash of made-up vocabulary words, dead-eyed anime boys, and slow-moving, stamina-based action gameplay. You can almost see the DNA of the Dark Souls games at play in Evergrace’s love for obtuse systems and weirdos with drawn-out, creepy laughs. What you can’t see is much of a good time, despite a few nifty design innovations (including the ability to switch between two, equally confusing stories at will as the adventure progresses).
Rating: Zero PlayStations (out of two)

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FantaVision (Sony Computer Entertainment)

FantaVision (Sony Computer Entertainment)

Illustration for article titled The PlayStation 2 launched with an all-time awful list of losers
Screenshot: Sony Computer Entertainment

At the risk of being unkind, FantaVision is more fun to reverse-engineer than it is to play. Clearly, someone at Sony wanted a game that would a) show off the PS2’s impressive particle effects capabilities, and b) make sure everyone involved was thinking about designing with an analog stick, rather than the D-pad of the PSOne era. And thus was the fireworks “action” of FantaVision born, very literally as a glorified tech demo. The game itself isn’t un-fun—we can actually see a mobile revival doing really well. But as far as system-selling puzzle games go, it’s more “trivia” than Tetris. (That $50 price point on launch day didn’t help.)
Rating: One PlayStation (out of two)

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Gungriffon Blaze (Game Arts)

Gungriffon Blaze (Game Arts)

It would be unfair to judge Gungriffon Blaze against Armored Core 2, the PS2’s other day-one mech game. And yet that’s exactly what Timmy T. Gamer is going to be doing at the Sears when he picks up his brand-new PS2—and he’d probably end up kicking himself for not selecting AC 2. They’re both about lumbering robots covered in artillery, sure, but Gungriffon Blaze isn’t as special as Armored Core 2. It’s not a training tool from the future; it’s just a video game. A fairly boring video game.
Rating: One PlayStation (out of two)

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Kessen (Koei)

Kessen (Koei)

Illustration for article titled The PlayStation 2 launched with an all-time awful list of losers
Screenshot: Koei

Japanese strategy title Kessen opens with a note from developer Kou Shibusawa, dubbing it the culmination of his attempts to create a sort of playable version of the Sengoku-era war films he so clearly, and dearly, loves. But in actuality, Shibusawa and his team created something more like an interactive educational film strip. Sure, the game’s camera cuts in for close-ups of decisive moments from time to time, but Kessen players spend 90 percent of their time watching various samurai crawl around on the battlefield like ants, turning themselves around like a Humvee trying to back up in a crowded parking lot, and generally moving with all the cinematic vigor of a bunch of very pointy slugs. As far as real-time strategy games go, Kessen barely moves fast enough to justify the name.
Rating: Zero PlayStations (out of two)

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Midnight Club—Street Racing (Angel Studios)

Midnight Club—Street Racing (Angel Studios)

Illustration for article titled The PlayStation 2 launched with an all-time awful list of losers
Photo: Rockstar Games

Racing games are seriously over-represented in the PS2 launch lineup, and Midnight Club—Street Racing is certainly one of them. Developed—along with Smuggler’s Run, also on this list—by Angel Studios, and published by Rockstar, the game sends you barreling down the virtual streets of New York and London, as you attempt to race your way through the mystery of the titular organization. As an arcade-style racer, Midnight Club is pretty much the definition of adequate; sure, the physics are ludicrous, and the visuals aggressively listless. But racing with a whole city as your course was novel at the time, and at least the Capture The Flag mode is pretty fun!
Rating: One PlayStation (out of two)

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MotoGP (Namco)

MotoGP (Namco)

As we noted earlier, Sony was apparently extra-invested in the idea that racing games were the best way to show off their new console. The general public might not understand what a Gungriffon Blaze is—and we’re still not too sure, either—but if you see a human-shaped thing tearing through a racetrack on a motorcycle-shaped thing, you’re going to immediately get what’s going on. MotoGP’s edge on the (many) other PS2 racing games is that it’s more of a simulation, which means nothing fun happens. Some people like that in a racing game. (See Namco’s other launch title, Ridge Racer V, also on this list.)
Rating: One PlayStation (out of two)

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Orphen: Scion Of Sorcery (Shade)

Orphen: Scion Of Sorcery (Shade)

Illustration for article titled The PlayStation 2 launched with an all-time awful list of losers
Screenshot: Shade

The PS2’s switch to DVD-based media was a boon for the push toward fully voiced games, allowing developers to store hours upon hours of recorded speech on their discs. Which sounds like a good thing, right up until you encounter something like Orphen: Scion Of Sorcery, a video game testimony against the wonder and beauty of the human voice. Adapted from a series of Japanese books and anime, Orphen is actually kind of novel—instead of turn-based RPG combat, fights play out as a sort of action game, with you blasting monsters with Orphen’s magical abilities. None of which makes up for the sheer displeasure of the game’s dialogue, which is abundant, inescapable, and shot through with the worst, most over-the-top excesses of ’90s anime dubbing imaginable. Expect to find yourself constantly seeking a “skip cutscene” button that mercilessly never comes.
Rating: Zero PlayStations (out of two)

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Q-Ball: Billiards Master (Ornith)

Q-Ball: Billiards Master (Ornith)

Illustration for article titled The PlayStation 2 launched with an all-time awful list of losers
Screenshot: Take Two Interactive

Look, we weren’t expecting to rate a billiards game where anime Joe Pantoliano verbally degrades you as one of the better PS2 launch titles, either, but here we are. Q-Ball: Billiards Master provides exactly what it’s supposed to: A solid pool experience, with well-implemented physics, and relatively few frills. None of which would probably stop the tears from flowing if this was the only game your parents could find to bring home with your shiny new PS2 back in October 2000, but still: By doing what it’s supposed to, and not being egregiously awful, Q-Ball manages to rise above a lot of the dross that was filling store shelves on that fateful day.
Rating: One PlayStation (out of two)

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Ridge Racer V (Namco)

Ridge Racer V (Namco)

Illustration for article titled The PlayStation 2 launched with an all-time awful list of losers
Screenshot: Namco

Probably the most technical—and technically accomplished—of the PS2’s initial glut of racing games, the fifth Ridge Racer fills a niche that would later be overtaken by the Gran Turismo and Forza games, titles where slightly more planning than “hold down the accelerator, turn the wheel” is required to succeed. While a bit bare-bones, Ridge Racer V at least accomplishes what so few of its fellow launch-title racers could: Making a compelling argument for the system’s ability to push out polygons at pace, granting a high-octane, sometimes nauseating, first-person experience for racing fans who’d dipped into the new console looking to fulfill their need for speed. (Note: The PS2 wouldn’t get an actual Need For Speed game until 2002.)
Rating: Two PlayStations (out of two)

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Smuggler’s Run (Angel Studio)

Smuggler’s Run (Angel Studio)

Although technically a racing game (and a pretty simplistic one, at that), Smuggler’s Run has the added gimmick of you playing as a criminal. You’re not trying to win something dumb like a trophy—you’re trying to win so cops don’t get your stash of drugs or whatever. That shit’s cool. (Hey, kids: No, it’s not.) Especially since publisher Rockstar Games’ groundbreaking Grand Theft Auto III—which does a lot of similar stuff, but better—was still a year away.
Rating: One PlayStation (out of two)

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SSX (EA Canada)

SSX (EA Canada)

Illustration for article titled The PlayStation 2 launched with an all-time awful list of losers
Screenshot: EA Canada

An extreme sports placebo for a console that wouldn’t see its first Tony Hawk game (Pro Skater 3) arrive for almost another full year, SSX’s coolest innovation was in linking speed to score, encouraging players to risk it all to bust out ludicrous flips and grabs to maximize their snowboard’s boost. A better show-horse for the PS2’s speed-pumping graphics capabilities than some of the automotive racing games on this list, SSX launched a whole franchise of arcade-adjacent downhill extravaganzas.
Rating: Two PlayStations (out of two)

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Street Fighter EX3 (Arika)

Street Fighter EX3 (Arika)

A 2D game on the PS2 is a hard sell, so Street Fighter EX3 continued the trend from the franchise’s previous EX games by taking the established Street Fighter formula and making it… different. More complicated. Sometimes flashier, and sometimes uglier. It’s not a regular Street Fighter game, which is what most people would want from a console launch. But it does have Skullomania, a loser businessman who dresses up like a superhero. Skullomania is cool.
Rating: Two Skullomanias (out of two)

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Summoner (Volition)

Summoner (Volition)

Illustration for article titled The PlayStation 2 launched with an all-time awful list of losers
Screenshot: Volition

As the only PS2 launch RPG to come from a Western studio, Summoner owes more to Baldur’s Gate than it does to Final Fantasy, something that’s reflected in both its focus on semi-tactical combat and its wide-ranging fantasy scope. It owes its appearance, meanwhile, to, well, saying “a pile of dog shit” would probably be too cruel. But the point is, as far as attempts to show off the Emotion Engine’s graphical capabilities go, you’d be better off turning to the fireworks simulator or the pool game. Even so, it’s hard to fault the game its ambition, especially when lined up against the other RPGs players had to choose from on day one.
Rating: One PlayStation (out of two)

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Surfing H3O (Opus)

Surfing H3O (Opus)

Illustration for article titled The PlayStation 2 launched with an all-time awful list of losers
Screenshot: Opus

You’d think it’d be hard to simultaneously secure both the “Worst Extreme Sports Game” and the “Least Comprehensible Title” awards out of a pack of games that includes both ESPN Winter X Games Snowboarding and Orphen: Scion Of Sorcery, but damn if Surfing H3O doesn’t pull it off with ease. Maybe that extra hydrogen atom in the game’s name is why its “water” is so ridiculously hard to surf on—or maybe it was just made before anyone realized that forcing players to repeatedly push down on the DualShock 2’s finicky R3 and L3 buttons was a recipe for near-instant wipeout.
Rating: Zero PlayStations (out of two)

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Swing Away Golf (T&E Soft)

Swing Away Golf (T&E Soft)

It looks ugly, and it plays like every other golf game (specifically, Sony’s own Everybody’s Golf/Hot Shots Golf). But every other golf game wasn’t available on the PlayStation 2 at launch. If you really wanted to enjoy a digital approximation of having a good walk spoiled by a game of golf, you could do worse than Swing Away Golf. You can’t do better, though, because this is the only golf game. So you also can’t do worse.
Rating: Zero PlayStations (out of two)

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TimeSplitters (Free Radical Designs)

TimeSplitters (Free Radical Designs)

A spiritual sequel to GoldenEye and Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64, TimeSplitters is a simplified first-person shooter that leans into the wacky potential of those earlier games. Want to pick goofy characters and dumb weapons in a multiplayer match? Go for it. That’s what this is for. Shooters these days all have to be big-budget Call Of Duty killers, but TimeSplitters is more like screwing around with Nerf guns than a real war—and it’s all the better for it.
Rating: Two PlayStations (out of two)

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Wild Wild Racing (Rage Software Limited)

Wild Wild Racing (Rage Software Limited)

This is the kind of “cool” aggro shit that more or less defined the early PS2 era, with you racing off-road vehicles that all have bitchin’ names like Typhoon and Double Moon. The cars are ugly, the tracks are ugly, and there’s not a whole lot of panache to the UI, but there’s something fulfilling (in a trashy, junk food kind of way) about driving a dune buggy named Demon through ugly mud.
Rating: One PlayStation (out of two)

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X-Squad (Electronic Arts Square)

X-Squad (Electronic Arts Square)

Illustration for article titled The PlayStation 2 launched with an all-time awful list of losers
Screenshot: Electronic Arts Square

The only hint of work from regular Sony partner Square on this entire list—courtesy of a weirdo team-up with Electronic Arts—X-Squad tries to play at being a Rainbow Six-style tactical shooting experience, hyping up your ability to issue orders to squadmates and peek around corners. But the shooting itself is so simplistic as to render all that effort entirely moot, leaving you with nothing but a weirdly smooth silver fox of a protagonist, winding his way through god-knows-how-many nondescript corridors of mooks. (It’s not a good sign when the first level is the inevitable sewer level, with things only progressing downward from there.)
Rating: Zero PlayStations (out of two)

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The Ports (various)

The Ports (various)

One of the great ironies of the PlayStation 2 launch is that so few of its major selling points were actually “PlayStation 2” games. Madden NFL 2001 (also released on the Nintendo 64, the PC, the PlayStation One, and, of course, the Game Boy Color) probably sold more PS2s than every other title on this list combined, while Sony patched the other (hopefully now readily apparent) gaps in its launch lineup with established names like the PC’s Unreal Tournament and arcade imports Tekken Tag Tournament, Dead Or Alive 2, and Silent Scope. All of which was a sound business strategy—again, god knows how the system’s initial months would have gone without its status as the latest, greatest “Madden machine”—but it also left the PS2 with a curious lack of identity for the first several months of its existence. 2001 would see developers come to terms with the PlayStation 2—producing bestselling titles like Final Fantasy X, Metal Gear Solid 2, Grand Theft Auto III, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, to name just a few all-time classics. But in Y2K, the PlayStation 2 existed in a very strange place: The most sought-after console on the planet, saddled with an “exclusive” library of some of the least sought-after games of all time.

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