The first impression you get when holding Sony’s $100 / £90 PlayStation Classic is that it’s a well-made little device with some great details on the surface. Memories of gaming in the ’90s will likely come flooding in, and if the cute console wasn’t enough, the classic and quaint PlayStation controller will almost certainly get you in the mood for some Tekken 3, Metal Gear Solid, or maybe even the original Resident Evil.
Upon booting up the system and diving into the main menu, you’re greeted by the bright color scheme of the original PlayStation’s memory card and CD player menus, albeit with a carousel of the 20 available games ready for perusal. So far so good. Pick a game and you’re seconds away from revisiting some of the iconic games from Sony’s debut console.
That reintroduction, however, may not go as smoothly as you’d expect. As someone who regularly plays PlayStation games today on both HD and SD displays, take it from me: The PS Classic will give you a false, negative impression of what PlayStation games should look like. Even if you don’t want to go to the trouble of playing with the real thing, you can always emulate games on a slew of devices–including a PS3–and have a far better experience than the PS Classic offers.
It’s well known that mid-’90s 3D games can look rough around the edges, so it’s not surprising to see jagged 3D models and crummy textures on the PS Classic. You may also recognize the familiar screen door-like dithering effect over large parts of the screen, though because you are playing on an HD flat screen and not a CRT monitor, the effect is very pronounced. All of these caveats are part and parcel of the PlayStation experience and could in theory be forgiven, but not in practice. The PS Classic is configured in such a way that the overall image is rendered blurry at 720p due to poor image stretching, which consequently muddies up graphics that were already borderline ugly to begin with.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the PS Classic’s implementation is that some games exhibit frame rate issues, Tekken 3 being the most obvious example. This is because Tekken 3 and other games noted below are based on the PAL release from Europe, where analog video standards limited refresh rates to 50hz. NTSC regions, including North American and Japan, ran at 60hz. Regardless of the cause, if you’re used to Tekken 3 running at 60 frames per second, prepare for additional disappointment.
Going back to the notion of playing on a CRT, the difference between analog and digital display technologies is one that can almost be overcome with the help of a scanline filter that blanks every other line of resolution. Lots of emulation devices, such as the NES Classic and SNES Classic for example, offer this setting. It’s a divisive trick that doesn’t suit every player let alone every game, but it’s a nice option to have when faced with games that are made unsightly due to the increased scrutiny when playing 240p or 480i content at 720p.
Sadly, the PS Classic doesn’t offer simulated scanlines–likely due to the fact that the image is seemingly rendered before being stretched to 720p, hence the overall blurriness. If Sony has indeed opted to display games via that assumed tech pipeline, I’d love to know why.
|PlayStation Classic Games (*Indicates PAL games)|
The frustrating thing about the PS Classic’s basic configuration is that it’s based on a well-documented emulator–ePSXe–which supports a wide range of options to help you tailor the handling of games to your liking. Want to add anti-aliasing or change the native resolution? You can do that most anywhere you use the emulator, but not on the PS Classic. Sony has effectively left options on the table that could have made a big difference when it comes to actually playing the games you’re feeling nostalgic for.
Rough images on screen shouldn’t totally overpower a great game though, right? In some cases you can still find enjoyment after you get over the initial hump of disappointment. Ridge Racer Type 4 is a snappy racing game with Pilotwings-like vibes and a great soundtrack, all of which comes across on the PS Classic. Mr. Driller, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, and Intelligent Cube make for a strong trio of puzzle games that are even better when played competitively–great reasons to put the included second PS Classic controller to use. But if grand single-player adventures are what you’re after, Final Fantasy VII or Wild Arms are two games ready and willing to give you dozens of hours of classic RPG gameplay. Tekken 3 might not survive unscathed, but thankfully not every game feels as sluggish as it does.
During gameplay, you do have the option of using save states–an emulation convenience that did make its way on board–to suspend games wherever you are and pick them back up later. There are virtual memory cards assigned to each game that function like software-based versions of actual memory cards. Both of these solutions work as expected, thankfully.
After you’ve spent considerable time with the PlayStation Classic, the simple included controllers start to feel inadequate compared to full-featured DualShock controllers. The PlayStation had them way back in 1997, dual analog sticks, vibration, and all. These weren’t defining qualities of the PlayStation experience at large, but some games do suffer by their omission–I’m looking at you, Metal Gear Solid.
That point lies at the heart of why the PS Classic goes from being an enticing curio to a disappointing missed opportunity in short order. The debate over the selected games aside, using the PS Classic feels like partaking in a rough recreation of the original PlayStation experience. And if you’ve spent any time with Nintendo’s Classic consoles, you’ll see the user experience here for what it is: just good enough. The PS Classic doesn’t feel like a celebration of PlayStation’s formative years the way Nintendo’s systems do. Nor is it a smart adaptation of a capable emulator working behind the scenes.
I’d like nothing more than to tell you that the PS Classic is a pleasant surprise, that it will match your excitement and then some. This sadly isn’t the case, and short of Sony refreshing it, or the hacking community breaking it open and reconfiguring it, the PS Classic may never be more than a puny PlayStation with good looks.