Monday, 1 October 2018

The PlayStation Classic: A Critique

Imitation is the highest form of flattery. It’s also a sure fire way of making money, especially if you’re in the business of video games. Watching how Nintendo were basically able to print money with the releases of their NES and SNES classic consoles, for Sony to not follow suit with an original PlayStation plug-in would be an opportunity missed. After all, their console sold much better than either of Nintendo’s machines and had more classic titles to boast about than its N64 and Sega Saturn rivals.

There is an obvious attraction in repackaging old games for new audiences. One of them is the next to zero production cost. We live in an age where information is commodified yet infinitely reproducible. If someone sends me a naughty PDF of a book, saving it and emailing it to as many people I want barely takes any effort, but also then the publisher is unable to realise their investment. Sad. On games, it's always been quite easy for copies to be made by those determined to do so. Like that time I may have pirated a copy of a copy of Commando on the Spectrum using Granddad's hi-fi. And back in the day, it was very easy to get your PlayStation chipped so you could circumvent copy protection and play dodgy duplicates. Now the PlayStation is a dead system, ROMs of old and discarded games litter the internet like a sea of plastic. Trying to scrape more money from old digital rope can be done, but will Sony be as successful as Nintendo?

The five games announced so far are good, solid titles. Jumping Flash got plenty of attention back in the day as one of the very first 3D platformers. Final Fantasy VII doesn't require much in the way of an introduction - I remember the ridiculous hype train from back in the day well, despite not being that into games at the time. Tekken 3 is a top notch beater, Wild Arms is a jolly enough and decently respected RPG, and Ridge Racer Type Four is one of the best and most stylish games to have landed on the PS1. With 15 more to be unveiled, the internet chatter is on what's likely to come next. Metal Gear Solid? Silent Hill? Resident Evil? Crash Bandicoot? As Sony have put out an asking price of $100 you would expect some top tier games licensed from the console's best developers to make an appearance. And you might say the success of the system rests on their inclusion - imagine Nintendo flogging one of their retrospective plug-and-plays minus Zelda or Metroid. Unthinkable.

From the stand point of video game critique, there are a couple of reasons this interests me. In theory, Sony's classic console should be a pass to pretty profit. Except things are probably going to be tougher than they think. In the first place, there are many other easily available ways to play these games. For discerning modern gamers with a PlayStation 4, buying 20 PS1 games via the PlayStation Network will come in some way south of the plug 'n' play's asking price. PSN games tend to be around the four quid mark, though some have a weird mark up on them - despite being virtually costless to Sony apart from a license fee for third party games. If you really want a few of the games, just download them instead. The second issue is most of the audience who find the Classic tugging nostalgically at their hearts are going to have a PlayStation 2 or a PS3 lying about. Instead of buying a new product, all they have to do is hook up the old one and away they go. Though we still have our old PlayStation from the twilight days of my undergrad career, for convenience's sake I play its games on the PS3. Furthermore, PS1 games are inexpensive and plentiful, at least compared to NES and SNES cartridges, as well as MegaDrive titles. Well there are stupid expensive games, but its most sought titles come in relatively cheap. Something like Metal Gear Solid will cost you £20 tops, but most are far below this figure.

The second problem, and there's no finer way of putting this, loads of original PlayStation games look like ass. Consider the Tomb Raider series, something quintessentially PlayStation (and coincidentally born in Derby, like yours truly). These are tough, unforgiving, and incredibly frustrating games, and in ways most latter day gamers are not habituated to. Not least thanks to dodgy camera angles (as well as an inability to move it effectively) and cheap deaths. And as for the graphics themselves, while they were appreciated at the time for their technical prowess they looked awful then, and look even worse now. If Sony want to hook in the casual(ish) retro gamer who doesn't have another means of playing old games, they're hardly going to include stuff that make your eyeballs scream. It's worth noting the five chosen games don't fall into the ugly-as-sin categories. So don't be disappointed if neither Lara Croft nor Resident Evil make the cut, and expect visually pleasing stuff like Wipeout and perhaps the original Rayman does.

The question is as Sony moves in to recommodify stuff that has effectively languished in the public domain for almost 20 years, are we're going to see a declaration of war on online repositories that have done the hard graft of preserving abandoned games and stumping up the hosting cash for them, a la Nintendo? Whatever they decide to do, whether Sony acts like a beneficent or a jealous God, runaway success is likely to elude the PlayStation Classic.


Dipper said...

Well this is bizarre. If there is one example of the ability of private enterprise and the profit motive to generate genuine innovation and delivering real benefits to consumers, surely it is computer gaming. It embodies everything this blog seems to stand against. What bit of you manages to separate your love of capitalist consumerism and the success that capitalist principles deliver in this instance and the rest of your posts about the benefits of state control and the evils of capitalism?

Phil said...

"The benefits of state control"? You must have me confused with the strawman in your head.

Anonymous said...

My my, if that wasn't a bitchslap, I don't know what is?!!

It never ceases to amaze me, that people on the right assume that anyone who is left of centre in any way, are completely anti capitalist, or that we want some socialist utopia. Most of us just want checks and balances on 'free market' capitalism and a bit more of the pie to go to the people who actually create it. Not much more than that. Straw men seem to be the armies of people who cannot debate or fully understand any other pov than their own. In fact, you cannot fully understand your own pov without understanding other povs.

I noticed that it's only left wing sites that generally allow righties to debate. Try that on a right wing blog or forum, and you will get short thrift, sorry shrift! :)

Phil said...

Well, I don't like free market fundamentalism ... but nor do I want a rerun of 1945-79 capitalism. Socialising, not nationalising economic life is the way forward ...

George Carty said...

Indeed - many left-of-centre people are apt to forget just how nationalistic 1945-79 Britain really was!

Dipper said...

some cake-and-eat-it politics going on here. I could swear I heard John McDonnell go on about how he was going to rip up capitalism, and I have definitely had a reply on here to the effect that the only difference between nationalised industries and privately owned industries is the profit goes back to the workers not off to lazy folks in their mansions, as though the opportunity for profit was an optional add-on not the engine that drives innovation.

It is worth going back and thinking about the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries for a while. I recall a review of the Sukhoi Su-27 when it appeared in Farnborough during the period of perestroika. It was superior in many ways to the US equivalents. The technical education in Eastern Europe was superior. Lots of technology was superior. Worth pondering why the west was richer than the Warsaw Pact despite being in many ways less sophisticated and not as smart.

George Carty said...


Labour shouldn't be viewing profit as something evil: instead they need to point out how most of the businesses they want to renationalize don't so much earn profit as collect rent.

The "profits" of water companies for example are rent because you cannot change your supplier, and while the Big 6 themselves aren't especially profitable, much of what we pay in energy bills is also rent (that part which goes to those who supply the power stations with coal, oil and gas). Train fares are also largely rent -- since London (for example) is too congested for car commuting to be practical, anyone working in London has to pay large sums either to a London landlord or to a train operating company.

The Soviet bloc wasn't smarter or more sophisticated than the West: they were just a lot more militarized (which is how they could produce equal or superior weaponry on only a fraction of the GDP). That's the reason why their consumer goods were largely junk, and why weaponry was one of their few products (other than oil, gas and vodka) that they were able to sell on international markets.

Dipper said...

@ George Carty

Quite a lot of Tories would agree with you about privatised utility companies filling their boots at customers' expense, and for free market competition to work well there has to be competition not private monopolies, but that isn't the current point of distinction between Mcdonnell and the Tories.

Corbyn/McDonnell pretty clearly want to nationalise as much as they can get their hands on and tax the rest of private enterprise to the point of extinction.