PlayStation Classic hands-on review: A great and tiny box of nostalgia, in all its meanings
You'll have lots of fun playing games that have been forgotten for 20 years. But you'll have lots of other feelings, too
The PlayStation Classic, this tiny box of plastic, shouldn't be able to contain so much. Yes, it has what you know: 20 classic games that you probably haven't seen for 15 or 20 years, since your PlayStation was packed up into a dusty loft. But it has plenty more besides, somehow containing specific memories of the places you've been, recollections that have until now been stuck in their own dusty attic, waiting to be awoken by the opening credits of Tekken 3.
The list of games is questionable, and it is far from the most technically accomplished emulator that you'll be able to play. But that's not what the PlayStation Classic is – what it really is a nostalgia machine, built to dredge up memories and games you thought entirely lost, both for better or worse.
The PlayStation Classic follows a series of game consoles in this vein, chief among them the recreations of the NES and SNES that shoved the retro Nintendo consoles into smaller boxes and gave them a series of old games for players to buy. They did incredibly well, trading off both nostalgia and fun to become Christmas favourites and immediate sellouts.
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PlayStation seems a slightly stranger choice, in part because Sony's console is still the leading force in gaming. Nintendo might have had great success with the Switch, but it remains a brand that does so well by trading off its history and its memory, with its most popular games still recreations of classic titles filled with similarly classic characters.
It means that playing on the new console can sometimes seem a little uncanny: the controllers are almost the same as the current Dualshock for the PlayStation 4, with some very notable differences. The menu on the Classic borrows from the same one used on today's consoles, filling it with classic games rather than new ones.
It is fun, and lots of it. The PlayStation Classic includes games that have not been bettered since, which represented the peak of the craft. You'll often find yourself shocked that they managed to be so good, so long ago; the graphics are not good, of course, but they are occasionally impressive, and the various genius games the console includes are a fantastic testament to those developers' achievement and skill.
(There are some notable games missing. There's no Tony Hawk, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro or Driver, and no way to add them. It's regrettable and means there's a very good chance that your most nostalgia-inducing favourites have been left out.)
Playing them will induce a flood of memories. The beginning moments of Tekken 3 transported me back 20 years in an instant, bringing back memories of friends' bedrooms and times in my life that I thought were entirely forgotten. For Proust it may have been Madeleines; for our generation, it's Metal Gear Solid.
But playing it can sometimes be a reminder that nostalgia, when it was first used, was a sickness. And that indulging it can undermine your understanding of the past, not enhance it.
The console itself is a stunningly accurate recreation – which just so happens to be about half the size of the bigger one. Other than the size and a button that's used to send you back to the menu screen, everything is recreated faithfully.
Even the eject button is there. On the Classic, it doesn't actually do anything physical, but acts as a button you press when games, such as Metal Gear Solid, would have required you to switch the disc out.
That considered, thoughtful recreation means that the console feels both joyful and occasionally frustrating. The commitment to recreating the fun of the first console is absolute, which is both blessing and curse.
At times, the problem is precisely that the first PlayStation was so modern: the various breakthroughs and conventions that it established go on to be present in games to this day. But because of that it doesn't feel entirely stuck in the past – not in the same way, for instance, that classic Nintendo games do – and occasionally you are left thinking that very little has actually changed about console gaming apart from the fact that it's now just way better.
The original Grand Theft Auto, for instance, is included – and is a reminder that until it went into 3D it wasn't all that interesting a game at all. Rainbow Six is there, but since the controllers are a remake of the very first ones, you're left without the ability to use a joystick to look up and down; you do it with the shoulder buttons, an experience that is entirely frustrating and takes away some of the fun of the game.
Nostalgia, ultimately, is a trick of the mind: things weren't as good in the past, they just feel that way with distance. And that distance is central to the experience, allowing things to get a little blurrier and for the edges to get rounded off.
The PlayStation Classic reduces that distance again, allowing you to experience those games not as memories but as real living things. It is like returning to a tree you climbed as a child and finding that it is actually smaller and less interesting than you ever realised. It is like realising that school dinners were not some homely stodge but a turgid gloop. Some things are best left in the memory.
But the nostalgic console succeeds because not everything is best left there. Tekken 3 is even better than I'd remembered; Metal Gear Solid remains an incredible technical achievement event now. At its very best, the PlayStation Classic mixes memory with desire to play the game all over again, making an experience that combines nostalgia with surprise.
The PlayStation Classic arrives on 3 December, selling for $99.99 in the US, £89.99 in the UK and $149.99 in Australia. At that price and at that time it represents a great stocking filler, and the inclusion of two controllers means it could be great fun for getting around the TV at Christmas, even if there are relatively few of the kind of games you could jump into with no introduction at a party.
But that's probably for the best, since playing the PlayStation Classic can sometimes feel dangerously close to an experience you might describe as moving: it's not the fun nostalgia of Nintendo, but something more profound, leaving you with a mix of feelings that include awe at developers' now-ancient achievements, an appreciation of how far gaming has come and where exactly it came from, and a stream of memories of where you were when you encountered this now legendary console, alongside plain and simple fun.