Live in your world, play in ours
At the turn of the century, the PlayStation 2 was the console to own. Not only did it dominate its competitors, outselling some of them into oblivion (RIP Dreamcast), the system continued to be a successful money maker for Sony until it was discontinued in 2012. But the PS2 wasn't only successful because it was a neat piece of hardware - the system had some of the most outstanding and memorable games to ever exist.
With fantastic console exclusives, games sporting some of the best visuals of their time, and a library that was built over a decade, there are a whole lot of amazing titles to consider when putting together a best PS2 games list. But, we've combed through our memories, old gaming collections, and reader suggestions to bring together our definitive list of the must play titles on the system. We have 25 of the best right here, starting with...
25. Dark Cloud 2
Yes, you remember Dark Cloud. At least, you should. This ingenious hybrid challenged you to be as adept with city design as you were with dungeon crawling. You adopted the role of Max, a resourceful young craftsman who was charged with rebuilding his world by collecting items (geostones) from dungeons and assembling villages piece by piece with help from the local Firbits.
Dark Cloud 2's world-creation system was addictive, to say the least. It's randomly generated dungeons made searching for geostones feel fresh with every visit, and it was easy to lose hours snapping photos and sussing out every last village piece. The game also shipped with an addictive golfing minigame called spheda and a fishing diversion; all in addition to a meaty story. We don't know how we found time to save the world, but we know we had fun doing it.
24. Soulcalibur 2
Arcade-to-console ports are risky, but Project Soul pulled off Soulcalibur 2's PS2 translation with nary a scratch. Considered one of the tightest, prettiest, and most fluid fighters of its day (and even today by some), the sequel improved on everything its Soul Blade and Soulcalibur predecessors did right, while introducing new faces, weapons, modes, upgraded visuals, and a substantial weapon master side quest.
Part of our love for Soulcalibur 2 stems from the fact that this was the series' first appearance on a PlayStation console. True, Soul Blade made the leap from arcades to the PlayStation in the mid-'90s, but the first actual "Soulcalibur" could only be enjoyed at home with a Dreamcast. By the time SoulCalibur 2 expanded the series' reach to other consoles, both hardcore and casual fighting fans were eager to enjoy their arcade favourite on the PS2, and Project Soul did not disappoint.
23. Kingdom Hearts 2
Kingdom Hearts is a series that really shouldn't have worked. Mixing the melodramatic world of Final Fantasy with the cheery family fun of Disney should have been a train wreck. Instead it ended up being one of the most successful new franchises of the PS2 era, and its action RPG gameplay still holds up, particularly in the PS2 sequel.
Kingdom Hearts 2 resumed Sora's search for his friends, and as always he's assisted by Disney stars like Donald and Goofy. Sora explores worlds old and new, including some based on Steamboat Willy and TRON. Meanwhile, the combat was enriched by the additions of dual Keyblades, the Drive Gauge, and the much-improved Gummi Ship segments. Even when the plot makes little sense, KH2s gameplay kept us satisfied until the story stopped being confusing.
22. SSX Tricky
SSX Tricky is regarded as the [insert name of your country's best snowboarder] of snowboarding games, and it comes by its title honestly. For one, it kicked EA Canada's SSX series into a brand-new gear; and for another, it was just plain awesome. SSX Tricky achieved the nigh-impossible task of transporting the joy of shredding down a mountain into our living rooms. Its courses were exhilarating, its soundtrack was pumping, and its uber move trick system encouraged rookies and vets to keep coming back for "just one more run".
SSX Tricky took the bones of SSX and gave the series the vitality and attitude it so desperately needed. EA has attempted to keep the SSX brand alive since, but few sequels have come close to packing the same punch as this PS2 original.
21. SOCOM 2: US Navy Seals
Once upon a time, online multiplayer was considered a bonus, not a "must have." During these dark ages, SOCOM 2: US Navy Seals was one of few brave titles that helped PS2's online community take shape. It opened the way for teams of eight to take their fight online over 25 maps - twelve new, 10 from the original SOCOM, and an extra three that were used as bait to buy the Official PlayStation Magazine. It also let allies communicate over a basic in-game chat and for recently deceased players to watch the game in ghost form.
SOCOM 2 wasn't the first title to come equipped for online play on the PS2, but it helped push the concept forward and blaze a trail for today's modern fragfests. SOCOM 2's single-player pulled its own weight, introducing innovative features like the ability to shout voice commands over a headset. SOCOM 2 wasn't the greatest war game of the PS2 era, but it marched the genre forward and won us over on many fronts.
You may recognize Psychonauts from every 'Overlooked Games You Need to Play' article ever written; but believe us when we say Psychonauts is a sorely overlooked game you really need to play.
Starring the psychically gifted Razputin Raz Aquato, it sent you packing to the Whispering Rock Psychic Summer Camp where you ventured into the minds (and nightmares) of its offbeat residents. From dodging neon bulls to playing a life-sized board game and smashing up an underwater city, every level in Psychonauts played by its own insanely creative rules. Combining Double Fine's warped sense of humour, rebel game design, and knack for writing memorable characters, Psychonauts was a shining example of what the studio could produce when left alone with its imagination and a modest budget.
19. Katamari Damacy
The quintessentially quirky Katamari Damacy proved that wacky, distinctly Japanese games with relatively low budgets (under $1 million) could succeed in the US both commercially and critically. The public's warm embrace of the original Katamari, a surprise gem sold as a $20 budget title, led to not only several higher-priced sequels, but also paved the way for publishers to take more chances on localising other oddball titles.
Katamari's brilliance is in the elegant simplicity of its gameplay, coupled with the vibrant chaos of its visuals. You use both analog sticks to roll a sticky ball around collecting as much stuff as you can, and the bigger the ball gets, the bigger the stuff it can pick up. Crucially, there's an abundance of really cool junk to roll up--lots of real-life, tantalisingly exotic, Japanophilia-inducing consumer goods, plus adorably blocky people, farm animals, planets and the like. In short, it's a joyous celebration of silliness with a simple yet totally novel concept that's highly addictive, all set to one of the greatest, jazziest soundtracks in gaming history.
18. Tony Hawks Pro Skater 4
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 is a sentimental favorite, and we acknowledge that. It did not, however, come in the wake of the PS2 Broadband Modem, and it was still confined to the Two-Minute Rule. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 struck the perfect balance between the sublime gameplay of its predecessors and the series' eventual descent into Hot Topic Mallpunk Hell.
Let's recap: It introduced free-skate mode, which allowed you to explore the terrain before committing to any challenges. It introduced grind and lip extensions to complement the revert (introduced in THPS3) and the manual (unveiled in THPS2), which were arguably some of the finest tools to stretch out big combos to date. And it was the first Tony Hawk game that PS2 players could jump online with in an official capacity on launch day. Rather than focus on the series' decline, look back fondly on its finest moment.
Of all the games that have weathered firestorms of controversy, its hard to imagine one that deserved it less than Bully did. It did an expert job of taking Grand Theft Auto's free-roaming mentality and using it to create an incredibly compelling, character-driven game about being trapped in a hostile school environment. It also helped that, unlike most real kids who are the targets of bullies, protagonist Jimmy Hopkins was a gruff bruiser with a boxers fists and superhuman stamina, which allowed for uniquely fun situations, like beating up the entire football team at once. It wasn't GTA, but in some ways it was a lot more enjoyable.
16. Burnout 3: Takedown
For many, this is the crowning entry in Burnouts legacy. By the third time out, Criterion Games had distilled hyper-aggressive driving to its absolute apex, and added features like Crashbreakers and Takedowns, which now make up the very essence of how most people see the series at large. To this day, Takedown still stands as the best selling and highest-scoring Burnout game, and thats saying a lot for a franchise as beloved and well received as this one.
Burnout 3: Takedown offered more online features too. Whereas the previous game had only bothered with piecemeal leaderboards (solely on Xbox Live), new owner EA cleared a hefty chunk of its server space for a ballistic online experience few traditional racing games had received up to that point. We probably don't have to tell this to those who revelled in the ridiculously awesome Road Rage events; a handful of you were still playing it right up until EA finally shut down the servers nearly six years post-release.
15. Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy
Back when Jak was mute and Daxter was more peppy than annoying, this was the action adventure platformer the PS2 desperately needed. Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy doesn't try to get overly fancy with level design, offering the typical snow, lava, and jungle worlds, but they were so eye-pleasing that we barely noticed. With a silky smooth frame rate and a striking use of colour, the kid-friendly aesthetic was no less captivating for adults. The animations were also full of character: We'd argue that the ground pound animation is the best of all time, and Crash Bandicoots trademark spin looked even better on Jak. The sequel's ended up walking a very different path, but Jak and Daxter's debut paved the way for greats like Ratchet & Clank and Sly Cooper.
14. Gran Turismo 4
The Gran Turismo series is known for its attention to detail, including a mountain of licensed autos, finely tuned race physics, and blisteringly tough license tests. Gran Turismo 4 has over 700 cars to choose from, each a near-perfect representation of their real-life counterpart, and each able to be tuned to perfection.
With stellar looks and fantastically realistic driving for the time, GT4 was a dream come true for motor fans. If you were interested in driving around locations you'd never visit, or driving your dream car around a lap, this game had an ability like no other at the time to take you there.
13. Dragon Quest 8: Journey of the Cursed King
For years, Dragon Quest was said to be as big in Japan as Final Fantasy was in the states, but publisher Enix made little attempt to advertise (or even release) the series in the west. When Enix merged with Square and shipped Dragon Quest 8: Journey of the Cursed King, it was the first time many in the US got a taste of what Dragon Quest had to offer. And what a taste it was.
DQ8 told the story of an evil jester, Dhoulmagus, who cast a curse on Trodain castle, turning the king into a troll, the princess into a horse, and the remainder of the inhabitants into plants. "The Hero" is the only one left unharmed, and after being approached by the king, sets off on an old-fashioned JRPG adventure. With amazing, traditional gameplay, wonderful visuals, and a stellar plot (that, admittedly, went on for about 20 hours too long), Dragon Quest 8 ended up being one of the best RPGs on the system. And considering the system was known for its RPGs, that's pretty big.
12. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
By 2003, Prince of Persia was a name barely remembered by most gamers, and after the embarrassing attempt at relevance that was Prince of Persia 3D, it seemed the series was truly dead. But when the franchise creator, Jordan Mechner, returned to the series with the great development team at Ubisoft Montreal, the Prince was reinvigorated. Not only did the reinvented Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time turn puzzle platforming on its head, but it did so with fine storytelling and real imagination.
Starting with the exploration-based platforming gameplay made famous by the Tomb Raider series, PoP took it to a new level of intricacy, as precise, sharp controls made going from wall-run to jump to roll to climb to wall-run a breeze. Even if you were tripped up by the touchy 3D camera, you could easily rewind back 20 seconds or so and give it another shot. This really softened the blow of the trial and error inherent in the genre, and it kept you hooked, sticking around to clear just one more room and the series of challenging jumps that lay within. The entire trilogy was a beautiful, violent, and occasionally heart-wrenching saga.
11. Beyond Good & Evil
A game as ambitious as Beyond Good & Evil should be appreciated by every gamer, even if some of its ambitions fell short. Its playstyle was similar to the Zelda series, and the story followed Jade on her search for answers as a war broke out around her. It dealt with themes that were especially timely in the paranoid, post-9/11 world, as Jade was a photojournalist for an underground network countering the massive propaganda machine of her planet's occupiers -who, it turned out, were secretly in league with their supposed enemies.
Though it got a tad predictable by the end, BG&E put a focus on creativity that few AAA games before it had, and the gameplay backed it up almost all the way. Even if its reach slightly exceeded its grasp, this proved that deeper themes can be tackled by games.
10. Final Fantasy X
Final Fantasy X stands out not only because it was the first Final Fantasy on PS2 (and its graphics still hold up to scrutiny today), but because it continued the FF tradition of blending equal parts reinvention and tradition in a way that nearly all fans of the series adored. The game had its share of minor missteps which seem almost endearing today (Wakka and Tidus are nobody's favourites, not to mention Blitzball), but its seamless blend of new and old still felt magical.
The beloved Active Time Battle system was transformed into the Conditional Turn-Based Battle system, ditching the real-time aspect in favor of completely strategic turn-based combat that was still no less intense than its predecessors. Add to that Tidus and Yuna's heartbreaking romance and a shocking (if somewhat convoluted) twist near the end, and FFX was truly worthy of bringing the series into a new generation.
9. Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal
If any franchise proved that it was possible to stay awesome while pumping out yearly sequels, it was this one. Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal continued the bigger, better, more approach established by the previous year's Going Commando, introducing weapons that could now be upgraded four times instead of once, a bigger universe to explore, and the first appearance of Ratchet's creepy robot nemesis, Dr. Nefarious. It also featured a bigger, more friendly role for idiot superhero/villain Captain Qwark, including side-scrolling side missions that took place inside the raygun-toting lunk's comic-book adventures.
Of course, all that stuff is secondary next to the addition that really secured Up Your Arsenals place in history: online play. The actual game modes weren't really anything online shooters hadn't done before, but going head-to-head against other players with Ratchet's weapons, abilities, and level design was a totally unique experience. And, while online play came back in Ratchet: Deadlocked, it was Up Your Arsenal that managed to sustain an online community right up until the servers were finally shut down.
Ico's a weirdly haunting game that can provoke strong emotions from those who play it. Theres fear, of course - its hard not to get a little creeped out by the smoky phantoms that periodically crawl out of the shadows to menace you - but Ico was also one of the first games to trigger a protective instinct in its players. Many have strong memories of working with a frail girl named Yorda to escape from the sprawling temple.
Ico isn't on this list just because its unusual or emotional, though; it was also an immensely rewarding game. Every twist of the temples crumbling, alien architecture offered new opportunities to experiment and new ways to puzzle out how, exactly, you could help Yorda - who was nowhere near as agile as Ico - get clear of the current obstacle before smoke-monsters showed up to snatch her away. (Also, beating up those monsters with Ico's occasionally fiery club was oddly satisfying). Ico's a true classic, and the fact that it happened so early in the PS2's lifespan was a testament to just how great the following years would be.
Set in feudal Japan with cel-shaded art created in broad strokes, the too beautiful to live Okami tells the tale of wolf god Amaterasu coming to Earth to save it from the rebirth of the wicked ancient gods. The Zelda-inspired gameplay gets a twist as the woodblock art style is infused into the gameplay whenever you pause the action and draw on the screen, painting symbols to use Amaterasu's special abilities. Still a uniquely gorgeous release with the gameplay to back it up, Okami is an adventure we never want to forget.
6. Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 2 is still easily the best in the Silent Hill series. It has nearly everything you could ask for in a psychological horror game: an unrelentingly suspenseful atmosphere, disturbingly grotesque enemies and imagery, and a mature and nuanced story that surpasses 98 percent of Hollywood's horror/suspense movies. It manages to deliver all the scares of the horror genre while still maintaining intelligent and often subtle themes about love, personal guilt, and misogyny. Not many games have touched on as many taboo topics as this, from child abuse to mental illness, while still somehow never seeming in poor taste.
5. Shadow of the Colosus
Shadow of the Colossus looks so empty at first glance. Players are dropped into an wide open world thats devoid of almost any living thing. Theres very little spoken dialogue, and no enemies beyond the 16 giants you're tasked with destroying. And yet such a barren sounding set up has gone down in history as one of the most universally acclaimed games on PS2.
The game creates such an extraordinarily deep experience with those few elements. It tells a story less through words than through gameplay, where each fight against a Colossus is a mystery to be solved, one that slowly builds the tragic narrative with each clever use of the simple mechanics in the brilliantly realised world. More than any other entry on this list, SotC shows how a game can tell a story unlike any other form of media. And its a story that every gamer should experience at least once.
4. Resident Evil 4
Whenever Resident Evil 4 comes up in a list, the focus is always on how it revitalised the series with its lack of true zombies, the innovation of its over-the-shoulder cam, and blah, blah, blah. Lets focus on the really important part: The game was just flat-out fun to play. Its manual aiming mechanic (with an actual laser-pointer reticle) made shooting angry villagers in the face so much more satisfying than the combat in earlier Resident Evils. Lets not forget the never-gets-old melee combo attacks which let you shoot a guy in the kneecap and then roundhouse him into a crowd of angry infected.
It influenced nearly every third-person shooter that came after it, but when we think back on it, we dont focus on mechanics so much as take time to grin and remember moments like when all the villagers were storming that farm house, or fighting regenerators. In the end that's what makes it worth playing no matter what the system.
3. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
Vice City improved on GTA 3 in every way, but Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas widened the scope incredibly. You didn't just have a city to explore - you had an entire state, complete with little towns and long stretches of wilderness that were rife with interesting geography to drive through. You weren't just some Mafia errand boy either - you were Carl CJ Johnson, a fully realised character with a family, a personality, and the need to exercise and eat (to bulk up or slim down accordingly).
More than just a crime game, this was a full-on criminal-fantasy simulator that began with petty turf wars on the streets of Los Santos and eventually reached the bizarre heights of stealing a jetpack from an Area 51 stand-in on the orders of a CIA drug pusher. GTA hasn't done anything quite this ambitious since; in fact, its hard to think of any other game that has. This was the high-water mark for one of the PS2s most defining series, making it easily worthy of ranking high on this list.
2. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was a unique step forward for the PlayStation defining series. A 1960s-set Cold War sequel starring Solid Snake's near-identical father, Naked Snake (aka Big Boss) it moved the action into a vast jungle. The setting forced you to manage your camouflage, kill animals for food, and heal your wounds with field surgery. The stealth gameplay was top-notch, as was the emotionally wrenching story built around unforgettable and hugely iconic boss fights. For all those reasons and more, Snake Eater is arguably yet to be overshadowed by any subsequent MGS sequel.
1. God of War 2
After God of Wars smash debut in 2005, everyone sort of figured that any sequel would show up on the PS3. No dice. Two years after most of us had counted the PS2 out, God of War 2 came storming in with action that was bigger, bloodier, fiercer and - surprisingly - better looking, with no visible toll taken on the PS2's almost then ancient hardware.
God of War 2 also introduced a handful of cool new powers and abilities, with Kratos now able to swing, Indiana Jones-style, from grapple points, and eventually glide using a pair of wings stolen from Icarus. And, like God of War before it, it took us on a thrilling, vicious tear through ancient Greece's most dismemberable monsters, with some of the most satisfyingly gory combat on any console.