November 2018 was a big month for video games. The range of emotions has been deep, from near universal gushing for Read Dead Redemption 2 to a massive wave of upset and drama stemming from the release of Fallout 76. Something else that stood out happened as well: Sony released the PlayStation Classic, a straight-up copping of the idea first introduced by Nintendo with its NES and SNES Classic mini consoles. But the thing about it is, while Nintendo’s products were smash hits, Sony’s parallel has landed with more of a thud. Several reviews have come out giving the device less than favorable scores, for something that you’d think would be a shoe-in. So what’s the deal? In this case, it’s a combination of software issues, the user experience, and the library itself that makes the PlayStation Classic, well, a dud.
The most glaring issue with the PlayStation Classic is simply how it performs. Rather than the in-house emulation Sony has used in the past to power its PSOne Classics line, for example, the company opted to “outsource,” and use an open source emulator to fuel the device. While normally that would be fine, the emulator in question is actually a somewhat outdated mobile version, and the situation is complicated by one choice in particular that is beyond bizarre.
A number of the games in the PlayStation Classic’s library are the PAL versions instead of the normal NTSC versions. What does that mean? Well, today, electronics are a lot more universal than they used to be, and that includes media as well. By default, everything is based on a 60hz refresh rate. But back in the 1990s, PAL region software ran with a slower 50hz refresh rate. This was, roughly, about a 20 percent speed difference. The PlayStation Classic includes several European versions of its games for some reason, even on the North American model. Having the 50hz software run on the 60hz-based hardware not only results in slower games by default, but many of them suffer further performance issues. Games like Tekken 3 and Battle Arena Toshinden therefore are running at sub-30 frame rates, poorer performance than on the original hardware. That’s a big issue!
The UI is also a problem. While it’s based on the baked-in UI for the original PlayStation, with its bizarre paint splotch-y look, it just… isn’t enough. It’s just a simple menu in which the user rotates through the software list. It’s minimal, it doesn’t look great, and there isn’t a ton of extra functionality. When you compare it to the NES or SNES Classics, those have tons of extra creative sauce put into them in comparison. The menu has original music, the extra UI graphics are bright and colorful, and even the save state system has more pizzazz to it than any other emulator. That kind of thing goes a long way when it comes to a novelty product such as these mini consoles being, well, novel.
Finally, there is the library. Sure, this is a more subjective matter than the others, but it’s a big snag for the PlayStation Classic. The PlayStation had a huge library, and it only grew deeper and more complex as the console’s life cycle continued. This thing seems to be based on the earlier era of the PlayStation, when developers were still showing off 3D visuals and getting used to the hardware. The PlayStation Classic doesn’t include a ton of PlayStation classics, we could say. Sure, some of these games, like Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Intelligent Qube were a big deal in the moment, but they don’t have the same lasting power some of the other games on the platform did. Yes, Final Fantasy VII and Wild Arms are on there, but the console suffers from things like licensing issues, and the economics of re-releases and remasters being on the market preventing series like Crash Bandicoot, Tony Hawk, and Castlevania from making appearances, to name a few examples.
So there it is. The PlayStation Classic, despite its high price tag and prestige outer appearance, isn’t great. That’s especially true when compared to the competition. The PlayStation Classic itself suffers not only from an arguably lacking library and bare-bones UI elements, but it’s straight-up an inferior product when it comes to performance and the quality of the emulation. When the game software doesn’t even operate the way one would expect, well, that’s a serious problem. There will certainly be parts of the intended audience that dig into this thing and enjoy it for what it is, but at the end of the day, it’s a letdown when you think about its potential. Perhaps Sony will try it again, but it that happens, it needs more to justify that premium price tag.