By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
In honor of the PS2’s recent 15th birthday, we’ve decided to highlight a few series that spent their whole existence on the console and seem to have died along with it (digital re-releases not withstanding).
5. The Mark of Kri / Rise of the Kasai
The Mark of Kri was a gorgeous game, smartly employing a team of 2D animators to give the 3D game a non-CG cartoon look that helped it to stand out from the ever-increasingly realistic visuals of the era. That bright and colorful look also stood in stark contrast to what was actually a very violent game. Being able to use the right analog stick to lock onto enemies was also an innovative feature and made fighting hordes of surrounding enemies much easier than most pre-Arkham Asylum games ever managed. The sequel, Rise of the Kasai, was long promoted to be a two-player co-op game, a feature which was unfortunately stripped from the final game, replaced instead by an AI-controlled partner throughout. It wasn’t nearly as bad as critics at the time made it out to be, but the backlash was strong enough that the series was never given another chance.
4. Shadow Hearts trilogy
Sacnoth, the small Japanese developer responsible for the cult hit RPG Koudelka for the PS1, brought the first in a series of solid RPGs exclusively to the PS2. The series mostly follows a family of vampires in early 20th century, but in an interesting twist the game’s mostly fictional cast interacts with characters named after and loosely based on real people, some even playable: Grigori Rasputin, Al Capone, and the Mata Hari, among others. Gameplay-wise, the games stood out with the Judgement Ring, a timing-based meter that accompanied most combat actions and many of the mini-games, which skilled players could use to a variety of ends including even getting multiple hits per turn in combat. In addition, the characters have a running Sanity Meter that gradually decreases throughout battle and would make characters go “Bezerk” when it reached zero and cause them to randomly attack, including their own allies. The series sold well enough to have three installments, but a developer switch after the first game (Sacnoth went belly up after its release) and a revolving door of publishers proved that it wasn’t quite profitable enough for anyone to stay on board for the long term and, combined with the third game having the weakest reception of the series, it never went beyond trilogy status.
3. Xenosaga trilogy
Though all of the games that begin with the prefix “Xeno” – also including Xenogears and Xenoblade Chronicles – share a director and many other team members, each offshoot is only connected in spirit and basic themes, making the Xenosaga games a completely PS2 experience. Not unlike Xenogears, which wasn’t able to quite fulfill its planned ambitious scope and resulted in much of the third act being told through text, Xenosaga was originally conceived as a six-game epic but had to settle for being a trilogy following less-than-blockbuster sales of the first games. In fact, only the original was universally acclaimed and retained the full scope and philosophical depth of the first installment. Still, it was a terrific series and arguably was as strong of a presence on the PS2 as Final Fantasy was, and tackled themes that are more intellectual and mature than most games even today bother with, or do so half as well as Xenosaga did.
2. Dark Cloud 1 & 2
The first Dark Cloud was an early PS2 title that featured a wonderful mix of action/RPG gameplay with city building elements, and showcased the power of the system by allowing you to zoom in and out between the game’s 3D world and the overhead view of the sim portions on the fly. The games featured some decidely hardcore “old school” RPG elements that included breakable weapons, randomly-generated dungeons, and ever-decreasing health while in the dungeons, effectively making them timed. The first game certainly wasn’t a dud in the graphics department, but the sequel was an exceptionally beautiful game, featuring bright, cel-shaded graphics in the vein of Dragon Quest VIII and Rogue Galaxy (all by the same developer, not coincidentally) and remains one of the best-looking games on the system. Developer Level-5 has remained extremely prolific in the years since the Dark Cloud games, most notably with the Professor Layton series, so they really don’t “need” to revisit a franchise that is basically just a footnote in their storied history.
1. Maximo: Ghosts to Glory and Maximo vs Army of Zin
Essentially Ghosts and Goblins in 3D (and way better if you ask me) down to its heart-covered boxer shorts, the Maximo games were fantastic action/platform games that hearken back to a time when Capcom was still willing to experiment and both launch new IPs and not act like their old ones never existed. The first Maximo definitely separated the hardcore from the casual and was an incredibly difficult game – exactly the way a spiritual successor to Ghost and Goblins should be, though not nearly as cheap as those games could be. Sequel Army of Zin toned things down a bit and was a little more accessible but without completely alienating fans of the first game – a rare feat that few that attempt such a thing ever manage half as well. With Capcom refusing to revisit even much bigger properties like Mega Man, a revival or even HD remake of Maximo seems like a silly notion to even entertain the possibility of, but it is definitely on my all-time list of franchises I’d most like to see a sequel to.