What’s the Hottest Video-Game Console of Them All?

It’s not the Wii, the Xbox 360, or the PlayStation 3 …

A scene from God of War 2.

Every five or six years, a new generation of game consoles hit the market. They’re armed with the latest disk drives and processors and storage mediums. They’re capable of doing things with graphics and physics and artificial intelligence that were unimaginable a few years before. This holiday season, thousands of people camped out at Circuit City and Best Buy for this thrilling new hardware. Television and newspaper reporters hovered around these game-hungry geeks, waiting to see who would win the “console wars.” Would it be Nintendo’s Wii, Sony’s PlayStation 3, or Microsoft’s Xbox 360?

The results are now in. More than 1 million Xbox 360s were sold in December. Nintendo sold 600,000 Wiis that month. Sony brought up the rear, selling half a million of its $600 PlayStation 3 consoles. Still, Sony was the surprising winner of the December sales contest. How? Its six-year-old PlayStation 2 console racked up 1.4 million sales, far outpacing all three of the newfangled consoles.

So, what’s going on here? Wouldn’t the bleeding-edge tech in the new game consoles render the clunky old PS2 obsolete?

One reason the new consoles lagged behind the PS2 is supply—the manufacturers simply couldn’t make them fast enough to meet demand. Price is also an important factor. The PlayStation 2 costs just $130, nearly five times less than Sony’s bank-busting PS3. It’s no accident that the new console that’s now selling the fastest is also the cheapest: Nintendo’s $250 Wii.

The PS2’s popularity makes sense if you run the numbers. Along with being $470 cheaper than the PS3, PS2 games can be found for $10 or $20, while most new PlayStation3 games go for $60. That’s a steal, considering that the library of great games available for the PS2 could keep a kid occupied until the PlayStation 8 is released circa 2030. According to the review aggregator site Metacritic, there are no PlayStation 3 games that merit a grade of A, and only a dozen or so that score a B- or better. But there are more than 60 PlayStation 2 games that score an A, and more than 300 that score a B or better.

Sony has had trouble building interest in its new PlayStation 3. Actually, that’s putting it mildly. The negative reaction to the console within its target audience of hardcore gamers is surprisingly intense. Do a search for “PS3” on YouTube and you’ll find a panoply of anti-Sony screeds, including a heartfelt music video about the console called “How To Kill a Brand” and a parody of the popular Mac ads that casts the PS3 in the role of the unhip PC.

Luckily for Sony, their old console is so popular—more than 100 million have been sold worldwide—that they can offset some of the money they’re hemorrhaging with the PS3. By continuing to manufacture and support the PS2, Sony is keeping its old customers happy and offering a cheaper alternative for people who can’t afford a next-generation machine. Sony did the same thing last time around and managed to sell more than 20 million of the original PS1 consoles between 2000 and 2004—after the appearance of the PlayStation 2.

Meanwhile, Nintendo and Microsoft have stopped making new games for their old consoles—a telling sign that their previous generation of consoles is headed for the dustbin. Built-in backward compatibility—you can play games for the original Xbox on the Xbox 360, and Nintendo Gamecube games will work on the Wii—ensures that nobody has to throw away their old games, but it’s also a subtle way to encourage old customers to spend money on new hardware. While the PS3 is also backward compatible (it plays both PS2 and PS1 games), Sony isn’t pulling the rug out from under PS2 owners. Sony isn’t just releasing new games for the PlayStation 2—it’s releasing new blockbusters.

On March 13, thousands of people will line up to buy the gloriously brutal action game God of War 2. Though it will appear exclusively on the venerable PlayStation 2, it’s an almost certain bet to be the top-selling game of the month. A brief plot summary: You’re a badassed Greek demigod who gets pre-Socratic on hordes of gorgons, harpies, and minotaurs. The epic battles against characters like the Colossus of Rhodes are worthy of Ray Harryhausen films like Clash of the Titans. They’re among the most gorgeous and intense spectacles ever seen in a game.

Cory Barlog, the game director on God of War 2, told me that the attraction of making a PS2 game isn’t simply the 110 or 115 million potential customers. The real appeal was that he and his team of 70 geeks know how to extract every last bit of potential from the PS2. “At this point, we know the hardware intimately, we know all the tricks,” he said. “But when you start working on a new console, it’s like you’re hitting the reset button. You have to relearn everything.”

Playing God of War 2is, without question, a more satisfying experience than playing any of the launch titles for the new consoles. Those games may have better graphics, but they lack polish and self-assurance. A lot of the same geeks who rushed out and purchased a PlayStation 3 are going to buy God of War 2and play it on their new consoles—thank God for backward compatibility. On the other hand, if you didn’t spend $600 on a PS3, you can still play the best new game on the market. Perhaps the best new console is no new console at all.