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Friday, October 19, 2018

Obscusion B-Side: GamePro Presents The PlayStation 2 & PlayStation Encyclopedia

With "retro gaming" being as notable of a market as it is today, it's not surprising that some people have published their own "comprehensive" books detailing all sorts of old gaming subjects, especially about how specific games hold up. Hardcore Gaming 101 has published its own series of books covering specific publishers & genres, Pat "the NES Punk" Contri has his "Ultimate Guide" to the NES library (with one for the SNES in the works), & you can find books of this ilk for things like the North American Master System catalog & even the entire Game & Watch roster. Over a decade before all of these, though, was a curious spin-off published by IDG's GamePro magazine, then self-described as the "World's Largest Multiplatform Gaming Magazine", that dared to compile reviews for every game for a single console, the Sony PlayStation.

On October 26, 2000, Sony released the PlayStation 2 in North America, and with its precursor console absolutely dominating the market during the second half of the 90s, GamePro wanted to be a part of the PS2's launch. So, at some point around the console's launch, you could find a 160-page, magazine-sized book titled GamePro Presents The PlayStation 2 & PlayStation Encyclopedia, which sold for "Only $5.99" & claimed to be "The Ultimate Guide to Every PlayStation Game". As for a rough release date, the PS1 reviews contained within cover up to a few games released in October/November 2000, with the most recent looking to be Breath of Fire IV, so I'd put the magazine as having been released either November or December of that year. I actually bought this book back when it came out in the day, so I'm curious about how well this compilation of GamePro reviews holds up, or if it's nothing more than a look at how gaming journalism was like during the 90s.

According to the "Editor's Letter" at the start of the book, this was actually the follow up to The Ultimate Guide to PlayStation Games, a 1997 compendium covering all PS1 games that had come out in the first two years of the console's life, a book that I have never heard of until just now. Anyway, following the table of contents, a four-page index listing every game covered, & a single-page list of every M-rated game on the PS1 & PS2 (at the time), the book actually starts off with PlayStation 2 coverage. There's "Grand Central 'Station", a two-page spread covering the technical specs of the console, plus four DVDs that the "GamePros" themselves recommend for purchase (including North by Northwest, shocking enough!). Then we get 11 pages of PS2 previews, covering titles like Onimusha: Warlords, Metal Gear Solid 2, Gran Turismo 3, Winback: Covert Operations, Twisted Metal Black, The Bouncer, & Red Faction. We also see games that would undergo name changes later, like "Vikki's Adventures" (a.k.a. Portal Runner) & "Street Lethal" (a.k.a. Supercar Street Challenge), plus a 13th page simply listing another 45 games planned for release, like Extermination, Zone of the Enders, Ico, Oni, & even (eventually) unreleased games, like Carrier Morphed, Jurassic Park III, & Aliens: Colonial Marines. Okay, that last one did eventually come out... Only 13 years later... And really poorly.

Then we get 11 pages of PS2 reviews, effectively covering the entire North American launch lineup. Dead or Alive 2: Hardcore gets a two-page spread, followed by TimeSplitters, Smuggler's Run, Dynasty Warriors 2, & Tekken Tag Tournament all receiving full-page reviews; all of these games receive a very welcome reception, scoring no lower than 4/5 in any category. After those, Madden 2001, SSX, Silent Scope, & X-Squad each get half-page reviews, followed by the likes of Midnight Club: Street Racing, MotoGP, Ridge Racer V, Armored Core 2, FIFA 2001, NASCAR 2001, NHL 2001, International Track & Field, Winter X-Games SnowboardingEternal Ring, Orphen: Scion of Sorcery, Summoner, Gradius III and IV, & Wild Wild Racing all only receiving short, 1/3 page write-ups. Overall, the reviews are mostly positive, with only X-Squad, Kessen, Street Fighter EX3, Swing Away Golf, Orphen, Fantavision, & WWR going below a 4 for "Fun Factor". Still, looking over these reviews, I am reminded of GamePro's bizarre obsession with awkward game comparisons, like saying that X-Squad "won't make waiting for Metal Gear Solid 2 any easier," even though they play very little alike, or warning people to "don't expect anything on the level of Colony Wars," when it comes to Gradius, even though they are completely different types of shooting games. Also, we see the first bit of GamePro's habit of dissing 2D games, calling Gradius III out for having "antiquated sprite graphics & tinny sounds"; trust me, it's only going to get worse from here on out.

But we aren't interested in this book for GamePro's early PS2 coverage, are we? No, we're here for the PS1 stuff, which starts up on page 46 by covering the PSOne, the smaller repackaging of the original console, plus "essential" accessories... Like the link cable & mouse. Sure, they're useful in the small smattering of games that support them, but I'd hesitate to consider them required for any PS1 owner; hell, the link cable doesn't even work with the PSOne! The following page is "The Best (and Worst) PlayStation Games of All Time", where the editors compile Top 10 lists for Action/Adventure, Driving/Racing, Fighting, Flying (which they claim had so few games that they considered "all" of them), Puzzle/Strategy, RPG, Shooting, & Sports. Overall, the lists are pretty fair, with some surprisingly neat picks (Poy Poy is #7 for Puzzle/Strategy, Tecmo's Deception is #6 for RPGs, etc.), but there are some bizarre choices, like Neversoft's Spider-Man topping Metal Gear Solid for Action/Adventure. As for "The Worst", which had to have a 2.0 or lower in Fun Factor to be considered, it's an understandable list, though I know that a title like Digimon World has its fans out there, who loved the monster-raising concept it utilized.

Following that, there are 15 pages of PS1 previews, in alphabetical order & split up across the same exact categories as the Top 10 lists, covering 76 then-upcoming titles, and here is where we first see the format that this book utilizes for the rest of the games coverage. Each page is effectively split up into eight blocks, with most previews & reviews taking up one of those blocks, though some do take up two. Unfortunately, there isn't a single page where you have four, five, or eight pre/reviews, which feels like a little bit of wasted potential, since you only ever get six or seven on each page; over the course of 100+ pages, it would add up. Also, I say "preview/review", but the truth of the matter is that every single PS1 game gets nothing more than two or three sentences; don't go expecting GamePro to simply reprint their old reviews from the past. That being said, the GamePro editors actually did a decent job with these micro write-ups, with most giving a general (if extremely basic) idea of what each game feels like, so you still get the basic gist of it; not all are good, but it's definitely better than it sounds.

As for the previews themselves, they're pretty much what you'd expect from such short & basic write-ups, i.e. they're more promotional tidbits than anything. Still, it's worth checking this section out, if only for the occasional game that never actually saw an American release, like Blade Arts(: Tasogare no Miyako R'lyeh) or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This section also made me realize about games that I never knew actually came out, like Bugs Bunny & Taz: Time Busters or Mort the Chicken. And, finally, there are the games that just outright never came out in the end, like Batman Overdrive, Backyard Football, & NASCAR Racers. Just like the PS2 section, there's also a final page at the end of this section that simply lists another 45 then-upcoming PS1 games, including some that never saw release, like Battleship II, Carmageddon II: Carpocalypse Now, Earthworm Jim 3D, Superman, Wild Wild West, or Worms Pinball, & others that I had no idea actually came out, like Arthur! Ready to Race or Sea-Doo Hydrocross; seriously, the PS1 catalog is larger than you think. I get why this section was included, same with the PS2 content, but today it all feels like filler.

Finally, after 64 pages, we get to the main attraction: The PS1 reviews. This covers pages 65 to 148, and GamePro even changed the paper stock for this section, as these pages are the only ones to have a pulpy feel to them, compared to the smooth & glossy stock of the rest of the book. As with the previews before, the 523 game reviews are separated into categories (Action/Adventure is easily 1/5 of the reviews, though) & alphabetized, with each review having the title, a brief write-up, an image, the scores (Graphics, Sound, Control, & Fun Factor), and an info section listing the publisher, # of players, ESRB rating, & the month/year of GamePro it was originally reviewed in (if it's a first-time review, it simply says "Not Reviewed"); in fact, 108 of the reviews, or roughly 20%, are first-timers, which is really cool. The main thing I should bring up first, however, is that even with a little over 80 pages dedicated to what was pretty much the reason to buy this magazine, GamePro didn't actually give every PS1 game released (at the time) the same kind of treatment. The last four pages are simply categorized as "The Rest...", and simply list 460 GAMES across two columns per page, where they have the title, Fun Factor only, ESRB rating, & the issue it was reviewed in; yes, they were given the "The Professor & Mary Ann" treatment.

An assorted collection from "The Rest..."

The problem is that 82 of the games, or about 18%, in "The Rest..." were never reviewed by GamePro prior to this magazine, they say "NR" in place of a date, which turns what already feels like being gypped into something even worse; I can definitely tell you that I was very disappointed back when I first read this as a kid. Now one could assume that these "NR" games at the end are pretty much the "crap de la crap" of the PS1's library, but some of the games here, like Area 51, Bubble Bobble also featuring Rainbow Islands, Pro Pinball, & Worms, were given a 4.0 for their first-time-ever scores; hell, Worms even got a 4.5! Sure, most of the "NRs" scored somewhere between 2.0 & 3.5, & some even got 0.5 (the lowest the magazine would give), but it is a bit of a low blow to toss close to 500 games aside with next to no information about them. I understand that GamePro wanted to keep the price point reasonable, & I wouldn't be surprised if this was done by order of the "IDG Overlords" for cost reasons, but I think they could have easily given all 983 PS1 games included the same treatment, which would have doubled the size (or maybe simply remove the PS2 section, if needed), and it could have easily still sold at $10-$15. Sure, back then such a move would be seen as unheard of in gaming journalism, but I'm sure it would have sold.

From here on out, it's my own
curated selection from each category
Because of the fact that nearly 47% of the PS1's catalog at that time was shoved into the last four pages of this section, one should take into consideration how exactly the GamePro editors curated the categorized reviews. In that regard, it's actually well done, giving a nice variety of games the "full" treatment here. Obviously, you've got your all-time classics that need no introduction, but you also see a good number of lesser known, but still noteworthy titles, like Galerians, Echo Night, Runabout-2, Destrega, Dragonseeds, Poy Poy, Eternal Eyes, Vanark, & Contender. They also didn't skimp out on lower-rated games, like Countdown Vampires, Nectaris: Military Madness, Warhammer: Dark Omen, or Master of Monsters: Disciples of Gaia. It's also fun to see how some games got scored back then compared to how they're generally received now, like the original Grand Theft Auto scoring 2s & a 1.5, or Star Wars: Master of Teräs Käsi WWF War Zone both nearly achieving perfect scores. You also aren't guaranteed to see every entry in a franchise, regardless of how popular it was. For example, the original Crash Bandicoot gets thrown to "The Rest..." while the other games are given reviews, but all three Gex games are given the full treatment, with Gex 3 even getting a double-wide panel. There is also the occasional oddity when it comes to the reviews themselves. I read every single PS1 review, and came across the rare comma that wasn't needed, extra spaces between words, and even a review or two where the words didn't quite match the score. For example, Fighting Force got all 4s, but the review sounded more dour about it, while Ehrgeiz was deemed "a fighter worth playing", even though it scored a 3.5 (i.e. just above average) across all categories. Then there's the Spice World review, where the sound was given a 4.5 but the person who wrote the blurb must have really despised the British pop group, saying that "the gameplay & graphics suck as much as the Spice Girls' music". There's also the rare bit of downright incorrect information, like saying that Rising Zan: Samurai Gunman is based on the "manga comic", even though it's an original property; props for using the word "manga" in a mainstream publication in the year 2000, though.

However, probably the most interesting thing about this magazine is that it acts as a perfect window into how gaming journalism was like during the 90s, especially over at GamePro. The PS1 was the major player in the advancement from 2D sprites to "3D" polygons, and a lot of writers back then were absolutely gobsmacked with this revolution, usually to the point of downplaying, if not downright insulting, many of the 2D games that still came out during this time. Granted, credit & high scores are given out to the best out there, like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Oddworld, or Legend of Mana, but then you have games like Punky Skunk, which are given 2s or lower simply because they look "16-bit", even though the game itself looks fine. There was also a tendency to put down something for being "kiddie", like with Klonoa: Door to Phantomile; it got high scores, but the review still had to end with "it's somewhat of a kiddie game". As indicated during the PS2 section earlier, it's pretty sad to see the "world's largest" gaming magazine be so obsessed with with how technology was moving forward, especially at the expense & sometimes disregard to games that stuck with older styles.

What might be the most potentially controversial section, though, is the Role-Playing category of the PS1 reviews. In a time where most genres focused on moving into polygons for their visuals, RPGs tended to stick with sprites, or at least used sprites on top of polygonal environments, and this was even more so for Japanese-developed titles. I bring this up because the reviews covered here really showcase a bizarre range of scores for graphics between sprite-based games. Games like Breath of Fire III & IV, Legend of Mana, SaGa Frontier, & Valkyrie Profile all scored at least a 4 in that category, while other 2D entries like Alundra, Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure, & Vanguard Bandits were given average-at-best scores, even though they all arguably hold up better than some of the polygonal games, even back in late 2000. Also, RPG fans who read GamePro back in the day likely still feel bitter about how the editors at the magazine wound up trashing games like Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, Star Ocean: The Second Story, Suikoden II, Tales of Destiny, & (especially) Xenogears back in the day, even though today they're all held up as some of the PS1's best titles in the genre; meanwhile, Final Fantasy VIII got a perfect score, but today is possibly the most decisive entry. In fact, Xenogears is the only game in the entire magazine to not even be given an actual screen shot of gameplay for its review blurb, instead using a scene from one of the anime cutscenes; simply bizarre.

The Shooting category almost isn't much better, with pretty much any game that's either a release of a classic, like R-Types, old-school inspired, like Thunder Force V (the blurb even states it'd "be considered an exciting shooter... if we were still in the early 90s playing 8-bit generation video games"... Ugh.), or even utilizing simpler graphics, like Point Blank 2, being given middling to poor scores (except for control, which usually hit a 4 at all times). In comparison, games that relied on polygons, like R-Type Delta, G-Darius, or Einhänder, were given glowing praise. In fact, GamePro even deemed Einhänder, released in mid-1998, "the PlayStation's first good side-scrolling shooter", which is highly debatable. Meanwhile, first & third-person shooters tended to score much better on the whole, as well as some flying games; GamePro was REALLY into the Colony Wars games, for example. Sure, there are some poorly-rated games in this section, like Grudge Warriors or Judge Dredd, but it is interesting how generally positive, if highly skewed, this category winds up being.

Finally, the entire book ends with 11 pages of S.W.A.T.Pro, which features codes & the like for a wide variety of games, but nowhere near covering the PS1's entire catalog. Even come 2000, this section of the magazine was really starting to lose its relevance, since websites like GameFAQs & GameSages (the latter of which would eventually be bought up by IGN) were making it much easier & convenient to find cheats for, so having to rely on a physical book every month for this kind of stuff had really become pointless. Eventually, GamePro stopped including this section in the actual magazine, & it's nothing more than filler in this "encyclopedia". Really, this entire section could have replaced with more PS1 reviews, as GamePro could have easily squeezed another 66 to 77 games in its place.

And, to finish, here's a mix of the Flying & Puzzle/Strategy reviews.

Now, even upon release, it's obvious that GamePro's claim to this magazine being an "encyclopedia" to the "complete" North American PS1 library was dubious; it even ignores the few reviews GamePro did for games that never came out, like Project X2. Even though the PS2 was out, Sony's original video game console still saw support for a good few more years, with close to 350 additional games seeing release between mid-October 2000 & October 12, 2004, which saw the release of the final officially licensed PS1 game in North America, FIFA Soccer 2005. Unfortunately, GamePro would stop covering PS1 games after only a couple more years, with the magazine's final review being, to my knowledge, Capcom vs. SNK Pro in 2002; at the very least, it was given a full-page review. All that being said, though, the sheer girth of the PS1 library, even taking only North America into account, has effectively made it nigh-impossible for anyone to even attempt a truly comprehensive guide, especially if you want any sort of detail, which still makes GamePro Presents The PlayStation 2 & PlayStation Encyclopedia possibly the best physical guide to the PS1, even with its various flaws, inconsistencies, & obvious lack of coverage for the console's last four years.

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