The PlayStation Classic, Sony’s first entry into the retro console emulation market that taps into nostalgia with a cute form factor and emulation failed to make a splash in the way the Nintendo SNES and NES classic did.

To fully understand why, we have to examine the missteps Sony made when conceptualizing and releasing the PlayStation Classic. 

As it turns out, there were quite a few.

A Name is Not Enough

Nintendo’s $80 pricing model was seen by many as overly aggressive with the NES Classic. These are 30 year old games after all, being sold in what’s essentially a fancy computer case. That didn’t stop everyone from wanting one however, and it ended up being one of the best selling consoles of the 2016 holiday season, despite the relatively small collection of titles and almost comically short controller cords. 

A follow up seemed like an obvious choice, and the SNES classic was released in September of 2017, to similar financial success. The concept was the same; a tiny recreation of the original console with full sized controllers, and a lovely Nintendo inspired user interface that allowed people to experience old classics on modern televisions via HDMI, along with modern conveniences like save states.

Sony was clearly inspired by Nintendo’s success, and essentially copied the concept, down to the name: the PlayStation Classic. There was one significant difference however: the higher price point.

The PlayStation was roughly twice as powerful as the SNES back in the nineties, with games that were significantly more complex, so perhaps that justified the higher price for Sony. After all, both Nintendo and Sony have aggressive pricing strategies when it comes to porting their older games, why should this be any different? 

People probably wouldn’t have minded the slight difference if Sony had done everything else right.

They didn’t.

A Controversial Collection 

Nintendo has a huge backlog of high-quality first party titles, and you can find many of the best known on the NES and SNES Classic. They also included some surprises alongside great third party games, like the previously unreleased Starfox 2. There’s no way to please everyone, but it’s fair to say that most Nintendo fans were satisfied.  

Sony, on the other hand, announced a bizarre collection of widely varying quality, seemingly chosen at random. You can see the full selection here.

For every Final Fantasy VII, there was some best-forgotten early 3D relic like the terrible Rainbow Six port. Many decried the fact that some of the best games on the console were nowhere to be found. Where was Final Fantasy 9? Spyro? Resident Evil 2?

There could be many reasons for the controversial choices. These games are more modern, and that could mean licensing is tricker, especially when it comes to music. Many have already been remade for modern consoles, perhaps Sony was worried about the potential cannibalization of sales.

Regardless of the reasoning, the vast majority of people were disappointed with the bizarre hodgepodge of titles. Though there’s no denying there are some absolutely fantastic games included, even the most dedicated PlayStation fanboy could see it was nowhere near the untouchable pedigree of the competition from Nintendo.

Emulation Troubles

The questionable selection might also have been forgiven had the console performed adequately. Sadly, that was not the case, and only added to the woes of the unfortunate PlayStation Classic.

Though most people lauded the physical construction of tiny console itself, almost immediately people started to notice that the emulation was quite poor, and that many games on the Classic performed worse than on the original, 20 year old console.  

Once emulation experts got their hands on the Classic and cracked open the software, they found that Sony opted to use PCSC, a free Playstation Emulator for PC, covered with a rather rudimentary overlay. Not only was it less feature rich than the Nintendo consoles, it further irked people that Sony was charging more for what was essentially a simple computer with a free emulator in a fancy case.  

Some particularly inventive hackers discovered that the SNES Classic, after being modified to run a Playstation emulator, often ran Playstation games better than the PlayStation Classic. 

This is even more troubling given that Sony has been known for their excellent emulation of these same games on previous consoles, as far back as the PSP and PlayStation 3. It’s not as though they don’t have developers who understand what needs to be done to properly run these titles.

Was this a cost cutting measure, or just laziness? Either way, the optics were certainly starting to look bad for Sony. 

Region Unlocked

If this wasn’t troubling enough, resourceful hackers also discovered that the PlayStation Classic has a mix of both NTSC and PAL games. This is highly problematic, as PAL games run significantly slower on 60Hz modern televisions, due to the fact they were initially designed for 50Hz displays in other regions. Often, the easiest way to get a PAL version to work properly was to literally slow down the speed at which the game played. For some titles this wasn’t hugely noticeable, but for those where speed matters, like racing or fighting games, this made them remarkably inferior, and measurably slower than their NTSC counterparts.

Between the underwhelming emulation and the mix of PAL and NTSC titles, the PlayStation Classic never really had a chance to impress. These are confoundingly misguided choices, and why Sony went this route is still unknown.

Security to the Front

The final flaw in the PlayStation Classic might actually be one of its greatest strengths: it’s a remarkably insecure console. Almost immediately after release, hackers determined how to side-load other games onto it from a USB drive, and have now gone so far as to run other emulators like Retroarch, along with custom themes that dramatically change just about every aspect of the original software design.

All this, in less than a month. 

To be fair, the NES and SNES Classic have been hacked as well. All three are, after all, fairly simple computers at the end of the day, but the fact the PlayStation Classic was cracked so quickly is remarkable. 

As with the emulation, it couldn’t be blamed on a lack of knowledge or resources from Sony, as the PS Vita was one of the most secure consoles ever made. When it came to the PlayStation Classic however, they either intentionally left it vulnerable, or simply didn’t care enough to worry about it.

How did it happen?

The numerous flaws in the PlayStation Classic can be read a few ways; either Sony rushed a faulty and underwhelming product to market to compete with Nintendo without giving it the attention it deserved, or they knew exactly who they were targeting by leaving it open to relatively simple security vulnerabilities. 

Maybe the poor emulation and insecurity was an open invitation to modify the system, but that seems unlikely. Enough work and marketing went into the PlayStation Classic to make it clear Sony was hoping it would be a big seller, and even if that was the case, it wouldn’t explain the strange collection of games, or the weird choice to include NTSC and PAL titles.

Whether intentional or not, it seems like PlayStation Classic is probably going to continue to be popular with people who want to use it as a computer for emulation, rather than a simple throwback console.

The Future Classic

Despite its numerous weaknesses, the PlayStation Classic still does a lot right, especially for $60. 

The physical construction of the console is excellent, and it looks fantastic plugged in under a modern display, and those nostalgia inducing controllers instantly bring back memories. Even with the somewhat shoddy emulation, it’s still a fantastic opportunity for younger gamers to play some of the most influential titles ever made, close to how they were intended.

With rumors of an N64 Classic still swirling, it will be interesting to see what the future of these tiny little throwback consoles looks like, and if Sony, or Nintendo for that matter, learned any lessons from the tumultuous early life of the PlayStation Classic.

A contributor to the Forgotten Code collective.

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