PS2 collecting, especially if you’re just getting started and didn’t grow up with the system, can be overwhelming: the system’s complete game library clocks in at over eighteen hundred titles, and that’s not counting cross-regional variants where the same game was released in multiple territories. The good news is, not only is the PS2 hardware easy to find and inexpensive, but it’s home to some phenomenal software that will offer you hours of enjoyment for discount gaming dollars. Using this list in conjunction with my earlier article on budget-priced must-haves for the original PlayStation, and taking advantage of the PS2’s backwards compatibility, you could take two hundred bucks and build a rock-solid library of hits just visiting your local retro gaming store or browsing eBay.
Now, this list is not meant to be definitive in any sense of the word, it’s in no particular order, and there’s no guarantee you’ll love a game just because I put it on here. This isn’t a “Top 13 PS2 Games” list, it isn’t a list of hidden gems (though there may be entries that qualify), it’s just a compilation of awesome games across varying genres that won’t break your retro bank. I pulled examples from a variety of genres, so even if you’re the pickiest gamer out there, you should find something appealing (feel free to let me know in the comments if you fail). Also, I’m a gamer who lives in the US, writing about software from North America only — some of these titles may not be available in your region, may be available under a different title, or might currently be priced such that they’re not “budget” titles, so always double-check before placing that online order.
With that in mind, let’s get collecting! We’ll start with…
13) Twisted Metal: Black
For the longest time, the first, last, and only name in car combat was Twisted Metal. After 989 Studios made a mess of the franchise, Dave Jaffe and his team from Incognito were brought back by Sony to reboot the Twisted Metal line. Now a first-party subsidiary of Sony instead of a third-party developer, Jaffe and crew released what may very well be the definitive offensive driving experience in Twisted Metal: Black. Stripping away the cheesy humor of previous installments, combining a mixture of new and old drivers with massive, sprawling stages far larger than anything seen in previous car combat titles, and airbrushing everything with a much darker tone, Twisted Metal: Black runs at a blistering frame rate, provides for up to four-player split-screen mayhem on a single console if you have a PS2 multitap, and offers enough secrets, hidden characters, bonus levels, and horrifying FMV sequences to provide mature gamers hours of pick up and play entertainment for under five friggin’ dollars. While not a launch title, this was one of the earliest games available on the system, yet it remains eminently playable and enjoyable today, some seventeen years after its release. Now that’s impressive!
12) Burnout 3: Takedown
Eschewing simulation for a ridiculously over-the-top arcade racing experience, Burnout 3 is one of the most accessible driving titles available in the PS2 library, with a low price you simply cannot beat.
Burnout 3: Takedown gives you plenty of action, with over 150 different courses set on three different continents in the story mode, then developer Criterion Games drops the “but wait, there’s more!” bomb with Crash mode, where instead of racing a friend or the CPU, the goal is to simply cause as much property damage as possible by smashing, breaking, and running your opponent into things to set up chain reactions. These chain reactions redefine beauty: massive explosions, particle effects galore, and models that shatter, crumple, and break apart in an awesome display of processing power.
If your preferences lean more towards the simulation side of racing, you’ll want to look at Gran Turismo 4 or one of the numerous Need For Speed titles, but for arcade-style perfection at a ridiculously low price, Burnout 3: Takedown is the best option, hands down.
There’s a massive array of first-person shooter titles in the PS2’s library, including a slew of entries in EA’s Medal of Honor series, but for my money (and yours), the best bang for the buck is Black. Set in Eastern Europe, you play as a special ops soldier engaged in a variety of black ops missions ranging from demolitions to assassinations. Forget a license to kill, Black gives you a license to go apeshit with massively-destructible environments, well-implemented physics engine, and small but effective arsenal of weapons ranging from pistols and shotguns all the way up to room-clearing RPGs and frag grenades. Enemies rag-doll beautifully when killed, flying off ledges, falling out windows, and slumping against walls as they would in real life, but the game’s biggest draw is the explosions. Not surprising, given Black was developed by Criterion Games, aka: the same gang of crazies behind Burnout 3: Takedown. Given their love of smoke, fire, and particle effects, you can’t fault them for including so many ways to incinerate, blow up, crush, and mangle the opposition.
Once you go Black, you may never go back.
10) Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
I’m not going to rag on Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, other than to say that when we get a Metal Gear title, we expect to play as Snake. Well, Snake Eater fixes all that by going back to a time before the first Metal Gear Solid, when the Cold War was in full swing and Big Boss, Solid Snake’s “father,” was just another field agent.
Developed by Hideo Kojima for Konami, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater gives players every reason to play and enjoy this game with tons of little surprises, epic boss fights, nods to previous games in the series, and a storyline with more twists and turns than a track in Burnout, plus the sneaking mechanics, non-leathal takedown options, and fourth-wall-breaking surprises we’ve come to expect from Konami’s blockbuster franchise over the years.
There are plenty of choices for stealth gaming action on the PS2, but Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is the best of all of them rolled into one convenient and inexpensive package, bar none.
9) Hunter the Reckoning: Wayward
I’m not exactly sure what was going on at High Voltage Software with regards to their Hunter the Reckoning trilogy, licensed from the White Wolf pen-and-paper RPG of the same name. The original Hunter the Reckoning came out for both Xbox and GameCube. Wayward, the second in the series, was a PS2 exclusive. Redeemer, the final entry in the series, ignored both the GameCube and PlayStation 2 as an Xbox-only release. At the very least, if you want the whole story, you need to own two competing consoles. I can think of no instance where this makes any economic sense for the publisher, the developer, or the players, but it is what it is.
If you’ve got a PS2 and want an action RPG hybrid that is both fun to play and inexpensive, look no further than Wayward. Featuring a cast of four (with a few more unlockables just to sweeten the deal) Hunters to pick from, two-player simultaneous play, and a simple and intuitive control scheme involving both melee and ranged weapons, Hunter the Reckoning: Wayward is probably best enjoyed by fans of the pen-and-paper game and those unopposed to smacking down dozens of mooks, but its inexpensive price and fun factor make it more than worthy of this list. While it’s the second game in a trilogy, it’s perfectly enjoyable without having access to either the prequel or the sequel.
8) God of War / God of War II
Kratos has been kicking ass and taking names all across Greece for twelve years now, but two of the Ghost of Sparta’s best adventures are his earliest. Made by the same team that crafted Twisted Metal: Black back at the start of the PS2’s lifecycle, God of War and its sequel (sorry, I couldn’t pick between them) rewrote the rules on what it meant to craft a viscerally exciting action adventure for home consoles.
Dave Jaffe and his squad of lunatics pillaged Greek mythology for their setting, then went on to craft a violent platformer integrating combo-based combat, quick-time events, and some decidedly mature themes to fill the mold. The result: Kratos is one of the most recognizable certifiable badasses of the 21st century, a remorseless engine of carnage and destruction not even the gods can long oppose. Whether he’s twisting off Medusa’s cranium to use as a secondary weapon, skewering a multi-headed hydra on the broken masts of a ship, or challenging Ares to one-on-one combat, the only fucks Kratos has to give in his long-running vengeance-fueled orgy of retribution belong to the nubile and willing women who occasionally cross his path. Let’s face it: anybody who can bone Aphrodite into cross-eyed submission after pile-driving Zeus into the Underworld deserves a spot on this list.
7) Grand Theft Auto: Vice City / San Andreas
You knew these were going to be on here, right?
It’s impossible to pick just one, and if you’re in the mood for some sandbox-themed insanity, both of them will fill the void. San Andreas is technically the superior game, with an overall larger game world, new vehicles like bicycles, an experience system to reward you for practicing with various weapons, and a mechanic that lets you take over turf then recruit and arm your gang to defend it (all that and a cop voiced by Samuel L. Jackson to harass you at the same time), but then Vice City has that rocking 80’s Miami vibe from the clothing on down to the radio stations and a main character voiced by Goodfellas alum Ray Liotta. It’s all down to personal preference with this one. Either way you can’t go wrong, and neither one should set you back more than five or six dollars unless you insist on the black label, Hot Coffee-mod-ready version of San Andreas for some stupid reason.
Which you shouldn’t, because it’s 2017 and a quick trip to YouTube will show you every reason why you don’t need that version of the game in your life. Ever.
6) Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES
There are a slew of RPG choices on the PS2, even for the budget-conscious gamer, including numerous entries in the ubiquitous Final Fantasy franchise, but for a game with phenomenal everything, look no further than this gem from Atlus.
The Persona series ditches traditional genre conventions of sword-and-sorcery and instead offers up a modern-day Japan setting with a slew of fascinating characters and stories guaranteed to mess with your head. Persona 3 FES is basically a director’s cut of the original Persona 3 with a bunch more content including an entirely new second storyline which picks up after the conclusion of the main one. All told, between mastering the social link system which helps power up your party members, the fusion system which allows you to create new Persona out of existing ones, and the main quest, full engagement with Persona 3 will return well over 100 hours of enjoyment. Considering you can find a copy for under $15 these days, that’s an unbeatable investment.
The price used to be much higher, but a digital release on PSN coupled with an even more extensive special edition release on the PSP means lower prices across the board, and an excellent, long-lasting experience for JRPG enthusiasts no matter which platform they choose.
5) Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy
PS2 platformers are a dime-a-dozen, but Naughty Dog’s Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy introduced a gorgeous 3D-rendered open hub-style fantasy world full of places to explore, puzzles to solve, and items to collect. It was awesome in 2001, and still fun to play today. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, they went on to make two sequels that managed to be just as entertaining as the original.
You really should play them all in order, since each one builds on the previous story, but if you can only find Jak II or Jak 3 in the wild and have to play them out of order, I won’t hold it against you. Jak and Daxter was so successful, Naughty Dog software even hid elements of their games, like Precursor artifacts, in another famous series you may have heard of: Uncharted. Heck, even the PSP-exclusive spin-off Daxter is fun to play and worth tracking down if you’re portable-hunting on a budget.
Like many of the other games on this list, that low price is a combination of digital availability along with an HD remaster for the PS3 that worked in favor of the extremely patient gamer such as yourself. Good job!
4) Street Fighter Anniversary Collection
I know somebody would blow a gasket if a one-on-one brawler didn’t make the list, and the PS2 has enough fighting games to raise quite the ruckus when it comes to whittling it down to one selection. That said, dollar-for-dollar, it’s impossible to top 2004’s Street Fighter Anniversary Collection from Capcom.
The disc delivers two options: an arcade port of Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike is your first choice, but the real reason to pick this up is Hyper Street Fighter II: The Anniversary Edition, a mash-up of five different arcade games (Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, Street Fighter II: Championship Edition, Street Fighter II Turbo, Super Street Fighter II and Super Street Fighter II Turbo). Seventeen different characters, each programmed with their move-sets from the various titles, can get in the arena and spar using a variety of options, speed settings, and handicaps.
As if two awesome games weren’t enough, the DVD also includes Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie for your viewing pleasure (it’s found in the bonus section of Hyper Street Fighter II). Because the game’s rated ‘T’, Chun Li’s shower scene got the ax, but it’s the 21st century and anime boobs are literally everywhere on the internet if you need them that badly. Two great fighting games and one free bonus movie make this too fine a deal for the budget-conscious collector to pass up.
3) Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction
Never mind the colossal mess of a sequel which ranks as one of the largest gaming disappointments of my life — Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction is the single greatest open world game of all time.
Pandemic Studios and LucasArts created a nearly perfect game which now seems eerily prescient considering the state of the world today. Set in a fictional not-too-far future, this 2005 sandbox-style shoot-’em-up sees the player adopt the persona of one of three different mercs dropped into a destabilized North Korea with the ultimate goal of capturing or killing their way through the Deck of 52, a cadre of criminals, businessmen, soldiers, body guards, and cabinet members working for the man running things in the DPRK: the Ace of Spades, General Song. The player is tasked with working alongside forces from the Allied Nations, South Korea, Russia, and China, and needless to say these factions are not always aligned in their objectives, meaning a careful balancing act is required. But how balanced can you be in a world where you can hijack any vehicle, drive or fly virtually anywhere, and blow up pretty much anything you can set your gun sights on? Spend the money you earn wrecking NK vehicles and completing missions in the Russian-controlled black market to purchase new vehicles, different weapons, or a variety of air strikes–the further in the game you advance, and the more missions you complete, the larger your potential arsenal grows. Just when you think you’ve got everything sorted, the game’s second half begins, throwing you into a brand new part of North Korea to wreck havoc.
Mercenaries is serious, serious fun. Well worth the $50 asking price when it was released, you can pick this gem up for around $7 pre-owned and keep yourself entertained for weeks. If only real war was this much fun…
2) Cold Fear
Ahh, what’s a list of budget gems without a solid horror title? While I’m quick to recommend both Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3 as the best horror experiences available on the system, their prices today put them out of range for a list like this, so we have to look elsewhere. Sadly most of the best horror games available on the system are also obscenely expensive, which means I can’t include gems like Haunting Ground, Rule of Rose, Kuon, or ObsCure…and while I could do the obvious and give the nod to Resident Evil 4 (which won’t even cost you $5 these days thanks to its numerous ports and an HD release for modern systems), I’d rather nominate Cold Fear.
This forgotten gem from developer Darkworks and publisher Ubisoft puts you in the boots of Coast Guard member Tom Hanson. Dispatched with his team to investigate a Russian whaler sending a distress call in the middle of a ferocious storm, he and his buddies helicopter their way to the rescue. Turns out the weather’s the least of your worries though as your team mates are picked off by monsters which have overrun the ship, leaving it up to Tom to take down the enemies and solve the mystery of just what happened on board the vessel.
Claustrophobic interiors, storm-tossed exteriors, and one mystery after another all bring the terror rushing as though in response to an ‘all hands on deck’. An underrated and overlooked gem, and one of the few genuinely good horror experiences available for the light-walleted collector on the PlayStation 2.
1) Katamari Damacy
Oddball puzzle games just don’t come much weirder or more fun than this 2004 release from Namco. With controls so intuitive even a child can pick up and play, a story line which never takes itself seriously, and a game mechanic that involves rolling progressively larger objects up into gigantic balls of absurdity, Katamari Damacy is everything you want in a game: cheap, fun, and long-lasting. The storyline is quite simple: during a night of partying that got slightly out of hand, the King of All Cosmos accidentally destroyed every star in the sky.
Now, fending off both a colossal hangover and the combined rage of every sentient being in the galaxy, he does the only thing which makes sense — pass the buck to you, his youngest son, who must take small Katamari balls and roll up everything around you to make new stars. But because he doesn’t have all the time in the world to appease the sentient beings of the galaxy, you have a time limit to create your absurd masterpieces. Tons of levels for solo play and a two-player competitive mode make this a necessary part of every budget-conscious PS2 gamer’s library. So what are you waiting for? Get rolling!
Naturally there wasn’t room to include every awesome, inexpensive game in the system’s library, so now it’s your turn: sound off in the comments below either to call me a rapacious turd mongrel for leaving off your favorite game, a flaming butt bandit for including something you think sucks, or (very unlikely) to praise me for including a game you agree with. Go nuts, ladies and gentlemen: the floor is yours.