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Finding the PS2...

Feature Column by Matt Burawski
November 20, 2000

Playstation 2. Four syllables that when uttered can inspire dreams, incite rage, provoke riots or bring about $1,500 bids on eBay. You really can’t look at the words passively and everyone’s got some opinion or angle on it. It’s made the cover of Newsweek, graced the pages of Time and become, much to the dismay of some hardcore gamers, an extremely mainstream system. It’s been tossed through cycle after cycle of ridiculous hype, both overwhelmingly positive and disturbingly negative, and neither side really ever had it right.

After crappy launch titles in Japan, the system became resigned to the label of glorified DVD player, much to the delight of eager Dreamcast-loyal system-bashing vultures. Sony fans responded with hope, saying the company that had brought them a perfect system before could not fail. The Sega and tech-demo-worshipping Xbox camps contested that every single title on PS2 consisted of nothing more than interlace flickering, "jaggies," and that it smelled funny too and rotted your teeth. Militant Sony people replied that 10/26 would give birth to a system that would bring world peace, cook perfect bacon and have graphics easily on par with the accursed movie "Toy Story," except a thousand times better. In any case, I had a mission on Wednesday, 10/25: Get a PS2 at any cost, or die trying. I was about to learn what it truly means to be a hardcore gamer.

Things began simply enough. I went to the mall area early, checked to see if a line had formed yet and saw none, and then decided to catch a showing of the new kung fu flick "Legend of Drunken Master," figuring I should brush up on my fighting skills in case any evil ninjas attempted to wrest the beautiful blue box from my hands in the dark parking lot. With the taste of artificial butter in my mouth and a desire to do air-karate on every cardboard cutout around the theater lobby, I set out for the nearby Wal-Mart, knowing it to be the last refuge of those who failed to pre-order with full payment months ago.

I shouldn’t have watched that movie. A line already existed throughout Electronics and I was definitely not in the first few. A smattering of Wal-mart goods littered the area, people seated on lawn chairs from Housewares while reading magazines borrowed from Wal-Mart stands and drinking Sam’s Club Continental Cola, choice of real gamers and/or recovering brain trauma patients. Crammed between a rich old lady who asked way too many questions and two guys who hadn’t heard of any game without the words "NFL" or "NHL" in it, I didn’t really feel the whole elite-ness of being in line for a revolutionary entertainment system. But none of that mattered. I pulled out my borrowed Radioactive Snot-colored Game Boy Color, popped in Bionic Commando, and set off to destroy the Avars in my own little peaceful retrogaming world, even if the glare on the screen (damn you, overpowering fluorescent lights!) made trying to see anything on the screen basically impossible.

"Where do we go to get the Playstation?" asked the loud lady behind me.

I paused to stare at her a moment in wide-eyed confusion. Did she think this was the line to get into Wal-Mart or what? "Right… here… that’s the spot. The line will move once it’s midnight."

Unsatisfied, she said in the kind of voice that puts money in the pockets of aspirin-manufacturers, "Yes, I know. But where exactly? I can’t see the front from here. How are they going to do this?"

I checked a moment to see if I was wearing a Wal-Mart uniform, but unlike the many nightmares I’ve had before involving wearing that while being pursued by satanic John Romero midgets, I was thankfully clad in my usual garb. "I’m really not sure… they’ve probably got it taken care of."

I’d polished off three cans of generic cola already, but was still getting a little tired and questions like that wore on me. I buried my face in the Game Boy, hoping she’d get the hint. She did, for the moment, and turned around to ask the same stupid questions to the unfortunate soul behind her. These were the people that had to have one launch night? I later found out this lady was after one to send to her son who lived in Japan and already had a Japanese PS2. Poor deprived guy — never mind the fact that the Japanese library of PS2 titles is bigger and that almost all good US-developed PS2 games are being ported to Japan anyway.

Time passed. 10 p.m. — two more hours till the revolution. In two more hours, the first 36 people in line would walk away with machines banned from exportation to China because of the capability to launch nuclear missiles, or so the PR from Sony leaked to generate hype a year ago. Nukes or not, I wanted the system. I already owned SSX and Kessen, as both were released prematurely. I also had my memory card safely in my pocket, something so many people forgot to pick up and were screwed out of because of shortages. Somewhere, beyond the line, there was a room full of the wonderful blue boxes. And yet, out of the 36 chosen ones in line and the 20 clueless people behind them who seemed to be waiting just in case 20 people in line spontaneously combusted, I seriously questioned how many of them were actual gamers. Sure, a few were buying for their children, but it seemed the more prevalent crowd was those who wanted it for either eBay auctioning or as a fashion statement. In the distance, I heard a few mumblings of "Chrono Trigger" and "Armored Core" which reassured me some, but all my hopes were shattered as the sports gamer in front of me said something about "That Metal Gear something game… whatever it’s called." Instead of sneaking up behind him and pressing the square button 10 times to execute a stealthy neck snap, I restrained myself, praying to Hideo Kojima to forgive them, for they knew not what they said.

11 p.m., and the night had grown anything but still. Earlier on, some nice guy near the front went down the line and gave everyone a slip of paper with a number on it to keep the already crazy cutting to a minimum. The management wasn’t smart enough to think anything like this up, so for the most part everyone was thankful. Apparently though, numbers 1-36 offend some people, as a towering mutant of a lady from the back of the line who could have easily eaten Mr. T for breakfast came stomping up to the poor organizer, screaming at him for bossing everyone around (i.e., creating order, keeping people like her from cutting). She tried to throw a few punches but Wal-Mart security was on her within seconds, dragging her screaming out of the friendly family convenience store.

I hoped that no Sega spies were sitting amidst the crowd to witness such a thing. Never mind making fun of the jaggies or high price tag on PS2 — any DC loyalist would have a field day on framing her as the typical Sony gamer. Things had barely settled before a kid was taken out of line for shoplifting and the line moved up one. The militaristic Wal-Mart head of security counted down 36 people in the line and waved with his hand, telling everyone the line ended there and sorry, but there were no more PS2s. With empty eyes, the 20 or so people behind the fortunate stared at those in front like rats on a sinking ship. A few departed, cursing Wal-Mart for Sony’s decreased shipment, but the majority held on, clinging desperately to hope even if most of them couldn’t tell a polygon from polygamy. Meanwhile I could hear people up front talking about memory cards going for $150 online and how they had already bought five to sell. I reassured mine silently that it would never be treated like such an object.

Someone in the line had brains and had bought a 30-inch TV and a DVD player in the store with plans to exchange them at the same Wal-Mart the next day. With a mini-entertainment center plugged into the wall, time passed quicker and I began counting the minutes until zero hour. As most of the rioters were already hauled out, a Christmas-like feeling began to descend on the room, disturbed only by the occasional flatulence problem of the woman behind me and her asking me every five minutes what time it was. When the time finally came, the line moved forward slowly but surely and the PS2s were handed out. Partially to my disappointment, I made it to my car without being assaulted by any assassins out to rob me of my Emotion Engine.

For two days straight, I played without any pause and little sleep. The addictiveness of EA’s critically acclaimed SSX made me realize just how much of a hassle it is to be an organism that requires digestive and excretory processes that interrupt gaming. Kessen was loads of fun, though the difficulty seems lax. And today, I rented Armored Core 2 and Summoner and found Armored Core to be a perfect sequel to the original cult-hit while Summoner was an ambitious game that suffered from many flaws but was still playable. Maybe many informed gamers advise just getting a Dreamcast and avoiding the hype, and I’ll be the first to admit the Dreamcast is an extremely solid system and that the PS2 doesn’t make any huge graphical leaps over it. But no launch in history has come close to this one, whether you measure it by the body count (five hospitalized in a riot at another Wal-Mart as an article on msnbc.com tells about; death threats made many times within the line of people talking about what they’d do if they didn’t get their PS2; etc.) or by the quality games (SSX, AC2, DOA2 Hardcore, TTT, etc.). And Dreamcast doesn’t have a blue LED light on the front, which definitely justifies the PS2’s $300 cost.

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