When you think about the most influential consoles of all time, the PlayStation 2 is among the first to come to mind. Released two decades ago, this powerhouse of a console hardly needs an introduction. Being the proud owner of one of the greatest and largest gaming libraries of all time, and the birthplace of some of the greatest franchises gaming has ever seen, its legacy is one that speaks for itself. Its popularity was (and honestly still is) so massive, that even after the release of the PlayStation 3, it remained in production for many years. Its success would repeat itself in Brazilian territory but in a way that could only ever happen in a third world country.
Let me tell you how.
Before we get to why this console exploded in Brazil, it’s worth talking about why it exploded everywhere else, to begin with. The console had everything working in its favor: a successful predecessor, complete retro compatibility, the ability to play DVDs, online capability, an amazing native 480p image output, truly, this console was the future. Couple that with support from pretty much every developer under the sun, and some heavyweight exclusive titles such as Metal Gear Solid 2 and God of War, and you've got yourself a recipe for success. It was a little expensive at launch (something not helped by the shortage of consoles at the time) but it was a small price to pay for a next-gen experience.
And "price" was definitely the keyword for its success down here in South America. It was not uncommon for kids to go to the market and come back home with ten or fifteen PS2 games, most of which they wouldn’t even touch until months later. How was that possible, you ask? Why piracy, of course! Talking about this console in Brazil is practically impossible without associating it directly with the man of the wooden leg. Officially, the console wouldn’t arrive here until 2009. For context, the PS3 only took four years to arrive officially (2006 worldwide, 2010 for us). But unofficially, the console lived a different story. It’s hard to find accurate data, but from my own memory, the console arrived here in 2002, imported only. This meant that the price trough legal retailers was prohibitively expensive, making alternative markets way more appealing. Not by coincidence, that’s also when the first method of jailbreak hit the market: the Messiah chip.
Little chip, big trouble. For Sony at least...
Now for a quick summary of the many ways to jailbreak your PS2. The first and most famous of them all: the ModChip. As the name implies, this is a hardware modification that bypasses the authentication process on the console, allowing it to run unofficial media. Although that was their primary function, more elaborate chips like the (now discontinued) Brazilian-made Thunder II, would allow for some interesting things like running homebrew OSs for emulation purposes or even upscaling the image to 720p. Sony tried to protect their console by suing (and winning) the company responsible for the Messiah chip, but you can’t stop piracy. Soon after, many other chips surfaced: Messiah 2, the Thunder series, Matrix (probably the most famous of them all), Mars, the list goes on and on. If that wasn’t enough, you can even find bootlegs of those chips! Yes, there are pirate copies of a pirate’s tool. Gotta love how the world works.
The second method of bypassing authentication is through software. This one is aptly called SoftMod and is the one nobody wants to do because it has way too many steps. Installing the required program on either the PS2 HDD or a memory card is a pain and a half that also involves disassembling the console. Either that or you can just buy a memory card with the damn thing already installed. The downside of this method is that it is not compatible with every PS2 model. The upside is that this technically won’t void your warranty, assuming you buy a memory card ready to go that is.
Last and not least, there’s the SwapTrick. As the name implies, this method involves using an original game to trick the console and then swapping it for the game you want to play. Some people refer to it as the Agent Under Fire method, in reference to the 007 game first used for the trick. This method also wasn’t very popular, since it did require an original game and a bit of computer knowledge to properly pull off.
With the advent of so many methods, the PS2 exploded in Brazil. By the time the Slim version of the console arrived in 2004, every single gray market had at least one guy with a surplus of games and consoles to sell and the knowledge on how to jailbreak them. It wasn't exactly cheap, but for what it offered, it was very worth the price.
The PS2 suffered from piracy like no other console in our history, but that’s precisely why the console still has such a strong presence over these parts. At its peak, it wasn’t uncommon to find people selling five games for 10 Reais (1 dollar per game give or take, adjusting for inflation), while the consoles themselves could be bought for a fifth of the official price. At the same time, the country was just starting to implement good internet connections, making the process of sharing games even easier. If you had a good connection, you could bypass the gray market entirely and just burn the game on a virgin disk and go to town. For most of us, that wasn’t an option. Not that we minded. Going with a group of friends to your local gray market to browse the games was a sacred rite, and not once we’ve gone back home without buying something. There was always something new to discover, the extensive library of the console made sure of that. When that didn’t do the trick, we would appeal to the wonderful world of mods.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I played more mods than actual games on the PS2. With the same ease games arrived at our consoles, they also arrived at the modders, and the result ranges from amazing to downright bizarre. On one side of the spectrum, you have a plethora of soccer mods like the Bomba Patch, a total conversion of PES that adds new teams, narration, and stages. A mod so important, I already dedicated an entire blog to it. GTA was another favorite, and modders went in on this one! If you ever wanted to play San Andreas as Deadpool or Supah Vegeta, I’ve good news for you! Or maybe you’d rather cause chaos in Rio de Janeiro. We also got you covered. Although, I'm pretty sure that one was actually a hoax someone made up just to make a quick buck. If that isn’t enough, how about you take the role of a member of a BOPE member (basically our SWAT)? Hell, if you really wanna go deep, how bout you play as Sonic The Hedgehog? That’s also on the table. Most of those mods are just skins, but I was surprised to find out that people are still working on some of them to this day.
Ah 2000s... How embarrassing you were...
Do you know what else was popular in 2004? Guitar Hero. Oh yeah, we got mods for that too! Anime Hero was probably the most famous of them, replacing the entire setlist with (what else) anime songs. Their choices were actually super decent too! There was stuff from Full Metal Alchemist, Dragon Ball Z and GT, Death Note, Saint Seiya, and a bunch of other stuff that I don’t care or don’t remember. Anime Hero would still get four more “sequels”, but I can’t say that I played any of them. If anime was too lame for you, you also had Guitar Hero Brazucas, with a setlist composed entirely of Brazilian songs. And for the good Christian boys out there, you could have a frick ton of fun with Guitar Hero Gospel! Slipknot, Linkin Park, Nirvana, Most Wanted (yes, the Need for Speed title), the list of options goes on and on. It’s probably easier to list what bands didn’t get a mod, that’s how spoiled for choice we were. Nowadays, it's easy to take these kinds of mods for granted, but at the time was unheard of and it blew many minds.
Much like the Sega Genesis, the PS2 refuses to die in Brazil. That combination of a vast library, accessible games, and ease of jailbreaking was a perfect storm that I doubt can ever be replicated. It allowed people to have a huge collection of games that would otherwise be impossible on a different console, it gave the locadoras a second wind (and ironically, also dealt the final blow), it introduced us to the world of mods, and so much more. Its presence can still be felt to this day: the PS2 is the third most popular console in Brazil, mods like the Bomba Patch still receive updates to this day, and with how easy and cheap it is to get, it offers a compelling alternative to the current gaming market.
Happy 20th anniversary PlayStation 2! May your legacy continue to be everlasting!