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Sony's PlayStation Classic is an incomplete reflection of the 32-bit era

What you see is what you get: Sony's throwback console is a window to PlayStation's past, but it holds absolutely no surprises.

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John Kim/CNET

The response to Nintendo's NES Classic made it clear that there's a hunger for retro consoles with updated form factors. The adorable, tiny NES sold so well, Nintendo had trouble keeping it in stock. Since then, we've seen an SNES Classic, a Commodore 64 Mini and lesser imitators. Now Sony's entering the ring with the $100 PlayStation Classic -- but does the 32-bit era have enough nostalgia value to mine? And would you even want to revisit 32-bit classics?

We went to Sony's office in San Mateo, California to find out, and the results were mixed.

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The PlayStation Classic might be the most lovingly crafted miniature console yet. Much like Nintendo's NES and SNES Classics, the PlayStation Classic's plastic chassis is incredibly detailed, replicating every button, logo, line and crevice found on the original console. That level of detail may be what we expect from these throwback consoles, but the PlayStation Classic actually raises the bar -- adding in tiny, vestigial details that take the miniature console's nostalgia factor to the next level.

Remember the original PlayStation's I/O port? Probably not. It was covered by a small, removable door on the left of the console's backside. The port isn't actually part of the PlayStation Classic (sorry, GameShark fans), but the little door is -- and it looks so real, I instinctively tried to open it. (Don't do that by the way. It's not a real door.)

The original NES and SNES consoles had unused ports like this, too -- but Nintendo didn't include them in the Classic Editions.

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John Kim/CNET

That extra level of detail carries over to the PlayStation Classic's controllers, too. Overall, they're pretty basic gamepads: simple, but excellent replicas of the PlayStation's original controllers. They feel right, and the separated PlayStation d-pad and face buttons feel authentic -- but my favorite thing about them isn't the gamepads themselves. It's their connector.

Rather than using a proprietary connector or miniaturizing the original PlayStation controller connector, these gamepads use standard USB ports to plug into the Classic console. Not only do the thin USB plugs slide perfectly into the miniature controller ports, but each USB plug is framed with a piece of plastic designed to look like the original PlayStation gamepad connector. This means that when the gamepads are plugged in, they look like the controllers are actually plugged into the console with a miniature version of the original gamepad connector.

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John Kim/CNET

Yes, it's a small, cosmetic detail -- but it's also a thoughtful and charming piece of design. By comparison, the NES and SNES Classic Edition's bulky, proprietary Wii Accessory port controller connectors look completely out of place when plugged into each console.

Details like these help elevate the Sony PlayStation Classic above its inspiration. Sadly, they don't make the transition to the software side. The PlayStation Classic's menu is serviceable, but it's also incredibly basic -- a simple carousel of game logos underlined by a settings menu. That's not too different from the NES or SNES Classics, but there's just… less of it. Each game has its own digital memory card with 15 save slots, but only has a single save state per game. There also aren't any visual settings available for those who prefer to play retro games with digital scan lines or in different aspect ratios.

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Sony

The menu also lacks a distinct visual style. Technically, it's modeled to look like the BIOS menu you'd see if you turned on the original PS One without a disc -- but it's hardly an iconic menu. I didn't even recognize it at first. Still, that doesn't mean the experience isn't without its nostalgic flair: When you turn on the PlayStation Classic, it boots up to the familiar chime of the 1990s Sony logo. Not only is this a nice touch, but it hides the console's initial boot time.

The games: The good, the bad and the strange choices

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John Kim/CNET

So, what about the games? Well, all of the games run well, but there are definitely some weird choices in this game library. Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six may have launched an iconic franchise, but its first entry on PlayStation simply hasn't aged well. Ever play a first-person shooter that mapped half of the aiming controls to the shoulder buttons and required you to hold down a modifier button to strafe left and right? Well, that's what Rainbow Six was like in the '90s. It was terrible, and it feels even worse by today's standards.

I also found myself wondering how Sony made its choices. Sure, taste is subjective -- but some of the franchises on the PlayStation Classic would be better represented by different games in their series. Twisted Metal is a classic to be sure, but Twisted Metal 2 simply offered more than the original. Resident Evil 2 may be getting a remake, but it'd be a more interesting choice than the infinitely ported original.

That's saying nothing about "missing" games, either. Gran Turismo, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon and Tomb Raider feel so essential to the original PlayStation that having none of them on the console feels, well, a bit odd. Crash Bandicoot was even being demoed on original PlayStation hardware in the lobby of the building in which Sony hosted its press event.

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Crash Bandicoot is on demo in the lobby of Sony's headquarters, yet it's not on the PlayStation Classic.

Sean Buckley/CNET

On the other hand, there are a ton of bona fide classics on here, including Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy VII, Syphon Filter, Tekken 3 and more. There's absolutely something for everyone on the PlayStation Classic, but overall, the library is a mixed bag.

Most of the PlayStation Classic's library of games are readily available on the PlayStation Store -- if you have a PS3 or PS Vita, you can play most of these games right now -- but not all. Revelations: Persona, the original Grand Theft Auto, Battle Arena Toshinden and a few others aren't for sale on Sony's digital platform.

Every game I tried looked and played exactly as I remembered -- but I wouldn't say the picture was always sharp and clear. That's less the PlayStation Classic's fault and more a reflection of the era. The early 3D graphical style of Resident Evil and Metal Gear haven't aged gracefully. It's an easy flaw to look past for the sake of gameplay, but without nostalgia goggles, some of these games are, well, ugly. But games with highly stylized 2D graphics or less complex 3D shapes shine: Mr. Driller, Rayman and Intelligent Qube have never looked better.

Will the PlayStation Classic be worth it?

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John Kim/CNET

On paper, the PlayStation Classic is everything a throwback console is supposed to be. But that's also all it is. If you've used any of Nintendo's Classic Edition consoles, played an original PlayStation and read the list of the PlayStation Classic's included games, this console is exactly what you imagine it is, and nothing more. There are no surprise games, no special features and no official way to add more games later on.

When Sony announced the PlayStation Classic, I planned to skip it. When my favorite games weren't on the console's library of 20 games, I was sure it wasn't for me. But after playing it, I'm reconsidering.

It's true that the PlayStation Classic holds no real surprises. It has a bare-bones menu that barely covers the basic requirements for navigating its small library of games. It's also true that the toy console itself is one of the best-looking miniature consoles I've seen so far, and holds an exclusive on a handful of classic titles I've never played.

The PlayStation Classic is definitely an odd beast. It's one of the best-looking throwback consoles yet, but its game library might leave you wanting more. The overall quality makes it great for collectors and PlayStation loyalists looking for a fun toy, but casual fans hoping to relive their childhood might find it shy of the nostalgia high they're looking for. Still, if you're looking for a compact, charmingly made miniconsole that represents the best of the PlayStation's early days, then the PlayStation Classic is at least halfway there.

The PlayStation Classic launches on Dec. 3 for $100 (£90, AU$149).

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John Kim/CNET

SNES Classic review: It's flat-out awesome.

Sega Genesis Flashback review: It's no SNES Classic.

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