I have a PS2 library of healthy/reasonable size. It's not one of those multiple-hundreds-of-games libraries, pictures of which cause one's jaw to unhinge (though, granted, I've only been of a "collector" mind since around 2007). Some titles are guilty pleasures (Enter the Matrix), some are kept for sentimental reasons (SSX 3), some held fast by collector's compulsion (Summoner), but most fall into a category best described as "essential."
Even with such a modest collection, that's still an awful lot of games. It should be noted, of course, that taste factors into this equation. Some folks may balk at the inclusion of Odin Sphere and be absolutely furious at the omission of all racing titles - such is life.
Now then - let's see how many tiny images you can throw at Blogger without breaking it.
Because good things come in threes.
Grand Theft Auto III
GTA III is almost historical value personified. Not only did it launch a new genre (constantly imitated and duplicated to this day), it was one of the big three games your friend would trot out to show you how incredible this newfangled PS2 thing was (the other two being MGS2 and Gran Turismo). It is a definitive essential title.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
While it was, in nearly all respects, head and shoulders above III (and is considered by many the best of the PS2 trilogy), my general dislike of the 80s prevented me from joining the chorus that exalts Vice City - it is still deserving of a place in the library.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
One of my favorite video games of all time. When I was a kid and I played my first driving game, for a fleeting moment I imagined you would be able to drive down the highway and turn off where you wished. You might stop in at a gas station/convenience store and buy something to nosh on, before driving off to the destination of your choice. It took almost fifteen years for someone to make the game I imagined as a child, and they called it San Andreas.
Devil May Cry
Hideki Kamiya revolutionized the brawler with DMC, and most other designers are still playing catch-up. God of War directly ripped much of its combat from it, Darksiders blatantly copied moves verbatim, and only Kamiya himself truly broke through the landmark set by the original title with Bayonetta.
The first PS2 game I ever loved.
Devil May Cry 2
This is a terrible, terrible game. Seriously awful.
I have it because, if you're going to have a DMC collection, you may as well be inclusive - but I absolutely do not endorse this product. It's so bad. What's amazing is the dude who directed DMC2 also helmed...
Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening
The best game in the entire series, it matches the combat of the original and ratchets the difficulty up a few notches. A glut of new weapons, four combat "styles" to choose from and a level of melodramatic craziness rarely matched elsewhere elevate it to legendary status.
If you're in the market for it, be sure to get the "Special Edition." The original release of DMC3 in North America starts you off at Japan's Hard Mode - which is phenomenally difficult - while the SE re-release has a few extra bells and whistles, and the standard difficulty modes.
Ratchet & Clank
The first title in the hugely successful series, Ratchet & Clank also holds up the worst over time. Its mechanics and most of all controls lack the refinement of even its sequel, but it's still the R&C game with the best Metropolis level.
I'm still waiting, Insomniac. I'm still waiting for a better Metropolis.
Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando
I feel Going Commando is the best of the PS2 R&Cs. It has all the strengths, none of the weaknesses of the other titles, and the best space combat sequences in the series.
Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal
A graphically remarkable game, Up Your Arsenal is markedly better than the original, but suffers from pacing issues here and there. Still, an imperfect Ratchet & Clank game is better than 99% of the other crap out there.
Metal Gear Solid
...is a PS1 game. But it got a PS2-style disc release with the stylin' Essential Collection, so I'm counting it.
Beyond being part of the franchise that introduced stealth gameplay to the masses, this is the first console game to really nail cinematic presentation, even while limited by blocky polygons. There's a reason Kojima can't ease up on Sweet Lady Cutscene - and the reaction to this game is likely it.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
MGS2 got more than its fair share of hate due to Raiden's starring role and a crazy postmodern story, but it has a special place in my heart. I got every single bloody dog tag in this game - probably investing more time in it than any single PS2 title this side of an RPG.
MGS2 was a benchmark for the PS2, unsurpassed for much of the console's lifetime. This was, also, one of those games you showed your friends to prove just how awesome the PS2 is.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence
There's no shame in merely ensuring you have a copy of MGS3: Snake Eater handy, but Subsistence is the definitive edition of (arguably) the series' best game, thanks to the inclusion of the MSX versions of the original Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, both (truly) localized for the first time.
Brutally, brutally difficult games by today's standards, and required reading for any enthusiast.
Hitman, Sly Cooper & Prince of Persia
Blood Money is the high point of the Hitman series, with much-improved depth of play and greater options, but every PS2 Hitman title has fantastic animation, art direction and graphics, and an incredible soundtrack by Jesper Kyd.
Sly 2: Band of Thieves is the best title in Sucker Punch's series - huge open levels to explore, lots of tinkling clue bottles to collect, cartoony, colorful presentation, liquid-smooth platforming and expressive animation. It's a real gem of a game. My only word of warning about the series is that Sly 3 leans a bit too heavily on mini-games.
The Sands of Time trilogy relaunched the Prince of Persia franchise, after multiple failed attempts. The first Sands title was hailed as the game of the year upon its release, despite (very) lackluster combat. Later games in the series improved this a bit, but that's not why you play these games - they are fantastically well-designed platformers, and wonderful adventures.
This is probably where I'm going to piss a few people off, by not including their favorite franchise. Sorry dudes.
Silent Hill 2 remains the high water mark of survival horror in the eyes of critics and gamers. It is an absolutely genius exploration of emotional trauma, but equally startling is the title's presentation and remarkable atmosphere.
Having never finished it, I can't vouch for 3, but 2 is pretty bloody spectacular - even if it's rarely "scary."
If you want scary, you want this. The original Fatal Frame and Fatal Frame III fared reasonably well with critics and audiences, but Fatal Frame II is the scariest fucking game I have ever played.
I still can't finish it - it terrifies me - but it's so incredible, I went out and paid a small fortune for a sealed copy.
ICO & Shadow of the Colossus
I won't beat you over the head with what you've heard a million times before - suffice it to say, it's all true.
Interesting note - ICO actually comes on an old-timey compact disc, having been originally intended as a PS1 game.
Shin Megami Tensei
The PS2's cup runneth over with JRPGs, but for me there's really only one series, and this is it.
There are a total of eight SMT titles on the PS2 - and some purists look up their noses at the Persona franchise, thanks to its social-sim elements - but for me, Persona 3 will forever be the game that showed me I could love a JRPG.
This is a series I'd wanted to explore since the first time I saw a print ad for Nocturne back in 2004. It took me 'till 2007 to dip my toe in those heady waters, but I am now a convert.
I'm hardly well-read on the subject of SMT, but I do particularly suggest Persona 4, which makes Persona 3 look like a practice run.
God of War
Sony Santa Monica's beautiful, bloody action-adventure opuses became legends in their own time not just due to technical wizardry or combat mechanics that aped Devil May Cry without sacrificing accessibility, but thanks to truly remarkable game design, pacing and overall presentation.
Kingdom Hearts, SSX, Tenchu &
Virtua Fighter 4
I was blown away by the original Kingdom Hearts, but II's uniquely... exhaustive opening bored me to tears. If you're unfamiliar with the series, I highly suggest taste-testing the first game.
SSX is a big, bold, crazy snowboarding game with awesome music, zany characters and fun, tactile, addictive gameplay, and the PS2 Tenchu titles have better gameplay than any stealth title I've ever played. And I've pretty much played them all, except the original Deus Ex. Tenchu: Fatal Shadows, the kunoichi-centric sequel to Wrath of Heaven boasts updated graphics and a few additions to your repertoire.
You may feel Virtua Fighter 4 isn't a series per say, but it's got two very different versions, so that's good enough for me. My favorite fighting game ever. I'm no connoissuer of the fighting genre, but VF4, VF4: Evo and VF5 (PS3, 360) are as good as it gets, for me.
The amazing and atypical.
Short version: it's kinda' like Zelda, except you're a shinto deity who's taken the form of a white wolf, haulin' ass all over ancient Japan.
Okami is my single favorite PS2 game. Let me tell you why.
(Takes a deep breath.)
Huge, gorgeous and lovingly animated 2D sprites brawling their way through beautiful, hand-painted stages, a deceptively deep item creation process, phenomenal localization with excellent voice work and music, and an epic story all wrapped up in a 40-hour action-RPG.
The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction
2009's Prototype, by the same developer, was essentially the true sequel to Ultimate Destruction.
Prior to Arkham Asylum, this was the best superhero game ever made. An unbridled fantasy of freedom and power, an above-par story, great mission design, an intimidatingly huge move list and seriously fun combat and gameplay.
Resident Evil 4, God Hand, Bully & Beyond Good & Evil
The legendary Shinji Mikami took the old-school beat-'em-up back to its roots without sacrificing the third dimension in the uniquely challenging God Hand, and revolutionized third-person shooters with Resident Evil 4.
Bully (from Rockstar Vancouver) takes the Grand Theft Auto formula and boils it down to a high school level, but with an incredible presentation that not even Rockstar's flagship franchise could match at the time.
Beyond Good & Evil is a fantastic roaming, picture-taking stealth-sneaking melee-combatting hoverboat-driving adventure title with great art direction and overall presentation, which was largely ignored thanks to an unfortunate release window (holiday 2003), and Ubisoft spending most of its advertising budget supporting Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
* * *
This is hardly the most comprehensive list you'll find. These are the trilogies, series and individual titles I strongly recommend. If you want a single "best" PS2 game? Well, that depends on your genre. I feel like I should do a top five.
Let's do a top five. Y'know what? Let's make it six.
What can I say? MGS2 just means more to me than 3.