Fumito Ueda envisioned something strange in 1997: a game based around love and not violence; a game where (at least in the first playthrough) you wouldn’t have the faintest idea what was going on or what those strange symbols in place of subtitles meant; a game where, instead of wandering from area to area, boss to boss, you guided a girl as pale as a ghost through a series of puzzles and blurry (yet ethereally attractive) locations; a game that would stand as a prominent defender in the Art vs Games debate that is still being needlessly fought today. This hardly profitable idea for a game came to fruition as Ico for the Playstation 2, released on September 24, 2001.
Ico was a critical success and a commercial failure upon its release over 10 years ago. Although a cult classic, there are still unenlightened gamers who may never hear its name or have its story and ending permanently branded to their hippocampi.
Four years after Ico’s release, Shadow of the Colossus had finally been unveiled: a game centered around scaling, exploiting, and eventually slaying 14 mountainous (and two boar-sized) boss monsters whilst traveling through a vast, ancient land, populated with little more than lizards, birds, and turtles. Team Ico’s new baby received a great deal more exposure thanks to Sony’s advertising campaign, while winning several awards for best “Game Design”, “Character Design”, and “Best Visual Arts”, among others. While Ico put Fumito Ueda and his team on the map, their sophomore effort proved that games had much more to offer than a weapon that was part-chainsaw and a horde of reptile-skinned bi-pedals in desperate need of annihilation. Luckily for not only you, but any and all that love interactive entertainment, art, or the enchantment of story: both of these masterpieces have arrived in a dual-pack for the Playstation 3. But let’s not linger too long on the importance of these quiet, essential titles: let’s see how these games have held up throughout the years.
Ico was raised under a strict diet of “subtracting design”, meaning that little would get in the way of how you feel towards the titular horned boy and his emotional attachment to Yorda, a pale girl he finds trapped in a cage of black iron, suspended hundreds of feet from the ground. This works as a positive and a negative for the game. If you’re one who doesn’t particularly care for the fate of Ico and Yorda, there’s a good chance you might not play to the end, especially if you’re not a fan of environmental puzzles, which at its essence, is what Ico is all about. There are no hints, no health bars, no power-ups, no map, no checkpoints (when you die, you restart at your last save), and only a stick for a weapon (as you progress you can eventually wield a sword and a hidden lightsaber). Players who often get lost or confused as to what to do next will become frustrated as they run around areas without even a whisper of a clue or the glimmer of a switch that needs pressing if you are to progress. The world of Ico stands still and watches mutely, refusing to congratulate you for solving its secrets, nor acknowledge you’ve traversed a challenging section of its labyrinthine world, only to fall into another hintless section immediately after. Ico is a game that swells inside of you, incubating in your heart; the passing of each puzzle you solve reverberates in your memory, taking it apart piece by piece, until you realize its brilliance; its locations seem a dream you’re all-to-ready to visit (the remastered HD only accentuates this), if only you could. Ico is a game that has never heard of this mythical, faraway concept called “Streamlining”, and yet despite all of these elements that might scare away a good deal of gamers, there is a nostalgic singularity that will draw those who understand and keep them, in heart and mind, forever.
Now to explore the meaner of two subtle beasts.
Shadow of the Colossus is a game that shares similar aesthetics with its older brother, Ico. Shadow inherits the isolation, the feeling of a faraway land, the nostalgia of the forgotten, right from the start. The very land you wander (about half the size of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, with about 1/100 of the content) seems to be set in the very same world of its predecessor. Instead of leading a girl around, you travel on the back of a black stallion by the name of Aggro, but that doesn’t mean that the theme of boy meets girl has been entirely lost. Not lost, but molded into an insidious tale of lost love, the price of resurrection (something of equal value must be given in return), and just how far a man will go to see his maiden breathe life once again. Team Ico take the theme of their firstborn and fast forward to adulthood at incredible speed.
Shadow starts off with a lengthy cutscene introducing you to Wander, the androgynous main character, a man with little to say and an ambition that would have Napoleon Bonaparte quivering in his tight-fitting pantaloons. Kow Otani’s orchestrations swell and move, the music of angels, and slowly, for the first time and its been only a matter of minutes, you feel truly apart of this young man’s plight, no matter what it may entail. As with Ico, the story is told more through your actions than dialogue (there’s hardly any script here), and a majority of the talking comes from a diabolic presence that calls itself Dormin. Your HUB serves as a temple, at the north end of which rests the aforementioned cold maiden, only the wind in her hair giving her any resemblance to life. To the east and west of this temple there sit 16 idols, eight to each side, carved in the likeness of beasts better known as Colossi. The deal is, you find and slay every last one of these Colossi, each being scattered across the map, and in return, you get to see the maiden’s fair face burn with life again. From there begins either the bliss or the madness. A horse, sword, bow & arrow, and map you open by pressing the start button, are all you have as inventory. Unfortunately, the map marks only the Colossi you’ve already slain; the sword is what truly guides you to each of these mountainous foes. Pressing the circle button with your sword equipped releases a beam of light that narrows to a point in the direction of the next Colossi you must discover and slay. While this is a plausible solution to constantly having to open your map again and again to check your location, there are times when you’ll take a wrong turn and end up on the wrong side of a mountain, foolishly looking for a cave your sun-reflected sword insists is there. Another aspect of Shadow that may frustrate unseasoned players is its complicated control scheme. As you read the manual (if you’re one who reads manuals at all), you’ll see a page dedicated to the controls of Shadow of the Colossus and think, “this looks fairly simple…screw it, let me just pop it in.” You’ll probably start the game, follow the instruction to call Agro, your horse, and press triangle to mount up. Stand behind Agro and press triangle, you’ll get nothing. Stand in front of Agro and press triangle, and still, you will not mount up. You must stand directly at the sides of Agro if you wish to ride off into the vast countryside. The frustration truly begins with the first Colossi battle. First off, unless you’re reading a guide or you’re a natural beast killer raised on God of War, you’ll have no clue as to how you’re to defeat what is essentially a walking, smashing, electrifying puzzle that can shake you off to the ground below or stomp you into oblivion. You’ll probably think, “once I’m up there, I’ll have all the time in the world to take this guy down”, and once again, you’d be wrong. There is a pink sphere set in the bottom-right corner of the screen: that’s your grip meter. This grip meter will either make your time with the game a living hell or challenge you in a positive manner. Of course, this problem with the grip meter can be averted by killing and consuming as many lizards you can find throughout the land, and boy will you need it by the game’s final Colossi.
Shadow of the Colossus does provide vague hints on the nature of each Colossi and how you might manipulate their behavior in order to bring them down, but even then, it’s up to you to figure it all out. What the game lacks in a streamlined, minion-ridden action game it more than makes up for with a fantastic concept (a game where you kill nothing but bosses), a story that will have you tearing up by the end (how do you do it Team Ico?), and a true sense of exploration if you’re patient enough. Each Colossi you face is memorable and always a thrill to confront, thanks to fantastic creature design and inspired battlegrounds, ranging from lakes, caverns, a coliseum, deserts, trenches, and even on the wings of a few as you hold on for dear life, hundreds of feet in the air. Perhaps my favorite is a long trek that leads you to an Aztec-inspired ruin of a city, where its guardian may be smaller but significantly more aggressive than the rest of the cast. In summation, if you can come to grips with the sometimes awkward, and at other times frustrating control scheme, revel in finding a Colossi that doesn’t have a giant flag indicating where its to be found, and are willing to experience one of the best games in the last six years, saddle up: you’re in for a giant treat.
The Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection really is a blessing. Why, with remastered HD graphics, 3D support, tons of trophies for die-hard fans, and a wonderful presentation, it’s almost criminal to pass this up at such a low price.