It's hard to find a pair of games held in higher regard than Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Famito Ueda and his colleagues at Team Ico sketched two master strokes that not only illustrated the fundamental difference between Eastern and Western design, but also captured to former at the pinnacle of its influence. It's been six years since Team Ico's last release and both critics and consumers alike haven't (with the possible exception of Demon's Souls) adored a game like Colossus. This could speak to the fall of Eastern development, but it's better appropriated as an example of how far ahead Ico and Colossus pushed the medium, and, in many ways, how most developers are still trying to catch up.
It's also not struggle to define Team Ico's best asset; restraint. Both Ico and Colossus deliberately held back in areas where other games would have kept cranking it up a notch. Better yet, both games managed to exercise restraint without sacrificing pacing. A great comparison is a modern music producer's insistence on filling out a histogram. Properly mixed songs hit high and low while maintaining an engaging rhythm, while today's pop mixes consistently blow out the highs without paying any sort of attention to lows. Such is modern game design; with each iteration, Call of Duty and Gears of War crank it up to eleven and then break off the dial. Ico and Colossus featured their respective highs and lows, but also kept plenty of room for the player's subconscious to devour the spaces in between.
On its surface Ico is a game about a boy, Ico, and a girl, Yorda, trying to escape a castle together. A calm sense of place is realized not only through Yorda's angelic and fragile appearance, but also from a visual pallet that seems to saturate every environment with the beautiful twilight of an evening sun. Exploration, solving puzzles, and bashing nefarious demons qualifies as more tangible pieces of gameplay, but Ico's most respected assets and memorable moments aren't understood through traditional means. Ico is absorbed in the way Yorda nearly falls to her death when she tries to make a jump, when she's startled by Ico hitting a stick against a wall, or the way she casually plops down on the couch (a contrived yet oddly appropriate excuse for a save point). A simple tug on her wrist when Ico tries to drag her along speaks more for a character than pages of contrived text or binary moral choices. Ico deals in these intangibles like Bulletstorm dealt in profanity; all over the place, and especially in ways you wouldn't necessarily expect. Games didn't manage nuance too well in 2001, and honestly most still don't in 2011.
But it's restraint that's ultimately the theme. Ico fights demons, but never with anything beyond a meager assortment of melee weapons with a primitive one-two combo. Yorda's language is left untranslated, and while her dialogue is sparse it adds a lingering curiosity toward the greater picture. The castle's existence and the world its set in has an intriguing story to tell, but most of it is left to inference. Ico never shows the big picture, but in holding back Ico actually manages to add enhance its tranquility. At the end you'll know what happened without exactly understanding the consequences. The only difference between Ico and a dream is that you'll somehow exit completely satisfied while maintaining a lingering curiosity.
Colossus functions along similar lines, but with the added benefit of four years of refinement. As Wander, you bring your dead girlfriend/sister/loved one (again, you fill in the blank) to a forbidden land and make a deal with the enigmatic Dormin to revive her; slay sixteen colossi and Wander might get his wish. You're then presented with a rather large landscape and a vague direction of where to go to battle giants with no more than a sword, a bow and arrow, and your horse. There are no mobs of randomly spawning monsters to get in the way, and no loot to collect or experience points to be gained. You can kill certain lizards to increase your grip or shoot fruit down from a tree to increase your health, but neither are essential and it's entirely possible to go through the game without realizing either are an option.
The hook of Colossus arrived with the sheer scale it presented. Everyone who saw the screen shot with Wander standing at odds with Gaius became mesmerized at the possibilities, but no one could have guessed that pure exploration would reap the greatest rewards. In this way Colossus was sort of like a bait and switch where the switch is somehow more rewarding than the bait. Felling sixteen colossi, each and every one as much of a puzzle as an action sequence, felt incredible, but that wasn't all that yielded appreciation. Exploring the flora and fauna found in the vast, empty landscapes of wooded areas, isolated beaches, and arid deserts, all of which offered suggestion of former human occupation, opened the door for rampant speculation. “What had happened here?” was the question on everyone's mind, and again Team Ico constructed an immense landscape that was totally open to interpretation and ultimately disinterested in providing any solid answer.
Ico had a touching moral core expressed beautifully in its ending cinematic, but Colossus opted for a slower burn. Inevitably players would start to cast doubt upon their actions; sentient giants, most of which pay Wander no mind until he begins to attack them, became oddly sympathetic figures. Approaching Avion to find him perched on a giant column arrived with unexpected serenity, and watching the vanquished Hydrus twist, writhe, and ultimately sink into the bottom of a lake weighed heavily on the player's conscience. No one expected to actually empathize with what appeared to be a boss rush, but the overt lack of additional objectives added consequence and complexity to Wander's unwavering mission. The player is powerless the change Wander's subtle decay, but the payoff, if you can call it that, at the end is worth the focus.
Colossus was also a bit more successful on the gameplay end. It's impossible to forget your first attempt at jumping on the feathers of Avion and being amazed that it actually worked. Similarly, when in total desperation you decided to jump off the top floors of the coliseum and stab the belly of the overturned Kuromori, what followed was a rush of unmatched proportions. Each colossus, in traditional boss fashion, will have a weakness worth exploiting, but tricks were rarely repeated and colossi specialized in allowing the player to attempt actions they wouldn't have previously considered, thanks to the immense scale, possible. Colossus also had a significant amount of post-game content, with time attack rewards that ranged from grenade-tipped arrows to a parachute.
In fairness, each game has its share of antiquated devices and mechanics. Progress lost to save points in Ico can be rather cruel, and the entire presence of combat is debatable. Colossus's signature mechanic, Wander's ability to grip onto something, has a swift learning curve and, with the more aggressive colossi, can seem like an exercise in frustration. Your mileage may vary, but personally I had forgotten or never cared about these things when I first encountered them. In fact, when fellow editor Steve Schardein, having played Colossus for the first time, brought these issues up on episode two of our podcast, myself and co-host Chris Stone failed to remember similar struggles. It's a shame that legitimate issues with gameplay could potentially weaken one’s enjoyment of Ico and Colossus's gifts, but, with a perspective on the time and place these games were created, they shouldn’t be obstacles.
A high definition upgrade has done wonders for both games. Ico looks especially impressive, and if not for the rather basic geometry and repeating textures a casual observer could easily mistake it for a modern title. Ico's bold colors always seem in contrast to the yellow-ish castle, and the constant feed of sunlight really speaks to the strength of Team Ico's art department (especially when considering Ico's PS1 origins). It's also worth mentioning that Ico is actually the European version of the game, which is good for two slightly reworked, if not more clunky, puzzles and extra content (like a second player controlling Yorda) for your second play though. There aren’t any differences with the version of Colossus that’s included, but I would have killed for a bonus mode of some sort that allowed battles against the small collection of unused colossi, no matter how broken they may have been.
Perhaps the biggest victory, Colossus is no longer plagued by crawling frames and sails at a smooth thirty frames per second the whole way through. The 1080p gloss and a widescreen presentation do well to support your memory of what these games looked like, rather than the horror show one might actually encounter when viewing their original forms with 2011 eyes. The colossi's fur, in particular, still looks unreal. They could have done better in some areas; pop-in remains a problem in Colossus and stretching the menus, rather than properly expanding them, comes off as a bit lazy, but it's nothing terrible. Both games have also been rendered in 3D, but my 42’’ HD set from 2004 wasn't quite up to exploring that option.
There are also a few bonus videos. Those, to the best of my knowledge, were not present in our review code. I thought maybe they were accessible on the Video tab of the XMB (no) or required me to beat both games to unlock (also no). I asked around with some other writers and they were also at a loss, and Sony didn’t return my e-mails. Sucks, but here is apparently what’s on the retail disc:
- Early concept and prototype video montage of ICO
- Early concept and prototype video montage of Shadow of the Colossus
- Initial concept video for NICO, a game that was never made but turned into Shadow of the Colossus, including an on-camera introduction from creator Fumito Ueda
- Candid 20+ minute round-table discussion between Fumito Ueda (creator), Kenji Kaido (producer) and Junichi Hosono (designer)
- A 12-minute behind-the-scenes video filmed on location at the SCEI offices in Japan. This video features interviews with key production staff members about the making of ICO, Shadow of the Colossus, and The Last Guardian, as well as concept art and prototype footage of all the games, and exclusive never-before-seen footage of The Last Guardian