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Why Shadow of the Colossus is Still a Masterpiece
In this series, I took a look at some of the most beloved gems spanning Sony’s (almost) two decades in the gaming industry. Potential spoilers ahead.
The despondent emergence from the sanctuary. The solitary ride atop a dark horse across a veritable wasteland. The bleak ascent of the craggy cliffside. And then it’s there: the thing you’ve been searching for, half creature, half monolith, the first of many obstacles.
And monumental obstacles they will be.
Anyone who has played Shadow of the Colossus knows instantly what I am illustrating. Verily, though it is by no means the most impressive creature you will face off against, beholding that first colossus is a gaming moment you’ll never forget, much like the Hydra battle in the original God of War. Not difficult by any measure, not remarkable except for being the first you see, and yet it impeccably sets the tone and pace for the rest of the game.
Released for the PlayStation 2 in 2005, Team Ico’s second project stands as its best yet. While the development team’s first outing was wonderful in its own right, Shadow of the Colossus stands apart from virtually all other games for doing what very few games had attempted at that point. In a time where role-playing games were still a dominating force and Halo’s impact was spreading, Team Ico reminded us all what gaming is really about: an experience.
To laud Shadow of the Colossus as a masterpiece due to unparalleled storytelling, incredible characterization, or mind-blowing gameplay and game mechanics (Agro, anyone?) would be absurd. In fact, it’s largely the exact opposite that critics and fans alike commend Shadow of the Colossus for. Defying the status quo of masterful storytelling, creator/director Fumito Ueda deliberately skimped on an advancing (or even clearly defined) plot and developing characters, and contradicting everything 99% of developers strive for: innovative gameplay.
It was all those choices that made the game, ironically, such a masterpiece and, I dare say, a timeless classic. Rather than have players hone in on the intricacies of the plot, the deep-seeded conflict of the protagonist, or even the gameplay itself, Ueda and his skilled team of developers emphasized the atmosphere of the game. The despondence and loneliness prevalent in the game define the experience in a palpable way, and so unlike many other games, the tone remains consistent throughout. Never do you feel like Wander (the protagonist) is joined by anything on his quest. Even Dormin, the ambivalent deity that tasks him with his onus, is absent outside the shrine. At no point do you feel a divine presence guiding his sword or bending his bowstring. It is only Wander and his horse, which, let’s be honest, is even worse than Wander alone once you’ve tried to control the equine beast for more than five minutes.
Looking back today, Shadow of the Colossus seems a bit like the father of independent games, forgoing so many of the industry standards in lieu of artistic integrity. Like pretty much anything from thatgamecompany (or most other indie developers), Shadow of the Colossus is more about the emotion than delivering the same ol’, same ol’ you hear spouted from the mouths of industry leaders. There is something to be said for this approach, too. Certainly gaming hasn’t even scraped its potential, and there is much more innovation to be seen, but even nine years ago, gameplay was growing stagnant. Perhaps this is what drove Ueda to focus his efforts elsewhere, or maybe he never thought much about it.
Having rambled on enough about the aesthetic, let’s dissect the gameplay a little farther. If there is innovation in Shadow of the Colossus (beyond its unique approach), it comes in the form of combat. I can safely say I can’t name any other game where the entirety of combat is comprised of boss battles. It was an ingenious idea and, in my book, it worked exquisitely. The stamina meter was a nice touch, as well, providing an additional challenge. However, the mechanics could have worked better. Quite often I found Wander moving laterally when I was trying to climb upward, and I won’t even start with that horse of his. These annoyances are small though, considering all the things the game does right.
As if the game wasn’t good enough already, Sony saw fit to re-release it (along with its spiritual predecessor, Ico) on the PlayStation 3 in HD and 3D (which, by the way, is the way to play the game if you have a 3D-capable TV). But even on the PlayStation 2, this game is still superb. Its ambiguous plot has left fans in perpetual discussion for almost a decade now, even as hype for its long-awaited spiritual successor, The Last Guardian, has dropped to depressing lows. Hopefully Ueda and Sony can get their act together and release the long overdue title soon. Until then, we still have this beauty to keep us solemn and pensive.