The PlayStation 2 remains the most successful home gaming console in history, despite having the weakest hardware of its generation, the original Xbox and Nintendo GameCube considered more powerful machines. A lot of reasons for the PS2’s ultimate victory was first, the pedigree of the prior console being revolutionary for its large number of titles marketed for more mature audiences and creating more “cinematic” experiences than its contemporaries. It was secondly its outstanding collection of games which defined genres and pushed what was possible and allowable in games to new limits, examples like Grand Theft Auto III and Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 to name a few. But even if you were not aware of the second PlayStation not being as strong as its competitors, it certainly used every last drop of horsepower it had to mask that truth. In 2005, near the end of its life cycle, one game showed off the surprising potential now tapped: Shadow of the Colossus.
Whether it was 12 years ago or now in 2018, Shadow of the Colossus remains an essential example of what games can do that other mediums like film and literature cannot: conveying a narrative’s themes and weight through a participants’ actions. Your quest to slay 16 behemoth creatures reinforces the strengths of both the mechanical and storytelling components that are often lacking in this still burgeoning corner of the popular culture.
The story is simple as a pond but deep as a lake. A young man named Wander carries on horseback a dead woman, your lady love. He crosses into a forbidden valley with the intent to resurrect his love through a dark ritual. A deity named Dormin that is only heard and never seen proclaims that if you kill 16 Colossi in the valley, he will get his girlfriend back, but it will come at a severe cost. The man accepts without a second thought. His mind is made up and for the player’s desire to play, so are you.
The interactive tale goes forth as such: with your magical sword pointing the way via the sun’s light, you go to the location of the designated Colossus. You reach the giant beast and figure out how to get on and kill it. All Wander has at his disposal is his sword, his bow with a suspiciously infinite supply of arrows and some Olympian climbing skills married with one mother of a grip. You’ll need it as all the Colossi will do their best to throw you off and smash you. Despite the seemingly limited scope of your tools, the masterful design of both the surrounding area and Colossus makes none of the 16 encounters feel less cool and “cinematic” than the last. Your hardships in the struggle give you both a great sense of relief and satisfaction at quelling the colossus but also a great sorrow that grows overtime as another one bites the dust. Most of your foes are just minding their business until you show up and their literal falls feel increasingly cruel.
It’s not a happy story, and I have no intent to spoil the course of the experience despite this being a game over a decade old. Many of you may have learned the outcome by sheer happenstance while browsing the internet in the past. That being said, Shadow of the Colossus’s other great success is its presentation. It’s not considered a prime example of “video games as art” for nothing. The gray world of Colossus is both paradoxically inviting and oppressive, melancholic than depressing. The outstanding music remains a favorite both by the gaming community and by critics for conveying more than the vast yet intimate valley could. It’s an ancient world that suggests itself as a place where legends come and go but always leave a mark that is inextinguishable. Even your trespass feels like a grand tale in the making.
The translation of the world from the PS2-era to the PS4 era is incredible. In the bonus section of the menu, you can unlock a “comparison” category of images which show an exact area of the game from two entirely different but complementary periods of graphics. The PS4 edition was rebuilt from the ground up but it is more tribute to the Japanese studio Team Ico’s design wizardry of the original than just an attempt to outdo it. In the end, it’s a game that feels just as home now as it was then, a remarkable showcase for two evenly apart PlayStation generations.
The game is not flawless. In terms of Wander’s maneuverability while on the Colossi, it varies in terms of how frustrating it can become. In later fights, it will get aggravating having Wander not climb fast enough or move in the direction you want before your stamina runs out and the beast proceeds to fling you off like a ragdoll. How you control your loyal horse, Agro, can have a learning curve, as it’s hard to gauge how fast or slow you can allow the steed to go, often feeling as if its acting of its own accord, sort of like, well, an actual horse. Still annoying though.
Nothing is perfect, but at its best and most unforgettably beautiful moments, you can easily forget and better forgive the faults, like all the best things in life. I will admit to have given up on the original game when I tried it for the first time in 2008. The controls just didn’t click for a young teen who didn’t have the patience I now have. It’s a game that deserves to be played, not just as a testament for Sony at its creative best, but for proving the medium’s critics wrong. Art can’t just be observed, it can also be interacted with, making you feel the connection the game makers intended you to have. You had a part to play in this fable and it makes you think deeply about that part as more than just a way to past time.