Late to the Game: Ico
“Late to the Game” is our editorial series looking back at classic titles through today’s lens, and reflecting on their influence and legacy from the perspective of those playing them for the first time.
In anticipation of The Last Guardian coming to PS4 in 2016, we’re focusing our attention on developer Fumito Ueda’s original classic, Ico, which kicked off Ueda’s remarkable series of games like Shadow of the Colossus and the upcoming The Last Guardian.
For more on our “Late to the Game” installments on the series, you can click here to check out everything from Metal Gear Solid, to Half-Life, and beyond – for now though, let’s dig in to the mystical, haunting world of Ico…
Much like its barren worlds and cryptic story, Ico was one of those titles that had always eluded me: in that context, I mean it as much literally as it is metaphorical.
Originally released for the PS2 in 2001, Ico was the debut project of developer Fumito Ueda as a game director, and while the game has received scores of critical praise and admiration in the years since its debut, for quite some time the game was fairly hard to come by.
Having had an interest in the game for a better part of a decade, it took me a while to actually track down and find a copy of the game, as by that point GameStop began phasing out purchasing and selling PS2-era titles. I wound up buying Ico twice before eventually finishing it: my first copy coming from PAX East 2011 at a used game seller on the show floor (for $40, which at the time was a steal for the hard-to-find title on PS2), before eventually settling with The Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection on PS3, providing HD remasters of both titles in one collection.
I had previously played Shadow of the Colossus several times before finally mustering the courage to dive into Ico: Shadow still rank high as one of my all-time favorite games, and with plenty of good reason. Where Shadow of the Colossus drew me in with its heartbreaking and cryptic story, I was aware that Ico provided a similar experience (along with providing some connective threads between both games) and had always had it high on my backlog to play, though distractions and more kept me away from it for a time.
That all changed a little earlier this year when I went to E3 2015, and came away pretty much breathless with the (very long-awaited) re-reveal of The Last Guardian at Sony’s E3 press conference this past June. With the impending release of The Last Guardian coming next year, I knew that I had to at least experience Ueda’s original work in this spiritual “trilogy” of games by completing Ico: I wouldn’t be able to complete the puzzle of The Last Guardian without putting in to place one of its crucial pieces.
With a copy of the game on the PS3 collection of titles, I finally dove in and completed Ico, which surprisingly enough is not a very time-consuming task at all: I clocked in to my final playtime with Ico somewhere between the 4-5 hour mark. Playing through Ico was by no means a flawless experience – like anything, it too suffers the trials of age and time going against it – but was certainly an informative one.
More than anything, it was an experience of it’s own finishing one of the titles that’s consistently held up to the mantle in the seemingly never-ending “are games art?” debate. However, like Shadow of the Colossus after it, there’s little doubt in my mind that Ico is anything but an imaginative and emotional experience, video game or not.
Ico takes players through the journey of the horned helmet-wearing adventurer Ico, as he quickly is put up to the task of protecting and escorting a captive princess, Yorda, from being scarified at the hands of an evil queen seeking to extend her own lifespan. Constantly under the pursuit of shadow creatures seeking to reclaim Yorda, it becomes the player’s role as Ico to see her to safety across the game’s environments and puzzles, while also overcoming obstacles and threats along the way.
Even before the surge of more minimalistic games that would draw critical acclaim like Braid and Limbo, the most striking element of Ico is its sparse nature. With no on-screen HUD and limited dialogue (aside from the game’s fictional language), the beauty of Ico comes through in its presentation, and letting you soak up the story and its world by limiting how much the game tells you. The principle of “show don’t tell” is one of the oldest pieces of advice that storytellers have come to know, yet Ico exemplifies that principle in the best way possible, much like Shadow of the Colossus would after it.
While the short 4-5 hours of Ico could be defined as essentially one long, elaborate escort mission as Ico leads Yorda to safety, throughout the game its story comes together for something greater. It brings together sorrow, loneliness, and companionship in a world that’s as beautiful and intriguing as it is haunting and cold. As Shadow of the Colossus drew me in nearly a decade ago with its story that was epic yet intimate, Ico drew me in much in the same way by letting me project my feelings and wonder into its isolated yet beautiful world.
Ico‘s artistici merits are notable for sure, having been a key influencer with future classics to come. Famed designers, studios, and creatives such as Eiji Aonuma, Hideo Kojima, Hidetaka Miyazaki, Mark Laidlaw, Naughty Dog, and filmmaker Guillermo del Toro have all cited Ico‘s storytelling and visual design as aesthetic and artistic influences. Though you might not have expected a title such as Ico to have had some minor influence in current hits of today like the Metal Gear Solid series, Uncharted, or Dark Souls, looking back on it now its emphasis on letting the player discover the world and characters is something so simple, and yet plays such a huge part in so many games of the modern era.
That isn’t to say Ico is completely flawless, as time and age tend to make even the most beloved and classic games feel dated in comparison, especially in how rapidly games have changed since its original release.
Playing off the PS3 HD remaster of the game in the Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection, the art direction and style of Ico still holds up surprisingly well even after 14 years that may be jogged in the memories of players. Though it obviously has some rough edges to hit coming off a PS2 title that debuted a decade-and-a-half ago, the minimalism and style of Ico overcome its more nagging technical and visual flaws, though its gameplay was where I drew some of my least enjoyable moments from it.
As a puzzle-based adventure title, Ico‘s main gameplay focus is having the player guide Yorda through obstacles, while also overcoming various shadow creatures seeking to whisk her away to danger. The puzzle aspects of Ico largely focus on working out solutions between Ico and Yorda, such as using one character to stand on a pressure switch to open a door, or having to help each other up tall obstacles or far gaps.
Where the puzzle-solving provided clever (though not particularly taxing or difficult) challenges, combat in particular was one of my only criticisms with the game, though it’s a challenging aspect to tackle given its subject matter. Compared to the epic scale and combat of Shadow of the Colossus in taking down several hulking beasts, Ico’s main challenge comes through fighting heaps of the shadow beasts trying to take Yorda away. The combat is simple and accomplishes the task effectively, though its constant repetition could grow old pretty quickly. It works for the game given its short length so it never gets too tedious, though most of the time I just tried to make a break and run for the next doorway or area so I could avoid combat as much as possible altogether.
Aside from the combat, my other quickly-growing enemy in Ico was its save and checkpointing system, and though it’s far from a deal-breaking experience compared to earlier games of its generation, going back to the days of frustrating (and far) checkpoints was something I’m certainly glad to leave behind nowadays. Even compared to its short duration, checkpoints (the odd “stone couches” that you and Yorda must sit on to save progress) are placed a bit far between with no other save options available.
Though I mostly remedied this by just saving and stopping the game once I got to a checkpoint, there were some points in the game where it became a bit of a frustrating experience. That became most apparent in the second half of the game in areas filled with ledges and high falls that I accidentally was killed by on a few occasions, leading me quite far back and having to retrace my steps. It wasn’t a dealbreaker by any means in going back and playing through Ico, but it was definitely a relic of the times that I’m more than happy to leave back in the past.
Those small issues aside, my brief time going through and playing Ico nevertheless was nothing but time well-spent. It’s hard for me to wedge Shadow of the Colossus from a significant place in my heart, yet seeing what much of Shadow (and presumably what we may see in The Last Guardian) came from in Ico was still an enjoyable and just as heart-wrenching experience. I didn’t take down any epic colossi or ride off into the great unknown like Shadow of the Colossus, instead I was driven by the emotional and touching story of Ico, and let its world and storytelling lead the way.