Note: The following editorial contains spoilers for Shadow of the Colossus. If you haven’t played the game before and you are waiting for the remake, I advise you to hold off reading this editorial until after you have played the game.
In 2005, Team Ico released its second game, Shadow of the Colossus for the PlayStation 2, and personally, I find it is one of the most unique video games ever made; to put it simply, there is no other game out there quite like it. Aside from being a critically-acclaimed PlayStation 2 exclusive with beautiful landscapes, Shadow of the Colossus is also one of the most alluring tragedies ever told in a video game; a grand masterpiece that stands as living proof that video games can be (and are) a work of art.
Nearly thirteen years after its initial release, Sony Interactive Entertainment announced that this gaming gem was being remade for the PlayStation 4 last year. With the game’s official launch less than a month away, I wanted to take some time to share a personal retrospective on this title in honor of its forthcoming release.
When Shadow of the Colossus first came out, I will be upfront: I did not pick it up at launch. In fact, I did not hear much about Shadow of the Colossus in terms of marketing or word-of-mouth. Being a ten-year-old kid in elementary school at the time, the most popular video game everyone would talk about non-stop was Pokémon. It would not be until one day after school when I came home to watch the latest episode of G4TV’s Cheat! that I would discover the game. I remember as if it were yesterday: at the time, host Kristin Holt did a brief segment on Shadow of the Colossus providing a strategy to players on how to defeat the tenth colossus in the game.
After watching snippets of gameplay footage and researching more on Shadow of the Colossus, I decided that this was a game I needed to own. So, that following weekend, I asked my mother to take me to the local GameStop so I could buy the title, and I remember trading in a lot of games so I could afford to purchase a copy of it. But, when I finally got my hands on it, I was smiling from cheek to cheek. I remember spending countless weekend nights playing this game – mastering each colossus, trying to speedrun the game, and even trying to find the answers to all the questions I had after beating it.
During the PlayStation 2 era, I owned a substantial amount of video games for the console; that being said, aside from Okami and Bully, Shadow of the Colossus is a game that I absolutely love and is one title that every gamer should strongly consider playing at least once in their lifetime. Whether you decide to play the original PlayStation 2 version, the PlayStation 3 version, or the impending PS4 remake, this is a title that you should not disregard.
The crown jewel of Shadow of the Colossus, hands down, is the game’s narrative, which brings players through an emotional journey to a forbidden land. Players control Wander, a young boy who wishes to restore the life of a young girl named Mono. To do so, Wander is tasked with eliminating sixteen intimidating beings known as the “colossi.” Accompanying him on his quest is Wander’s loyal steed Agro, who helps the players in defeating the colossi in combat. Aside from these two, the only other character that plays a part in the narrative is Dormin, an entity who also aids the warrior during his adventure.
One of the things I think Shadow of the Colossus does so well is that it presents its story in an unexpected way – the game starts you off thinking that you are on a noble “save the princess” quest. But, over time, the game instead starts to reveal that killing these creatures may actually be harming the world in some ways, so your intentions may not be as “noble” as they seem. By its conclusion, Shadow of the Colossus, in a lot of ways, ends up flipping the story (and players’ expectations) on its head.
Despite the graphical capabilities of the PlayStation 2 at the time of its initial release (which often pushed the system to its limits), Shadow of the Colossus visually is beautiful. From the moment the cinematic opening begins to engaging in epic fights against the colossi, at times you will feel like you are watching a movie. Along with the striking visuals and art direction, the soundtrack of Shadow of the Colossus is also impressive in how it evokes the emotions and action that players experience.
This is reflected in how the soundtrack changes based on what is happening on screen, including the adrenaline rush that players feel when defeating a colossus thanks to the epic score, or the more somber music that plays when defeating one. While majestic, instead of an audio track playing which can make you feel pride in slaying the beast, the music sounds more like you have just slain an innocent creature that was peacefully minding its own business.
Because the dialogue in the game is minimal, most gamers can (rightfully) argue that it is hard to stay motivated to finishing the game because of its lack of direct storytelling and character development. Typically, when a game offers a lack of information or background to the main character, there isn’t much incentive to see what happens to the characters in the course of the story. However, I think Shadow of the Colossus has perfectly executed in providing empathy towards its characters, as well as the drive for players to see how the story progresses. For me, I think these come through the use of minimal dialogue in its cutscenes and soundtrack, as well as Wander’s relationship with Agro. The narrative of the game is open to players’ interpretation rather than being told directly, which I think makes the story far more intriguing.
In that last point I mentioned above, Wander’s relationship with his horse helps provide the core emotional journey in the game. Aside from aiding you in your quest, the development team also added several, albeit small details to help strengthen that bond, such as Wander petting him while sitting on Agro. What makes this relationship feel genuine and immersive is when Agro is presumed dead towards the end of the story after sacrificing himself to save Wander from a collapsing bridge, which in itself can be relatable to anyone who has ever owned a pet that they loved dearly and tragically passed away.
Aside from the narrative and the relationship between Wander and Agro, the gameplay is essential to the game’s story as well. Upon its release, while the game was critically acclaimed, many of its criticisms included the game’s controls, which felt extremely clunky and (at times) made it feel like you were operating a tank instead of a young boy. Despite the controls feeling obsolete, even for a sixth generation game, I would like to offer a rebuttal to that; although the controls on their own were indeed frustrating, its flaws were also the game’s strengths, in a way.
Shadow of the Colossus‘ flaws turn into strengths from a balanced mixture of both the story and gameplay – the creatures you’re up against (and tasked with defeating) are vastly bigger than you, and you are armed with nothing more than a sword and a bow. Quite simply, you are small and incapable and taking on things much much larger than yourself. Wander is no fighter by any stretch of the imagination; he is a boy who is not properly trained nor prepared to fight these creatures.
Team Ico could have easily made Wander control and move as if he was an adequate warrior, but they didn’t and I applaud them for it because it provides an extra dosage of realism into the game. Not many games, especially AAA titles, have been able to execute that kind of characterization just through a character’s animations and provide ultimate immersion for the player, but Team Ico portrays Wander in such a realistic light.
This includes the way he runs while his sword is equipped and how it flails around as if he is a little child playing with his friends, or the way he loses his balance when a colossus attempts to shake him off them. Now, most gamers are content with just playing a game and enjoying the story; others, such as myself, love the little details in games that make the overall experience more rewarding; Shadow of the Colossus is full of those little details.
Since I first played the game over a decade ago, I continue to believe that Shadow of the Colossus is, without a doubt, one of the greatest tragedies ever told in the medium of video games. It is so much more than just a boss rush game; it is the story of a boy who cared so much for someone he loved that he unleashed hell to save her. However, this “noble” quest is also driven by greed, as the boy accomplishes great and terrible things for the one he loved. As a result, this quest drove the boy to accomplish a great deal of evil, becoming the very monsters he had slain; a boy who prioritized his tiny problems ahead of the colossal consequences of his actions.
While I love the original game and it holds a very special place in my heart, I have very high hopes for its forthcoming remake. Personally, I would love to see the remake provide some improvements to the overall gameplay, such as moving the camera as well as the controls during combat. I think it will provide a smoother experience, as well as attract those who played the original but hated it due to the many flaws the game had.
At the end of the day, despite all its flaws, issues, and outdated control schemes, Shadow of the Colossus is one of the most original games ever created and deserves all the praise it has (and continues) to receive, and I’m looking forward to experiencing it all over again.