Let’s get them out of the way, then: haunting, beautiful, serene, moving – any others? It’s been a while since these two games originally released (especially Ico, which came out in 2002) and yet they’re still regarded by some as the most compelling, original and evocative videogames in existance. And despite the cruel ravages of time (which have not been terribly kind to the graphics) such adjectives and superlatives are absolutely valid nearly ten years later – these games are considered masterpieces and amongst the very best games you can play, and they’re a powerful combo.[drop]They are, of course, entirely different games, although linked by developer and a handful of somewhat delicate connections (none of which we’ll spoil here). Shadow of the Colossus might be interpreted as a spiritual successor to Ico but either game can be played before the other and they’re distinctly unique in gameplay, even if they share similarly melancholic tones in their exposition and pacing. Ico, which I still maintain is the better game, is a tightly wound puzzle platformer with a wonderful escort dynamic whilst Shadow is a much more open, evolving game but yet it manages to really only ask one thing from the player.
Ico worked then (and remains powerful now) because of the raw sense of innocence that oozes from the two main characters. In a castle filled with danger (vertiginous drops and deadly ghost-like creatures) and yet devoid of obvious communication, it’s down to the player to rescue them with just a plank of wood for weaponry and a suprisingly believeable chunk of courage and bravery from the lead. It’s impossible not to connect with them, either, and by the end of the game – after everything they go through – you’ll find it hard to tear yourself away.
Shadow works differently. It still plays on similar notes – isolation, desperation and the overwhelming desire to help someone – but challenges you with taking down a series of increasingly tough colossi which are scattered across a vast expanse of land, your only companion a horse. These massive, lumbering beasts aren’t always outwardly agressive, and their sometimes pitiful demises at the hands of the player and his singular quest are deeply moving. It’s up to you to find their weakspots and up to you alone to take them down, making each death a personal, affecting one.
When they released on PlayStation 2, Team Ico’s games pushed the console hard and Fumito Ueda’s team – famously perfectionists – ensured that both titles looked the best they could. Ico’s limited resolution and Shadow’s poor frame rate are both rescued here on PS3, though, which locks both games in at 1080p and thirty frames per second. What it doesn’t do, though, is touch the textures, animation and character models beyond a few minor tweaks (improved particle effects and a sprinkling of shaders here and there) and the lighting still remains somewhat flat, especially in Shadow.[drop2]That’s not to say they look bad – they don’t – but don’t expect much in the way of an upgrade from the originals beyond the obvious. With a few adjustments to your TV’s black levels and the PS2 versions side by side to compare the difference is clear, but these are games that are to be enjoyed beyond the vanity of fancy graphics, and the art style and sense of scale still impress regardless. I’ve tried both in 3D for a while too, and it’s definitely the way to play them – Ico in particular benefits from the added depth offered by the technology, especially once you start to traverse the castle’s exterior sections.
Team Ico’s two PlayStation 2 games are widely considered as art pieces as much as they are videogames, and it’s easy to see why. They’re remarkably insular and introvert, seemingly unaware of trends and fashion, and are every bit as brilliant to play today as they ever were. The ‘games as art’ argument will continue to rumble on forever more, but both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are as close to the concept of art – however you interpret that – as anything out there, regardless of their age, and will continue to be so for some time to come. Haunting? Beautiful? Serene? Moving? Pretty much.