Classic Review: Shadow of the Colossus (2005-6)
Classic Review is a new segment on GamePlayer in which we review older games which we think are fun/groundbreaking/terrible or overrated. It can be a place to trash the classics or just a reminder for some of the great games out there that haven’t been made in the last 2 years.
One of these days I’m going to write a Classic Review which trashes a game which has an undeserved reputation for greatness, like going back and stopping Rick Astley right before he told us when he was going to give us up (by the way, it was never). But not today. Today I’m going to talk about Shadow of the Colossus for PlayStation 2, a game which I am constantly amazed that people haven’t heard of – let alone played.
Shadow of the Colossus is an action-adventure/puzzle game which plays a lot like a stark Legend of Zelda – except without the dungeons (temples). In fact, there are no small monsters (or trash mobs) in the game at all. Instead, you and your horse venture across a stark and empty (and need I say, hauntingly beautiful) landscape populated only by the next Colossus, the next boss you need to defeat.
Story wise, the game is equally stark. All you know is that legend says the person who kills all of the Colossuses (Colossi?) will be granted a wish. And that you’re girlfriend is dead. If you want to bring her back to life you will have to hunt down and destroy all 16 of these (I looked it up) Colossi, which are strangely ambivalent to your presence – in most cases – at least until you attack them.
Shadow of the Colossus is constantly brought up when people debate whether games can be considered an artwork by traditional standards. But even better than that, it’s very fun to play. It takes awhile to get used to the idea that this 8 hour game is made up of 16 bosses – one after the other, and that's it – but when you do, it’s something to be celebrated.
And the bosses themselves are truly epic. All you have to do is look at the cover to realise that, in most cases, these bosses are 10-15 times your size. And fighting them is a unique experience. Your character, Wander, is forced to physically climb these (mostly) mountain-sized titans, attempting to reach glowing runes marking their weak points. And they aren’t much help, from diving under water to flying barrel rolls or just a good old fashion head/torso/rump shake to dislodge you.
But I could talk all day on the merits of this game without conveying at all how it feels. There is an emptiness to the game which is reflected in almost every facet – from the empty terrain to the minimalist User Interface, the fact that you start with all the weapons in the game (a sword, a bow and your horse Agro) and even the lack of dialogue. It really showed me that “less is more” isn’t just designer slang for saving a bunch of development money. But most chilling of all is the reaction to killing a Colossus. Far from celebrating, Wander is struck (and by struck, I mean impaled) by strange black tentacles which emerge from the corpse. He then wakes up inside a temple at the center of the map, not coincidentally the same place where the game begins. The game continues in this cycle until the end, with each Colossus you defeat appearing as a dark ghost standing over your body as you wake up at the temple. The cumulative effect is just plain scary.
As I’ve said, it’s hard to articulate but there is a guilt built into this game about what you are doing. It’s hard to tell if you are good or evil, or if they are good or evil. It left me wondering what price the world was paying for my actions, depriving it of what are essentially nature spirits or guardians.
Most of all, Shadow of the Colossus made me think. And it still makes me think. It’s a game which affected me deeply, not just in the way I perceive games but in the way I perceive the world.
And that’s something pretty amazing.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention, Sony is remaking both Shadow of the Colossus and Ico (made by the same people) for a high definition release on PlayStation 3 later this year. Get pumped!