Compared with their counterparts in film, TV and music, video game “classics” get little love, thanks to scarcity, obsolete hardware and the fact that even the best games feel dated after only a few years. The HD revolution taking place in living rooms everywhere makes edges look more jagged and blurs textures.
Fortunately, we live in a golden age when it comes to being able to play the classics. Digital distribution has made rereleases via download a low-cost, high-reward proposition for any company that can wrap its mind around software emulation. Meanwhile, publishers are releasing remastered, “high-definition” versions of some classics.
Even amid the reissue fervor, Sony’s “Ico & Shadow of the Colossus Collection” (rated T, $40 on PS3) stands out. Unlike Sony’s “God of War” collections, or Konami’s planned “Metal Gear Solid” reissue, “Ico” and “Shadow of the Colossus” aren’t part of a “franchise.” Though there are artistic parallels and a hint of continuity, the games’ key link is that they share a developer, Fumito Ueda-led Team Ico. (Ueda’s team has been working on its next game, the oft-delayed “The Last Guardian,” for nearly this entire console generation.)
For many gamers, including me, the collection represents the first chance to play “Ico.” Although that game released to rave reviews in 2001, the PS2 hadn’t yet become a retail juggernaut. Sales were meager. “Ico” never had a large production run and used copies became scarce and expensive, thanks to frequent mentions in “are games art?” debates and “best games ever” lists.
Despite being 10 years old, “Ico” holds up well. The titular character is a young boy with horns who’s placed in a sarcophagus and left inside a castle by members of his village. After a tremor, Ico frees himself and tries to escape with Yorda, a willowy girl he frees from a hanging cage near the start of the game.
Though “Ico” features a fair amount of platform-jumping, it’s primarily about solving puzzles to advance to the next area or create paths for Yorda, whose hand Ico holds throughout the game. The puzzles make the game play a bit like “Portal.” Instead of placing portals, Ico moves crates, flips switches, blows up obstacles and climbs walls to achieve those “eureka” moments that make players feel smart. There’s a small amount of fighting, relegated to simple button presses, but it’s not particularly challenging.
Much like the films of Terrence Malick (“Badlands,” “The New World,” “The Tree of Life”), “Ico” is defined by sparse dialogue and minimalist storytelling. (Back in 2001, the game’s visuals and gorgeous lighting likely also recalled Malick’s movies, but even in HD, 2001-era graphics look dated.) Ico and Yorda speak different languages, so there isn’t much chitchat. The bulk of the game’s audio consists of footfalls as the two run through the castle, or grunts as Ico grabs Yorda’s hand and pulls her up to a ledge
This minimalism extends to Ueda’s game design. Every object or bit of scenery serves “Ico’s” gameplay. If you stand in a room and notice it has three balconies of varying heights, you’ll be visiting those areas at some point during Ico and Yorda’s adventure.
The minimalism can make “Ico” feel slow. When I first started the game and was treated to several minutes of in-game movies; dumped into an enormous, nearly empty room with no tutorial; and finally forced to run up an interminably long staircase, it was jarring. In an era in which games seek to throw players into the “action” as quickly as possible, it was hard not to think, “Is this game going to be boring?” But once you put in a half-hour or so and start to figure out “Ico’s” rhythms and understand its world, everything falls into place and its charms become apparent.
Even though it’s still amazing 10 years later, “Ico’s” controls can feel clunky and imprecise, and the animation when Ico takes Yorda’s hand and runs can make it look like he’s about to dislocate the poor girl’s shoulder. That said, the relatively short game has a stunning, satisfying conclusion and it’s fantastic that Sony has made it playable on the PS3, with trophies and support for stereoscopic 3D.
The second game in the collection, “Shadow of the Colossus” came out in 2005, received the “Greatest Hits” treatment and and is still in print on PS2, but it’s just as essential as “Ico.” The game, about a young man who must slay 16 colossi to return a girl named Mono to life, gets the same trophy/3D support in this deluxe package. I’m still working my way through “Shadow” and enjoying its thematic similarities to “Ico,” but the controls have been more of an issue.
Though the fights against the colossi are well-designed and awe-inspiring – Wander must climb each beast and seek out weak points while avoiding being shaken off – everything to do with his horse, Agro, is driving me batty. Navigating the world on horseback is a chore compared with newer games like “Red Dead Redemption” or “Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.” Too often Wander jumps goofily next to the beast when I mean for him to saddle up. Still, it’s a stunning classic. The colossi look breathtaking in HD. Killing even one feels sorrowful, like gunning down the last of a species of majestic animal.
As an added bonus the box art that ships with “The Ico & Shadow of the Colossus” collection is reversible. Once you get your disk home and remove the shrink wrap, you can pull out the cover art, flip it over and get the original Japanese cover art for each game free of extra adornments like ESRB rating and corporate logos. The sleeve art looks gorgeous once reversed, and it’d be great to see this become a trend for video game/movie covers.