Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week we look at one of the best examples of video game as art—an immersive title that pioneered the PlayStation 2 era to success.
#13. SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS, by Ben Newman
Has a game ever released that has been so successful as a result of one singular focus? While Shadow of the Colossus is a deep, multifaceted game, Team Ico’s opus succeeds by nailing down a single concept: scale. Gamers had seen big enemies before, they had witnessed moments gameplay-driven tension, but they’d never seen a colossus. By framing most of its gameplay in 16 bosses —an espresso shot of action—Shadow of the Colossus was exactly what the 2005 zeitgeist needed.
Shadow of the Colossus is an oddity. How can a game function with so little gameplay and so much quiet, meditative atmosphere? While the premise for the game can be seen as too simple, the journey through the husked world feels nothing short of an epic. In actuality, the journey to find each colossus serves as palpable tension, a player-driven build-up through lonely dustbowls and delicate forests. The pay-off is the colossi themselves which, in design terms, are simply puzzles, but each has enough variation and moments of tension for players to forget their simplicity. When scaling a colossus, players feel on top of the world, like a David fighting a Goliath. The core gameplay loop of the title is reminiscent of gaming’s primordial years, yet Team Ico managed to imbue this simplicity with an oblique sense of originality. The game was a revelation because it decided to be reserved in a time where maximalism was the barometer of success.
Story-wise, Shadow of the Colossus exists in the same mould as Ico. The game tells the story of Wander, a silent protagonist on a mission to revive a woman named Mono. After taking her to a forbidden land, he makes a deal the god Dormin: Mono will be revived, but only on the condition that Wander slays all 16 colossi. Wander, and his horse Agro, are seemingly the only living creatures in this land. Before the player knows it, they are riding across a wasteland on a sole promise, slaying colossi that, at worst, seem morally neutral. The land itself acts as an extension of the story, perfectly mirroring Wander’s desperation, confusion, and love.
Each colossus follows the same routine: players use their sword to guide them to the next colossus, they find them, find their weak spot, then kill them. Along the way, though, the hauntingly stunning environments of the game will keep players entranced, so much so that sometimes the discovery of a colossus is bone-chillingly shocking. Each colossus needs to be climbed, with players having to figure out how to traverse their bodies through platforming, managing the grip meter, and taking opportunities to strike.
A poorly timed jump, mismanagement of the grip meter, or simply annoying the colossus too much will result in falling and possibly death. By facilitating a trial-and-error approach, Shadow of the Colossus is continually humbling, right up until the point where the colossus is beaten. For a few moments, players feel unstoppable, but this veil of self-confidence is quickly cast aside at the implication that these creatures may not be inherently evil, and that the ends may not justify the means.
Though released 12 years later, the open world of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild invoked memories of Shadow of the Colossus. Though the latter has next to nothing to see or find in its map in terms of collectables and side quests, the way the environments of both games are designed overlap. In Shadow of the Colossus, you’re inspired to explore through simple interest. Breath of the Wild succeeded as its open-world was designed to always have “something” on the horizon to climb and explore; Shadow of the Colossus succeeded for the same reason, drawing players on with unexplained relics, cliff tops, and crumbled architecture always in view. By stripping back the open world and effectively de-littering it from collectables, side missions, and other distractions, Shadow of the Colossus was a statement to explore for exploration’s sake.
Talking about the colossi too much may move into spoilers, so in-depth discussion around each one will be kept to a minimum. Most of the fun of fighting them is figuring out how to fell them, but the other half is the magisterial use of music and organically interwoven set-pieces. Getting knocked off of the back of a colossus, only to hold on through a stroke of luck, working your way back up, and finally defeating it feels like nothing else in gaming. Somehow coming out on top against a colossus through a mix of luck and pure instinct feels like the Daigo parry of single-player gaming; through only gameplay terms, players can feel the fine margins between success and failure.
If the game was solely moving between each colossus, then it would not have been the runaway success that it was. The major appeal of the title was how it parcelled this linear framework in an open-world that reinforced the game’s message. Everything from the music, visuals, sound design, story, lore, and gameplay reinforced one another without any of those aspects being overbearing. The balance of Shadow of the Colossus is why it is so timeless, an example of a team working with unparalleled knowledge of how to employ subtlety.
How, then, do you try to better that? Team Ico faced a similar question after 2001’s Ico, but Shadow of the Colossus seemed impossible to follow up. Perhaps that game’s success led in part to The Last Guardian‘s development hell as the lead Fumito Ueda struggled to re-capture lightning in a bottle. The 2018 remake by Bluepoint Games largely succeeded in bringing the game to modern times, cleaning up the much-criticised framerate drops and making the overworld look more detailed, full of half-dead life.
However, for me personally, nothing will beat the 2005 original. The original lighting system, grain filter, and more washed out aesthetic are embedded in my brain. Even though the 2018 remake was a success, the original left such a big imprint on my developing tastes that nothing can substitute it. Shadow of the Colossus stands as a game that cannot be replicated, an imperious statement of what it means to be a magnum opus for not just Team Ico, but an entire console generation.
Thanks for joining us for a look at one of the greatest games of the PlayStation 2 generation! Next week, we go even further back, looking at one of the classic titles of the last century…