Because how else in 2001, with project budgets escalating and pressure to crack sales charts' top five mounting, did designer Fumito Ueda convince the heads of Sony to fund development on an adventure that felt so alien to the rest of the market?
Yet Ico was also something wondrous. Harking back to games were story was sparsely told, players filling blanks as they went, gameplay mechanics that still feel unique, and an art style that only a few short comparisons from Studio Ghibli for evocative environments and artistic beauty.
A brief cut-scene is all the introduction you receive, as a horned boy is locked inside a seemingly-empty castle, that unnatural growth reason enough for his elders to banish him. What follows is an extensive escape attempt from his prison, and his meeting with Yorda, a death-white girl who's also been locked in the castle.
The friendship that grows between the two is core to both story and gameplay. You need to guide Yorda through the castle's labyrinth of corridors and solve puzzles, actively grabbing her hand to lead her as you walk. You have to protect her as well; flickering shadow monsters, seemingly born from some fever nightmare, try and kidnap Yorda, forcing you to scare them off with a torch - your uncoordinated swings brilliantly outlining your character's inexperience and young age.
It's arguable that Ico was a success despite its poor sales, overriding critical acclaim for once and keeping the torch lit to allow the developer to carry on where others have seen closure. Four years later saw the release of Ico's spiritual sequel - different story, but the technique and expression the same - with Shadow of the Colossus.
Another short cut-scene, this time our character placing the lifeless form of his beloved onto an altar, and the simple concept and direction: kill the sixteen colossi wandering the surrounding world, and the girl would be returned to life.
Another adventure with minimal text and voice-over, but Shadow... was equally memorable. Each creature, dwarfing screen and wanderer, offered a new set of wonders and challenge. The world was free to explore, your direction and prey entirely up to you. Coming upon one Colossus was the realisation that these creatures were scaleable - hulking moving mountains to climb as limbs, scales and hair were utilised as platforms and hand grips. Getting on them was a problem, staying on was another, and working out where the weak spot was - a glowing glyph in need of a stab - was its own puzzle.
Critically acclaimed yet suffering poor sale figures, Shadow of the Colossus almost a myth in itself, retail copies like gold dust all too soon, and access was limited to those willing to pay outrageous prices on eBay.
Cue another few years and a generation jump and Team Ico returns with its newest: The Last Guardian for PS3. Even still locked in a long development cycle, early showings are universally positive, and to build up to its release, and perhaps logical given Sony's penchant for HD bundles of classics, both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are coupled together and released in HD form, arguably letting the games live up the vision of their studio where ageing PS2 hardware failed.
Ico's improved with the transition, with the murky and muddy surfaces from the original gone completely, though the animations on the characters are starting to show their age. However, it's
Shadow of the Colossus that has benefited the most from the shift to PS3 and HD, to the point it'll overwhelm those who played the original with its choppy frame rate. That's now silkily smooth, and coated in a visual sharpness the PS2 could only dream about.
What you're left with is the best versions of the games to date, one arguably how it was originally meant to be seen if ideas hadn't outstripped technology at the time. The shift to PS3 has corrected those issues, and the games are still powerful in their storytelling.
However, not all blemishes from the original releases have been erased. In hindsight we managed to excuse certain unwieldily mechanics that are more apparent today since some of the initial magic for both titles have worn off over the years.
These may be even more obvious to first-timers: the button configurations aren't completely intuitive, control of the characters feels leaden, while the complete lack of developer direction in Ico can be a double-edged sword with puzzles. We found ourselves pushing blocks or exploring rooms just in the hope of triggering something, and even then we were unsure if it was of importance to the game's progression. The lack of subtle hints to direction can be off-putting, while those used to hand-holding will be baffled.
While neither game can claim to be as unique and spectacular as when they were first published - though for a market that's cannibalistic to the point of genocide, surprisingly few ideas have been regurgitated elsewhere since - there's a magic to both that is seldom seen today.
In that they're still as important as ever, showing there's always another way to speak to the audience that doesn't involve extensive tutorials, doesn't require a gun in the hand, and another way to tell a fascinating story (times two) without the need of weighty and ultimately vacuous exposition. You might only play each once, but you'll remember then long after. Even amongst the modern day big hitters this winter, this Collection is still worth picking up.
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