2005 was arguably one of the strongest years in gaming. Call of Duty 2 and Battlefield 2 had just become the poster children for war shooters, Star Wars: Battlefront II proved that Star Wars games could have a great single-player experience (before you know what), and Resident Evil 4 revolutionized the horror genre forever. AAA-gaming seemed to be in a pretty good place, literally on the verge of a new generation the following year. However, one game launched with an ambitious idea in mind; one that would go on to be praised as the biggest of its kind in many ways, a gigantic feat of technology and storytelling at the time that’s still incomparable to this day. Let’s reflect upon how a relatively small Japanese studio went on to make the truly monumental Shadow of the Colossus.
PlayStation 2 is home to the greatest catalog of games, according to many polls and surveys. This was the generation that most gamers fondly remember as breakthroughs in video games. Before Microsoft launched the original Xbox and caused the great divide, Sony was dominating the market alongside GameCube (the latter maybe not as prominently) and year upon year, we’ve seen great titles come and go.
In 2001, Sony-owned studio Team Ico, with the headstrong leadership of visionary director Fumito Ueda, created a little puzzle-platformer called Ico. The game, not marketed as heavily as most AAA titles at the time, went under several radars in the public eye but was well recognized in critics circles as being a visually unique, emotionally beautiful journey of friendship and self-discovery. Ico paved the way for its sort-of sequel in 2005, and didn’t hit its stride until then.
Shadow of the Colossus put players in the position of Wander, a lone warrior who enters a forbidden land in an attempt to resurrect his fallen lover after hearing of the lands magical powers. The ancient spirit that overlooks the land, Dormin, explains that the only way to resurrect his lover is by slaying sixteen demi-gods who’ve had their spirits attached to gigantic creatures that roam the land. The only catch is with every colossus slain, Wander’s soul becomes corrupted.
It may seem like a morbid fairy tale, but Shadow of the Colossus simplified and seemingly emptied everything, from its game play and narrative to the very desolate land you roam in. There’s no leveling up system, enemies to battle, or collectibles to acquire. It prided itself on creating a world so drenched in mystery and lore, that it became a vital part of the games’ charm and success. With only sixteen enemies to encounter that essentially boiled down to massive boss battles, the thrill of the battle is what really escalated the experience.
Each colossus was designed to resemble an elaborate platforming puzzle, with each battle focused on using the environment, expertly timed jumps, and momentum. The sheer scale of these fights were breathtaking, to say the least. Every colossus possessed a trait according to its design and environment. For example, the lizard-type colossus would scale the walls of the arena where the battle took place, while the flying colossi forced players to use their trusty bow and arrow to hit vital points in order for the provoked creatures to descend and snatch them into the skies. Aerial battles were certainly the high points, but each brilliantly designed fight took on a character and tremendous task of its own.
The artistic vision for Shadow of the Colossus still remains the key argument in “can video games be considered art?” debates. It used a distinctively Japanese-themed art style with soft and warm colors to emphasize the scale of the forbidden land and its huge inhabitants. Stylized more to look like a big-budget blockbuster film, the game ironically pushed the envelope of obscure art direction and bold new ideas. Together with a spectacular, memorable soundtrack that screamed perilous, mystical adventure, Shadow of the Colossus was a triumphant technical achievement for the PlayStation 2.
Shadow of the Colossus is undoubtedly one of the finest achievements in gaming history, completely ahead of its time yet still unrivaled in scope, style and narrative. While it may not scale the visceral power of today’s games, it exceeds them with plenty of heart and visual storytelling that most indie-developers have taken several notes from. The PlayStation 2 will be remembered for its expansive database of games, but none feel as genuinely moving as the experience that awaits here.