A Decade Later, 'Shadow of the Colossus' Isn’t Quite the Classic You Recall

In 2005, Sony released a gaming original in "Shadow of the Colossus." But after ten years, some of that magic's disappeared.

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Feb 3 2015, 3:00pm

Illustration by Stephen Maurice Graham

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

To quote from Refused's The Shape of Punk to Come: "They say the classics never go out of style / But they do, they do." But somehow, baby, I never thought that Shadow of the Colossus would be such a game.

Earlier in 2015, I wrote about how right now could be a genuine golden age for video games, if only we can open our wallets to the select creators successfully realizing the amazing potential of the medium. We don't have to settle for linear shooters with waist-high cover around every corner, or open-world affairs full of meaningless collectibles, only there to infuriate/inspire gamers with their hearts and pride set on 100 percent completion. I wrote that yesterday's so-called classics don't cut it today. GoldenEye 007 was an easy example of being brilliant then and kinda crappy experienced today—but there are thousands more.

The Sony-published, Japan Studio-developed Shadow of the Colossus burned brightly against that argument, though. It's only ten years old in 2015, but was released for the PlayStation 2, a system now two console generations behind us. It looks ugly seen beside today's HD displays, but my memory of playing it on its original hardware was wholly positive. One of only two games directed by the enigmatic Fumito Ueda—which is the way it may always be, unless The Last Guardian is ever completed—Shadow is routinely wheeled out as an example of video games as art, its varied landscapes largely absent of life, its world soundtracked by the wind, the hooves of a horse, the sometime screech of an eagle. You, as Wander, can explore its world, the Forbidden Lands, for hours and, battling the giants of its title aside, find absolutely nothing to do.

Concept art for the game's first colossus

Shadow stands in absolute opposition to so many of today's comparably free-roam affairs, which, to quote Dragon Age: Inquisition's creative director Mike Laidlaw, "fill each area to the extent where you always [have] something to do, every couple of minutes." For his game, a critical hit of 2014, he wanted "a little something special in every corner."

Poke your avatar's nose into a corner in Shadow and you'll just give him a headache. There are white-tailed lizards to shoot and collect (eat, maybe?) for endurance perks, and fruit here and there to provide a health bar boost; but Ueda's design on Shadow is terrifically streamlined. There's nothing extra added simply because it can be. It's a game of immense negative space, gigantic expanses of nothingness; of dust and dirt and grass, but nobody to converse with, to trade with, to just speak to for five minute to prevent you going fully senile as you stab your way through 16 generously difficulty-curved colossi.

In so many ways, Shadow earned its classic status. It's received several awards and is regarded as one of the most unique games of its generation. And with its reputation, and my previous experience of the game nagging away at me, a palpable emotional resonance, I thought I'd upgrade and buy the HD remaster, released for PlayStation 3 in 2011. I wanted to live it again, and to hell with my steadfast statements regarding aging tech limiting today's enjoyment of past-gen accomplishments.

Part of me wishes I'd not bothered. It's painful to say so given that Shadow has so much going right for it, even today—a narrative ambiguousness that's open to personal interpretation; a legitimate strangeness to its creature design that nonetheless suits where each colossus resides perfectly; the rare feeling that every "heroic" step your character takes is actually another towards villainy—but this isn't a game without myriad faults, which only reveal themselves once those memories are rewritten by contemporary immersion.

In no particular order, then, but beginning with the biggest bugbear of all: the horse. I appreciate that Horses in Video Games are often awkward animals—during a recent hands-on preview of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I witnessed Geralt's not-so-trusty steed Roach trap herself between environmental assets; and even Link's Epona required some careful carrot management to get her moving. But Shadow's horse, Agro, is such a dick. This horse, loyal though she may be to our ever-withering protagonist, will run into trees, into rocks, into brick walls. She will respond to your inputs with resistance—or, sometimes, over-enthusiastically, unless that's just the weight of my thumb on the pad, increased out of sheer frustration at this nag's inconsistent behavior.

Wander and Agro here, in happier times

But this is known: reviewers of 2005 were mixed in their appreciation of Agro's role, and the HD remaster is possibly right to keep this quirk present and "correct." What's more annoying than getting up from your work four times in an hour to the same cold-caller hawking PPI reclamation, though, is getting on the blasted beast.

Wander will mount Agro with the press of the triangle button, while beside her; but the success rate of this actually coming off, rather than prompting him to leap vertically like a salmon, is perhaps one in three in my experience. The problem comes with nudging the movement stick at the same time, which is an inevitability as you approach Agro at pace, needing to either chase down your quarry (colossus 13, Phalanx, must be "boarded" from horseback), or avoid becoming lunch (colossus ten, Dirge, is lightning quick and hits, hard, with a wide-open maw).

Maybe it's an unfair, ultimately minor criticism, but come on: when you see other remasters tweaking controls to better compare with modern titles— Grim Fandango being a current case in point—surely it's not asking too much that Wander just GETS ON HIS HORSE when in close proximity to haunches, flank, withers, whatever. Drives a man mad—by which I mean it drives a man to swear in front of his young children, encouraging the wrath of his wife. Or was that your malevolent intent all along, Ueda-san: to wedge this game between otherwise happy families and cause a rift as wide as those criss-crossing the Forbidden Lands?

I have more. Colossus five, Avion, takes me an hour to drop. The time attack target for this flying adversary is five and a half minutes. But here's me, not even on a first playthrough, taking several times that. Am I bad, or is this bad design? You tell me. I know what to do—I wait for it to swoop, I leap atop its wing, I edge towards its vulnerable sigils and I make with the stabbing. But time and again, Wander's grip would fail me. I could go and eat some lizards, but I went far further than this on the PS2 without snacking. A GameFaqs forum post by "Aluevius_E" of November, 2011 asks if Wander's endurance is compromised in HD, and other users second the impression.

The fifth colossus

Writes user "trapspringer": "When I played this on the PS2, I took that first Colossus down with ease on my first attempt. On the PS3, I found myself stumbling like a drunk... and actually died a few times."

I didn't die on the first colossus—or the fifth, for that matter (the first of these titans to manage that, this playthrough, was the 11th—and only because I got myself stuck between a wall and a sharp place). But I sure noticed Wander exhibiting a more prominent wobble from the first battle onwards. Controlling him while he's clinging to the climbable colossi also appears cack-handed, leading to exasperating falls that simply never happened on the PS2. Or: maybe they did, and the singular thrills of that initial playthrough have successfully clouded out the irritations.

Yet onwards I press, because this is Shadow of the Colossus: a game-changer, a one-off, unprecedented, and inimitable. It's coding with soul and a palpitating heartbeat, impossible not to become moved by as it unwinds its denouement. In so many ways it is a classic, truly; but bloody hell, doesn't it do a terrific job of antagonizing its audience on the way to that status.

Which, perhaps, warrants readdressing through present-day context. This isn't the game you may remember it being years ago. It has its cracks, its complications, and it's feeling a bit creaky—more a product of a gaming silver age than a gold-gilded evergreen. If it's art, it suffers for gaming's technological progression, HD pin-sharpness stripping it of muddy mystery. It's entirely out of time and style. But then again, wasn't it always? Happy tenth anniversary, you freak of a game, and may your delayed spiritual successor finally, one day, stand proudly beside your shadow.

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