On ‘Ōkami’ at Ten Years Old: the Quintessential Ageless Video Game
Graphics so commonly date video games, badly, but the sense of style that Clover Studio brought to its 2006 adventure is truly timeless.
Video game graphics have reached a point where you can see every crease in the rugged face of a protagonist, marvel at the swish of Lara Croft's hair, and endlessly gaze over stunning realistic vistas. However, when we look back at those games hailed as graphical marvels of their time, we can have a little chuckle to ourselves at what we once thought was the peak of realism. Lest we forget the LEGO arms of Final Fantasy VII and the 2D enemy sprites of the original DOOM—important artifacts of their times, but don't they look it.
But for me, Ōkami is the quintessential ageless game. It's a master class in art style over graphics. Its whole aesthetic is inspired by Japanese watercolor and wood carving art in the Ukiyo-e style and sumi-e ink wash paintings. For a game that's based on static art, it uses its graphical style and cel shading to capture a real sense of fluidity and movement. Hitting your peak running speed as the white-wolf goddess Amaterasu, with flowers and petals emerging behind you and the wind billowing, is as much a joy now as it was a decade ago. When people think of Ōkami, they almost immediately go to how beautiful it was, and remains.
It's often remarked that creativity flourishes when given boundaries. The hardware available to Ōkami's makers, the long-since-defunct Clover Studio, denied them photorealism as an option, much like how The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker's distinctive cel-shaded style was brought about by the GameCube's inability to run a game with that amount of realistic-looking water. Clover Studio clearly had experience when it came to ringing what it could get out of hardware. Many that worked on Ōkami, like producer Atsushi Inaba and director Hideki Kamiya (both now at PlatinumGames, the home of Bayonetta and The Wonderful 101), had also worked on the gorgeous Viewtiful Joe for the GameCube.
When I play games like Wind Waker and Ōkami and marvel at their loveliness, I thank the 13 Celestial Brush Gods that Clover didn't have photorealism as an option. If they had, and pursued it, I doubt Ōkami would be considered the classic it is today. The game itself is solid, its Zelda-like mechanics are fun, the music is great, and the world is well realized—but it's the art and style of the experience that makes it truly stand out, even against today's most celebrated productions.
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This year marks the tenth anniversary of Ōkami's release. It wasn't a commercial success at the time, only the 100th-best-selling game in the US in 2006, but it's developed a passionate following since. You need not look far, either, to see its influence in newer games. In Blizzard's online shooter Overwatch, the character of Hanzo has an alternative skin named "Okami." A little disturbingly, perhaps, it features the skin of a white wolf draped over Hanzo's shoulders. This could be reference to Clover's game, but equally it could also be because okami, or ookami, is Japanese for "wolf". It's nice to think that it's a nod to Amaterasu, though.
The imminent Monster Hunter Generations by Capcom—Capcom being the studio that funded Clover for its three years in existence, between 2004 and 2007 – is more open with its admiration of Ōkami. In April, a new trailer for the game was released that utilized the same distinctive art style of the lupine romp of ten years' previous, showing how players could dress their characters up as both Amaterasu and her companion, the Wandering Artist Issun, an insect-sized, sprite-like "Poncle".
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In a number of episodes of South Park—such as the Nintendo Wii-focused "Go God Go," season 10, episode 12—boxed copies of Ōkami can be seen on the shelves of the town's EvGames store. For a game that was a bit of a flop on its release, it has certainly stuck around in our collective consciousness. And the reason for that is simple enough: If you missed it the first time around, as I did, and go back and play it now, it will blow you away. It's the kind of game you sit down with and wonder how it was never the commercial success it deserved to be.
If you have yet to play Ōkami, the HD remaster for the PlayStation 3—from which the screenshots here are taken—is by far the easiest, most convenient option, given its availability on Sony's online store. While the remaster definitely cleans up a few lines and creates an overall sharper experience, if you do choose to pick up the original game, for either Wii or the PS2, it still holds its ground. The remaster of this game isn't as essential to its enjoyment as other updated titles have been in recent years, purely because Ōkami was such a beautiful sight to behold in the first place.
At their very core, games that were great decades ago are often still good today. Gameplay mechanics may seem a little rusty after a while, but they rarely go truly bad. Yes, I may have once thought that Sabrina the Animated Series: Spooked! on my Gameboy Color was the best thing since, well, the Sabrina, the Teenage Witch TV show. However, it was hardly a critically well-received game. Titles with great gameplay at their very centers will usually remain incredibly enjoyable once we throw away the rose-tinted glasses and gaze upon them with more experienced eyes. But there's no denying that graphics are the thing that ages a game most. But artistic style, like we see in Ōkami? That doesn't age at all.
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