When I sold my PlayStation 2, I sold a piece of my heart with it. Being neck deep in the Xbox 360 phenomenon at the time, and playing such great games as Lost Odyssey and Bioshock (the latter of which I never actually finished after a friend ‘kindly’ spoiled the twist for me), I didn’t think I would miss it. How wrong I was, for with the console also disappeared some of the first games I ever genuinely loved.
I can remember well the first time I was properly excited for a game. It must have been around 2002, when ten-year-old Tom was discovering the magic of gaming through his swanky new PS2. It was my first console, having only previously owned a trusty GameBoy Colour, and the effect it had on me could be likened to the Spanish discovering America. No, not the brutal pillaging of the native population, but the window into a whole new world of opportunities. That, and a demo disc featuring some game called Airblade, which I definitely gave more time than it probably deserved.
Anyway, demo discs were, as Super Hans says of crack cocaine, really moreish, and I soon started building up my collection of official PS2 mags. I would put hours upon hours into these little game snippets every month, playing demos for games like War of the Monsters religiously until I could fork out the pocket money to buy the actual game. Aside from the demos though, it was all about screenshots. In the ages before YouTube and video reviews, these little squares were portals into the games of tomorrow, teasing us to the point where we just had to see them in motion.
One day, I opened an issue and saw the coolest thing my little eyes had ever seen – Devil May Cry 2. I’d never played the first installment, but I became totally consumed with these images and counted down the days until the game’s release. When I finally played it, it was everything I ever hoped it could be and more, and it completely changed the way I felt about video games. After I rinsed it, I bought the original Devil May Cry and my first proper gaming obsession was born. Along with Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, it’s probably one of the main reasons I’m such a disgustingly massive nerd.
Post-DMC, images of another, more unusual game began to captivate me, and its eventual demo sold me on my next fixation. This was a title that changed my views on gaming in another, very different way, and is still one of my favourite games of all time. It was, of course, Team Ico’s majestic Shadow of the Colossus.
In the game, you play a hero, Wander, who travels to a desolate and lonely land with his trusty steed Agro, and the body of a dead girl. Legend has it that there lies a power in this land that can bring back the departed, and sure enough a disembodied voice soon informs Wander that this is true, but there’s a catch.. To obtain the power he seeks, he must journey out into the wilderness to track down and kill sixteen great creatures known as colossi, who peacefully roam the forests, plains and lakes of this mysterious world.
The idea of a game entirely revolving around boss fights was a little worrying, but Shadow of the Colossus pulled it off. Rather surprisingly, it’s actually more of a puzzle game, requiring you to study each colossus carefully and identify the often intricate and incredibly varied methods for bringing them down. The game’s main gameplay mechanism for these fights is the stamina bar, which is depleted through the use of a button that lets you grip onto certain parts of the colossi. This leads to amazingly tense moments as you hold on for dear life while attempting to clamber up the beasts and locate glowing symbols of vulnerability, into which you must thrust your sword.
The world of Shadow of the Colossus is perhaps even more deserving of praise. Though empty and mostly devoid of life, its ruinous beauty is simply stunning, and not just because its graphics at the time were incomparable. The place feels completely real yet utterly enigmatic, constantly raising unanswered questions as you travel to the far ends of the map. The land is vast too, and you’ll need to make good use of your horse to get anywhere remotely quickly. There are long stretches in which you are just riding from A to B, following the light reflecting off your magical sword, and as you take in the natural wonders and crumbling architecture around you, you’ll start to feel like you’re actually on this adventure. This is aided by the game’s minimal but compelling story, which keeps you constantly intrigued and invested throughout the game’s roughly 7 to 8 hour duration and concludes with an ending that you will likely never forget.
Since that fateful day when the glorious PlayStation 2 was relinquished from its servitude, I had not returned to the game, but I always remembered it fondly for making me see that games were not just mindless entertainment. Shadow of the Colossus was a prime example of how a game could provide an experience and tell a story like no other medium, and, dare I say it, could even be considered art (seriously, why is this still a controversial argument?). I faced the fact that I may never play the game again, but this was ok as it already had its place as a meaningful part of my gaming life.
And so we jump ahead almost ten years, to a time when a fraudulent Amazon seller and a difficult Bloodborne boss meant that I was between games. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to try out Sony’s seven-day trial of its otherwise ludicrously expensive PlayStation Now streaming service, and revisit the game that had such a tremendous impact on my thirteen-year-old self.
All was going well. The stream was holding up, the soundtrack was just as brilliant as I remembered, and the world was a pleasure to explore. The first couple of colossi were dropping like giant, not-at-all-fly-like flies, and I was both amazed and relieved that the game was holding up so well. That was, until the lake jump.
One of the colossi stands atop a large stone platform rising up from a lake, and to reach it you must swim out to a spiraling path that emerges from the water, make a lengthy ascent, and then jump across to the megalithic disc where the big lad dwells. I don’t know whether it was the smidge of delay from the stream, or the sometimes cumbersome controls, or indeed both or none of these things, but that jump was flipping hard to make, and every failed attempt meant plummeting down to the depths and trying again. The sheer size of the structure, the expansiveness of the lake, and Wander’s painfully slow swimming speed caused me a great amount of frustration, as the smallest, most innocent mistake or misjudged timing was punished by wasting a good few minutes of my precious time. In fact, reaching that blasted colossus took me so long that I took to listening to a podcast just to alleviate my rising stress and boredom. This was the first of a number of problems I began to have with the game, and at times it felt like my opinions of this masterpiece were being soured.
Don’t get me wrong, there were countless moments where it was clear to me that Shadow of the Colossus is still one of the best games ever made. A number of battles in particular are totally breathtaking, one of my absolute favourites being Phalanx, the 13th colossus. A gargantuan, winged serpent-like creature that soars above a barren desert, Phalanx must first be brought down from the sky by shooting the large, bulbous sacs that hang from its underside. It then glides down to the ground, and you must ride alongside it before leaping across and grabbing onto one of its wings as it trails through the sand. Once you’re on, you need to hold tight and scamper around to find its weak spots, all while the world whips past below you. It’s unforgettable.
Unfotunately, the sixteen colossi aren’t uniformly excellent. A considerable amount of anger was caused by Celosia, the 11th colossus, who’s a relatively small dog-like thing that runs around and butts you with his stupid head. Well, it turns out that swimming isn’t the only thing Wander likes to take his sweet time over, as after being knocked to the floor it takes him around the length of a Chinese dynasty to stand back up again. What’s maddening about this, is by the time you’ve stood up, the fucker has butted you again and you’re once again face down in the dirt. I positively hated this section, because for all the epic music and nice scenery, it felt like I was being repeatedly punished for something that was in no way my fault.
The biggest offender for this is the bastard known as Argus, the 15th and penultimate boss. Towering over you as he lumbers around looking all bad-ass with a stone knife and a chunky shoulder pad, he certainly looks the part, but it’s a fight that’s let down by some really poor gameplay.
The initial puzzle in the fight requires you to stand in certain locations and wait for the colossus to attack, thus moving or destroying part of the scenery and allowing you to progress higher in the ruins. There’s not really any indication that you should do this or indeed where you should stand for these events to be triggered, so before I found out what to do [read: looked it up online] I spent an awful lot of time Wandering (hah) aimlessly, not knowing what to do and not having a great deal of fun.
Once you reach a high-up bridge and again wait for Argus to destroy it, you can jump down and grab onto his head, where the first of his weak spots happens to be. Good luck stabbing it however, as like any living thing in this sorry chap’s situation, he’s not overly keen on kicking the bucket, so he furiously tries to shake you off, preventing you from getting an attack in. Throughout the game up until this point, colossi would shake for a short while before giving you ample opportunity to jam your kill stick in, but Argus just doesn’t let up. You might get a little prick in between shakes, but you’ll never have enough time to charge up a strike that’s even remotely damaging, and having depleted only a fraction of his health bar you’ll run out of stamina and fall. Filled with hate for this chump who just refuses to play fair, you climb all the way back up to the bridge, dive down onto his noggin and go through all that bullshit again.
The developers clearly programmed Argus’ endless shaking to give this end-game boss an appropriate difficulty level, but difficult doesn’t have to mean unfair. It took me over an hour to kill Argus, and for the whole time I felt like I was battling against the game itself rather than fighting a tough but worthy opponent.
Of course, unflinching and unscrupulous difficulty has been intrinsically linked with gaming since its early days. Some of the platformers of the 80s and 90s were notoriously sadistic, but in an age in which games were far smaller than the behemoths we have today, this so-called ‘artificial difficulty’ was important in extending play time and giving the audience their money’s worth. Being quite a short game itself, the Shadow of the Colossus developers were possibly thinking along the same lines.
I’d like to think we’ve moved past this now, with games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne championing true difficulty, and showing us how it can be used right. Encounters in these games are often unbelievably hard, but never seem impossible. Sure, they beat you up repeatedly, wedgie you and force your head into toilet, but the power to fight back and emerge victorious is always within your grasp. To win, you just need to get better, or ‘git gud’ as they say, and when it finally happens the feeling of triumph is unparalleled.
As for the 15th colossus, victory is something that should have happened half an hour ago, and you’ll be too fed up to gain any sort of thrill from the guy’s demise. Cue the sad music, because you in fact are the monster. Ceeeeeelebrate good times, COME ON!
As much as I love Shadow of the Colossus and want it to remain high up on that godly pedestal in my mind, I just had to accept that there are some really terrible gameplay decisions in it, with problems that have become far more apparent now than they likely were at the time. We need to remember that gaming as a medium is still relatively young, and is reshaping all the time as developers learn what makes great experiences.
Shadow of the Colossus was by all accounts a masterpiece when it was released, and though attitudes to gaming have changed, we shouldn’t allow this to affect our memories – especially those memories that helped make us who we are.
Argus, I forgive you.
And thus endeth the Word of Tom.