This is old writing I dug up from a long time ago, posted only to twitlonger. I mentioned in my other Shadow of the Colossus post on here how I had sworn I wrote something but couldn’t find it. Here it is:
Ico was completely lame and Shadow of the Colossus had a way better more interactive formula. Ico was lame because it was static. Ico’s gameplay challenge was primarily based on solving puzzles, fighting shadows, and escorting Yorda. Shadow of the Colossus’s primary challenge came from the scaling of the colossi, and exploring the world to find the colossi.
In Ico, Yorda is used as a key to open doors, so all puzzles require that she must make it to the next door. The primary hurdle with the puzzles is getting an AI companion to pass by various barriers when they have less movement capabilities than you do, only being able to climb up short ledges. So you must work to create paths the AI can traverse to get them to the next door. The solving of puzzles, rather than requiring actual logistics is more frequently a process of having Ico climb to the next point of interest along a relatively linear path and activating the thing that moves the game along, then dragging Yorda through to the next area. In a very zelda-like fashion, progression is defined largely through activating things rather than actually having to solve interactive systems, like portal, braid, or trine. Predictably every single puzzle consists of leaving yorda, navigating the environment, and activating something to let Yorda progress past a road block.
The other point of conflict is fighting shadows. Shadows are constantly attacking Yorda and Ico, and attempt to kidnap Yorda, dragging her into a portal. If this is successful, the game is lost. In most sections of the game, the shadows can be ignored by running past them. In others you are actually forced to fight the shadows, which is a complete slog. You only really have one attack, done by pressing square. when a shadow hits you, you get knocked down and have to sit through a lengthly getting up animation. In general, fighting shadows is not fun, it’s completely tedious. You thwack at them with your one attack, and they have tons and tons of health, having to be knocked down multiple times to actually defeat them. This isn’t dangerous nearly so much as it is dull and grindy. The enemies don’t have a lot of health to force you to attack right and efficiently to take them down, they have a lot of health to draw out the process of fighting them. The worst part is that in some sections you are forced to fight them and are not allowed to progress until they are all defeated, in which case they are made annoying by skittering off into corners and avoiding you as frequently as they attack. This is especially irritating in the late part of the game where you obtain a sword that can destroy shadows in one hit and they avoid you.
The biggest trouble with Ico is that the game has absolutely no flexibility. There is one way to solve every puzzle, there is one path to the next area, there is one attack that you spam. The game has a much larger focus on the environment and the idea of characters holding hands than any of its actual gameplay. I dare say that the concept of design for the game is outright unsalvagable, because no combination of the game’s existing mechanics or new mechanics could really serve to make the game interesting short of changing it into an action game. The game is gratuitous with its scenic vistas to the detriment of the game itself. It loves unskippable filler content. The AI that controls Yorda is unresponsive and has to be yelled at to get it to move anywhere by itself in any reasonable amount of time. The entire game gets no better than this. The level design doesn’t improve, the puzzles don’t get harder, the enemies don’t vary,
Speedruns are rarely an indicator of the quality of a game, because different pressures and dynamics generally apply, but they can frequently be a good tell. This is the Ico speedrun:
This speedrun is pretty notable among speedruns just because of how closely it follows the game’s original route. Minor tricks like jumping instead of running are employed in many areas, but largely, every single player to ever play this game will repeat the exact same actions as this speedrunner, only with more fumbling around trying to figure out the topography of their environment. This speedrun is a complete testament to the inflexibility of the game and the dullness of trying to play it. Ico isn’t a game based on interaction with your environment, it is a game based on participation with the route they want you to take.
And here’s the turnaround, Shadow of the Colossus is the opposite, a legend stepping out of the shadow of failure. In Shadow of the Colossus the primary gameplay segments are exploring the world on horseback, and scaling colossi to stab their weakpoints, killing them. You start every colossus hunt at a temple in the center of the world, use Agro, your horse to ride to the next Colossus, and do battle with it before starting over.
The biggest point against Shadow of the Colossus is the process of locating each one. In the sunlight you can hold up your sword to direct you to the next colossus, and Agro is helpful in getting you from place to place. Getting to each colossus frequently means riding to a location, and climbing a little to get to the actual arena. To help make exploration of the overworld more interesting, there are rewards for players who explore outside of just going straight to every colossus in the form of fruit and lizards. Fruit found will increase Wander’s health, and Lizards shot will increase Wander’s strength. Shooting lizards is tricky because they run away quickly and are small, making them hard to aim at. They can also be slashed or trampled by Agro, but this is more difficult. Between these, the open world is less filler and more worthwhile to the game, also offering greater freedom to explore freeform than Ico’s castle.
The real meat of Shadow of the Colossus however are the Colossi themselves. The game doesn’t waste time with smaller enemies, the Colossi are the embodiment of the game’s strongest system, climbing. The colossi moving underneath Wander’s grip and the addition of the grip gauge are what create the greatest tension in the game, requiring the player both to figure out a way forward, and pace themselves carefully so as not to fall off. Successfully defeating a colossus involves a careful game of evaluating when the colossus will shake or move, where to climb to next, if jumps are necessary, where the next weak point is, and how long to risk charging each stab for maximum damage. Along the way you must find footholds and places to rest to restore your stamina. Every facet of the colossi design is about putting your climbing skills to the test. Each colossi has a different physical structure that can be climbed, many have arenas that need to be climbed, multiple and changing weak points exist to make you climb all over the boss and to keep you engaged in climbing rather than staying in one place. They shake to make it so climbing wrong is punished and you have to carefully manage your stamina meter. Each boss has different movement behaviors that open up new avenues to climb or new ways to climb. Defeating each boss is much more than just following a static route to a static destination.
The big thing about Shadow of the Colossus is also its flexibility in killing the colossi. It’s possible to whistle to attract colossi attention, it’s possible to jump around on top of the colossi, it’s possible to see opportunities and run over for them and risk getting thrown off. It’s possible to do all these things because Shadow of the Colossus has such a robust simulation of bodies in motion. The bonus unlock items help highlight this in of how each of them can create unique interactions with the colossi. The colossi have senses of sight and sound and an AI to themselves and manipulating that AI can be useful in defeating each colossus.
In contrast to Ico’s speedrun, here is Shadow of the Colossus’s. Throughout every colossus there are tons of tricks used to win each fight, special jumps from flinging yourself off the colossus, moving around during cutscenes to break sequence. Most of these tricks are well and beyond a normal playthrough, not really something that you can totally judge the game on, but the fact that they exist is in part a testament to the robustness of Shadow of the Colossus’s system. There are many different ways to tackle each boss, and every player will have their own experience finding how to fell each Colossus because it is such a wide system of possible interactions. Also important is that it is a system that directly challenges the player to work out strategies for beating it. It is not just do what I tell you to, it is figure out ways to beat this. The Colossus quakes underneath you and between the tools you have, you must make it do what you want. The system isn’t participatory, it is based directly on interaction. Not on repeat back to me, but on you playing notes and the game playing back, on being able to change how you play rather than just do the same thing with less mistakes. It’s not about having fancy tricks, it’s about the game being designed in such an open way that people can solve things for themselves or make their own tricks, make their own way forward.
This is the difference between a good game and a bad game.