A great many of the PS3's HD remaster games have seemed like pretty glaring cash-ins. I liked the old Splinter Cell games, but I don't feel any burning need to drop $50 to play them again, much less the clunky-even-then Tomb Raider games. But Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, aesthetically important titles that were hobbled by the restrictions of last generation's processors, are exactly the kind of titles that deserve the remaster treatment. Revisiting them, I was a little afraid of disappointment, but they turned out to be just as great as I remember; the only letdown is the remaster itself.
For those who haven't already seen it rhapsodized across the Internet, a little introduction: Ico is a puzzle game, in which you play as a little boy with horns growing out of his skull, locked in a giant castle. You quickly acquire a mysterious companion, Yorda, a wispy creature who speaks a mysterious language and seems to be embroiled in intrigues with other strange creatures. Most of the game is spent wandering through the castle, trying to find the right combination of switches, levers, moving boxes, and jumps to advance to the next room, while beating back the occasional baddie (you know they're bad because they're big black formless clouds, and that's always a bad sign).
Ico was never a perfect game, and after the last few years of gratification-focused game-design theory, its flaws are more glaring than ever: The physics are unpredictable, the camera has a bad habit of focusing on where you are instead of where you're going, and the not-infrequent combat remains a button-mashing slog.
But playing it again demonstrates how little those problems mean when they're couched in such a strong, unique vision. Lots of games evoke dread, rage, loneliness, or glee, but how many have focused on evoking feelings of compassion and togetherness? Everyone hates escort missions, in large part because asking you to care about an NPC's fate pushes just a little too hard against the player's knowledge that everything except you is just pixels and algorithms. But in Ico, smart design decisions like a camera that follows Yorda as much as possible, and nice details like her gasps whenever you hit the attack button, make you feel responsible for her in the same way you're responsible for Ico himself. It helps that the small number of characters means that the designers could pack tremendous detail into each one; playing in standard-definition, I'd never noticed Ico's adorable splay-legged posture when he falls a little too far.
Because the publisher just up-rezzed the textures, rather than revising the engine, the new skins are stretched over the same old blocky frames.
As with most fixed-solution puzzle games, playing Ico again is an act of retracing old steps rather than engaging directly with the puzzles; there's just no way to recreate the thrill of discovery. But the effect is like re-reading a beloved children's book; the very familiarity of it is part of the joy, even as you gain new appreciation for the details.
The real revelation of the package is the remastered Shadow of the Colossus, in which you must wander through a barren landscape, find 16 giant stone creatures, climb onto them as they try to shake you off, and kill the beautiful bastards. What made this combination of platformer and action game so unique, besides its all-boss-battle structure, was the way musical and visual cues made each colossus seem as much majestic as threatening, and made your victory in each battle feel mysteriously sad. But while I admired Shadow's willingness to lace video-game empowerment with complex strains of regret, I found it nearly unplayable in its original form. It had a gauzy aesthetic that pushed a few more polygons than the PS2 could really handle, resulting in many barely-visible handholds and abrupt framerate drops that made it impossible to reliably time jumps.
Freed from those technical limitations, Shadow is revealed as not just a compelling piece of art, but an incredibly solid video game. While many games have since copied its formula for “epic-ness” (God of War 2 made a mint by borrowing its sense of scale and jettisoning its commercial-suicide vibe of meditative disquiet), no one has copied its fusion of platforming and resource management. Every time you grab onto something in Shadow, your “grip meter” starts to drop, and once it runs out, you're in for a long and nasty fall. So as you climb up a colossus, you're not just looking for the next spot to grab onto, you're also looking for the next place where you can stand still and recharge your stamina, even as the angry giant you're standing on is bucking and shaking, making you hyper-attentive to every inch of its body. It's that level of player attentiveness, as much as the actual character design, that makes the colossus feel so very big and you so very small; each colossus isn't just an enemy to be fought, but a landscape to be explored.
Surprisingly, where this package disappoints is the remastering. It's great to be able to play the games with modern anti-aliasing, surround sound, and 3D. But because the publisher just up-rezzed the textures, rather than revising the engine, the new skins are stretched over the same old blocky frames; even in Shadow's opening cutscene, where you would expect them to show off, your dead lover's gown is fixed into an accidental hoop skirt. And even some of the up-rezzed textures look muddy and undistinguished, particularly in Ico's castle exteriors and Shadow's grasslands. The surround sound mix is great in Shadow (moments when you're hanging onto a shaking colossus while music blasts from the front and the creature's moans surround you are incredibly immersive), but Ico's sound mix seems distractingly eccentric, with environmental noises unbelievably dominant over the sounds your interactions make. For a remaster that was so anticipated, the producers seem to have put disappointingly little time into making sure everything was as fresh as it could be.
But even with those caveats, you're still getting two of the best console games of all time, better than they've ever been, for a package-deal price. If you've played them before, they're worth revisiting—and Shadow may well surprise you anew. And if you've never played them before, you're in for an experience that many have admired, but none have recreated.