Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Shadow of the Console, part one

As often happens in Consoleland, some of the best franchises and game ideas for a system only happen when a system is winding down its useful life. One has only to look at the fanatical followings of the Sega Saturn and Dreamcast and the nearly superhuman feats developers pulled in the last few months of the cycle of each of those pieces of technology. Nowadays, we are about to begin the post-mortem on the PlayStation 2, as by Christmas next year we will have two, possibly three, consoles of the next generation to play with. While I was fighting a throat infection yesterday, I decided that the PS2 obituary will begin with Shadow of the Colossus and We Love Katamari.

Shadow of the Colossus is a game of sweeping, elegiac beauty made by the same team that brought you the simple joys of ICO, a game that reduced one of my friends, a cynical man, into a delighted six-year-old for hours at a time. Colossus itself consists of sixteen terrifying and wonderful boss battles. In fact, Colossus is original in almost every facet of its presentation. It is, as Tycho put it, "unorthodox." The game has very little plot to speak of, and what does happen is paced slowly. Your hero and his lady don't even have names, which is yet another testament to the power that mystery can have over exposition in a story. The only music are battle themes, which means that for long stretches all you hear are hoofbeats and the sounds of wind and water. You do not see another living human until two-thirds of the way through. The control scheme is odd, although it starts to really shine at about the halfway point.

Spoiler: Let me just describe one hour of playing Shadow of the Colossus.

Leaving the central shrine on my trusty horse Agro (there seems to be discussion about whether the horse's name is Argo or Agro), I crossed several miles of grassland, passed a rough stone altar overgrown with ivy and shooting an arrow at the occasional lizard startled by my horse. Following the beacon of reflected sunlight from my magic sword, I rode over a stone bridge, watching a waterfall rush hundreds of feet down into a river canyon in the midmorning sun. Passing into a desert after a few more miles, I awaken the local colossus, which I can only describe as horned birdlike dragon creature, about a kilometer in length. I name him Hornbird. Hornbird takes the same notice of me that I would of a snail on my hedge: none at all. I follow HB as he flies around the valley, and then notice he has a series of gasbags on his underside. I send a few arrows into the bags, and HB bellows in pain and drops lower with each bag I puncture. At his lowest, HB drops his front fins to the sand. I ride at full speed alongside HB, standing and then leaping from Agro's back onto the bony ridges of his fins, and then start climbing up the hundred-or-so feet to HB's body, reaching his back just as his gasbags heal, re-inflate, and he soars back into the sky.

This is one of the most immersive and compelling sequences I have ever played through, in a lifetime of playing games.

As much as I like Colossus, I have to mention that I feel tremendous moral qualms about fighting these guys. Most of the colossi are asleep, or simply curious, or take no notice of you at all. Two of them will not attack you, and show fear when you start to hurt them. Riding the back of some mighty beast to the ground as it slowly topples over and expires leaves me feeling like a murderous bastard. The music changes, and I feel as though something irrevocable and wonderful has been lost when I destroy these things, each created for some unique, unfathomable purpose.

One final note - above is a picture of Agro. Agro is stubborn, willful, hard to get going, hard to stop, enjoys being petted, and gets tired. He whinnies when he gets excited, and sometimes wanders off to graze. He has more personality than anyone else in Colossus, and he is the horsiest and most convincing horse in any game ever.

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