Shadow of the Colossus: Slaying the Test of Time

Most of the this is spoiler-free. There’s a spoiler section I marked-off.

I don’t think it’s particularly mind-blowing to call Shadow of the Colossus the greatest video game ever made. It’s been called as much by people much better at this stuff than myself. Having just replayed it for a fourth time, I’m now totally comfortable saying that, yes, Shadow of the Colossus has no peer in gaming. It’s the GOAT: the greatest of all-time. It checks every box. It scratches every itch. Some titles do aspects of gaming better, but no game does so much of everything as well as Shadow of the Colossus. Is it my favorite game? Probably not, as Shadow of the Colossus didn’t tunnel into the pleasure center of my brain quite as much as my replay of Super Mario Odyssey did earlier this year. But, I think what Mario Odyssey accomplished (the ultimate perfecting of 3D mascot platforming) was much less significant than what Shadow of the Colossus has done: absolutely murder the test of time. Don’t get me wrong: I can totally get how someone would not like SOTC at all. A game that boils down to riding around a vast, barren map to fight giants in a series of jumping puzzles is not going to fire everyone up. I’ll even take it a step further: the concept of Shadow of the Colossus sounds boring.


The PlayStation 4 re-release includes “filters” that allow you to do things like change the game to a nighttime setting. It’s smoke and mirrors as you’ve really just changed the shading and color palette, but it does undoubtedly make for some epic horse rides.

Take literally any flagship game, remove all enemies and goals and leave only the levels and bosses, and what would you have? Imagine the first Legend of Zelda on the NES. Now, twist the game by giving Link the sword AND the bow with unlimited arrows to start. Now take Hyrule, the exact same map and all nine dungeons, and then remove EVERYTHING from it. All traps. All keys. All enemies. All items. All locked doors but the entrance to Death Mountain. Make it so any place unreachable without items is now reachable via, say, a land-bridge or something. All hidden paths to bosses are also removed and replaced with a direct path, so you’re not warping around the dungeons but rather walking through a series of rooms until you reach the boss chamber. Thus, the only thing left in this new Legend of Zelda are the bosses in front of the rooms with each-Triforce piece. Any bosses that previously needed another weapon now can be beaten by the sword. Arrows can damage them, but the final blow must be struck with the sword. Oh, and the sword beam is also removed. Once you beat a boss and collect the Triforce piece, you’re returned to the starting screen where you got the sword & bow.

Are you picturing all this?

Good. Now, go get all eight Triforce pieces and rescue Princess Zelda from Ganon.

Does this game sound like something that would be fun to do?

In my youth, I never cared for sightseeing. Now that I’m in my 30s, I find myself taking time to just stare at things. I think that’s a big reason why my 4th replay of Shadow of the Colossus felt so grand.

Well, that’s the pitch Shadow of the Colossus makes to players. It sounds terminally boring. It’s Punch-Out if you had to walk around an empty city for five-to-twenty minutes between every fight (that won’t be the only time I compare Shadow of the Colossus to this). I don’t think I’d like Punch-Out if you had to do that. I’d certainly not go back to it just for fun. So, yea, Shadow of the Colossus is a weird pitch to gamers right out of the gate. Not only that, but the pitch comes with expressions and terminology that make it sound like some fart-sniffing art house thing.





These are things a lot of people do not like and want no part of. And no, it’s not just jock-sniffing dude-bros who scoff at that type of thing. There’s people who spend their whole lives grinding through Final Fantasy games or Zelda or Skyrim or any other big tentpole release who are simply not interested in “art house” games. Pitching them on the merits of such a title’s gameplay is particularly tough. Trust me. I’ve spent nearly three years now telling anyone who will listen that Gris, an artsy-fartsy indie that’s actually about overcoming grief and is just a touch pretentious about it, is also a truly fantastic platforming experience with rock-solid controls and outstanding level design (well, if you ignore the first level). Some people are just not interested in taking the risk because it looks like and sounds like something that would bore them. In the case of Shadow of the Colossus, it’s not so much the gameplay of fighting the Colossi that sounds boring. It’s how you experience it. The world of the Forbidden Lands is also given no backstory beyond being “cursed” and is filled with temples and glyphs in a language created for the game that means nothing. A lot of people just want a story and a game to go along with it. Remove the mysticism, spooky made-up language, and empty world and you’ve got Cuphead: a boss rush where a deity tells you to go fight larger enemies sold on the merits of its cutting edge graphics that is still never going to appeal as widely as a “mainstream game” but people just have to try it out. Nobody has to try Shadow of the Colossus. If anything, it’s almost unapproachable.

Well, I’m going to try. This is my pitch to those who have been holding out on playing Shadow of the Colossus.


The Forbidden Lands of Shadow of the Colossus are my choice for the greatest world in any video game, with Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker a very distant second. It’s a world that’s so ancient that it’s actually primordial, but NEVER alien.

In “What Makes Horror Horrifying?” author Elizabeth Barrette postulates that horror is dependent on our evolutionary fight-or-flight response. The setting of Shadow of the Colossus assures you’re consistently in that state of mind. It has pitch-perfect timing of when to take the camera away from the player and show off the architecture of the area you just entered and let you know that you’ve arrived in the lair of a Colossus. You’re given a spooky musical cue that’s every bit as beautiful as it is foreboding. By time the beast has appeared, the player will have already been so affected just by the suspense that you’re going to need a moment to gather your wits.. a moment Shadow of the Colossus will rarely will give you. It’s something Nemesis from Resident Evil 3 wanted to accomplish but never quite achieved, and yet, a game that nobody would ever call a horror game perfected that sensation to a science.

Shadow of the Colossus will be even more scary for those people with more specific phobias. My irrational fear is of large bodies of water and sea monsters, called THALASSOPHOBIA. Shadow of the Colossus exploits this to perfection with a boss that I dreaded fighting so much I found myself staring at the water for a couple minutes, knowing that a battle would commence as soon as I jumped in. A battle I’d fought three times previous, that had no surprises left to offer. This fight is that scary for me.

It’s a misnomer to say the world of Shadow of the Colossus is totally empty. There’s some scattered wildlife, including lizards, birds, butterflies, etc. Sure, the game is devoid of big game animals (it wouldn’t have killed them to throw a few deer or bears or something into the mix), but the world feels occupied by more than just the Colossi. It creates this eerie unease that feels straight out of Silent Hill. Like any horror game, the first time you play Shadow of the Colossus will always be the most potently spooky. Until the moment the camera is taken from you, you never know when you might be entering the arena of a Colossi. Often, you’re clearly shown the battlefield ahead of time (which is also a clever way of letting players know they didn’t take a wrong turn on their way there), and it’s framed as ominously as possible. In fact, the best music in the game, in my opinion, are always the pieces of music that accompany those cut-aways that show off the lairs. Although the battle rarely begins when you’re not expecting it, it’s often more suspenseful than most games I’ve played that are actually designed to be scary. The gaming embodiment of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous Bomb Theory. You can startle anyone for a quick jump scare, but suspense creates fear that lingers. I don’t know if Shadow of the Colossus is as suspenseful as the commonly held champion of gaming suspense: Silent Hill 2. But, that it’s even up for debate is a truly remarkable achievement for a game in this genre.

In reality, the 6th Colossus is one of the easier battles in the game. Yet, everything that goes into the battle makes it absolutely pants-wetting. The setting is so dark and ominous. The speed at which it moves is a touch faster than any previous Colossi. The camera pulls away to show that it’s closing in on you, which is one of the only times in any game I’ll allow cinematic design over game design. You’ll almost certainly have had a moment where you came inches from being splattered by its club. Again, the battle itself is among the most simple in the game, which is great! It proves it’s not what you do, but how you do it. Shadow of the Colossus is a great roadmap for aspiring developers everywhere.

Without ever once claiming so, Shadow of the Colossus is a legitimate contender of the scariest game ever made. More than once I screamed out-loud when I thought I had distance between me and whatever I was battling, only to see its weapon crash down upon me. Most impressively: none of the scares or tension rely on the story itself. You might find the god Dormin to be creepy, or be unnerved by “hero” Wander’s slow transformation into something other-humanly, but neither of those aspects come even come close to the chilling sensation of just swimming in a lake while a bird-like Colossus is perched in the background.. simply.. watching.. you. Even the one Colossus that doesn’t attack you, a different majestic flying creature that’s actually the largest in the entire game, moves with this ethereal locomotion that is so creepy that you’re certain to get goosebumps.

The second of the two “small” colossi is actually one of the scarier bosses. Instead of Hitchcock, it feels more like Leatherface or Jason Voorhees. It just doesn’t let-up, and the thrill of being chased by it as you desperately seek high ground NEVER cools-off for the entire opening-sequence of what is surprisingly a prolonged battle.

Then, you have the battles themselves. The imagery is often overwhelming and terrifying. This giant thing is lumbering towards you, and you’re so very, very small. If you find yourself directly next to one, you can literally feel the weight of its feet as they lift in preparation to crush you. At their core, action games are based around overwhelming odds, but no game makes you feel out-matched and under-powered like Shadow of the Colossus. Of course, once you figure out how to slay the beast, the opposite is true: you feel powerful and strong. This is accomplished without gaining stronger items, or being told by the game how you’re the hero of destiny. It’s simply a feeling of empowerment that overcomes you. That’s you’ve survived the horror, and it’s more satisfying than any actual survival horror game has ever been for me, let alone any action game.


Shout out to the soundtrack. It’s not just the greatest in gaming history, but the greatest soundtrack EVER, period. The closest any movie comes to topping it is the original Star Wars.


As a fan and practitioner of violence, I love video game violence. It’s just so much more.. legal. You’d think a game that involves stabbing the majority of your enemies in the head and then watching their life essence spurt out, Kill Bill-style would widely be considered among the most viscerally violent games ever. But nobody talks about how incredibly violent Shadow of the Colossus is. I’ve never been a person who did the whole sitcom-style “Body English” when I play games, where you pantomime the movement of the controller. BUT, when I play Shadow of the Colossus, I’m letting out barbarian-like screams every time I thrust the sword into the craniums of the my enemies. I’m not even sure why I’m doing it, except that I’m so immersed that I just instinctively yell. But, I’m not alone. Lots of people have that reaction playing Shadow of the Colossus. It’s so violent that it’s almost primal.

But, violence alone would get boring. Hey look, I love what Mortal Kombat has become. It puts a smile on my face that MK is now so grotesque that it makes even the most hard-assed among us become physically ill. But that’s violence that’s cartoonish. I mean seriously, when Cassie Cage knocks a person’s jaw off and then takes a selfie with it, you half expect Porky Pig to pop up and say THAT’S ALL, FOLKS! (Hey, Warner does own Mortal Kombat, so this might actually happen at some point!) After a while, it’s just kind of silly. I mean seriously, who gives a shit if Johnny Cage turns the corpse of his opponent into a ventriloquist dummy in a game where the non-fatality X-Ray moves would, in fact, kill you in several different ways. Cathartic? Maybe. Pointless? Oh yeah.

I don’t feel bad about killing Colossus #11, AKA this pathetic little thing. Even though it’s the only Colossi that literally cowers in fear away from the player at times. I found myself shouting “FUCK YOU FOR BEING SO SMALL AND DISAPPOINTING!” as I put my sword through its heart. I have a theory that I haven’t heard anywhere else: that Colossi #11 and #14 (the other smaller Colossus) were originally going to be a single battle where you fought both at the same time. Then, one of the many deleted Colossi that went far into development got removed at the last second and they needed to split the two up to keep the battle count at sixteen. My evidence: (1) they’re roughly the same size. (2) They look very similar. (3) The code name for the 14th Colossus was “Cerberus” which is the mythical multi-headed dog. #14 is NOT multi-headed, but maybe it metaphorically would have been if I’m right. The evidence against: (1) It has never come up after all these years despite tons of behind-the-scenes information about SOTC being put out there. If it were true, it sure seems like the type of thing they’d want people to know. (2) There actually was going to be a few other smaller Colossi that also got deleted. I’m still sorta leaning towards this originally being one fight against two Colossi, on the basis that it’s the only boss archetype the game is lacking. EDIT: Well, except fighting a clone of yourself.

In Shadow of the Colossus, the violence is nauseating for different reasons. You’re invading the space of creatures that want nothing to do with you, and you’re systematically ending their lives. Even fans of the game feel unclean when they hunt down what is basically a harmless cross between a flying serpent and a whale, shoot its air-sacks out one at a time, then mount it and begin stabbing it to death. The entire time, this creature never fights back. It has no attack. It’d be like if someone made a realistic whaling simulator, complete with old-timey harpoons. I don’t think I’d want to play that game. If the beasts of Shadow of the Colossus were more life-like, I think it’d have a lot less fans just because of how brutal the act of slaying is. You’re not performing cartoonish fatalities. You’re violently murdering things that have done you no wrong. Since that’s the object of the game, you’d think it’d be a massive turnoff. But, actually, it’s really thought-provoking. The symbolism of Wander being stripped of his humanity as he continues to slay these majestic beasts is among the most powerful metaphors any game has ever had. That image doesn’t work if Shadow of the Colossus isn’t amazingly, breathtakingly violent. And I mean that in a good way. Yet, nobody thinks of it as a violent game, and I think that should be a bigger part of the discussion.


Some people hear things like “minimalist story” and or “art” and think Shadow of the Colossus is so outside their wheelhouse that they could never get into it. That’s one of the more common complaints I hear. While that might still be true of you no matter what, let me postulate that Shadow of the Colossus is about as old-school-arcadey as any major sword-based action game has been in this century. You could skip every single cut-scene and still appreciate how stunning and rewarding the gameplay is.

Some of the boss fights, majestic as they can be, are downright cliched. “Welp, we’re fighting bosses. Gotta have one or two in the water. Gotta have one or two in the air. Gotta have a giant turtle. Gotta have a giant lizard that walks on walls..” I’m genuinely stunned there’s not one giant crab monster to be found. There would have been a giant spider, but it got deleted.

I’m not the first person to notice that the closest one-to-one analog with SOTC is Nintendo’s Punch-Out!! series. The comparison is much closer than it would seem. You’re a smaller person fighting a series of larger opponents. The entire object of the game is to study your opponent’s patterns and search for an opening to counter-attack. It’s not just a cutesy comparison, either. They really feel like very, very close cousins. The first time you take down any fighter/Colossi, it feels like a major accomplishment. As you get deeper in the game, the opponents become craftier and you have to rethink everything you think you know works. The final fights feature enemies so overwhelmingly destructive and seemingly invincible that you’re left feeling genuinely hopeless, to the point that any progress, even the act of just avoiding being damaged, feels like an accomplishment. While I’m not totally sure taking down the final Colossi in Shadow of the Colossus is as big a “HOLY SHIT, I DID IT!” moment as taking down Mike Tyson/Mr. Dream for the first time (but it’s certainly a bigger moment than beating Nick Bruiser from Super Punch-Out!! or Mr. Sandman from Punch-Out!! on the Wii), that final moment of world-conquering disbelief is almost unique to Shadow of the Colossus/Punch-Out. Not a “hooray, I beat the game!” moment, but rather “I can’t believe I did it!”

And after the game, you open up a time attack mode that eventually opens your eyes to different methods and strategies you’d never even thought of in the heat of those original battles. If Nintendo and Sony ever patch up their differences, I’d love to see a cross-over game, where Little Mac scales Colossi and punches them to death. And let Wander stab Super Macho Man in the head with a sword while you’re at it, fellas.

And, as far as minimalism goes, um.. didn’t most of you come from a generation where stories in games were absurdly simple? Giant Turtle Dragon kidnaps princess. Go save princess. Swine Wizard steals triangle and princess. Seek other triangle so you can save princess. I kind of love Shadow of the Colossus because it’s not bogged down in plot. It’s not a Final Fantasy or Metal Gear Solid exposition dumpathon. The storytelling of Shadow of the Colossus is so incredibly grounded in classical gaming storytelling that it’s curiously refreshing. After the opening cut-scene, there’s like three extremely short interludes between being given your next assignment of living mountain to slay, and you lose nothing by skipping them. The majority of the story is given at the start and during the nearly half-hour ending sequence (that includes the post-game credits). As a storyteller, Shadow of the Colossus is practically 8-bit.



This is probably going to be the most controversial point, but the story of Shadow of the Colossus is not as abstract as people make out to be. While some aspects of character backgrounds aren’t spelled out, the plot, the morals, and especially the ending really aren’t open to interpretation. You’ll find people digging so much deeper than they need to, maybe because they don’t like the implications of the ending. But what it all means couldn’t be more clear:

  • Wander had some form of love for Mono. Their relationship or background together is inconsequential. Shadow of the Colossus never says they’re an item. He could be some nobody who was creeping on her and being rejected by her right up until she died. Or he could be her boyfriend. Or he could be her brother and they’re doing the Targaryen Mambo for all we know. It doesn’t matter. What matters is he’s a character so overwhelmed with grief that it makes him a useful idiot for the fallen god Dormin.
  • Wander explicitly knows everything he is doing is wrong, immoral, and in defiance of the laws of man and nature. Dormin even laughs at how brazen Wander is in his wish to restore Mono. And, during the ending, Lord Emon, who is some kind of leader in Wander’s society, says “so it was you after all” (who took the sword), which spells out as clear as possible that Wander had been warned against all of this. Yes, Emon says Wander has no idea what he’s done, but he still was strictly forbidden from doing anything to begin with.
  • Mono was sacrificed for a “cursed future.” Some especially dense people take “sacrificed” to mean any number of things that are basically the opposite of, you know, being sacrificed! “She may have been sick! That’s kind of like being cursed!” Yea. Uh huh. In a game with a cursed land, and a cursed God, and a hero who becomes progressively more monstrous in appearance.. CURSED if you will.. the girl might have been put to death because she caught chicken pox or something. Christ, some people are so thick that it hurts.
  • Dormin speaks with both a male and female voice throughout the game, until it takes control of Wander’s body. At this point, only the male voice speaks. The female voice is never heard again.
  • This one is the ballgame for interpretation in my opinion: when Mono wakes up, she’s not surprised to be alive, nor is she frightened, scared, or disoriented. She’s not surprised to see Agro the horse. She’s not surprised by her surroundings, and this in a game where the reactions to everything are made explicit. Even characters who show up for like five minutes during the ending are able to emote at what they see. This is called attention to specifically: people react to things in Shadow of the Colossus! Mono coming back from the dead in a strange place she’s never been to after being killed by her own people invokes absolutely no reaction. Weird that.

Yea, yea, the ending originally was going to have her touch the horse and have all the memories of Wander’s battles with the Colossi implanted into her.. which makes no goddamn sense since the horse wasn’t there for eleven of the sixteen fights, but whatever. Deleted scenes aren’t canon, and if you want proof, why are there only sixteen broken idols instead of twenty-six, since there’s at least ten deleted Colossi.

  • The only part of the Shrine of Worship she glances at is the hole in the ceiling that Dormin communicated to Wander through.
  • She’s really not surprised to find a goddamned horned baby in the well. She calmly walks over to it and picks up the unholy abomination, barely even exams it, and continues up to the secret garden. I think any rational person would make the surprised Pikachu face for at least a second or two. Nope, it’s almost like she knew the baby would be there.
  • Her and Agro then calmly walk up the ramp around the well and through a door that was inaccessible to the player-controlled Wander, then scale another ramp and enter a peaceful garden that provides plenty of food and friendly, delicious wildlife to last a lifetime. None of this is a surprise at all to her. She walks in like she owns the joint. Which she does, because it’s her shrine made to worship her.

I’m poo-pooing attempts at fan theories that fly in the face of the evidence you’re given, BUT, there’s for sure lots of symbolism in Shadow of the Colossus. Agro’s forehead has a mark that’s a perfect outline of the sigil that Wander wears on his cape, the same sigil that is the weak point of the Colossi. And lots of little details, like how when the statues blow up after each Colossus is defeated, their heads always remain perfectly intact, perhaps symbolizing how futile your efforts really are. In the words of a critic much better than me, you might not have noticed these things.. but your brain did.

So, yea, that’s not Mono anymore. It’s Dormin, or at least the feminine side of Dormin, holding the first horned child in the line that will eventually lead to the events of Ico. Now, whether or not she’s also the evil queen at the end of Ico is left open to the imagination. Well, no, it’s really not. Seriously, how is this even a debate?

“Wow, there’s a baby with horns now, and that’s it, the game is over. I wonder if this is somehow connected to the director’s only prior game, Ico? You know, the one with the boy named Ico who had horns on his head? Horns that are in the exact same position, coming out the side of the head, as the horns on this baby? And that game had an immortal evil queen who is basically a shadow by the point you fight her.. CURSED if you will.. and if that’s true that means this is a prequel, which would explain the CURSED FUTURE prophecy that was the thing that kicked off the plot of the entire game. Oh, and she had shadows for minions and is practically made of shadows herself and there were shadows in this game that were controlled by Dormin at the start of the game and shadows that were surrounding Wander at the end of this game and he becomes a giant shadow and the giant shadow identifies itself as Dormin but only using the male voice when it previously spoke with a male and female voice at the same time. COULD IT BE A PREQUEL TO ICO? I need a few hours to wonder if there’s some kind of connection or if this is a separate universe, and I need that long because I’m dimwitted.

Nah, I have to be open to the possibility that there might not be any connection between this game and the only other game that the same director did even though a baby with horns is an incredibly specific thing to visually end the game on, especially when it never factored into the entire story leading up to the ending sequence, where Wander now also has horns on his head that are called specific attention to, meaning the entire point of the fucking story I was just playing through was the birth of a horned baby in this game by a director who only had one previous game and that game was about a child with goddamned horns on his head. The director had literally infinite options of what Dormin/Wander being sucked into the well could leave behind, and the director’s choice was to leave a baby in the well with horns just like the hero of his one and only previous game to be the ending.. the whole point everything was leading up to.. of his second game. I’m an incredibly stupid person and also slow but I desperately need people to think I’m more clever than I am. I needed time to think really hard in my thinkin’ chair, and after careful consideration, I’ve decided it could be a coincidence and it’s all open to interpretation, because I’m as thick as a concrete milkshake. Derpdederpderp.”

Christ. This is how people can be presented with mountains of evidence on the moon landing and still believe it was a hoax. I can’t help but laugh that an attempt at throwing fans of Ico a bone by making a game that is so clearly a prequel didn’t work because fans of Ico have their interpreter heads so far up their interpreter asses that they feel they have to interpret differently the very thing they clamored so much. One of those situations where people shot the moon and became so invested in the idea of symbolism and “minimalism” that they became stupid for it. It’s actually hilarious!



Where else does all this “open to interpretation” shit come from? Well, I have a theory. I honestly think it’s because some really misguided people have heard that “all art is open to interpretation.” Shadow of the Colossus is the follow-up to Ico, a game that had a lot less story than Shadow of the Colossus. THAT is a game that actually does require a lot of filling-in-the-gaps via head-canon, and it’s also a game that people said was art house. Then comes the director’s next game, where enough specific information was given to players that a clear story with a very clear ending that goes far beyond a winking reference is released, but it’s the same art style and the same “less is more” approach to development. So, it’s another game that’s “art house” and since these window-lickers read somewhere once that “art is open to interpretation” they think they need to “interpret” the meaning of the story when it’s blasted right in their witless faces: the director had made only two games, and both had a very uniquely-specific visual. Because director Fumito Ueda didn’t put a giant neon arrow with the words DO YOU GET IT? at the end, people label it “open to interpretation.” And since “all art is open to interpretation” and they desperately need to be able to call Shadow of the Colossus, first and foremost, “art”, if it’s not open to interpretation, why, that must mean it’s not really art, right?

If a game needs to be “art” to be special, I hate to break this to the “open to interpretation” crowd, but Shadow of the Colossus is fucked. Why? Because ALL VIDEO GAMES ARE ART! Even the ones you don’t like. Shadow of the Colossus might be damn beautiful to look at it, but it’s hardly unique. Seriously, there’s lots of great looking games. There’s lots of games with unique graphical styles. Having little dialog and most of the story unfold visually instead of with words is not something unique about it. It’s perfectly okay to say Shadow of the Colossus is art. It certainly is. But, its greatness is in what it accomplishes, not something as superficially shallow as “it’s art!”

I interpret this as a prequel to Chibi Robo. Seriously, this boss looks like the malformed ancestor of Chibi-Robo. CAN’T BE UNSEEN! YOU’RE WELCOME!


From the time I first finished Shadow of the Colossus at the age of 16, I firmly believed the game had nothing left to offer me. I’ve never been one of those people who replays games endlessly. In fact, until recently, I never replayed linear games at all. Scoring-driven arcade type stuff? Sure. Games based around levels and plot and surprises? I never saw the point. Games aren’t the same as movies. They’re a time commitment that you have to pay attention to. In 2012, on this very blog, I named Shadow of the Colossus one of my ten favorite games ever, while also noting I wouldn’t ever play it again. This was a couple years after the PS3 re-release that came bundled with Ico. I was 23-years-old when I wrote that and the idea that I would ever become a nostalgic-type was unfathomable to me then. In the nine years since I wrote that, I’ve replayed Shadow of the Colossus twice. We all make liars out of our younger selves, don’t we?

The me that existed in 2010 would never believe the me of 2021 would begin playing fifth run through Shadow of the Colossus immediately after finishing my fourth run, but that’s what I’ve been doing all week.

But, it was a safe bet at the time. My second play-through of Shadow of the Colossus lacked the elements that made it so memorable. The sense of dread when I entered new lairs. The sense of wonder when I’d see a new Colossus for the first time (or, in the case of the two small-fry Colossi, seething disappointment). The sense of accomplishment when I figured out how to slay each one. Replacing the sense of awe was a magnifying glass focused on the many, many problems Shadow of the Colossus has. The controls, no matter what scheme you use, are unintuitive and often frustrating. The AI for horsey Agro leaves a lot to be desired, especially for how much she factors into a couple of the battles. Colossi battles can be less epic and more an exercise in frustration in how much they shake you off. And finally, once you no longer have any surprises left from the appearances of the Colossi, some of them just plain suck. Or, if not full-on suckage, they’re not “epic enough.” Like, the gecko Colossi, Kuromori, feels like it’d be the boss in the Zelda dungeon where you get the bow & arrow from the big chest. It wasn’t that the game wasn’t fun anymore, but rather the best thing it had to offer, the joy of discovery, was gone. My 2018 replaying of the PlayStation 4 remaster seemed to reaffirm that: still great, but the thrill was gone.

The first time I played Shadow of the Colossus, I was absolutely terrified to swim from the shore to the ramp of the third boss. That sensation is never coming back.. unless they do a proper sequel, or a remake that adds all the deleted bosses they wanted. Originally, there was going to be 48 Colossi, which got whittled down over and over until there was sixteen. I’m hoping the PS4 port is the final one that doesn’t add deleted content back into the game.

Then, something weird happened: I got an itch to play Shadow of the Colossus following my review of the dumpster fire that was Drizzlepath: Deja Vu. My Dad and kid sister had played Shadow together earlier this year, without any guidance or hints from me, and I got see that sense of discovery and splendor in someone else. It was kind of magical to see. Of course, that could never happen with me again. Not with this game. But, when I started playing it, this time with the mindset of “I know what to expect, I’ve been down this path before, so this is just a visit to an old friend”, I found myself once again dazzled. That incredible music. Those awe-inspiring vistas. That eeriness of the architecture. It ALL got me again. Even the sense of dread when I found myself ready to jump in a lake that I knew had a sea monster in it, or the spectacle of Colossi who can’t even fit on screen no matter how much distance you get from them. It got me. It got me good.

It felt like I’d come home.

No, the fear factor will never be as strong as it was before. Hell, I can even jump in the lakes with the sea monster Colossi now without taking a few minutes to shit my pants first. Colossus #15, pictured here, was once a battle so overwhelming that it took me over an hour to figure out. Now, I can take this thing down in a few minutes without breaking a sweat. And yet, I’m still having fun. That means something.

And so it was, at long last, that I discovered that the greatness in Shadow of the Colossus isn’t a one-and-done experience. I came to terms with how the controls, far from perfect, nonetheless allowed the job to be done. I accepted that a horse wouldn’t exactly be a cunning strategist in the heat of battle. I allowed myself to forgive the 11th Colossi for being such a massive disappointment, mostly because I got to enjoy the act of stabbing it right through its disappointing little heart. Sure, no replay will ever top that first time you finally scaled the sixteenth colossus and gave it the old ancient sword lobotomy. But.. what game is that true of? I’ve thought a lot about that this week, and I’m kind of miffed at myself. I was calling out Shadow of the Colossus specifically for a thing every game is actually guilty of. What I blamed it for doing in 2010 I’d never blame any game for today. I guess that’s part of growing-up. In fact, Shadow of the Colossus, even if you never scratch far past the surface, withstands the test of time better than almost any game of its kind out there. It’s really something special.

“Uh, hey Dormin, she’s starting to have a little funky smell about her. Could you maybe stop the rigor mortis from setting in? While we’re on the subject, she’s not going to try to eat my brains when she comes back from the dead, right? RIGHT? Dormin? Why are you snickering, Dormin?”

Best of all, if you want it to be deeper, it can be. That’s where the true greatness of Shadow of the Colossus lays: it’s a fill-in-the-blanks game. It whatever you need it to be. Seriously, it does everything short of Colossi Basketball. If you want intrigue, mystery, and mythology, it’s all here. A truly chilling horror experience? Shadow of the Colossus certainly qualifies. A sword and archery adventure for the ages? Yep, that too. A fuck-around sandbox with tons of stuff to do and see? Actually, yea, and in fact it does that even better than I figured. Do you like geocaching? Do you like hunting games? Do you like treasure hunts? The extra features (white-tailed lizards, fruit, and the new-to-the-PS4-version “enlightenment” coins) cover ALL those too! Shadow of the Colossus is a white knuckle adventure AND a resourceful action-puzzler. Or do you want arcade-like challenges within a specific time limit? Yea, the time attack covers you there. All of this in a game that’s both decidedly modern while also feeling remarkable retro in how it’s framed. It’s this incredible series of juxtapositions, all in a game that nobody in human history has ever defended the rough control scheme of. Shadow of the Colossus SHOULD be boring. It SHOULD have aged badly. It should not be incredible after sixteen years.

Instead, it’s the greatest of all-time. At least that’s my interpretation of it.

IGC on Gaming: April 19, 2017

Clarification on Back When it was Gooditus

The NES Classic, Virtual Console, Mario All-Stars, Modern Warfare Remastered, etc. are not examples of Back When it was Gooditus. While there are no doubt nostalgia-loving types who will swear that those represent “when games were good”, there’s no public perception that those franchises are on the decline. They’re quick cash-ins, not apologies for waning quality or whimpering reminders of a time where they were relevant.

A re-release of a game like Resident Evil 4, so soon after #5 or #6 hit, serves as sobering reminder that the series was once good and isn’t anymore, reinforcing the perception that the best days are behind them and thus future installments are likely to be mediocre as well. When that is the case, that’s Back When it was Gooditus.

Hell, you can’t even call this a cash-in since Nintendo pulled the plug long before they stopped making money on it. It should have been shaped like a penis because it was a dick move.

Despite the fact that such a perception benefits nobody, some games actually market based around the concept of “gaming was better way back when.” Take Yooka-Laylee, a game that raised funds on Kickstarter and was marketed under the guise that gamers would believe that 3D platformers were better during the N64 era. And it worked! It set crowd-funding records and had the type of buzz most games could only dream of. Then it released and, while almost nobody is calling it a bad game, it seems to have underwhelmed most people. Of course it did. It’s based on recreating the feel of games from twenty-years-ago. Twenty! It’s okay to reminisce about the good ‘ole days, but actually going back to them almost always disappoints. Gaming has come a long ways.

Why do your Shovel Knights or your Steamworlds, games that try to invoke that bygone era, rise above that? Because it’s more about using nostalgia as a framework for something newer and fresher. Shovel Knight has no lives system, a darker tone, and works as an emotional narrative, something 2D platform games of the 80s or early 90s simply didn’t aim for. Yooka-Laylee seems to make the same mistake so many modern attempts at stoking that nostalgic fire do: copy the gameplay instead of paying tribute to the essence.

I Don’t Get Nostalgic

A few years ago, I got Shadow of the Colossus HD on PS3 for Christmas. Oh, and Ico was included. I never liked Ico to begin with. Baffling to me that gamers all agree that escort missions suck and NPCs with bad AI suck, but a game based around escorting an NPC with bad AI through a series of overly long and complex puzzles while fighting the spongiest busy-work enemies ever is somehow considered a masterpiece.

Ico is the Japanese word for “boredom.”

But hey, Shadow of the Colossus! One of my all-time favorites!

And then I played it.

“Christ, I remember being frustrated with the horse. I don’t remember wanting to kill and eat it.”

“Christ, did the bosses always shake this much when you were holding onto them?”

“What the fuck was the point of making the world so big when there’s almost nothing to do besides shoot lizards?”

I didn’t really enjoy any aspect of that play-through. Yet it was the exact same game I played six years earlier. Did it change? No. Had I? Not really. So what was the problem? The simple fact that I had already gotten everything I could out of it. The sense of wonder and discovery that drove me forward in 2005 could never hope to be re-created. I already knew what came next. There was nothing left to see. There was nothing new to explore. In 2005, upon entering the lair of every Colossus, I would be downright awestruck as the giants started to move, wondering how on Earth I would be expected to slay them. The second time around? I knew what they looked like, I knew how they moved, I knew what their weaknesses were.

Everything I hated about my 2011 play-through of Shadow of the Colossus was there in 2005. But, those faults were drowned out by the scope and scale and the sense of discovery. Without that freshness, the flaws stood out that much more and nothing could distract from them. I wish I had never replayed Shadow of the Colossus. It could never have hoped to be for me what it had been in 2005. Maybe it was unfair to expect it to be.

“You know that game we cancelled? Let’s just uncancel it and fix nothing about it that got it cancelled in the first place. What could go wrong?” My worst game of 2016 winner, The Last Guardian.

That was pretty much my last experience trying to recreate the magic with a game I had previously loved. I had done it in 2008 with Banjo-Kazooie’s Xbox 360 re-release, and then again in 2010 with Perfect Dark on XBLA. Even with HD upgrades and online play for Perfect Dark, the thrill was gone. Memories are a bitch to compete against. Memories of games are always a little brighter, always a little more happy, always a lot more refined and sharper, than reality is. I got Banjo-Kazooie on my 9th birthday, before experiencing work or relationships or anguish or pressure of any kind. Of course my memory of it is going to be as rosy as an alcoholic’s nose. My life was easier back then. I didn’t have other things on my mind. More important things. If you’re an adult playing games today with bills and drama hanging over you, of course you’ll be thinking “didn’t games used to make me happier?”

Actually, they didn’t. You were happier before you had to worry about stuff. It’s not the games that got bad. It’s you that got older. Games are better than ever. If you don’t believe me, the next time you’re completely stress-free, sit down with a quality game that you’ve never played before. I bet you anything it grabs a little of that old-timey game-induced happiness you used to feel and don’t anymore. It’s not the games. It’s you.


@mocliamtoh wants to know “Are there any genres you would describe as distinctly or inherently indie?

Inherently? No. Distinctly? No. Crafting games are generally associated with indies, but I’m not so sure they define the community. If any genre does, I would say it’s the 2D platformer. It makes sense when you think about it. Most indie developers grew up in the NES/SNES/Genesis era, when platformers ruled the day. They probably began to dream of making their own game around that time, and logically that game would be based on what was the meal-ticket of that era. Indie 2D platformer might be over-saturated, but people need to realize that they’re not just games. They’re dreams being realized. That’s why they’re the surest bet for quality on the scene.

My Ten Favorite Games Ever – Part 2

Continuing from Part 1, these are my personal ten favorite games ever.  Not the best games ever made, or even games I want to play again.  But the ten games I had the most fun playing the first time I played them.

Shadow of the Colossus

Age I was: 16

Last attempt at playing it: last year when it was re-released on PlayStation 3.  Shadow is one of the rare games that I’ve finished twice.  But there won’t be a third time.

Would I ever play it again: No

Between you and me, I never really liked Ico all that much.  Despite the massive amount of praise it got from pretty much everyone, I hated the combat and I detest escort missions in general.  A game that is all escorting, all the time was like being forced to listen to someone take a nail file to Gilbert Gottfried’s teeth.  So while the artwork was nice (I guess) and the puzzle design was alright (if you’re into that sort of thing), it did nothing for me.  As a result, Shadow of the Colossus was nowhere on my radar.  I had no faith in it.  Thought it would be a piece of shit.  And then I played the demo from the official PlayStation Magazine.  And I had to have it.  Like, right then.

There has never been anything quite like Shadow of the Colossus.  What made it work is how alone you feel in the world you’re in.  With no secondary enemies, treasures to find, caves to explore, fetch-quests, menus, and so on, and so on, everything is focused on intense, rewarding gameplay.  The storyline isn’t exactly deep, but you’re given just enough snippets of what’s going on to be curious exactly what you’re doing and why.  Despite the open-worldness of it, it felt like a dark ride at an amusement park.  You’re pushed from one goal to the next, feeling the exact emotion the developers want you to feel.  Fear from a lake monster.  Apprehension from a twenty-story tall behemoth.  Thrills as you soar through the air on a flying giant.  Even a true sense of loss when your horse seemingly dies.  Then again, I’m not sure they were trying to provoke “how the FUCK did it survive and limp all the way back here?” when it shows up during the final cut scene, which is what I was like.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Shadow of the Colossus is a one-and-done experience.  Yea, there’s a lot of hidden content, like lizards and fruits that increase your abilities.  And yea, they’re special weapons you get for beating the bosses a second time.  But the best parts about Shadow of the Colossus can only be experienced one time.  Those moments when you encounter a boss for the first time, or gaze in awe at a new area of the land to explore.  Once you’ve done that, there’s no turning back the clock.  Not even an HD upgrade of the game made playing through it a totally worthwhile use of my time last year.  I loved Shadow of the Colossus, but I can’t get anymore out of it.

XBLIG equivalent: Ha, right.  One game did try to recreate the whole “fight giant-sized enemies” schtick, Ogre’s Phantasm Sword Quest.  But that wasn’t even trying to be like Shadow of the Colossus.  It’s not an XBLIG, but the closest any game has come to reminding me of it was PlayStation Network hit Journey.  It wasn’t about the slaying of giants or the minimalistic presentation.  It was about the emotional focus.  A game that gives you the illusion of having freedom, but in reality pushes you from point A to point B while evoking specifically targeted reactions in the player.   Lots of games try to do that, but few are smart enough to keep it simple and aim for very specific nerves.

Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II

Age I was: 13 and 16

Last attempt at playing it: I’ve only played them once.

Would I ever play it again: No.  Well, define “again” since every single spinoff and sequel feels like the same fucking game, only increasingly less coherent.

I can’t really defend my love of Kingdom Hearts.  The story was absurd, the camera was unworkable, the characters as they originally stood all had the complexity of a straw, and it was fucking awesome.  It’s a real shame what has become of this series.  It reminds me of what happened to the Matrix series between the original flick and the two sequels, where the creators fell in love just a little bit too much with their own top-heavy mythology.  When it was just about Sora and Riku being separated from their home and their friend and being in a strange world surrounded by cartoon characters, I liked it.  Pitiful me totally melted when I saw a moogle.  “Oh gee, there’s a moogle, in this game that has Donald Duck and Goofy!  Tee hee!”  But as the sequels and spinoffs started adding evil organizations and Nobodys and all the stuff you see is real but maybe it’s not or maybe it’s a dream or maybe you’re remembering it wrong or you know what fuck it.  I wish I had played the original and then had myself hypnotized to get physically ill if I was ever tempted to play another game in the series.

Maybe I’m being hypocritical.  My inner anti-critic is saying “It’s Disney and it’s Square!  Come on, Cathy!  Of course it’s going to sound like raving insane fan-fiction!  Nothing at Disneyland makes sense either, but the rides are still fun!”  I chose to pair Shadow of the Colossus with Kingdom Hearts here because both feel like rides.  They give an artificial sense of being bigger than they really are, when they’re really drawing your attention to very specific things on a linear path that you have almost no control over.  Yet, it never feels like a fan service (see Smash Bros) or pretentious (see Epic Mickey) and remains charming.  At least the two main games do.  All the spinoffs can get in line to kiss my ass.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Even with all the options to change-up combat, with various combos and formations, the limited variety of enemies and ultra-repetitive nature of fights gets old quickly.  Both Kingdom Hearts and its sequel over-stayed their welcome by a good five to ten hours each.  Yes, too much of a good thing can and does happen.  I’m also increasingly uninterested in a possible third proper sequel.  That’s thanks in no small part to several spinoffs with titles that sound like badly translated Japanese.  358/2 Days?  Birth by Sleep??  Dream Drop Distance???  You made these incomprehensible pieces of shit instead  of #3 why?

XBLIG equivalent: Again, I really didn’t think this part out too much.  Seemed like a good idea when I came up with this feature.  Nothing really compares to it on XBLIG, so I’ll just end right here.  But, if you do want to try to make something like this yourself, remember to focus players attentions on very little while making them think there’s a lot more going on then there is.  It sounds absurd, but that’s exactly what Shadow of the Colossus and Kingdom Hearts both did, and did very well.

Continue to Part III: Cowboys and GoldenEye playing Aliens.

And yes I cheated: I’m counting Kingdom Hearts I & II as one game.  Just wait until the next chapter.  I do that twice!  So really this the top 13 games.  Why not?

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