Okami is, in my estimation, the only challenger ever to have beaten Zelda at its own game. It shared Zelda's themes and its structure – exploration and discovery, gentle but absorbing puzzling, an unobtrusive but captivating narrative gently ushering you through a sequence of towns and dungeons whilst leaving you free to distract yourself.
However, its personality was stronger. It had irrepressible wit and breathtaking artistic direction, and an entirely unique, game-changing idea in the Celestial Brush; it remains one of the most beautiful and memorable games you could ever play.
No one bought it, depressingly. But it was just too beautiful to be allowed to fade away. After Clover Studios dissolved, two senior members of staff at Capcom took Okami on. Both are huge admirers of the original game and both are committed to taking it further.
They are Motohide Eshiro and Kuniomi Matsushita, producer and director. They showed me a translated section of Okamiden at the Tokyo Game Show this year, a few weeks before its Japanese release.
"By the time Okami came out at the end of the PS2 lifecycle it was overshadowed by other news," says Eshiro, on being asked whether he felt the game met its full potential. "The timing for it just wasn't there. But it did reach a good amount of people, enough that it started to get known, and every time we released a new version of the game – the PS2 original, the Best Price version, then the Wii version – we saw sales going up.
"We wanted to make a game for that fanbase, but not just for them – it needed to be put into new people's hands as well, and the way we wanted to do that was by bringing it to the DS. It has such a huge install base, and you can make a game that's more affordable to a larger group of people."
"There are a lot of people who did hear about Okami, but who didn't play it; they kind of know what it is, but it doesn't have the name recognition," adds Matsushita. "So now we hope that people who have been aware of Okami in the back of their mind will pick up Okamiden to see what it's about."
Okamiden stars Chibiterasu, an adorable white wolf-pup, and his mates - among them Kuni the miniature warrior and Namami the mermaid - who ride around on his back. The demo opens in a surreal, otherworldly market, run by Spirited Away-like apparitions.
The demons' stalls with their weird, unidentifiable wares are lit up against the dark forest like the lantern-adorned stands at a matsuri festival. Before they enter, young Kuni gets Chibiterasu to draw him a mask to wear as a disguise. It's the first of many touch screen-inspired vignettes to make me smile.
"When we thought about making a new Okami, we thought, what can we do what's new and different?" Eshiro says. "The celestial brush was the key thing – we wanted to bring that to life, fully realise it, and for us it was a no-brainer because the DS has the stylus and the touch-screen, so you can directly interact with the world. If there had been no DS, I don't know what we would have done."
Familiar Celestial Brush powers are there, too – you can still investigate cracks in walls with hastily-drawn cherry bombs, still slash enemies in mid-air, still fill in broken bridges and dot incomplete constellations with missing stars.
The translation is witty and conversational; on-screen text is accompanied by lively nonsensical jabbering. After exploring the market for bizarre items – Fire Eyes, Ice Mouths, Thunder Ears – and chattering to the demons, we skip ahead to the Witch Queen, a monstrous, giant-headed hag who brandishes two meat cleavers, like a murderous Yubaba.
As in the original Okami boss fights aren't three-hits-and-they're-down pushovers, but much more Capcom-esque battles of will and attrition. The Witch Queen defends herself with the cleavers, forcing you get around behind her; once you've got enough damage in, she starts healing herself with altars that pop out of the ground. You have to leave cowering Kuni stood on a switch to get rid of them whilst you continue the fight.
Your companions have proven to be the most significant gameplay development for Okamiden, says Eshiro. "The partners opened up a whole new world for us. We could add all sorts of different puzzle elements and contraptions and enemies to fight that you can use your partners to get around.
"They're not just a game design element, they are an integral part of the story. The way that they are involved with the plot opens it up in whole new directions. The story differs entirely from the original Okami – it's s different sort of tale, about meeting people, growing with them and sometimes having to say goodbye to them. I think that's where the game really differs from its predecessor."
After five minutes battling the Witch Queen we jump ahead to a flooded temple, where Chibiterasu meets Nanami the mermaid. You can direct her through flooded areas with the Celestial Brush – the ink bleeding into the watery background – whilst the wolf-pup waits on dry land. The soundtrack is wonderful – frog croaks and the sound of distant waterfalls against a backdrop of lively traditional Japanese music.
Perspective changes freely and naturally from top-down to side-on to a more conventional 3D-adventure viewpoint, depending on what's clearest. When you're directing your partner, it tends to offer a more two-dimensional viewpoint; during fights, the camera is right behind Chibiterasu's furry ears.
The game is always astonishingly beautiful to look at. Thick black brush strokes define broad swathes of vibrant colour, the scenery instantly frozen at the touch of a button to become a canvas for the Celestial Brush.
"I wanted to really communicate the Japanese aesthetic and art style to the world," says Matsushita. "There are a lot of elements in this game that reflect Japanese fairytales, and people in Japan who are familiar with them will recognise that.
"But the focus is never really on this folklore... the point of Okami is its fantastical setting, the living world that it inhabits. It incorporates Japanese mythology but doesn't force it upon you."
If Okami had one major fault, it's that it was too long. Far before the end it began to feel bloated, overstuffed with side-missions and collectible treasures, and even the most incredible games struggle to surprise and impress you consistently for more than 50 hours.
Okamiden, as a handheld game, is unlikely to be as vast, but it's just as rich. Every tree can still be brought into bloom with a swish of the celestial brush; there are still huge, open areas to explore, split up into sections that the DS can manage by unobtrusive portals; there are still tens of different items and trinkets to be found in chests and pots or salvaged from the game's abstract, theatrical enemies.
Okamiden is clearly a labour of love. But is it one that Eshiro expects will sell, given the series' history and its distinctively Japanese nature? "One of Capcom's policies is bringing games to market that have a global appeal," he says.
"But we also have games that have that Japanese flavour to them, like Asura's Wrath, and it's things like that that make me feel that all our ideas are not gone yet, and we still have a lot to contribute. We have a lot of different directors with different visions – for Matsushita-san, here, this is the game that he wanted to bring to the world – but there are others who have something to offer."
Okamiden is the kind of game that gives you faith in Japanese game development, a game both born of and soaked in rich cultural tradition, but not restrained by it. It's inventive, playful, funny, and despite the fact that it's a sequel, it's brimming with creativity and ideas – and that sumptuous art style is no less enchanting on a smaller screen.
DS exclusive Okamiden was released in Japan on 30th September and will be out in the US and Europe in early 2011.