Version tested: PlayStation 3
If Ico and Shadow and the Colossus were novels, they'd be getting the Penguin Modern Classics treatment around about now. They'd be done up in paperback with a jarringly appropriate bit of art stuck on the front, while inside you'd get an introductory essay with a name like, "Shadow of the Beast: Manichean belief structures and Agro the horse", written by Tony Tanner - if he wasn't already dead. You'd plod through that intro because you wanted to get your money's worth, and after all that, you might end up with the strange feeling that there weren't too many reasons left to re-read the actual stories anymore.
Luckily, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are video games, and video games have their own impulses when it comes to curatorship. In Sony's new HD collection, both of Fumito Ueda's classics are reborn in high resolution and 7.1 surround sound with improved frame rates and it's left to the player, rather than Tony Tanner, to unravel what they think of the games themselves. Instead of scholarly essays, there are downloadable themes - one for each game - and making-of videos (none of which we've been sent in our review copy, alas). Instead of the unusual cover image, there are trophies and stereoscopic 3D for both titles.
Best of all, there are still plenty of reasons left to play these games again. Let's check them out.
It's still the single best piece of rumble feedback in games. You know it, right? A little stumbling shudder that shakes timidly through the pad. For once, it's not telling you where to dig for treasure, or that you're taking damage, or that the emperor's fleet is attacking the hangar so you'd better scramble to the next cut-scene. Instead, it's telling you that you're running along holding hands with Yorda, and that she's struggling to keep up with you.
There are so many things that should be annoying about Ico, and yet none of them actually are. There are big things, like the fact that the game's essentially a prolonged escort mission - or at least when you describe it, that's what it sounds like. Then there are little things, such as platforming that tends to be a little scrappy and inelegant, and simplistic combat: a basic matter of hacking away at the dark shapes that fill the strange castle where you've been trapped, occasionally breaking off to drag Yorda out of a hole.
Why do these things work so well then? At the risk of sounding like a man with Stockholm Syndrome, I think they work because of the roughness. Ico wouldn't be better if you could backflip from one ledge to the next like Lara Croft or air-juggle baddies like Kratos.
It wouldn't be better because you wouldn't be a terrified little kid anymore, and that's what Ico's all about: it's about being brave and trying to look after someone else even though you're lost and spooked out by your frightening surroundings. It's about exploring an eerie castle not because you're looking for the fabled Gold Humidor of King Carlos the Tuberculotic, but because you and your otherworldly companion are hunting for the exit.
Juxtaposed with that is the dreamy emptiness of the setting itself, and it's here that the HD reworking really does its stuff. It's a shame that the frame rate's capped at 30 frames per second rather than 60, perhaps, but seeing the game's assets in 1080p resolution is a bit of a revelation.
Ico's aesthetic may have held up over the years, but if you return to the original PS2 game now, it's surprisingly blurry in all its prettiness. With the PS3 version, everything's still bloomy and mysterious, but the detailing has come to life. Suddenly, you can see individual shafts of light streaming through windows, you can get more of a sense of performance from the characters, you can even make out rough patches on the brickwork and leaves on the trees. The art may be unchanged, but the sharper presentation has brought this world of grass and stone and cloudy sky into focus. It's understated, but it's beautiful.
You know, a bit like Ico.
Shadow of the Colossus
Ico's spiritual successor takes a very unusual approach for a follow-up. Rather than reworking the original game's ideas, it flips them. It replaces the claustrophobic castle with a huge, almost Hyrule-style sprawl of fields and mountains. It swaps tentatively inching along battlements for dashing around on a huge, wilful horse. Most interestingly of all, you're no longer avoiding ending up as a sacrifice, but arranging one of your own: tracking down a hit-list of huge stone monsters and then taking them out, one at a time, in order to bring your pretty lady back to life.
Innocence and generosity have been replaced by something far more complex: a kind of self-interested - and yet paradoxically still selfless - slaughter that comes at an awful personal price.
Shadow of the Colossus is a far more ambitious project than Ico, but it's also a tiny bit clumsier. Cut-scenes are still minimalist by the wonky theatrical standards of most games, but they can run on a touch too long towards the end of the adventure, and there's just the slightest sense of being told too much, and therefore having less freedom to interpret events for yourself. Elsewhere, the first game's wonderful explorative pace is replaced with a much more predictable structure: find the next colossus, uncover its weak spots, get to its weak spots, kill the colossus.
That said, you're still climbing over monsters the size of mountains and then bringing them down, and while the game may settle into a recognisable rhythm, the colossi themselves remain genuinely magical - and their deaths bring on a strange mixture of elation and guilt.
Everyone has a favourite, and for me it's Number Five. Number Five is the eagle-type thing in the lake. The moment it rushes down to attack and you leap and grab hold, only to be lifted from your little island and up into the sky on a huge pair of furry wings: games don't really get a lot more astonishing than that.
In high resolution, it all looks glorious, too (upscaling is employed if your PS3 is set to 1080p). The textures, particularly when it comes to fur, are wonderfully tangible, while you may feel like you're seeing the game's craggy wilderness and bleached masonry afresh. Shadow's still got its camera problems - though it's easy to forgive a game for not knowing where to look as a tiny little character scrabbles up a monster's armpit - but the tearing that could often mar the original is but a memory.
Best of all, the game now runs along at a steady 30fps. Looking the original up, I was surprised to discover that it was released at roughly the same time as the Xbox 360 - and that kind of makes sense. Shadow of the Colossus was always a next-generation game stuck on current-generation technology, and while it was a joy to play, there were plenty of moments where ambition butted against aging hardware and the screen stuttered and stammered in response. That's all gone now, and you can race along on Agro in the wake of a huge, shambling leviathan while the engine copes with everything Ueda's imagination can throw at it.
It's a lovely restoration job, then, and the kind of thing Ubisoft could learn a thing or two from. Beyond the joys of seeing the games sharper and less shaky, and in 3D if you've got the right telly, is the simple pleasure of having them on the same disc and the same loading menu, where you can flick back and forth between them and ponder the way that they fit together.
And they do fit together: not just in their shared fondness for windy skies, sun-bleached temples and inky enemies, but in the air of religious nastiness they have; the way they take you to a strange world of scapegoats and sacrifices, rituals and retaliations.
Games often bring out the armchair detective in people. These two bring out the armchair anthropologist. That's a big part of why they've endured, and also why this HD collection is such a delight.
9 / 10