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ICO and Shadow of the Colossus emulated in HD

Does PC emulation show us a PS3 future?

Rumours are rapidly gathering pace suggesting that Sony is looking to follow-up the success of its HD "remastering" of the God of War titles with a similar gaming double pack featuring the classic ICO and Shadow of the Colossus.

Digital Foundry took a good, long, hard look at the God of War Collection at the tail end of last year, comparing the original PlayStation 2 titles with the new 720p60 PS3 revisions, and came away supremely impressed.

Sony Santa Monica's original PS2 art worked beautifully in high definition, and the improved performance level could only be a good thing.

We were also intrigued by the approach that the conversion team took. Rather than attempt to run the game under emulation, Sony Santa Monica's original C code was essentially ported over to create the new PS3 versions. In our feature we compared the PS3 versions with the source PS2 titles, running not just on the original hardware but also on the PC via the open source PCSX2 emulator.

The result? The PC emulation turned out to be very, very close indeed to the HD remixes, proving that the conversion team had replaced no original in-game art, aside from the on-screen text and button graphics.

With that in mind, we decided to check out ICO and Shadow of the Colossus running on the same emulator in order to get some idea of how the original titles would scale up to high-definition resolutions. The results were... intriguing.

First up though, a word of warning. Both ICO and Shadow of the Colossus's technology exploits the PlayStation 2 in aspects that the emulator creators have still yet to fully implement in PCSX2 - so while the PC experience draws closer to the PS2 on both games with each successive release, it's still not the absolutely precise carbon copy you might expect.

This is perhaps best exemplified by ICO. While the software renderer is a close reproduction of the original game, the GPU-accelerated version still lacks the fog effects of the original game.

So to kick off with, here's the ICO intro sequence captured with both software and hardware rendering - it's easy to see where the HD emulation is off-beam, but at the same time, it is equally apparent that ICO's artwork still has much more to give when liberated from the confines of standard definition.

ICO software vs HD hardware renderers. Emulation still has some way to go but does give us an indication of the potential. Use the full-screen button for an HD view or click the link below for a larger window.

Away from the external environments, emulation offers a far closer representation of the original game, and you can see that in effect in this cut-scene.

Texture detail and filtering are enormously improved, and there is a definite hint that any HD "remastering" of the game should be something quite special - even if the original art assets are used without any replacement, higher-resolution assets in place.

Away from the exterior environments, the emulation of ICO gets much, much closer to the real thing. Use the full-screen button for HD resolution, or click the link below for a larger window.

ICO's core technology - especially in the use of bloom lighting and animation - is simply remarkable, but the SCE team's next project, Shadow of the Colossus, saw them pushing the PlayStation 2 technology to absolute breaking point.

The engineers produced a close emulation of HDR lighting, tone-mapping and motion blur (including per-object - wow!). Astonishingly the SCE team even mimicked something approximating the look of the kind of fur pixel shaders seen in PS3 titles like LittleBigPlanet. Programmable pixel shaders were still in their infancy when Shadow of the Colossus was produced, and the PS2 hardware itself offers no support for them, so the inclusion of an equivalent effect within the game was all the more phenomenal.

The terrain streaming mechanics, the brilliant physics and the shadowing systems were remarkable for their time. Indeed, Shadow of the Colossus even features character self-shadows and cloth simulation. There's also an outstanding implementation of volumetric fog, adding another layer of atmosphere and ambience to the game.

The downside? All of this remarkable technology comes at a cost. The frame-rate in Shadow of the Colossus is, to put it very simply, very poor indeed by today's standards.

Putting this to the test, we decided to go for the purest possible conditions: no launch PS3 hardware emulation here, we unearthed our vintage "fat" PS2 and ran the game directly at 480p from component into one of our capture stations. Hold onto your potatoes, this ride is rough!

Shadow of the Colossus features some astonishing tech for the PS2 era, but the hardware simply can't sustain a respectable frame-rate. A PS3 HD remix could make all the difference...

Shadow of the Colossus runs with an uncapped frame-rate. In very, very rare occasions, you may even hit 60FPS, but as the tests reveal, in its original form 15 to 20FPS is the norm.

In the current era, where 30 is the standard, it's surprising how much the gameplay is impacted, especially in terms of the controls which feel inconsistent, sloth-like and sluggish. Adjusting for the additional lag in the controls proved to be a big ask, as some of the boneheaded platforming footage in the clip reveals.

So, the chance to bring the game to PS3 in the form of an HD "remastering" offers new opportunities: not just in unlocking the detail of the original art, but also in bringing some kind of consistency to the frame-rate.

Hopefully, we wouldn't just be seeing an improvement to the definition of the game's visuals, but also in terms of temporal resolution too: smoother gameplay and with it hugely improved, consistent, controller response. 720p60? Yes please, but we'd take a rock-solid, v-locked 720p30.

Intriguingly, with the latest version of the PCSX2 emulator, Shadow of the Colossus looks very close to the PS2 original. Sure, there's a small ghosting/offset problem and the odd glitch in the intro, and in our gameplay video, some of the bloom appears to be a touch overwhelming compared to the original, but we reckon that these videos give a good insight into how an HD SotC would look... first up, here's the intro:

Shadow of the Colossus' epic intro, rendered in high-def via emulation. The difference compared to the original PS2 playback is remarkable. Use the full-screen button to watch in HD, or click the link below for a bigger window.

And now, the same initial confrontation with the first colossus that we featured in the performance analysis, but this time presented in full high definition. Note that in these videos, not only are we seeing a vastly increased resolution but we're also showing the game locked at 30 frames per second.

The initial face-off against the first Colossus, rendered in HD courtesy of PCSX2. Over three times the pixels and up to twice the frame-rate. Once again, use the full-screen button for full HD, or click through for a larger window.

Assuming the HD remix rumours are true, it will be very interesting to see how the game creators roll with any potential HD versions of these classic games.

We've taken the emulation approach to showing how the games could look in high definition, but assuming the developers port the code across as opposed to emulating it, all manner of possibilities open up: Shadow of the Colossus' LOD system, for example, could be tweaked so that the extra processing power of PS3 gives us the full detail models at all times.

Porting also opens up the opportunity to replace any art that doesn't quite make the grade when rendered in high-def, although it would be surprising if this happens based on our tests. The core art is more than up to the task at hand.

So yes, we're genuinely fascinated at how this story plays out. We'll let you know!

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Shadow of the Colossus

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About the Author
Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.