So far, most HD rejigs of classic games have been fairly disappointing. You see, it's not merely that most games still retain their muddy textures, low poly counts and wonky aspect ratios. It's the fact that, as good as a bit of HD spit and polish is, it often serves us a valuable lesson in how cruel the ravages of time can be.
Hearing that both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus were about to get the HD treatment, I had mixed feelings. Here were two of the most iconic (pardon the pun) videogames of all time, viewed by myself through a pair of the thickest rose-coloured lenses. Could I stand to revisit them again with all that has happened since I stuck a sword in the head of the last big guy on SOTC? Would it muddy the waters for the upcoming (it's coming sometime, right?) The Last Guardian?
Ico / SOTC HD doesn't take those aforementioned rose-coloured specs, breaking them across its knee. Despite the dated graphics, the control and camera foibles and all the annoying little incongruities modern game reviews would pick on, what speaks out in volumes is just how bloody talented Team Ico are and why their games take so bloody long to bring to fruition. Because they show us exactly how games can speak to us in a language that no other media can manage.
Tackling Ico first, it seems absolutely astonishing to think that this began life as a PS1 game, rapidly outstripped that machine's capabilities and didn't get released till the PS2 was already fairly well established.
Ico has the perfect introduction. It doesn't bore you with a long, convoluted storyline. It doesn't bamboozle you with screen after screen of introductory text, nor does it insult you by leading you through a namby pamby tutorial that holds your hand for the first few hours (ironic for a game where hand-holding is such a pivotal game mechanic, no?)
No, Ico assumes that you've played games before, that you're fairly intelligent, and that you are willing to suspend your disbelief to buy into the mysterious central plot surrounding a young boy with horns, put up for sacrifice in a gigantic crumbling edifice.
Those who've enjoyed the game previously will know the story of Ico (the youngster in question), a resourceful young chap, not content with being left to rot. When a chance occurrence frees him from his sarcophagus, Ico makes good his escape and discovers Yorda, a mysterious young girl also trapped in the castle. Freeing her, he decides they should escape together. But dark forces make this task ever more complicated. Yorda isn't quite what she seems…
Simple game mechanics are deliciously woven together in Ico, giving the game an almost minimalist feel. Ico is fairly athletic, able to run, jump, cling to platforms and swing a weapon around when the need arises. He can also grab hold of Yorda's hand - an extremely touching piece of game design - in order to guide her to safety, save her from falling or to help her over obstacles.
Yorda is hunted by nasty shadowy entities throughout the game, and Ico can fend them off - at first with a piece of wood, but later in the game with swords and other weapons. Keeping Yorda out of danger sounds like one of those horrible 'escort-based' games, but it turns out to be such a finely tuned balancing act that you swiftly learn that Ico and Yorda are in this together, and together they must stay.
Screen furniture is kept to the bare minimum in Ico. In fact some of the game's initial frustrations come from the scale of the world you find yourself in, and the endless need to progress with no map or clear indication of where you should go next. As I said though, Ico treats you like an intelligent gamer - and rewards you for being observant and thorough in your investigations of your surroundings. The answer to most of the game's problems is often quite literally staring you in the face.
Over time, gamers might be less forgiving about Ico's context-based control system and the camera systems, which often seem to fight you and obscure your objective. It's worth always keeping in mind that the game does not try to hide things from you, and often you really don't need to pan the camera around wildly to discover your next objective. Such is the beauty of Team Ico's design, and Fumito Ueda's insistence on making the player experience a pleasurable and unforgettable one.
With the HD rejig, Ico should by rights find a whole new appreciative audience, and for those folk who are discovering this game for the first time, I can't help feeling a pang of jealousy.
Included in the package is Team Ico's other notable game, Shadow of the Colossus. Set in a vast game world populated by gigantic entities, Shadow of the Colossus follows Ico's design style of giving the player very little initial information to go on, but assuming they know games, they know their way around a controller, and they'll again buy into the minimalist plot and the central tasks they're set.
Though not really linked by plot or characters, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus feel like they're part of the same vast mythos. Wander, the central character in SOTC, could almost be Ico all grown up (with a bit of cosmetic surgery to remove those horns). Mono could almost be Yorda, but there's where the games start to drift apart both in scale and scope. Yorda's task seems insurmountable at first. Though he has a horse (the grumpy and rather twitchy Argo), and is armed with a sword and a bow, Wander must defeat 16 colossi before Mono's soul can be saved.
Game mechanics in SOTC are slightly more complex than Ico. The vast landscape can be explored at will, but Wander's next objective is indicated by his sword. When held aloft in the sunlight, the sword's focused beam will narrow to a point when waved in the direction of the next Colossus. Wander must then use Argo to travel to the Colossus' location, somehow discover the beast's weakness, and then scale the beast itself before plunging his sword into its glowing weak points. Two notable pieces of HUD appear in SOTC. Wander's strength meter, a circular indicator, shows how much stamina the character has. I'd actually forgotten all about this but it becomes essential when you're scaling gigantic colossi to keep an eye on that indicator. If the circle shrinks away to nothing, Wander will lose his strength, his grip and usually come tumbling to the ground. Wander also has a more traditional health gauge, which can be replenished at shrines dotted around the landscape.
As with Ico's more traditional platformy-style puzzles, the genius of SOTC is in the design of the mythical creatures that Wander must defeat. They're like gigantic living breathing platform games in their own right. Each has its own particular foibles and strategies. Some are straightforward and just need to be scaled and stabbed to death. Others are fast, lithe and more tricky to defeat. Still others actively object to Wander's presence and will attack ferociously until he's ground into the dirt.
The satisfaction in defeating each behemoth is incredible, and though most people will be convinced that the entity setting Wander the massive task of dispatching these beasts isn't to be trusted in the least, you feel compelled to carry on until all 16 are dead.
Like Ico before it, SOTC tugs at the heartstrings in several places though it's far more combat-focused. Again I feel slight pangs of envy at anyone who hasn't seen SOTC before. I managed one play through of the original before my import copy died a horrible death at the hands of the infamous PS2 disk-tray-slider cludge so it's extremely gratifying to go through the entire game again, marvelling at what Team Ico managed to wring out of the PS2's aged insides a mere 5 years ago.
Both games are undeniable classics, though the standard edition of the HD remakes leaves a lot to be desired. Extra content is merely provided as downloadable stuff - and rather annoyingly my in-game download code didn't bloody work (golf clap, Sony). Surely there would've been space on the disk for all those developer interviews and all the other goodies?
US and Japan Special Editions look like they'll become desirable collector's items so you might want to look at importing one of those instead. The PAL editions of these classics are worth getting, particularly if you've been hiding under a stone for the last 10 years and have never encountered the games in their original PS2 guise. They're functional remakes, with no bells and whistles (other than a fairly standard 3D treatment which doesn't really do either game any favours) but bear in mind they're functional remakes of two of the greatest videogames of all time. Which means they should definitely be in your collection in some shape or form.