I want to tell you about a perfect video game. Really, it is perfect. It cannot be improved. There is not a single crack in the entire code that can be altered to deliver a more seamless and inspiring gaming experience.
The game is Shadow of the Colossus, for the Playstation 2. It was released in North America in 2005 and is the reason that I discovered the art of video games. I used to believe that video games were merely entertaining. It wasn't until playing Shadow of the Colossus that I realized something: video games can be a high form of art, just like film. They have a script, actors, costumes, architecture, music, sound effects, visual effects, everything for which we praise movies. Video games add one additional element to the mix, however, that film does not have: immersion. Players actually participate in the story. They drive and create the plot as they play the game.
I have in the past compared Shadow of the Colossus to the more recent Legends of Zelda games, but boiled down to the core and most interesting elements. The plot of Shadows involves the hero, Wander, scouring a vast enchanted land searching for sixteen colossal creatures. He must slay each one of them in order to resurrect a young woman who was unfairly and cruelly sacrificed. There are no minions or mini-bosses. There are just the sixteen colossi, and sixteen puzzles to solve in order to reach each colossus' lair. Solve a puzzle to get to the boss, then have a really fun boss fight. How could I say no to that?
In the game, you only have a bow and arrow and a magical sword as your weapons. Your arrows do little to affect the colossi, unless they have weak points you can hit to bring them to their knees. Your magical sword is your only weapon that can actually injure the creatures, and can only do so on their weak spots. Thus, you inevitably have to climb onto these massive creatures, clinging desperately to them as they try to shake you off. Equipping the sword will allow you to see a glowing sigil at the colossus' weak point, although some colossi have several weak points which must be stabbed in order.
After a gorgeous cutscene that establishes the setting and the basic plot, the game begins at a ruined temple in the center of a forbidden land. You, as Wander, step out of the temple into the sunlight. You learn the holding your sword up will cause a beam of light to shine directly towards your next foe. Mounting your horse, Agro, you ride towards your first challenge. You find yourself at the bottom of a cliff, and must dismount and leave your horse behind as you climb toward the first colossus. This climbing acts as a tutorial, teaching you the basic moves of dodge rolling, leaping from ledge to ledge, clinging, and other skills you will need throughout the game.
At the top of the cliff, you encounter a huge minotaur, perhaps ten stories tall. It mostly ignores your presence, at least until you leap at its ankles and begin climbing up its legs and back. It will shake to try to dislodge you, and will really get serious about getting you onto the ground once you reach the back of its head, where its weak spot waits. Timing your blows carefully, you must grip its fur with one hand while drawing back your sword with the other. The longer you hold off stabbing, the more strength you will stab the colossus with, but if you wait to long, you could be flung loose. Three or four good stabs, and the minotaur collapses, dead.
Here, the music softens to a mournful choir. The colossus falls to the ground in slow motion, a mighty, timeless creature, brought to an end by cruel fate. As the game progresses and with each slain colossus, you have to wonder if you are really doing the right thing, killing off these creatures.
After the death of the colossus, black tendrils rise from the corpse and zap you. You collapse to the ground, then find yourself transported back to the temple, where you receive new instructions from the mysterious voice guiding your quest. This is not only important to the plot, but a useful game mechanic, because you do not have to take the time to backtrack before moving on to the next colossus.
One of the many, many things I like about this game is its seamlessness. By that I do not just mean the map, although it has one giant map with no load times--you can travel from one end of the land to the other without having to wait for a portion of it to load. But I also mean seamless in terms of graphics. The cutscenes and the in-game graphics are identical, which helps add to the immersion. Granted, the graphics are not as sharp as other contemporary games, but they were and remain quite good, particularly with the use of lighting. The physics are also incredibly real--Agro moves like a real horse, and will even stubbornly pull away or fight against your control if he doesn't like the direction you're going. He will absolutely refuse to jump over a cliff for you, and will hesitate before making leaping small hurdles.
The music is spectacular and very well-integrated with the on-screen events. The plot is simple, yet deep and moving, as Wander becomes more and more infected with the souls of the colossi, and must decide how far he is willing to go to bring back the woman he loves. The puzzles and the boss fights are spectacular and extremely enjoyable. Only one of them was perhaps less than perfect, and even that's debatable. One of the colossi, a smaller one about the size of a large SUV, is afraid of fire. I had to climb a ways to reach the platform on which it waits to attack, so once I picked up a torch, I started backing it towards the edge from which I entered. Apparently that's the wrong edge, which I didn't realize until after I had gotten the thing to fall off. It didn't die, it wasn't even stunned, and it's armor plating was still intact, yet it couldn't get back up to me, and there was no way I was going down into a narrow corridor with that thing. Eventually, I had to restart the battle and force it to the opposite edge, from whence it fell a long ways. It became stunned, and several armor pieces fell off, so I was able to jump down onto it and slay it. It wasn't THAT hard, but I do wish that the game designers had made it slightly more clear exactly where you were supposed to push the creature.
At any rate, I love love love the game. It's one of the reasons why I am so annoyed that Sony stopped making Playstation 3s backwards compatible. My favorite games are on the Playstation 2! Why would I give that just to play PS3 games?
If you have the console on which to play it, I would highly recommend purchasing a copy of Shadow of the Colossus. You will not be disappointed. It is pure perfection.