You take a bit of a gamble every time you boot up a game from years go by. How dated will the graphics be? How awkward the controls, how stilted the writing? Videogames have progressed a tremendous amount as a medium over a relatively short period, but those improvements cut both ways, and it’s sometimes difficult for the so-called classics to withstand modern scrutiny.
I remember feeling that most strongly a few years ago, when I moved into a flat that boasted an N64. I’d long ago sold mine converting my precious collection of games and peripherals into the cold hard cash I needed to pre-order my very own GameCube. It didn’t take long before I grabbed a controller and dusted off GoldenEye, my head filled with rosy memories of fighting through Facility, of paintball mode and big heads, and the all-important no-Oddjobs rule.
Long story short, GoldenEye is shit.
I mean, obviously GoldenEye isn’t shit. But to a player spoiled by the modern FPS – dual-stick controls, iron sights, secondary weapons and a dedicated button for grenades – it’s just not fun any more. It feels too fiddly, too slow, too awkward. I tried to work at it, to keep playing, adjust to the controls, find the game I knew I loved hidden behind the clunky N64 control scheme, but the years had separated us entirely. Whatever GoldenEye was when it came out in 1997, I couldn’t play that game any more.
That experience has been on my mind recently, as I’ve played a few games from yesteryear for the first time: Half-Life, Ico, and Shadow of the Colossus.
I’d dabbled in Half-Life before, but never made it far, despite playing through Half-Life 2 and its assorted episodes a couple of times over. I was driven to revisit the venerable FPS after reading Outermode’s own Edmund sing its praises 18 years on from its release (go read that – it’s worth it). The over-sensitive movement controls, somewhere between the original Doom and later shooters, threw me at first, but thankfully the keyboard-and-mouse combo has proved a bit more future-proof than the oddball N64 controller.
In fact, after an initial adjustment period, what’s most striking about Half-Life is just how modern it feels almost 2 decades after it first came out. The slowly unfolding narrative (told without a single cutscene), the sections built around single, novel gameplay mechanics, the looping level design – tidy up the graphics and chuck in a few quick time events and you could almost believe it came out this decade. It’s a pleasure to discover – and hopefully re-discover for those who’ve played it before – in 2016, because it doesn’t need to be met halfway, doesn’t demand any apologies for its age. Barring a few decidedly late-’90s design quirks (novelty alien weapons in the late game!) it just feels like a great game, age be damned.
Perhaps it was playing Half-Life that gave me the renewed confidence to finally tackle Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. As a devout Nintendo kid I’d missed the PS2 entirely, but they were two of the games it had hurt most dearly to miss. With The Last Guardian finally on the horizon (and having finally given in and leapt into the PlayStation ecosystem) it felt like it was finally time to pick up creator Fumito Ueda’s earlier works and find out what I’d been missing.
And I… I just don’t know what I think about them. I’m sorry. I wanted to have something more concrete to write, some deep insight into tackling two iconic games for the first time so many years on. But it’s proved impossible to assess them because I just can’t unpick the genuine flaws from the areas that have simply aged badly. I don’t know what was bad at the time and what only seems so now, more than a decade on.
Both games are third-person adventures. In Ico, you play a young boy who must try and escape an abandoned castle along with a mysterious, magical girl. In Shadow of the Colossus, you’re tasked with felling 16 giant beasts in exchange for bringing a woman – presumably your lover – back to life. Both games are beautiful and artful even now, in their visuals (admittedly, on the remastered PS3 editions), but more importantly in their themes. Ico’s almost wordless exploration of its central relationship, using central gameplay concepts to reinforce its main tenets, is a touching reminder of how powerful sheer interaction can be in forming emotional bonds, how little dialogue is needed for players to form that connection. Meanwhile Shadow of the Colossus cleverly evokes the raw power of nature, and finds space to both celebrate and mourn mankind’s ultimate triumph over it. Every colossus toppled brings with it both a sense of victory and an undeniable sadness, a sense that something wonderful and unique has just been lost to the world.
And yet it takes so much work to get to that art, to reach a place where you can appreciate it. Ico is bogged down by sluggish, riskless combat that often serves only to pad the game out between the far more interesting puzzling and exploratory sections. Shadow of the Colossus suffers even more, and is packed with myriad frustrations. Why is swimming so agonisingly slow, and yet the lakes so astonishingly vast? Why does it take about 20 seconds to get back up when you’re knocked over – often almost the exact same time it takes that enemy to ready another attack to knock you down again? Why do so many of the colossus fights seem to conflate ‘arduous’ and ‘challenging’, forcing you through one irritating lengthy chain of actions over and over (I’m looking at you, awful flying sand snake thing) until the fight goes long past the point of fun?
At first, I was charitable in my response to these frustrations. I wrote them off as aging badly, of the quirks of old-fashioned game design, the sort we’d know better of by now. No doubt in some cases that’s fair – the indescribably fiddly process of trying to mount and ride the horse in Shadow of the Colossus is probably one – but in others it’s harder to buy. Can we really blame it on ‘00s design that swimming feels like it might as well be in treacle? Again and again Shadow of the Colossus has made me controller-hurlingly frustrated, and try as I might to write it off on aging badly, I just don’t know if I can. Bad design is bad design, whether it was in 2005 or 2016, and too often that’s the only explanation I can offer here.
It’s a funny process visiting a known classic all these years on. With GoldenEye I have my own memories of the game to fall back on, to reassure me. I know it was great at the time because I was there, I played it, and I can (mostly) use my rose-tinted memories to separate the great game from the damage of time, even if it’s tough to find much pleasure in it today. But with Ico and Shadow of the Colossus I have to act on faith alone, trust that at the time they were more than just beautiful art held back by lacklustre gameplay. Everyone else says they were masterpieces – so they must be, right?