With this week’s release of The Last Guardian for PlayStation 4, the third game from the creators of Ico is finally available, after a very long wait. I’ve been writing for WIRED long enough to have reviewed both Last Guardian as well as the team’s previous game, 2005’s Shadow of the Colossus.
My review of Ico ran in Animerica magazine, the first outlet for which I did a substantial amount of work, in the year 2001. Since it’s not available elsewhere (and I don’t think was ever posted online in the first place), I wanted to reprint it here just as a look at my first stab at evaluating a game that would eventually become known as one of the all-time classic works of art in the medium of videogames. (Happy to say that I gave it four out of four stars in that issue.)
Some Japanese filmmakers of the 1920’s were proponents of something called the “Pure Film Movement.” They felt that the cinema of the time was too theatrical – that the movies themselves were like recorded plays – and that there should be more of an effort to do things with film that only film could do, and in that way advance the legitimacy of the medium. In that light, Sony’s Ico might very well be seen as the beginning of a “Pure Games Movement.” Ico sports very few of gaming’s artificial trappings – score counters, lives, vast menus, maps, lengthy text boxes full of dialogue, etc. Most of the time, the only things you see on screen are your characters and their environment.
The characters are Ico, a 12-year-old boy, and Yorda, a mysterious young girl. Ico has been imprisoned inside of an evil castle, and he must make his escape. But he can’t escape without Yorda’s help, and the evil queen of the castle is determined to make sure that neither of them leave. Ico – directly under your control – can move about the castle easily. Finding, or creating, a path for Yorda is the hard part. So in one sense, Ico is a traditional block-pushing, door-opening puzzle game, and in another sense it isn’t, because you never really feel like it is. Indeed, what you really feel like you’re doing is exploring a giant, sprawling castle.
This is thanks in part to Ico’s incredibly realistic 3D environments, so amazing not because of high polygon counts but because of sheer style, combined with a lighting system so gorgeous that it seems like you can just reach out and touch the sunlight. Music is minimal; mostly you hear the actual sounds of the environment. Ico and Yorda are cartoonish in appearance, but the character animation is key: their movements are so fluid and so human-like as to actually bring out their personalities: the awkward, impulsive Ico and the brave but hesitant Yorda.
All these factors combine to produce a level of emotional involvement with the characters like you’ve never felt before. Because the whole adventure is so real, you end up identifying with Ico and Yorda like you identify with your favorite characters from a book or movie – even more so, since you really are in control of their actions. Your actions end up reflecting your personality, or the personality you choose to give to Ico: you can drag Yorda around by the hand, or let her follow you independently. After a narrow escape, you might stand on a ledge with Yorda, simply holding her hand and looking at the scenery, just because.
As a game, Ico is neither challenging nor lengthy. The puzzles, while they do require a bit of thinking towards the end, are hardly stumpers. The entire game takes about eight hours from start to finish. Fighting the shadow-creatures that attempt to take Yorda is neither involved nor difficult. But none of this actually matters: running around the environments mostly unhindered by difficult puzzles just makes it more fun, and the fights are so well-placed and exciting that your heart rate really gets going. Having to save Yorda from the barrage of monsters makes you care for her even more.
In short, Ico is possibly the most memorable gaming experience I’ve ever had. It stays with you – even while writing this review I’ve found myself reminiscing fondly about my favorite scenes and wishing there was more. Ico deserves a lengthier critique than I’ve given it here, something on the level of a thesis paper or shot-by-shot analysis. Ico shows us what video games can accomplish, and I look forward to what future games it inspires. In the meantime, Ico is truly a must-own title.