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The timeless magic of Shadow of the Colossus

Why I Love: In Vitro Games founder Ricardo Verdugo Ortiz goes in-depth on Team ICO's masterpiece and Bluepoint's worthy remaster and remake

Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This column was contributed by Ricardo Verdugo Ortiz, founder and CEO of Defenders of Ekron: Definitive Edition developer In Vitro Games.

It's one of the few games that have managed to submerge me in the experience to the point that I completely forgot I'm holding a gamepad. My mind is lost exploring this forbidden, sacred and vast land, full of beautiful landscapes and ruins, facing majestic beings in some of the most epic battles I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing in a video game. All of this accompanied by a narrative full of mystery and intrigue, capable of delivering truly emotional and powerful scenes that have moved me to the bottom of my soul. I've fallen under its spell not once but many times since it launched near the end of 2005, and each time I take hold of the controller, I feel the magic and fall in love just like the very first time.

Shadow of the Colossus played with scale right from the opening cinematic

It all began in the year 2001, when in one of my favorite video game magazines at that time I read a review of a game I didn't know about. Its name was ICO, and the review was written in a poetic kind of way, something I'd never seen before. The review made such an impression on me that ICO jumped to the top of my to-play list, even above games such as Devil May Cry, Silent Hill 2, Grand Theft Auto III, and Metal Gear Solid 2, which were launched that same year. And how right that reviewer was when he said it was a "magical experience"; without a doubt we were facing a unique and special piece, just as Massimo Guarini described in his analysis. With this, ICO game director Fumito Ueda became a name to follow in the future and his next project became one of the games I personally looked forward to.

"I still remember the moment when I saw the game live; my jaw dropped"

The first glimpse I had of this project was a concept teaser called NICO, which showed a scene in which children with horns battled against a large and impressive creature. Then I saw the first screenshots along with the name reveal: Shadow of the Colossus. All signs pointed to a project along the lines of ICO, which is why I tried to avoid any new information so as to not ruin any surprises.

That was until one day, a friend and I went to the movies to watch Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children in an event organized by game enthusiasts. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the theater and saw the organizers of the event playing a demo of Shadow of the Colossus on the big screen. I still remember the moment when I saw the game live; my jaw dropped, and even as Advent Children played, I couldn't keep my mind off the images of the epic battle between a young man and a colossus. It was at that moment that I knew that Ueda and his team had once again made something special, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on this game.

That day finally arrived near the end of 2005. What I had felt when I first saw the game live was bested by the experience of directly battling one of the colossi. The sensation of facing such imposing creatures with nothing but a sword, a bow, and your faithful horse Agro transported me to one of the most epic and tense moments I've ever experienced facing an enemy in a video game. All thanks to the extreme detail that went into the design of the battles: the colossus are completely credible, due to the way they move and act with animations that take into account their enormous weight and size; the camera adjusts perfectly to the action, showing impressive shots that emphasize the greatness of the enemies and the environments; and the orchestrated music, beautiful and overwhelming, perfectly signaling the different phases of these encounters, from initial contemplation of the colossus, the epicness of climbing them and striking their weak spots, and up to the feeling of unrest upon defeating them.

This experience is enhanced by the incredible variety between the 16 battles we must undergo. This is not only due to the visual design of each colossus, which are unique and very different between each other, but also to the fact that they must be defeated in different ways. Each colossus is a puzzle in and of itself, since you not only have to identify and attack their weak points, but also find ways to reach them. The solutions to these puzzles are found in the brilliant interaction between the colossi and the stages in which the battles are fought, making each battle a new and unexpected challenge.

But the magic of this piece isn't just in these epic battles, which is undoubtedly the main focus of the game, but also in between each battle as you explore this vast world in search of the next colossus. Traveling this forbidden land on the back of Agro is a real pleasure, since despite being uninhabited and free of typical side-quests, is full of ruins, temples, and forgotten cities, generating a sense of mystery and intrigue around what happened in this place. Also, thanks to the incredible visual design and variety of the settings - in which we find forests, cliffs, deserts, rivers, and waterfalls -, and a camera that perfectly adjusts to each scene, some of the most beautiful and dreamlike landscapes I've ever seen in a video game come to life. By accompanying them with just environmental sounds -- without music -- the sensation of contemplation is enhanced, which contrasts with the climax of the battles, generating a perfect balance.

All of this is mixed perfectly with an incredible and evocative narrative, which despite giving few details and leaving much open to player interpretation, never ceases to fascinate and create intrigue around what's really going on. It makes us constantly question if we're really doing the right thing, a feeling that is maintained from beginning to end.

"Despite having clear technical issues due to the ambition of developers, nothing decreases the incredible experience of playing it"

From a beautifully composed intro that immediately sets you in the story and gives context to the adventure, to a brilliantly crafted final sequence that has truly impactful moments not only audio-visually, but also emotionally. The loss of Agro, our only companion in the whole adventure. A final battle against a colossus of titanic proportions. A compelling interactive sequence in which we control Wander struggling to reach Mono, being unavoidably dragged towards the well. And a profound and moving final cinematic, accompanied by "The Sunlit Earth," one of my favorite video game songs.

Without a doubt, Shadow of the Colossus is a masterpiece that became one of my most favorite games of all time. Despite having clear technical issues due to the ambition of developers who drove the PlayStation 2 to the limits of its capabilities, nothing decreases the incredible experience of playing it. The overflowing magic, producing unique and emotional moments, is something few video games had achieved for me, which is why I felt deep respect and admiration for the incredible work made by Team ICO.

When the remastered edition was announced for the PlayStation 3 bundled with ICO (another one of my most favorite game of all times), I really hesitated in buying it since I didn't want to spoil the beautiful memory I had of it by replaying it. It had been six years since I had first played it, and I was entering a stage in my adult life with my first professional job, which is why I felt my tastes had changed and I was always more demanding. But the memory of these games and the sensation that they gave was latent and strong, so I felt that maybe that wouldn't happen with them.

Bluepoint showed its understanding of the original game first with the PS3 remaster, then the PS4 remake (pictured here)

And that was exactly what happened. Despite having lost the novelty factor, I once again surrendered myself to the magic that this game gave off, and almost enjoyed it as much as the first time, since many scenes and messages it delivered shook me even deeper, perhaps for being a more mature person. And despite not being a game graphically comparable to the heavy hitters of that time, it had nothing to envy from them, mainly due to the sublime and beautiful artistic direction made by Team ICO, which was enhanced by the incredible work of Bluepoint Games who fixed various technical flaws, mainly stabilizing the framerate to a constant 30 FPS.

"You can understand step by step how a good magic trick is performed, but a magician requires dexterity, skill, and grace to make the whole seem like real magic"

I was once again in a dilemma when the remake of Shadow of the Colossus was announced for PlayStation 4. Since it was a very special piece to me, I definitely planned on playing it, but something had happened: I had left my previous professional career behind to dedicate my life to video game development. This meant a huge change, since something happens that I believe is very common among developers, which is that we become less and less impressionable.

As we play games, we're also studying them, which makes it so that we're often not immersed in the game experience and are more preoccupied in analyzing its components to see which work and which don't. I was once again scared of spoiling a beautiful memory, above all considering the bad impression I had with the first time I saw the remake announcement at 2017's E3, since I felt that some of the choices in the art direction had lost "something" from the unique aesthetic of the original game.

But I felt once again forced to play it, firstly because of how important it was to me, and secondly as an investigation to identify what was it that made it so fascinating and magical. And it only took half an hour to once again become immersed in the experience, so much so that it was hard for me to achieve my goal of analyzing it. All this once again due to the sublime work of Bluepoint Games, who kept the core of the game intact and enhanced and refined many sections, transforming it into a piece worthy of this generation.

Upon analyzing in depth the different design choices and how they worked in the game, I reaffirmed my opinion that this is a magical game: you can understand step by step how a good magic trick is performed, but a magician requires dexterity, skill, and grace to make the whole seem like real magic. I think this describes the work of Ueda and his team, since something happens as the parts are summed that escapes all rational analysis. This is why I can only applaud these magicians, admire their work, and keep laboring to aspire to one day create a piece that gives off some of that magic.

As a game that captivated and excited me like few have in various phases of my life, I'm convinced that Shadow of the Colossus will never lose its magic, since it's real and timeless. That's why I'm sure I'll love it for the rest of my life.

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