When Ico came out more than a decade ago, it wasn’t the type of game I could see myself playing. It was heavy on atmosphere, but light on the sports, guns, and action. It just wasn’t the kind of game that a guy sharing a television, gaming system, and house with three other guys would play. After ten years of people telling me how fantastic Ico was, I was finally ready to give the game a go.
Even though I’ve been playing video games for nearly my entire life, there were always games that just didn’t interest me. Over time, I’ve grown to appreciate more genres and styles of games than I would have in the past. Like music, books, food, and movies, sometimes you just need to expand your tastes once in a while to see what else is out there. I had heard for years how great Ico was; that it was such a different experience than what people were used to getting out of a video game. I remained indignant. All I needed was Madden 2002 and GTA III. A game like Ico was boring. It was just a kid walking around a castle with a girl. How could this game be anything but lame? I’m not too proud to admit how naïve I was. To be fair, I probably wouldn’t even have attempted to track Ico down if it wasn’t for the HD remake. I’m just glad it came out at a time when I finally got the gumption to sit down and play Ico.
What at the time looked to be nothing more than a game where a kid leads a princess around a castle ended up being… well, okay, it’s still a game where a little boy leads a princess around a castle. It’s more than that though. Ico puts you in the shoes of Ico, a young boy with horns that’s been left locked in a giant castle as some form of sacrifice. He breaks out, and stumbles upon a trapped princess named Yorda, and he takes it upon himself to rescue her, and escape the castle. There are some slight plot developments that occur later in the game, but for the most part, Ico sticks to a very basic narrative. It’s not that it’s not engaging. Ico is full of wonderful moments, but they don’t have very much to do with story.
Most of what makes Ico so interesting are the puzzles. Progressing from one part of the castle to the next puts your brain to work. There’s not a whole lot of direction given by the game, so it’s really up to you to figure out how to escape all on your own. It does make you feel like you’re in Ico’s shoes as he tries to work out how to traverse the structure. Yorda will always be tailing close behind you, though she doesn’t do a whole lot to help. The only things Yorda’s good for is getting captured by the castle’s shadowy guardians, opening doors, or making you wait for her to climb a ladder. If you thought your real life relationship with a significant other tested your patience, you obviously haven’t played Ico. Trying to get Yorda out of the castle will not only push the limits of your patience, but will also make the bond between you and your better half even stronger. Not because there’s some grand message hidden in the game, but because nothing can possibly be more annoying than waiting for Yorda to climb ladder after ladder after ladder.
There’s some light combat involved when you try to save Yorda from being captured by shadow creatures, but the further I progressed in the game, the less I was concerned for her welfare. The only reason I really kept her alive was because she was the only person of the two of us who could open the castle’s locked doors. At times, it feels like Ico is one long escort mission, in which you are in charge of the safety of a walking, talking key card. Obviously, the game is much more than that. The way Ico naturally presents its puzzles, and allows you to explore and test yourself by continually throwing ambiguous challenges at you, is really amazing. It’s tough to stop playing once you get into a good groove. There are few things as satisfying as completing one of Ico’s puzzles, particularly since there are no real in-game prompts.
I know Ico gets a lot of praise for its presentation as well, and it didn’t really disappoint. Despite being stuck inside the same building for the duration of the game, there’s a surprising amount of variation in the architecture. I’m not certain many of the rooms that exist in this game space would actually exist if the castle were real, though. There’s a lot of square-footage in the castle, and some of the interiors don’t really match up with the exteriors as far as physical space goes. I know it’s a game, and the developers are allowed to break the laws of structure to provide the most compelling puzzles they can, but I’d like to see the blueprints on this place one day to see just how structurally sound this castle really is. But getting back to how the game looks, there’s little to complain about. The atmosphere and ambiance created by the lighting techniques used really gives the world some weight. It’s quite impressive.
Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have given a game like Ico a fair chance. Since then though, I’ve done a little growing up. My gaming tastes have evolved, and there are very few genres or titles that don’t catch my interest these days. I’m glad that I had the chance to finally catch up with Ico, and despite its flaws, I can finally see why everyone was so enamored with this challenging and unique game when it released. I’ll be diving into Ico’s spiritual successor Shadow of the Colossus next, and hope it too lives up to the hype.