Blog Archives

Ico Retrospective: Mystery, Imagination, and Immersion

Recently, I picked up The Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection for PS3. For those who may not know, these two games form a sort of incomplete spiritual trilogy with each other and are products of Team Ico, a subset of Sony’s Japan Studio. Though gameplay varies a fair bit between titles, they both place a heavy focus on immersion through quiet aesthetic detail and minimalist gameplay. Having played through Shadow before, I’ve focused so far entirely on Ico, which was a completely pristine experience for me. I followed previews of this game pretty closely before its release, back when the PS2 was the hot new platform, but in the end, however, the PS2 original released during a time in which gaming fell away as a priority for me, so until now, I’ve had no experience with it.


Ico is much more of a puzzle game than its follow-up. For those who have somehow never heard talk of this game from its many enthusiastic fans, the setup for the game is that the protagonist (who I believe is named Ico) must help a princess-like character, named Yorda, escape a deserted castle, where she has been imprisoned by a dark queen. The game is mostly a puzzle game where Ico must figure out how to guide Yorda through a long series of environmental obstacles and ultimately find a way to open the castle’s gates. Occasionally, the pair will be ambushed by shadow creatures, and Ico must fight them off. Interestingly, there is no health bar for this side of the game; rather Ico must keep the monsters from successfully kidnapping Yorda to prevent game over. Regardless, Ico primarily feels puzzle-focused, with the combat only serving as a diversion. This is in contrast to Shadow which is definitely more combat-focused, although some would argue that the means of vanquishing each colossus has a puzzle-like nature to it. So essentially, Shadow is a combat-puzzle hybrid, while combat and puzzles form distinct segments of gameplay in Ico.

In a lot of ways, Ico feels ahead of its time. There was a long period when the term “puzzle game” meant something like Tetris, where pieces of stuff fall from the sky and need to be strategically arranged and eliminated to avoid the screen from filling up. Puzzle adventure games like Ico were very rare and not super popular. I can only think of one other example of such a game from this era which is Luigi’s Mansion, and that game was not especially well received. Eventually, the later releases of Portal and Braid would lead to a huge wave of puzzle adventure games designed by smaller developers, and the Tetris-based definition of the puzzle genre has mostly been supplanted. Ico even has the emotional, sentimental feel carried by a lot of indie puzzle games of this new ilk. By contrast, Shadow of the Colossus is a relatively unique game, focused entirely on seeking out and defeating a long series of bosses. It doesn’t really seem to fall in with any other movements or trends in gaming.

Ico Castle

Ico and Shadow are some of the very few games I’ve played that actually manage to capture an adventurous feel to them, which is a feat considering that they are almost entirely linear. This is, of course, a result of Team Ico’s focus on gameplay in service of immersion. That is, the various challenges placed upon the player are only meant as a mechanism to bring the player closer to the characters and their desperate situation, a means of creating an emotional bond. This is not an adolescent empowerment fantasy as so many games are. Those sorts of games always feel more like a theme park ride, a sequence of vicarious thrills meticulously arranged to wow the player. Ico, on the other hand and despite its linearity, feels more like an expedition into an unknown world, akin to games like Fallout, Dark Souls, and the original Legend of Zelda. There is a grip of danger, uncertainty, and mystery in Ico and Yorda’s quest.

The mystery is a key component of this sort of immersion, I believe. Perhaps the PS2 manual provided more backstory, but the PS3 collection has a thoroughly modern manual, which is to say it is basically a short leaflet with not much more than a diagram of the controls. The cutscenes at the beginning of the game only provide a basic context of why Ico finds himself stranded in the dark queen’s castle. Consequently, we are left wondering about the circumstances of his struggle and the reality of the world beyond the castle. Importantly, our imaginations are engaged in trying to develop these details. When I find myself high up in the dark castle and gaze at the sea and forest beyond its walls, I ponder what could be out there. This rarely happens with other games for me, where, like a theme park, I never consider what is beyond the game’s walls, because I know that the world is only constructed as far as it needs to be. Of course, I rationally realize this is true of Ico as well, but the game provides a creative stimulation that still causes me to wonder.

Thus, Ico is true escapism in a way, absorbing, refreshing, beautiful, and wholly unique.

Jet Moto: Do Futuristic Racers Have a Future

Jet Moto TitleJet Moto was one of my favorite games for the PSX. I recently manage to find my old CD of the game, and gave it a go. First thing I notice, man is it an ugly game. It is one of those PSX games that hasn’t aged so well in the looks department, with blurry, wobbly low-res textures spread everywhere. But I digress.  Somewhat similar to a futuristic version of Wave Race, Jet Moto is a racing league for off-road hoverbikes, with courses that traverse dirt, sand, swamp, water, and ice. It’s always felt a little unique to me in the genre of futuristic racers in the sense that, while most of these games (e.g. Wipeout, F-Zero, Extreme G, etc.) charge through sleek and synthetic landscapes at absurd speeds, Jet Moto is a little more grounded in rugged outdoor settings, mostly themed around swamps, beaches, and icy mountains. It may sound strange, but Jet Moto feels like it could be something you could actually see on a channel like ESPN, assuming of course hoverbikes were a real thing.

Jet Moto 2

The game also has a ton of personality to it. There are 20 racers in the game, each with a colorfully detailed backstory and hand drawn, comic book style avatar. These Jet Moto professionals range from cowboys and surfers to a jazz singer and a mad scientist. At the end of a circuit, the results screen shows the winning racer being bestowed with their trophy from a somewhat risqué member of the opposite sex. Male racers get rewarded by a scantily clad woman, usually showing lots of leg, and female racers get treated by an equally lascivious male. One exception though is a male racer called Rhino, who receives his trophy from the male variants, possibly indicating he is one of the first openly homosexual video game characters, so that’s something I guess.

Jet Moto 3

Jet Moto was the product of SingleTrac, the studio behind the original Warhawk and the excellent Twisted Metal 2. Originally working as a second party studio for Sony, the studio was eventually bought by GT Interactive and its Sony-owned franchises were given to 989 (who would later become Sony Bend). Jet Moto 2 would be created by the latter studio. While I think it is a perfectly fine game, it has always felt a little less interesting to me. Eschewing the realism of the original, Jet Moto 2 becomes a little more whimsical, with fantastical tracks such as a circus, an earthquake-demolished city, and a finale that crosses through both Olympus and Hades. There would eventually be a Jet Moto 3, which sold especially poorly, and the series has not been heard of since.

Jet Moto 4

Playing Jet Moto reminds me of how much I once enjoyed futuristic racing games. I’ve always enjoyed arcade racers as a whole, and futuristic racing games strike an especial chord of the imagination, with their extraordinary speeds and incredible settings. Almost all arcade racers are lenient with the laws of physics, but futuristic racers take an especially hostile stance to the Newtonian world. And it’s unfortunate that this sub-genre appears to be going extinct. Sony’s Wipeout is the only series that’s seen regular release, and with the close of the Liverpool studio, it appears that this last torch has blown out.

The disappearance of the futuristic racer is really more or less in line with the fall from grace the entire arcade racing genre has suffered. Need For Speed continues to see near yearly release, and Codemasters still produces, but their creations tend to lean toward the hardcore. It seems like the genre reached its climax with Spilt/Second and Blur. Both of these were excellent releases, Split/Second being my favorite racer from last-gen, but both launched in the same month against Red Dead Redemption and were abysmal failures from a commercial prospective. The failure of these excellent games seems to have deterred others, as there have been no real notable entrants in the genre afterwards.

Jet Moto 1

Maybe it’s a symptom of the times. In the age of the PSX and N64, racers were of extraordinary popularity as they lent themselves well to the split-screen multiplayer of these offline machines. Meanwhile, PCs of the time were dominated by FPS and RTS games, which were far more compatible with online multiplayer. Controllers in the pre-dual analog age were not especially suited to movement in FPS, and split-screen FPS has always suffered from the screen watching problem. The limitation to four players doesn’t help as well. With such few players, it’s easy for skill differentials to make the game frustrating for less skilled players and devoid of challenge for more skilled players. Bots can be used to expand the number of competitors, but the consoles of the time were not really capable of competent AI. Racing games on the other hand do not require high-level AI to fill out acceptable computer opponents. As consoles have tilted toward online-focused multiplayer, it’s easy to see why team-based FPS games have ascended in popularity, while racers have languished.

So is there any reason for arcade racing fans to hold hope? I don’t really know. I imagine if they make a resurgence, it will be amongst small-scale developers (i.e. indie), but there’s really been no movement on the front. Maybe in FTP games? I could see a FTP Jet Moto monetized with cosmetics as possibly being successful. I’m sorry, I know it’s really kind of downer I’m ending on here. At least we can take solace in the fact that our old favorites will always be there for us, if they don’t make our eyes melt first.

%d bloggers like this: