The case for video games being considered art form has only gotten stronger since it was first brought up. Games like Journey and The Walking Dead from last year, Bioshock Infinite and Papers Please from this year are among the more recent proponents of this argument. For a long time, one game in particular was referenced in this argument. Shadow of the Colossus, released by Team Ico in 2005 is considered one of the strongest arguments for games being art. It’s odd then, that Team Ico’s first game, titled Ico (a game that the studio is named after), is often overlooked. Perhaps in response to this, Team Ico remastered the game for its 10th anniversary along with Shadow of the Colossus and packaged them together. Having it played it for the first time, I can safely say that Ico is as strong a case as any for video games being art and is a true masterpiece.
It’s true that Ico’s initial release failed to leave an impact upon its release in 2001. There are several reasons for this. Aside from its atrocious North American box art, Ico was incredibly difficult to market as it’s about as minimalist as a game can get. This doesn’t mean the game is without depth however, much like LIMBO (released in 2010), Ico proves that there’s plenty of depth to be found in simplicity.
The player controls a boy with small devil horns (presumably named Ico). The game begins with Ico’s imprisonment inside a large stone castle, after breaking free he stumbles upon a young princess named Yorda who’s trapped in a cage. Ico frees her and they proceed to escape the castle, fighting off evil creatures, solving puzzles and avoiding an evil queen who seeks to keep them trapped.
Ico is a primarily a puzzle game, but it plays like an escort mission. Most gamers dread those two words, but Ico is the best possible example of an escort mission. Yorda boasts an impressive AI and will rarely get stuck in a level. The player can make her follow or wait, and hold her hand to lead her through each room. She can’t jump as high as Ico however, and is unable to reach certain areas without help. Yorda has her limitations but because the game is designed around them, it’s not an issue.
The exit of most rooms in the game are blocked by a set of doors that only Yorda can open. The goal in almost every puzzle is to get her to the end of the room. The puzzles themselves are very well designed, requiring creativity and ingenuity. There’s no tutorials and no hand-holding of any kind. It’s up to the player to solve each puzzle, and doing so is very satisfying. Anyone who enjoyed Portal (or it’s sequel) will feel right at home.
Outside of the puzzles, Ico features a bit of combat. In certain rooms, enemies can spawn from the floor (sometimes in the middle of a puzzle). Enemies will also spawn if the player wanders too far from Yorda, so keeping close is a necessity. There’s only one enemy type in the game, but enemies are always in groups. Ico himself can’t be killed from enemies (though he can die if he falls too far). The enemies will attempt to take Yorda away and try to drag her through the floor; if they are successful, the game will end.
The game is lenient in how long it takes for Yorda to be captured and most of the battles can be skipped. The combat is repetitive but intense because there’s always a possibility of failure. Anytime an enemy grabs Yorda, the player will immediately scramble to knock her out of their grasp.
As far as HD remasters go, Ico is among the best of them. This does not look like a 10-year-old game, in fact it barely looks five-years-old, The only flaw in Ico, is its short length. The first time through will take most players just under six hours. However this is mitigated with Ico being packaged with Shadow of the Colossus.
There’s an intimacy in Ico that even today, few games are able to achieve. It conveys a sense of adventure and wonder of the Zelda series but with an intense atmosphere. It’s easy to feel lost and overwhelmed by the massive size of the castle and the simple task of escaping it turns into a bleak endeavor. In just about every way imaginable, Ico was ahead of its time. It’s a refined, focused experience and one that I’m unlikely to forget for a long time.