The Never-Played Must-Plays #1 – ICO

You know, there are a great deal of really famous video games I’ve never played. Sure, I’ve put my flyin’ time in with Super Mario World, finished Metal Gear Solid at least 36 times (hey, I hadda stop counting eventually) and thwarted Ganondorf more times’n you can shake a deku stick at. Yet, I have never played an online match on Call Of Duty. Heck, I’ve never played an offline match on Call Of Duty. My biggest kill streaks remains a humble zero. Neither have I ever completed…no, wait up, finished…nah, let’s be honest, STARTED a Final Fantasy game. Grumbles from the cheap seats. I know, I know, I’m culturally ignorant and a veritable philistine. Is it my fault I always chose a second, third or thirty-sixth runthrough of something I knew I already liked instead of moving onto gaming pastures new? Well, yeah. Whose else would it be? Certainly not the good folks at Team Ico, for a start. Please do read on…

Moments ago, I finished for the first time an arguably overdue playthrough of their debut 2001 offering and that from which their name is swiped, ICO. For the rest of us (wait, it’s not ‘us’ anymore, it’s ‘you’ now!), perhaps a quick recap is in order. ICO details the efforts of its titular teen to aid the escape (from something) of an older girl named Zeld Yorda. That’s it. That’s your lot. All she wrote. ICO is famed for its minimalist story (in one of those rare cases where the use of the term ‘story’ is hyperbolic in and of itself), revolutionary graphics design and, erm, use of all capitals in the title and that.

No, I’m being facetious, and probably because the game ticked me off just enough times to have left a sour taste in my mouth. The Rambleast Omnidrome has witnessed, for the first time since childhood, a thrown controller in this past week of chipping away at this nearly-relentlessly frustrating puzzler. Sure, the constant quietude is somewhat relaxing, the bloom lighting is pretty* and the lack of character development, interaction or relatability is…well, let me get back to finishing why that’s a good thing later…but the game delights in punishing your failure with huge portions to replay if you were unfortunate enough not to realise during your first encounter with a new gameplay element exactly what its use was. Cue frequent death, much swearing and a flung Dualshock.

Obligatory image #1: Character 1 and character 2 interacting as they often do without eye contact

On the whole, I find ICO easiest to praise for its influence on much better games than for its own triumphs in design, probably because they’re buried so densely underneath horrible AI, lousy animation and the occasional moment of “there is no way the way this game’s been built will ever let me make this jump if I live to be a hundred and befriend its very creators and have them round for tea and make them show me how to do it because even they don’t recognize the section because it created ITSELF JUST TO MESS WITH ME”. You know those moments? If you ever played Rascal, it’s made of ’em.

In playing through it you’ll find everything from indie faves Limbo and Braid to blockbusters Uncharted and Twilight Princess have nabbed an element or two from its approach to visual design and occasionally gameplay. In Twilight Princess’ case it’s particularly ironic that a game so profoundly influenced by the Legend Of Zelda mythos would go on to pass that influence back onto the original series. A great deal of that later game’s style, from its textures to its enemies to the very specific use of neon-on-rock is nabbed right from ICO, whose own stick (later sword) swinging girl-rescuing boy hero owes Link a pint or two.

Obligatory Image #2: Character 1 and Character 2 asleep on a sofa hewn from rock. Impractical

For an eleven year old game, everything but the characters looks wonderful, but it’s the animation that lets it down slightly. However, I’m not the sort to be swayed by such ocular fanciness. As long as a game’s good to play, I’m sold. And that’s where ICO let me down. Not in the near-total lack of story or the vastness of undeserved hype (unhelped by cries of ‘art’ from the snobbiest of game critics – it’s all art, you morons, the only variable is the quality of art), but in the general playability of a six-hour campaign with nary an increase in difficulty save for the increase in instances of combat – which, again, in self-aggrandizing ‘simplicity’ is not forgivable as an excuse for laziness – and a single boss fight. The puzzles are amusing at first but once you grasp the developers’ central conceit that everything you need is always right at your disposal it’s usually only a matter of minutes before you begin the often tediously drawn-out process of physically solving the damn things. Throw in a hideous combat system (I suspect for the sake of it) and the occasionally impossible prospect of rescuing Yorda as she’s sucked into the ground many screens away and you don’t exactly come away smiling.

I’ll tell you what I think happened. I reckon ICO’s a game that was so immensely fresh at the time of its release that it attracted plenty of interest from within and without the gaming community whose circular, recursive praise doubled up on itself. As soon as one reviewing body said it was a minimalist masterpiece, the rest were bound to follow lest accusations of not getting it followed. Add to that a degree of mystery owing to its relative rarity (it was pressed in limited numbers before its 2006 and 2011 reissues) and you have a tall tale about a legendary game that changed the lives of everyone who played it. It certainly changed the lives of the good folks at Nintendo and co., but I’m not so sure a second playthrough’ll be quite so quick for me. I like my games to have two things above all else – personality and playability. If at all possible, it helps to have a great character to really invest in emotionally, but failing that, absolutely flawless gameplay (as in Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel) will suffice. ICO has neither. Sure, it doesn’t help that I’ve never liked any level in any game I’ve ever played where I’ve had to escort a character and that this game is that level for six hours but it also doesn’t help that Ico and Yorda can’t understand each other and have no reason to care about one another or that her constant wandering into danger and his constant jumping in foreign directions made for a patience gauntlet from which I only barely emerged.

Indefensibly non-obligatory image #1: A marvelous dog, just

In short? Play it if you want to say you did, like I did. If you want a similar atmosphere with a condensed runtime and a curious nocturnal quality, Limbo‘s where you wanna be. I may continue on this quest, called though it now is into question, to rectify my gaming missteps with considered and careful playthroughs (I mean, I reallly didn’t want to play through it ’til the end…), but for the time being I reckon I’ll go back to Shadow Moses and hand Liquid Snake his ass one more time. Can’t hurt, right?


For daily posts from the mind that brought you Clark The Forklift and RoboTcop, get your booty on over to Rambleast now before I tell your mother.

*Pretty, pretty, pretty gooood. Except it WASN’T.

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