The 15 Best Games Since 2000, Number 4: Shadow of the Colossus

Team Ico's beautiful puzzle platformer stands as one of the only games of its kind.

Retrospective by Mike Williams, .

We're currently in the middle of our daily countdown of the 15 Best Games Since 2000. After yesterday's dual perspective for Persona 4, we're back to one lone writer for today's entry! Want to read more? Check out the rest of the entries here.

There's no game that's really like Shadow of the Colossus. Some games have experimented briefly with its basic conceit - you as a small fragile figure up against a huge machine of potential destruction - but no title has made that the entire focus. There hasn't been anything like SotC before or since. To explain why, I may delve into spoilers here and there, so if you've never played it, I suggest you you skip this retrospective until then. Shadow of the Colossus HD was released on the PlayStation 3 as part of the The Team Ico Collection, so there's still a chance to play it before doing so becomes an exercise in digging through history.

Let's kick things off in style.

You don't need to beat the game to understand the magic of Shadow of the Colossus. Right from the first Colossus, the title embraces you. You're a lone soldier named Wander looking to revive a beautiful ethereal woman. To do so, you require the power of sixteen colossi, ancient creatures of stone and soul that dot the world, exploring aimlessly. Given simple clues by the shrine that houses the sleeping maiden, Wander ventures out into the world to destroy these creatures one by one.

The cast of Shadow of the Colossus is small: Wander, Wander's horse Agro, the formless entity Dormin, the mystic Lord Emon, and Mono, the woman who's the ultimate aim of Wander's quest. He wanders the world alone; there are no towns, no other NPCs to glean information from, no other outside indications of the righteousness of your quest. You are utterly alone with the results of your actions.

Each Colossi is alone in the Forbidden Lands where the game takes place. They are living their lives, moving around what might as well be their homes, passing in and out of the fog. Many don't even engage you until you insert yourself forecefully into their awareness. As you ride up to each one, there's a sense of scale and respect. Respect for the size and age of a thing you're about to destroy. Imagine if you had to deface the Mona Lisa, the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel, or Michelangelo's David in order to save a loved one. Would it be worth it, removing a piece of art that has touched so many and existed far before you, just to save a single life? That's the question before you in Shadow of the Colossus.

Your and a friend versus the world.

On each Colossus, there's a weak spot, an area that you must stab with your ancient sword in order to absorb their soul. The game has you climbing, leaping, and holding onto to each Colossus, a giant moving level that does its best to shake you off. They'll fight to survive, trying to dislodge you from the weathered, moss-covered stone that is their very skin. Sometimes it feels like they're begging you to leave them alone and let them live.

As you dig further into Shadow of the Colossus, your actions aren't met with an emotional feel of triumph. You are succeeding, yes, but to what end? When you finally drive your sword in for the killing blow, there's a sense of sadness. You've ended something beautiful, something without malice or rage. The Colossi were just living their lives. There's a feeling that the Colossi are older than time and Wander is doing a disservice by killing them. Is Mono deserving of this? Is anyone?

As the Colossi die, Mono slowly comes to life, but Wander himself becomes corrupted. His hair becomes darker, his face becomes sallow, and the stuff of shadows finds itself living under his skin. When Agro, your horse, sacrifices herself to save Wander later in the quest, even the player wonders if it's worth the cost. Agro stood as your only loyal companion through most of the game. Isn't her life as valuable as Mono's? Sure, the death is emotionally manipulative, the point at which many firmly turn against Wander's quest, but Shadow of the Colossus only has a few cards to play and it plays them well.

Is she even worth all this?

In the end, Wander's actions are as selfish and horrible as expected. You're not the hero. You're not even really the villain. You're just a particularly useful pawn, driven by love, sadness, or sheer guilt to shatter things that deserved to be left alone. When Wander's condemnation comes, the player is not only on the side of those condemning Wander, they're also complicit in his actions. It's an odd place to be as the final scenes of the game roll by.

Shadow of the Colussus is one of the few games that balances that feeling of winning and losing so well. As the credits roll, you as the player have succeeded. Wander's ultimate aim comes to fruition, but was it worth the cost? The lack of other characters, even the lack of English (everyone in SotC speaks in a made-up language), leaves you alone with the results of Wander's actions. While the game itself was thrilling and frustrating, in the end, you're left mostly with regret. Not for playing it, but for what you did while playing it. Shadow of the Colossus is not only a game, it's a question to you the player. Who are you? How far will you go?

Any game that makes you think like that deserves to be on this list.

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Comments 14

  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #1 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    Excellent choice! This is definitely one of the best games of the last 15 years, no question about it If you want to talk about a game that makes an argument for games as art, I don't think there's a better example than Shadow of the Colossus.

    You didn't mention it in your review, so let me also point out that this game has a phenomenal soundtrack. I'd go as far as to say it's the best orchestrated soundtrack of any game ever made. It's amazingly fitting, haunting, and memorable.

    Besides the fact that this game is an exemplary piece of art, it's also just really well made a game. This game is fun to play, and actually pioneered some gameplay mechanics like the climbing, which are still used in modern games like Dragon's Dogma. It's mechanics are very smart, the "light shining from the sword" mechanic is not only a more artful way to give the player guidance, but it's also interesting as a gameplay mechanic. It's vagueness requires a little more thought and interpretation from the player than simply following a radar to a waypoint, and that's perfect for a game like this. Also, the choice to have no normal enemies other than the game's titular bosses was an excellent choice, both for gameplay and thematically. It really gives the player a sense of isolation, while at the same time keeping the Colossuses as the stars they should be.

    Just a great game in every respect. The only sad thing about this game is that it hasn't had MORE impact. So many game developers today seem to be obsessed with making an ART game with a capital A. And so few of them seem to understand the lessons of Shadow of the Colossus.
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  • Avatar for AlexanderBorg #2 AlexanderBorg 3 years ago
    You know, I never would've ever thought to label Shadow of the Colossus as a puzzle platformer, but it totally is!
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  • Avatar for pytolk #3 pytolk 3 years ago
    Man I forgot how deep this game was. Even just reading this and remembering it made me feel the sort of sorrow and remorse, yet sheer excitement that I felt when I first played it. If they came out with a remaster I would question whether I would want to replay it or not. It's so good though! Good choice.
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  • Avatar for andrewmayes78 #4 andrewmayes78 3 years ago
    @pytolk There is a remaster on the PS3, you know. ;)
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  • Avatar for ajhopwood #5 ajhopwood 3 years ago
    Fantastic choice! This was my favorite game of the PS2 / GameCube / Xbox era. I loved how each boss was a puzzle to be solved...and that were multiple ways to go about approaching each boss. With one colossus in particular (one of the earlier ones), I remember climbing onto Agro, standing up on his back and darting full speed up a small hill / cliff towards the colossus where I would jump at just the right moment to grab onto the colossus' face. I would later discover that there were much easier ways to climb the colossus, but the fact that my crazy, inventive solution worked gave me much joy.

    Note: It's been almost 10 years since I've played it, so my memory might not be 100% correct regarding the details of the above.
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #6 Kuni-Nino 3 years ago
    Ahh, Shadow. This one is surprising especially since it's so high up. As time goes by, I keep forgetting this game exists for some reason. Anyhow, I agree with the choice.

    Shadow was a game I played during Hurricane Wilma way back when. It's a special game that got me thinking (for better or for worse) about videogames as art; that and fucking Ebert and his trolling-ass blog post! I got into so many arguments over that "games are not art" nonsense lol.
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  • Avatar for HTraffic #7 HTraffic 3 years ago
    Great selection! One that I'd include on my list that certainly won't make it is Spelunky.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #8 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    @HTraffic Spelunky would have been a great choice! Fantastic game. If I had to choose between indie platformers I would probably choose Cave Story, but Spelunky is a close second choice!
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #9 SargeSmash 3 years ago
    Finally a game I've actually beaten in the top 10! Not saying the other games aren't good... but I've not finished any of them, or really gotten started, to be honest. Maybe it's a personal failing.

    I played through this in its original form, and I haven't played it again since then. It was amazing, despite some issues with the engine and controls that weren't always smooth. I almost think it was less a game, and more an experience. An experience I didn't want to sully with a replay, it was so good.
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  • Avatar for kantaroo3 #10 kantaroo3 3 years ago
    This is a fantastic game. I remember playing it 3 Summers ago, every other day when I came back from work I would work on a colossus. It is a game that you really get into.
    I hear that there is a link to ICO after you beat the game...
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  • Avatar for detten17 #11 detten17 3 years ago
    I'm genuinely curious what USgamer will pick for no.1, I personally don't agree with the no. 4 pick. I know I'll catch a lot of flack for this but Shadows of the Colossus is overrated.

    I played this on the PS3 after it's HD re-release and although the combat against the actual colossus was fine, handling the horse, shooting arrows, just overall movement when you're not engaged in the colossus fights sucked. I actually bought the bundle and didn't bother with ICO because I was disappointed with the game. Not really sure what killed it for me, maybe all the hype over it or if it genuinely wasn't that good.
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  • Avatar for stephenpollard09 #12 stephenpollard09 3 years ago
    @detten You conclude it's overrated because you're approaching it from a technical standpoint. And from a technical standpoint, you're absolutely right. The controls are absolute crap by today's standards (they weren't anything to write home about in 2005, either) and obviously the graphics are obsolete, though I wouldn't go so far as to say the game necessarily looks bad.

    The reason people rave about Shadow of the Colossus is for most of the reasons discussed in the article: its thought-provoking narrative; artistic direction; and beautifully poignant atmosphere. (Incidentally, people enjoy Ico for similar reasons, though it doesn't stack up to SotC at all in my opinion.) If you didn't play it when it first released, you may not be able to get past the sub par mechanics or technical flaws, but if you can look past them, there is a beautiful, emotive game that is totally worth the commendation it receives.

    (I also personally feel SotC kind of pioneered a lot of modern indie games, despite not being an indie title itself. Hell, Jenova Chen of thatgamecompany even cited Fumito Ueda as a huge influence, lending that analysis credibility.)
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  • Avatar for docexe #13 docexe 3 years ago
    I think what made the biggest impression on me about this game was the minimalist storytelling and how effective it was. The game manages to tell a captivating and emotionally affecting tale with very little in terms of text, dialogue or cut-scenes. It proves that, when it comes to storytelling in videogames, sometimes less is indeed more.

    It’s a lesson that many indie games have taken to heart and more AAA games would do well to remember.

    And well, sometimes I wonder if it makes me an evil person the fact that I actually cheered when I killed some of the more annoying Colossi (like the one that resembles a bull because, seriously, f#$% that b@$#%rd!).
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  • Avatar for docexe #14 docexe 3 years ago
    While I agree that the controls are clunky (and the animations are stiff as well) this is one of the few games where I think that’s actually a feature rather than a flaw. I think it helps to convey the fact that Wander is not really a warrior and that he is way over his head during his quest. It almost seems like a bit of characterization and storytelling added as a gameplay element.
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