Remakes always find themselves in the difficult position where they risk being redundant if they devote themselves too much to the original. But take too much liberty then they can easily be a disaster. For this writeup I figured I'd collect some of my thoughts on the ways in which Shadow of the Colossus does excellent tribute to the original and without feeling like a mere replica. But also mention how limits themselves can often spur greatness as I feel was the case with the excellent original on PS2.
Shadow of the Colossus released in Europe way back in 2006, mere months after the release of the Xbox 360. This fact is itself interesing because it came out right on the cusp of the HD era but on an SD system. The benefit of years of experience with the console's particulars helped drive a sort of late-generation renaissance in technical and artistic creativity. Giving us such classics as Okami, God of War II, Final Fantasy XII and of course Shadow of the Colossus. Games which were born on an SD system but are very much of the cinematic HD era. A sort of 'sub-gen' or 'mid-gen' where the design influences looked forward but the technical implementation was done on hardware that looked backward.
With that in mind then a thing which stands out revisiting Shadow of the Colossus is how much at odds its open world design is with a lot of other modern titles. Titles such as Shadow of War and Far Cry 5. Games which are so feature-rich and content driven that it seems insane to think that they could ever be samey or boring. They are games which are fine tuned to offer as many different permutations of every experience as possible. Games where you cannot take a step without finding another sidequest or a hidden mission. Inevitably you start noticing that some experiences start to resemble each other. That there's something very engineered about the things that you are doing and the rewards for doing them. As a 2018 title then Shadow of the Collosus is able to feel fresh once again as a game which has none of these distractions. It is pre-Ubisoft totally in the sense that vast amounts of space exists but nothing actually exists in it. No icons or waypoints. Just 16 collosi and some lizards and a great booming voice which tells you what you need to do and how to do it. As pure an open-world title as one can get.
It needs to be stressed straight off that this is a tremendously beautiful game. It's vivid in the same way as maxed out Crysis or Witcher III yet running at a silky 60fps on PS4 Pro. Granted there are far fewer systems being simulated here. But the mind boggles at the reach of the draw distance and how realistic the rock surfaces look. The beauty and scale of the PS4 remake could by itself allow it to pass for a modern title. But bundled up in this update are also the same floaty controls and strange intertia with every input that were a part of the original game as well. In its pursuit of photo-like clarity these holdovers from the PS2 version give it a really anachronistic feel. The illusion can get broken when the logic that calculates Wander's current position on a giant gets a bit confused by everything that's happening and sort of just throws Wander onto an adjacent elbow or shifts him up a bit. A sort of mathematical fudge which got a pass when running on a PS2 but stands out sore on a modern system.
One of the reasons why the PS2 version was so memorable was a sense that it really was not supposed to work at all. A lot of the rendering techiques use this sort of oasis-like mist effect which gives the player only an impression of what's out there. An impression that fills in and becomes more solid as you approach. In the remake these techniques have been optimised and the foggy outlines replaced with crystal clarity. Some sense of the mystique of the original is a little bit lost by this. This is a real subjective thing which can be argued about to infinity either way. I personally fall on the side of saying that the game does lose a little bit of Ueda's 'impressionistic' visual style. But even if artistically it is not quite the same it is still a mightily impressive (re)vision of Shadow which feels like a genuine tribute which the original creators could have made themselves.
Having beaten it a couple of months ago and just starting up playing Breath of the Wild it's striking to just how much design influence Nintendo seem to have taken from Shadow. The amount of things you can do in Zelda is small but the ways in which it surprises you with such a seemingly simple set of tools never ceases to surprise. With so many big AAA series making the jump to a Far Cry style open world it is exciting to think that we there could be a shift happening back in the opposite direction, to a 'less is more' design approach like the kind championed by Ueda.