Sometimes preservation is also an act of destruction.
I love the recently released remastered version of Shadow of the Colossus for the same reasons critics loved the original version, released in 2005. It tells an epic story without words, makes me care and think about the monsters I'm slaying, and establishes an unparalleled sense of scale by asking me to climb lumbering beasts that functioned as giant, walking levels.
The remake of the PlayStation 2 classic, available on the PlayStation 4, does everything that a good video game remaster should do. It updates the graphics, smoothes out the rough edges, and stays true to the soul of the original. After 12 years and several different re-releases and remasters across three different systems, this Shadow of the Colossus is the definitive version of the game. It does such a great job, I can't imagine why anyone would go back and play the original.
That’s weird. Ostensibly, the point of a remake like this is to celebrate an aging video game in an industry that tends to move fast and forget, but in one sense it achieves the opposite: Shadow of the Colossus is such an improvement on the original it erases some important aspects of what made it stand out in the first place. The new game is beautiful, but it lacks the context that made the original an achievement.
In case you—like me—never played the original, Shadow of the Colossus was an action game developed by Team Ico and published on the PlayStation 2. Players control a wanderer with a Sword of Light as he tries to revive a dead princess. To do this, he strikes a deal with a shadowy figure and hunts massive colossi across a beautiful and desolate landscape. It’s simple, moving, and oddly effecting.
I’d always meant to play Shadow of the Colossus but never got around to it. That puts me in an odd position. I’ve only played this new version. Did I really play the classic Shadow of the Colossus everyone raves about, or did I play developer Bluepoint’s interpretation?
This new version isn’t a remaster or a remake, not really. “Remaster” is a term borrowed from the movie business, where movie studios sometimes clean up and color correct original prints that were previously only available on VHS or DVD and publish them on new, higher quality formats. Bluepoint already did this for Shadow of the Colossus on the PS3 and PS4 in editions that updated the game for the widescreen format and locked the notoriously stuttery original at 30 frames per second.
It’s also not quite a remake like 2004's Dawn of the Dead is a remake of 1978’s Dawn of the Dead because a remake is a reimagining of the original, and this version doesn't bring any new ideas to the table.
This is a rebuilt, from the ground up, version of Shadow of the Colossus. The original score has been re-recorded, there are new art assets, a tweaked control scheme, new lighting design, and a laundry list of technical fixes that help the game accomplish what the original team supposedly wanted to do but couldn’t because of the limitations of the PlayStation 2 hardware.
It’s a kind of “remaster” that is wholly unique to the medium of video games. Classic movies live forever. They’re often remade, but historians and film buffs go to pains to preserve the originals. No one—except Gus Van Sant—is making shot-for-shot remakes of classic films. There’s no point. After more than 60 years, The Night of the Hunter is still a powerful movie and watching it as easy as pulling up Amazon.
Games are different. It would be a pain in the ass for me to go back and play the original, untouched Shadow of the Colossus now. I'd have to track down a working PS2, a hard copy of the game, and plug the old console into my TV with composite cables, which some new TVs don't even have. And why would I do that when I can just download this modern, "better" version of the game on my PS4?
One reason is that context matters. The original game earned a metacritic score of 91 despite two obvious flaws: weird controls and bad frame rates. “It's a disappointment that the technical execution is less than perfect. This is primarily due to an uneven frame rate,” Brad Shoemaker wrote in a 2005 Gamespot review, where he gave the game a 8.7.
In a way, this made the original more of an achievement because became a classic despite its flaws. The original game was ambitious—a game bigger than the console it debuted on. The remake looks much better than the original, but the remake also looks like any other high quality game out today. Nothing looked or felt like Shadow of the Colossus at the time. The remake removes those flaws.
Game archivists at places like The Video Game History Foundation will preserve the original, but who would want to play it aside from academics? Going forward, I worry this remake will become the definitive version for most gamers, most of whom will have no idea how revolutionary or weird the original was in 2005. The context is gone. It’s happened before.
Resident Evil’s 2002 remake is more beloved than the 1996 original. Originally for the GameCube, the remake now routinely beats out the original on critics’ lists of the best Resident Evil games. It was also remastered in 2015 and released on the PC and console market, and went on to become Capcom’s best-selling digital title. If you want to play the original Resident Evil, the remaster of the remake is the one to play.
I’ll never go back and play the original Shadow of the Colossus. I'm a sucker for good graphics just as much as the next guy. This new version is the experience I’ll remember, and it is an amazing experience, but deep down I know that this is not the way to understand the impact that Shadow of the Colossus had at the time.
Correction: This article originally said the developer of the Shadow of Colossus remake is Bluelight. The name of the developer is Bluepoint. Motherboard regrets the error.