You Really Owe it to Yourself to Play Ico

I often think about Ico. Released 15 years ago in North America in September of 2001. I had just moved to a new neighborhood and was struggling with the beginning of my teenage years. I remember it distinctly. That month’s issue of EGM gave it a solid 87 and that was enough to sell me on the game but despite the almost universal critical praise, it still wasn’t enough to make it blow up. It actually flew quietly under the radar.

In North America it sold a total 230,000 copies. Globally? 470,000 total. But after I got lost in the game and emerged from its world via the small tube TV in my bedroom, I realized that it helped me experience bravery, companionship, and loss. In many ways, I felt just like that kid banished to a place that he desperately wanted to escape. Not only to escape my situation but that ugly feeling of helplessness.

The North American Cover (left) and the original Japanese version (right). Terrible cover art may also have attributed to the poor sales here in North America. Guess which one I have hanging in my bedroom.

Nowadays Ico means something completely different to me. My girlfriend and I like to share various works of art to each other that we hold near and dear to our hearts. Ico was at the top of my list. I watched her play it from start to finish and was ecstatic to see that she wound up thoroughly enjoying it! So much so that at the end, she wound up crying. We both did. Now in my 20’s, experiencing life on my own for the first time as an independent adult in a relationship with a woman I adore, Ico takes on entirely new meanings.

I remember staring at the leaves of the trees in pure awe.

There is something so beautiful about that. The way certain things can grow, mature, and derive new meaning as you gain more life experience. Ico was revolutionary to me not because it was the first game to introduce technical things like bloom lighting and key framed animation or because it was one of the first games I can remember without a soundtrack playing the entire time (although that all helped). It was revolutionary for me because for the first time, in as long as I can remember, video games helped me understand more about myself and made me think about it long after the disc was back in its case.

The way I felt when the shadow creatures descended upon Yorda when I was separated from her or when I emerged from my shattered sacrificial tomb and saw the walls lined with others just like it still lives with me till this day. Ico does an amazing job of introducing these tragic elements to you and somehow makes you happy that you experienced them afterwards. Elements that I wouldn’t want to spoil for you if you haven’t played it.

Does the combat hold up? Probably not. Are some of the puzzles going to blow your mind? Not likely. Especially since you’ve most likely seen some of them pop up in games whose creators were deeply inspired by Ico. Games like Dark Souls, Journey, Halo 4 and The Last of Us. But you can still see the influence in the DNA of certain recent games like Inside and Bound. So please, go learn why Ico is such a cult classic for yourself.

Fun Fact

EGM would go on to place Ico on its 2005 list of “Top 10 Most Overrated Games” writing:

“This will upset the art school kids, but Ico hasn’t really changed our lives. It’s not that we don’t appreciate the relationship between its characters and the understated themes, but the ‘games as art’ folks need to get a grip. We’ve got a ways to go before the Louvre….
But is it actually good? Absolutely, though you don’t need to write your master’s degree thesis on it.”

Additional Viewing

Also, watch this video from Mark Brown and discover why Ico is one of the most influential games of all time from a design standpoint. Highly recommend subscribing to his Youtube channel if you love deep dives on game design too.

Paul Tamayo is a photographer/videographer from Brooklyn, New York who runs The Optional, a gaming blog and podcast. Follow him on twitter @polimayo

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