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Filed under: Masahiro Sakurai

“The Isolated Tower, ICO” – Sakurai’s Famitsu Column, Vol. 11

On this day 16 years ago, ICO was released in Japan. It’s a tremendously influential work, and one of my personal favorites, so I’m happy to bring you a translation of this column from 2003, where Sakurai shares his thoughts about the game. Enjoy it!

Note: Do not repost the full translation. Please use the first two paragraphs, link to this translation, and credit Source Gaming. This translation is for fan use only, and may not accurately reflect the opinions of Masahiro Sakurai. The following is a selection from Famitsu. If you enjoyed this article, I would strongly encourage you to support Sakurai by buying his books.

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The Isolated Tower, ICO

Originally published in Famitsu, 4 July 2003


I once had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Fumito Ueda, the creator of ICO. I was thankful for the chance.

Mr. Ueda said, “For a single work, I want to take the core part of the game and polish that above all else.” Ahh, I see. With ICO, he focused sharply on a single point, like the beam of a laser pointer. At last, I started to feel that even a simpleton like me could understand ICO’s position.

In ICO, a horned boy named Ico, who is fated to be sacrificed, takes the hand of a mysterious girl named Yorda and guards her from shadows who try to capture her, as the two try to escape from a castle. Summarizing it like that, I can see fans saying, “Hey, it’s way deeper than that!” and throwing rocks at me, but please forgive me. Anyway, the game’s world and graphics have a unique beauty, and a philosophical atmosphere constantly hangs in the air.

The game itself is relatively simple. Similar to The Castle and Prince of Persia, the player traverses the environment, using various mechanisms in order to progress. The controls are simple, and the protagonist isn’t physically strong, so if he falls from a place too high, or if Yorda is taken away by the shadows, it’s game over.

Thinking back on Mr. Ueda’s words, I felt that as a result of raising the high points to such extreme heights and discarding everything else, ICO, though it has few decorations or systems, came together as a remarkably tall tower.

That tower sets a high bar while also distancing itself from the rest of the world, so I think that it really strikes a chord with the people who value what it has to offer. Those people earnestly raise its position to even further heights, probably feeling that the game is an absolute masterpiece. Also, even if it doesn’t resonate with some people, its existence clearly stands out and they at least take notice of its status. So even if they’re only looking up at it from afar, the tower still leaves an impression on them. You can feel the piercing strength and the consistency that comes from focusing on a single point.

Now, in contrast to that, my own style of game design is the complete opposite of Mr. Ueda’s. Said plainly, I lack integrity! I thoroughly obsess about protecting core aspects, but when it comes to pleasing the user, I don’t care—whatever works, works!

One way of thinking that I value is, “someone may dislike a certain element, but a different person may like it.” Technology has progressed and games have gotten more expressive power, but that has also divided personal preferences. I think people’s tastes have become more and more exclusive, specializing based on genres and the like. For the sake of widening those numerous preferences even just a little bit, I try to stash away a variety of elements in my games.

If Mr. Ueda’s ICO is like a lone, tall tower, then my Smash Bros. and Kirby are like hills that are short in height, but vast and spacious, don’t you think? Perhaps the tower doesn’t envy the hill, and the hill doesn’t necessarily want the tower’s height. They simply recognize each other’s merits, and proceed on the path that they believe in.

It’s truly wonderful that games designed with various intentions can come out, and players have the freedom to pick and choose as they like!

For fans of this game, it’s in a league of its own! I’m looking forward to the next one too.


Looking Back

Sakurai: ICO is an extraordinary game, isn’t it? It’s just a single work, but to be able to talk about it this long and this passionately is really incredible.

Interviewer: Yes, and the game certainly wouldn’t have been possible without its developers, Mr. Fumito Ueda and Mr. Kenji Kaido.

Sakurai: I had a meal with the two of them once. I was already aware of this, but Mr. Kaido has an extremely deep knowledge of games! The ease with which he talked about the “Deco Jump” was really amazing.

Interviewer: The “Deco Jump”… I don’t know what that is.

Sakurai: In old Data East games, when you jump, both the rising and falling movements happen with uniform velocity, in a straight line.

Interviewer: Oh, we did talk about that some time ago.

Sakurai: Data East was called “DECO” for short, and their games had this characteristic jump, so that’s where the term “Deco Jump” comes from. Since he was able to talk about something like that very naturally… well, of course I also knew about the Deco Jump. (Laughs)

When I think about that sort of person creating ICO, that’s really impressive.

Interviewer: He’s pretty hardcore, huh?

Sakurai: Mr. Ueda as well, he’s played an awful lot of games. Since he plays all sorts of games, he’s got an expert eye for them. Seriously, the guy’s a pro…

Interviewer: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to Shadow of the Colossus.