Shadow of the Colossus was always in conversation with The Legend of Zelda. From the first time Wander and Agro ventured forth back in 2005, Nintendo’s influence was clear. Here was a Hyrule stripped down to its essence, with almost all life and civilization removed; a Link by another name, trying to rescue a different girl, with a sword, a bow and a loyal horse; an adventure following the bloody demands of a distant, invisible, omnipotent designer. In the process of saving the girl Wander would beat what little life remained out of this world, tainting his own soul along the way.
Shadow of the Colossus noted that the kind of violence that most games, including Zelda, extolled as heroism was still violence. It was still destructive. It examined the central theme that has driven every Zelda game and dismissed it as detrimental to the world and the would-be hero ostensibly trying to save it. It could be easy to misread that viewpoint as cynicism towards videogames coursing through the heart of Colossus, but it actually revealed the game’s tremendous well of empathy for the creatures and environments that we coexist with. Unlike Zelda, where all violence is justified in pursuit of saving an innocent girl, Shadow of the Colossus mourns the slow, unnecessary death of the few creatures left in an already diminished world.
For over a decade Colossus has existed almost as a counterpoint to the Zelda traditions codified by Ocarina of Time. Those traditions continued with little change in The Twilight Princess and The Skyward Sword, the first two major Zelda games released after Colossus, and, perhaps not so coincidentally, the first two major Zelda games that felt overly hidebound and limited by what was expected from a Zelda game. The conversation started by Colossus was one-sided; Nintendo wasn’t answering back.
That started to change with last year’s Breath of the Wild. The best Zelda game since at least 2003 (and perhaps of all time) might not directly respond to Shadow of the Colossus, but it acknowledges its criticism of Zelda’s worldview in a few crucial ways. It does so mechanically, for the most part, largely skirting the deeper argument started by Colossus. Still, the ways in which Breath of the Wild grapples with Colossus are a significant part of what makes it such a triumph and such a smart and powerful take on the classic Zelda formula. Without Colossus it’s hard to imagine Breath of the Wild existing the way we know it.
The most obvious examples of Colossus’s influence on Breath of the Wild are evident as soon as you step out into this latest version of Hyrule. Link’s actions are now limited by a stamina bar similar to the one that Wander has to contend with in Colossus. This meter can be permanently extended by solving puzzles at shrines hidden throughout the world, just like how you can increase Wander’s stamina in Colossus by collecting the white lizard tails found at that game’s shrines. Fruit found in trees restore health in both games, which is a first for Zelda. On top of that, this Hyrule is almost as despoiled as the world Wander explores. There’s still plenty of life to encounter throughout, from the typical bands of Zelda monsters, to human settlements that range from small outposts to minor villages. This civilization is clearly a shadow of what it used to be, though. Early in the game Link encounters the ruins of the Temple of Time, a major site of power in earlier games; it’s even more dilapidated than the Shrine of Worship that Wander returns to throughout Colossus. The remnants of a long destroyed civilization are scattered throughout this Hyrule, with Zelda’s own palace lying in ruins at its heart during an endless battle between Zelda and Calamity Ganon. Throughout you’ll learn of the past and how Hyrule fell into such disrepair a century ago, how by that point it had already fallen into a kind of dark ages from a long-gone ancient society built on technology, and how Calamity Ganon will always return no matter how often he’s defeated or what sacrifices Hyrule’s heroes make. Although you don’t learn much about what happened to the world of Colossus, both games are marked by a sad sense of ruin and unattainable past glory.
More surprisingly, Breath of the Wild lightly questions the traditional depiction of heroism that Zelda games are known for. It doesn’t directly argue against it as clearly and succinctly as Colossus, but it does show that valiant efforts of heroism can sometimes be ultimately futile. The failure of Link, Zelda and the four heroes to defeat Calamity Ganon a century ago was a pointless sacrifice that actually hastened the downfall of Hyrule. Zelda might have kept the worst of Ganon’s evil from fully devastating her kingdom by trapping him in a century-long mystical battle, but she couldn’t prevent him from turning the humans who once mastered this world into a depleted race struggling to survive. The endless futility of violence is also reinforced by the Blood Moon, which regularly replenishes all the monsters Link has killed. Link can kill a bokoblin, or even a hive of bokoblins, but he can’t keep them from constantly swarming across Hyrule anew.
Link is still a hero at heart in Breath of the Wild. You can still defeat the genuinely evil threat at the center of this world’s violation, and help point Zelda and her people toward restitution. And if you want to venture back into Hyrule and continue to explore, everything rewinds to before evil was defeated, when everything was still hopeless and in ruins. Breath of the Wild presents an unwinnable crisis, a heroic victory so muted and insignificant that it can’t wait to plunge its heroes back into pain and misery. There’s no way to truly win since the only way to play is to kill everything, and wait for it to inevitably return and try to kill you again.
Playing the new PlayStation 4 remake of Shadow of the Colossus stresses how, with last year’s Breath of the Wild, Nintendo has finally acknowledged a conversation started in 2005. The result is a Zelda game that’s both more expansive than ever before, both in terms of its mechanics and its world, but also more nuanced in its depiction of heroism and its understanding of the toll violence takes on everyone and everything around it. Hopefully this long delayed indirect response won’t be the full extent of Zelda’s dialogue with Shadow of the Colossus.
Thanks to Brian Taylor for inspiring this piece.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.