Ever since the The Legend of Zelda turned 35 back in February, we’ve been looking back over the mainline games with a series of features celebrating and examining each one from a personal perspective. However, today it’s the fifteenth anniversary of another fine action-adventure — a game which may not have the name ‘Zelda’ in the title, but one that’s every bit as magical and transporting as the best in Nintendo’s series.
In fact, Clover Studio’s Okami was so good that I remember thinking it felt like a warning shot for the Zelda franchise; a wake up call that the competition had finally caught up. Attempts have been made before and since to make a game in the same vein, but Okami arguably represented the first time a company that wasn’t Nintendo had created a fully 3D Zelda-style adventure — one that followed the same enchanting formula of exploration and discovery — which was absolutely up to Nintendo’s exacting standards in every respect. I’ve written before about how Capcom studio Flagship showed that the 2D formula had been perfected beyond the walls of Nintendo’s Kyoto HQ, but mastering Nintendo’s design language in the third dimension is another matter entirely. Amaterasu and Issun’s quest to save the land of Nippon from destruction is every bit as epic as Link’s sweeping adventures in Hyrule.
Of course, at the time of its PS2 debut back in 2006, the sumi-e-inspired art style was the first thing that grabbed you; it looked unlike anything you’d seen in a video game before. Those ink-washed, painterly visuals tied into the central ‘gimmick’ of the Celestial Brush — used to battle, summon items, repair elements and solve puzzles within the world through ‘painting’ — a mechanic that would sit snugly alongside any number of the Zelda series’ enchanted doohickeys and thingymajigs.
The similarities run far deeper than heading out on a terrific adventure with some sacred instrument of the gods, though; you’ve got the oddball, loveable cast of NPCs, the encroaching evil poisoning the land, the expansive-yet-handily compartmentalised environments with rivers, caves, forests, valleys, plains and more — and you’ll visit them all with a faithful companion: Issun, the inch-tall artist who travels with you as celestial envoy, acting as your ‘Navi’ for the duration (although with a little more comic banter than Link’s fairy).
The gentle puzzling, the touching story elements and so much more combined to capture the spirit and beauty of a franchise that will almost certainly never appear on Sony hardware, at least not in any official capacity (hey, have you seen what fans are making in Dreams?!). PS2 gamers were hardly stuck for quality games but, with the PS3 just around the corner, Okami felt like a fantastic parting gift. The PS2 had an incredible library, and now it had a ‘Zelda’, too.
That’s not to take away from Okami’s individuality or uniqueness; it’s certainly no Zelda ‘clone’… or maybe it is. Perhaps there’s an implied slap-dashery or lessening of quality in the term ‘clone’ that simply isn’t present here. The word feels pejorative, as if originality is the be-all-and-end-all of game design when, in fact, all great artists learn by copying the masters. Maybe Okami is the perfect clone; a ‘copy’ in form and function so polished that no-one cares — it’s simply A Great Game™.
Drawing this comparison is hardly a novel idea. Beyond the fact that director and designer Hideki Kamiya loves the Zelda series, the launch of Twilight Princess at the end of 2006, and the prominence of Link’s lupine form in that game, brought the design similarities between the two into sharp focus for all but the least observant gamers a decade and a half ago. In a sense, Twilight Princess represented Nintendo going ‘back to the well’ after the 3D revolution of the N64 era and the then-shocking style of Celda: The Wind Waker. Okami’s art and story steeped in Japanese folklore gave Clover’s game a very beautiful and distinct flavour which not only disguised how much it was riffing on Nintendo’s formula, but also made it feel ‘fresher’ than the Zelda games of the era.
Clover Studio also gave me the chance to do something I’d longed to do in games for years to that point. At the time, I hadn’t played EarthBound, and I always wished games would let me bask in the glory of my victory after the final battle. Heading back into civilisation for a hero’s welcome sounded like a fine reward to me, much preferable to being dumped unceremoniously at a save point just prior to the final showdown.
Though only midway through Okami, the triumphant return to Kamiki Village for the festival and fireworks was a joyous moment; the jubilant music (below) heralding my achievements like the end of Return of the Jedi. It was a short-lived victory, of course — I was only halfway through the game — but it felt so unusual and fulfilling to enjoy a brief respite from all the questing. I still remember the music and what a special moment that was.
The 2008 Wii version, while not perfect, was an absolutely stellar port effort from Ready At Dawn which involved recreating assets and re-engineering much of the game for Nintendo’s platform. The Wiimote-controlled Celestial Brush felt utterly at home on Wii, and this is how I played the game (back-to-back with Fable II, if I remember correctly — a couple of real good-lookin’ games, there!).
Here at Nintendo Life got an ongoing, ever-growing list of games we recommend to people who have finished Breath of the Wild or other Zelda games and who want something that’ll give them that same sort of Zelda ‘fix’. That list is filled with many top-down 2D games, but comparatively few 3D ones, and the ones that are there veer into full-on RPG territory, away from the unique action-adventure formula that gives Zelda games that ‘special’ feeling. Quite rightly, at the very top of that list sits Okami.
Okami is essential for everyone who enjoys video games, but if you’re a Zelda fan who’s somehow slept on it, make it a top priority to get acquainted on the game’s 15th anniversary. It’s easily available in lovely HD form on Switch and can regularly be found on sale, too. Okami has its own strong identity and personality, but — and this is meant in the best possible sense — it really is one of the best ‘Zelda’ games ever made.