The Best and Most Underrated Game of All Time
Sometimes, a beautiful thing is made and everyone appreciates it, like a really good cake, or a middle schooler who isn’t insufferable, or these Zelda games. Sometimes a horrible thing is made, and no one appreciates it, like a really bad cake, or every other middle schooler in existence, or these god awful video game film adaptations. Sometimes something horrible is made but everyone appreciates it, like smelly cheeses, or IPAs, or Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.
But sometimes, something really beautiful is made and no one appreciates it, like this game. It’s the most tragic of outcomes, but hope is not lost. Sometimes it just takes one keyed-up Mary Sue author to break into your apartment in the middle of the night, crawl into your bed as you sleep, and grab you by the shoulders screaming “PLAY THIS GAME PLAY THIS GAME PLAY THIS GAME” before vaulting out the sixth floor window and leaving no body behind in the street below.
Today, I am willing to be that intrepid, some would say “misguided,” author. So here it is, the game that I believe to be the most underrated game of all time. If you don’t play it, I will see you tonight. You will not hear me coming. You will not see me leave. But I will be there. Watching. Drawing shuddering breaths from the shadows. Waiting for you to close your eyes so I can set up the Nintendo Wii and play it while you sleep.
The name of the game in question? Okami. This game is hands down one of the greatest games of all time, but no one knows it. It is the Legend of Zelda game that never was. Dare I say it? I think that it’s better than many Zelda games. I would say it’s better than Twilight Princess and, perhaps, even Wind Waker. It sounds like video game sacrilege, blasphemy against the gaming gods, but let me explain.
Okami is a game set in a mythological Japan, where players control the reincarnation of the Shinto sun god Amaterasu, who appears in the form of a white wolf. Amaterasu is reawakened into the world after the eight-headed snake demon Orochi returns to Japan after lying dormant for 100 years. Accompanied by an inch-high warrior named Issun, Amaterasu sets out on a quest to expunge evil from the world once and for all.
Now that’s a game you want to play right?
Not convinced? Okay, let’s break it down piece by piece, starting with characters. First off, you get to play as a wolf—and not just any mangy old wolf, but a wolf GODDESS. You’re a divine being. Flowers grow behind you when you run. You can slice through stone. You can run on water. It’s absolutely dreamy. And as you galavant through the beautifully rendered, watercolor world of folkloric Japan, you encounter a million and one other gods, demons, and heroes from Japanese myth and legend.
For those who don’t know, Japan has a rich tradition of folk storytelling and has a menagerie of tales that rival the very best of stories that Greek and Norse mythology have to offer. There are alien Moon princesses who appear in bamboo groves, little boys who were born out of peaches who become renowned warriors, and absolutely terrifying demons and ghosts that could send a chill down Homer’s spine. And in this game, you get to meet all of them.
It’s jaw dropping. Nearly every single major Japanese folk tale character is featured in this game, and all of them are seamlessly woven together into a breathtakingly beautiful tapestry. Drunken warriors of myth, nine-tailed foxes, and an entire city of inch-high humanoids are only a fraction of the wild and wonderful characters that you stumble across as Amaterasu, and each one of them has an important part to play in the story.
Perfect segue: the story. The story of this game begins as a traditional “You’re the good guy, kill the bad guy” arc, but in reality, it is much more complex. In the 100-year period of time that occurred between Amaterasu’s reincarnations into the world, many of the world’s inhabitants lost their faith in the gods of old. The world was plagued by monsters and evil, and the prayers of the populace were left unanswered. The people of the world have lost so much of their spirituality that they cannot even perceive gods anymore, even when one is standing on four paws right in front of them.
When the people of Nippon look at Amaterasu, they don’t see the divine wolf with red markings carrying a burning shield. They just see a regular old wolf. Some rude ass people go so far as to call you a DOG. It’s offensive. YOU’RE A GOD. But the people of the world have forgotten the gods, because they feel that the gods have forgotten them. Essentially, you spend the game restoring people’s faith in a higher power, and spreading hope across the land.
In the final act of the game, the people of the world pray to you in order to help you in battle. It’s tear-jerkingly beautiful. I’m getting a little misty-eyed writing it. Many works of fiction reconcile with the nature of god and the “problem of evil” (i.e. why would a loving God allow people to suffer?), but this is the first game that I’ve ever seen deal with faith and spirituality in a positive way that doesn’t come off as preachy or false.
In a sense, your mission is one of ultimate good. You provide the greatest healing and comfort that is possible: a sense of cosmic order. Bad things happen to people, but when they do, the forces of good in the universe rally to their side. Like the best of the Legend of Zelda titles before it, it is a game about true selflessness. You are a character who chooses to be brave, kind and good simply because you are called to be. Because it is the right thing to do.
The game takes a point of view that I believe to be present in the greatest works of art, recognizing the evils of the world while refusing to be cynical about them. To be cynical about the darkness of the world is to be defeated by it, even if it has not hurt you directly. Okami is a game that allows the player to be a fundamental force of good in a reality that is often shades of moral grey. It is refreshingly pure-hearted and reminds us all that simple virtues are worthy of being cultivated.
So how does Amaterasu act as a fundamental force of good and smite evil? With WOLF GOD powers, that’s how. The game has one of the most creative combat mechanics that I have ever seen in the history of video games. In the beginning of the game, Amaterasu comes into possession of a divine paintbrush, allowing her to paint over reality with sacred ink. This allows to her to perform a myriad of miracles, each more powerful than the last.
By using the brush to draw a straight line across the screen, the player can summon a sword to cut boulders in half. The player can draw a loop and create a divine wind that blows enemies away. The player can draw three parallel lines to make rain fall, or draw a sun in the sky to make night turn into day. The powers of the brush are endless, allowing the player to slow down time, control the elements, and even draw GIANT BOMBS. Yes, you read that correctly. Just draw a circle with a little fuse on the top of it and a giant cherry bomb will appear and blow demons to smithereens.
While the game was originally released on Playstation 2, the drawing mechanic shines when the game is played on the Nintendo Wii. The Wii’s motion controls allow the player to draw quickly, making the combat fast-paced and frenetic. Amaterasu has a variety of physical weapons at her disposal as well, inspired by The Great Treasures of Japan: the mirror, the jewel, and the sword. She can use shield-like mirrors called reflectors, whip-like strings of holy beads called rosaries, and powerful swords called glaives to cut through foes. The combat options are endless, and endlessly rewarding, fit for a warrior god of the sun.
And the sun certainly shines down on the world of Nippon. The game itself is gorgeously rendered in a watercolor-inspired cell shading style, giving the graphics a timeless quality that hold up with age. The world is lush and beautiful, featuring rolling fields, dense forests, and sprawling coastlines to run through. And my God, can Amaterasu run. The game allows you to run fast, considering you’re a wolf and all, and simply traversing the landscape is a joyous experience. As you run through the fields, flowers bloom where your feet fall.
The world whirls around you in technicolor, and a gorgeous score made up of traditional Japanese folk instruments swells in your ears as you travel. There’s a million and one little nooks and crannies to explore and find treasure, along with a plethora of satisfying side quests. The game also renders the ugly parts of the world beautifully, as you navigate frozen wastelands, haunted forests, and demon-infested caves in your quest to purify the world of evil. The game also features a bestiary full of creative and terrifying monsters to hack apart. I’m still freaked out by the cannibal cranes that disguise themselves as people to devour travelers. Yuck.
All in all, Okami is a breathtaking game that, for reasons that continually elude me, no one has played. So seriously, do yourself a favor and play this game. You don’t even have to buy a Nintendo Switch. I’ll bring mine when I break into your house tonight. We’ll have a great time. We can order sushi and talk about how to find God in a godless world. It’ll be fun (and thematically relevant). I promise.
(featured image: Capcom)
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