Ōkami - second chance at love
April 24, 2008
- Ōkami is the most beautiful video game I've ever seen. Last-gen, next-gen - it's all hooha, really. I don't know how many pixels Ōkami pushes around, nor do I care much about its physics or graphics engines. All I know is that when I look at this game - its flowing streams of watercolor flowers; its ink-and-wash brushstrokes; its Zen-inspired landscapes; its radiant creatures and dancing demons - all rendered through textured filters of canvas, parchment, and wood - I am awestruck by its fluid elegance and beauty. Two years after its original release, no game has yet approached Ōkami's sheer aesthetic ambition.
Steeped in ancient Shinto polytheism, the game features a she-wolf (Amaterasu) as its silent protagonist - a reawakened god in animal form. Her central mission is to drive out the demons destroying the environment and restore the natural balance and beauty of her native land. She achieves this by reassembling 13 Celestial Brush gods, each of which bestows a unique brush-stroke power which Amaterasu can use to create water lillies, fire, wind, and other natural elements. In keeping with the game's organic environmental theme, these gods may be found anywhere and everywhere. As Amaterasu's sidekick Issun says, "The gods now dwell in objects all around us."
So let's think about this. A silent hero she-wolf with a calligraphy brush for a weapon. Cell-shaded flowers and woodland creatures. Shinto polytheism. An environmental preservation theme. Is it any wonder nobody bought this game?
Admittedly, that's a bit of an overstatement. After a slow start (and abysmal sales in Japan) the PS2 version of Ōkami eventually sold about 270,000 copies worldwide. Not bad, I suppose, but when Capcom launched Clover Studio in 2004 with some of its most prolific talents aboard, Ōkami was meant for greatness. Less than a month after Ōkami's North American release, Capcom shut down the studio, and that was the end of Clover.
Will Ōkami's recent re-release fare any better with consumers on the Wii? I'm guessing no. I'd desperately love to be wrong because I adore this game, but I'll wager it sells fewer copies on the Wii than on the PS2.
Why? Too much new and too much old. Ōkami's stunning visuals are more than pretty animated pictures. They function as a graphic framework for the entire game. The Japanese brushstroke motif runs all the way through the experience, weaving together gameplay, narrative, and character. Amaterasu is less a warrior than an artist. Her most effective "final blow" maneuvers don't involve brandishing a sword or gun, they require skillful mastery of calligraphic symbols.
How many devoted gamers are looking for this kind of experience or play mechanic? How many will be satisfied with a reward system that essentially boils down to putting leaves back on trees? How many will connect with a fanciful story drawn from classical Japanese history, myth, and folklore featuring rat and monkey gods, wood sprites, celestial deities from the Chinese zodiac, and an effeminate French-accented villain?
My guess is, unfortunately, not many. For most gamers, Ōkami is simply too unfamiliar, too strange, too "Japanese,"... too whatever. Such gamers often claim they want something different, but in reality they don't. What they really want is something almost the same. Too much innovation - especially stylistic innovation - is generally rejected.
Ironically, the audience most likely to be enticed by Ōkami's eccentric concoction of elements is the same audience likely to avoid the game because it fails to innovate enough: the Zelda audience.
Yes, Ōkami is a Zelda homage - as its creators freely acknowledge  - and many of the narrative and character parallels between it and Twilight Princess are rather startling. Ōkami's dungeons are smaller and less interesting that Zelda's, and Issun (who chatters entirely too much) is no Midna. Nevertheless, as my friend Corvus noted recently "Ōkami is the Zelda game I wanted for the Wii." Even though it hurts a little to say it, I agree.
Ōkami's controls work at least as well as they do in Twilight Princess (aside from a particular waggle dodge move you can safely ignore). Its story is more cohesive and better paced; its characters are more distinctive (Midna excluded); and the whole experience feels less rigid and formulaic than Twilight Princess'. Ōkami's sumptuous fully-orchestrated score, filled with traditional Japanese melodies and expressive atmospheres, sets a new standard of excellence for action-adventure games - one that Nintendo should set its sights on for the next Zelda.
At the risk of evangelical zealotry, I urge you to play Ōkami. Buy it at a discount for the PS2 or pick up a new copy for the Wii. They're both excellent. If I had to choose one, I would give the edge to the PS2 version, which conveys a muted parchment filter art style, rather than the color-bumped Wii version. (You can check out a comparison of the two versions below.) I also prefer combat in the PS2 version, though the Wii-mote works better controlling the paintbrush. Either way, you can't go wrong.
Let's hope I lose that bet.
Update (4/28/08): A bit of digging with help from a reader suggests that the 270,000 unit sales figure I reported for Ōkami is much too low. The actual number of copies sold worldwide is closer to 550,000.
It also turns out that Capcom may not have closed Clover Studio in response to low sales (though this was probably a factor). It has been suggested to me that Clover was shut down shortly after two of its top designers left to form a new development studio called Seeds, which later merged with ODD Incorporated to form PlatinumGames.