So I’m a little late to the party with this. Just a little bit. But it’s the thought that counts, right?
Last week, Japanese cult classic Okami celebrated its 10th anniversary! Released for the PlayStation 2 on the 20th April 2006 in Japan and later in North America, Europe and Australia by the now extinct Clover Studios, Okami is an action-adventure/JRPG where you take on the role of wolf goddess: Amaterasu, in her quest to defeat evil demons and return back home.
It’s pretty cool.
The game’s entire setting and story-arc is based on traditional Japanese folklore, with much of it borrowing from Shinto mythology and other Japanese cultural touchstones. This all bleeds nicely into Okami’s exquisitely beautiful art-style, which is greatly inspired by traditional sumi-e art, as well as a cel-shaded graphical style that was, by that point, waning in popularity. All of this, combined with the fact that its gameplay heavily borrowed from The Legend of Zelda’s puzzle, combat and platforming formula, made for a rather unconventional release.
Considering, that at the time of its release, Okami was everything that the video games industry had grown bored with, it’s unsurprising that it has garnered such cult classic status. By 2006, audiences were looking towards a new generation of consoles; a generation that promised third person shooters and shiny racing simulators. Okami sold just over 600,000 copies globally on the PS2, and was seen as one of the reasons behind the closure of Clover Studios soon afterwards. But it earned almost unanimously positive reviews and a number of awards, which is possibly why it was given both a re-release on the Wii in 2008, and a HD remaster on the PS3 in 2012.
My first experience of Okami was on the Wii, having (shock, horror, gasp!) never owned a PS2, and thus was originally completely unaware of its existence. But I was a big fan of Zelda at the time, and had recently adopted my brother’s Wii after he’d abandoned it for an Xbox 360. Okami had seemed like a sure-fire bet.
At first, I was taken aback by how strange it was, particularly the storyline that seemed to regularly reference a culture I had almost no knowledge of. The opening to Okami is very unusual: introducing the player to the story through cut-scenes rendered in black ink, accompanied by a whispering garble designed to mimic a narrator’s voice. But the atmosphere it creates and the tone it sets is right on point with the rest of the game. That is after all what an opening is meant to do.
Despite feeling initially overwhelming, Okami does a good job of easing a western player into its world. The pacing and build-up of its otherwise very epic storyline is extremely accessible; introducing the player to new characters and lore as they go. This also ties in nicely with the game’s central mechanic; the celestial brush: a tool that the player can use by pausing the game and (depending on which version you’re playing) draw shapes to perform actions. These actions can do anything from slicing objects to changing night to day, and are fed to the player gradually throughout the game.
That Okami’s main gameplay feature is directly linked to its traditional Japanese identity is certainly no coincidence. In fact, almost everything about the game calls back to its setting and themes; with its traditional action-adventure/RPG style gameplay, lack of complete voice-acting and linear storyline, Okami feels designed from the ground up to invoke a much older generation of gaming. Perhaps if it was released now, in an age of Yooka-Laylee success stories and retro-resurgence, Okami would have stood much more of a chance. And yet, it lives on to be a fairly well-remembered PS2 title, and even earned itself a sequel in 2010, Ōkamiden on the Nintendo DS. The game’s director, Hideki Kamiya even responded to pleas for a direct sequel, but cited that “everyone’s expectations have been swelling so much that they’re going to burst”, so he doesn’t have “even a pixel of confidence that it could surpass the original”, which is a crying shame.
It is, perhaps these traditional elements that have made Okami age so well and remain so original. That and its timeless art-style, bouncy soundtrack and unique focus on Japanese folklore. So that, even ten years later, there’s still nothing like it.