The first time I played Okami, I didn’t get it. It was a much-ballyhooed effort from a dream team of Japanese game designers, a sprawling RPG with a vibrant, hand-painted art style. Ambition radiated off the project. But it didn’t sell well upon its release in 2006. It was long—its story ambling along, one climax after the next, often aimlessly—and its cutscenes were interminable, with text that inched out letter by l-e-t-t-e-(wait for it)-r. These scenes advanced a story that never quite cohered into anything resembling a normal game narrative: You were some sort of wolf, but you were also a god, but you were also a cricket or something riding the back of the wolf/god, and you spent most of your time going around doing favors for people and feeding squirrels. Apparently the wolf/god had been asleep for a hundred years, and, to be honest, it seemed like she and everyone else involved needed a cup of coffee or two. By the time you wheedled your way into things, it felt like a Zelda game, but in 2006 you could also just go play Twilight Princess, a new, actual Zelda game. Or you could play Oblivion, which is what I did instead.
There have been a billion opportunities to replay Okami over the years as it slowly got re-released, system by system. It was the first game released by that dream team, called Clover Studios, that was not a part of the tough-as-nails Viewtiful Joe series, and they’d only go on to release one more title—the brutal, gonzo brawler God Hand—before being shuttered. All are classics, in their way, but only Okami has received all this canonical attention, first getting ported to the Wii and then the PS3 and then the PS4 and Windows and now the Switch, and it also got a sort of low-rent sequel for the 3DS along the way. All of these have only served to reinforce the game’s reputation. It’s beautiful, we say with each new rerelease, but, hoo boy, it is slow as hell. Buyer beware.
Maybe it is the fact that I am now older than shit, or that my generally wonderful job has been, shall we say, unsettled recently, but replaying Okami over the past few weeks I can only relish this slow, all-encompassing beauty. There are plenty of slow games out there—meditative strategy and puzzle games, bucolic farming sims, Animal Crossings galore—but slowness is taken as a sort of aesthetic mandate in Okami. It is an unabashed art-game that is quite literally about art, in which thick brush-strokes are used to solve puzzles and fell foes. (Painting with your finger right onto the Switch’s screen is, as you’d imagine, incredibly satisfying.) The game pursues beauty relentlessly, dogmatically, via its twinkling sound effects; its score, equal parts traditional Japanese music and Vangelis New Age; its endless scenes of countrysides flowering in bright purple and green foliage; its tale of natural beauty restored; and indeed its very game-like tactility, the patter of a wolf sprinting through a forest and spiraling tightly into combat. It dares to say that all of these things might be beautiful in the same way, part of the same natural order.
In the grand pantheon of video games about gods (which there are so many of!), Okami is perhaps the only one in which you are not vengeful or scornfully omnipotent but wholly and patiently benevolent, just one in a grand tapestry of natural and supernatural beings. One of the first things you learn in the game is to keep lots of herbs, seeds, meat, and fish in your inventory, so that when you happen upon a bird or squirrel or deer you can stop and feed it some food that it will enjoy. A new cutscene is introduced each time you do so, in which the camera slowly circles around you, the dog-god Amaterasu, as you gaze benevolently upon the woodland creature in a pastel eternity, with serene ambient music twinkling out of the speaker. Hardcore Okami heads know that this is the best part of the entire game, and that to skip a single second of one of these moments of zen is to stumble in the eyes of a god. And yet you know, when you inevitably exit this cutscene, as she smiles beatifically upon her woodland friend, that she will be merciful to you, too. Amaterasu is a kind goddess.
After Clover was shuttered, many of its principals went on to form Platinum Games, which has since produced a handful of modern classics, including the Bayonetta series and last year’s surprise hit Nier: Automata. In a way, Okami is a test run for that unlikely masterpiece, finding elegance in traversing a massive open world and scattering the cities and dungeons and side quests of an RPG into a looser, more mystical configuration. They are also breathless fonts of invention, introducing new mini-games and styles of play and whole sprawling chapters long after most other games would’ve quit. But more surprising still is the way Okami measures up to that titanic influence, The Legend Of Zelda. There was a touch of heresy in even attempting to make something in its image back in 2006. Played today, though, it has held up better than its contemporary Twilight Princess has, playing out with a grace and simplicity that Nintendo wouldn’t bring to its flagship series until last year’s Breath Of The Wild.
It’s a transportive game, if it catches you at the right time. Taken as a grand exercise in video game aesthetics by some of the masters of the form, as well as a refreshingly straightforward translation of Shintoist folklore, the game’s meditative pace and sprawling structure feel more like virtues, demanding that you meet it on its own terms and spend a long, long time within. Or not, you know? Okami doesn’t care. Director Hideki Kamiya’s other games are notoriously difficult, and when asked on Twitter why this one differed so greatly, he replied, “There should be no difficulty when reading folklore.” In a twist all too fitting for a medium still obsessed with gatekeeping, Okami’s lack of barriers is probably the greatest one to enjoying it. If you’ve tried it before and it didn’t quite click, perhaps avail yourself of one of its rereleases to dive back in—or give it some time, wait until your knees start clicking and you’re losing sleep over your job and return to the game when you are ready. That is probably the most Okami thing you could possibly do. Amaterasu will be waiting for you, serene and beautiful, a hundred years at a time.