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The white wolf in Okami HD is running through a small village. Image: Clover Studio/Capcom

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Okami still outclasses every other Zelda-like

The game’s gorgeous, vast world is full of secrets

Nicole Clark (she/her) is a culture editor at Polygon, and a critic covering internet culture, video games, books, and TV, with work in the NY Times, Vice, and Catapult.

Amaterasu is running. Her paws strike the dampened earth. Wildflowers bloom at her feet, a plume of life always in her wake.

In Okami, you play as the Japanese sun goddess, in the form of white wolf Amaterasu, on a mission to save the blighted land of Nippon. In 2008, with its myriad regions and sizable map, the game gave me my first taste of unimpeded movement within a virtual world. Exiting Kamiki Village and entering Shinshu Field, the first new region, revealed space vast enough for me to go from a loping run into an all-out sprint, and yet was not so large as to make me feel hopelessly lost. There was only one thing to do with all of this space: explore.

In 2023, Polygon is embarking on a Zeldathon. Join us on our journey through The Legend of Zelda series, from the original 1986 game to the release of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and beyond.

This would become a theme: entering a new area with the drive to dig, with my grubby little paws, into its secrets. Okami constantly teased this idea of more — that behind any barrier, there might exist a dungeon, or even an entirely new map segment. Just one more boss, and one more unlocked power, might be the key to another mysterious swath of land. With its loop of exploration, discovery, and more exploration, Okami has often been compared to the Zelda games (especially Twilight Princess, thanks to Link’s lupine form). Because I played Okami long before I ever played a Zelda game, it became my watermark for the kind of action-adventure in which discovery is a driving force.

Okami’s expansive move set comes in the form of Celestial Brush powers that Amaterasu wields to revitalize the land and fight the demons plaguing it. As I played, I’d pause to manually draw a slash, loop, or other shape using a calligraphy-style brush, creating a tornado or a fire. Outside of combat — you’re also given the option to fight with a giant JRPG-style sword — brushstrokes modify the world by healing plants or summoning rain. Though the game was initially released for PlayStation 2 in 2006, I played it on Nintendo Wii in 2008. (I beat it again on the Wii in 2020, and started a new run of Okami HD last year.) At the time it was released, a number of critics called the Wii’s motion controls a great fit for Okami’s Celestial Brush mechanic. But I found the Wii to be notoriously finicky, hard to manage, and liable to misread any shake of the wrist.

The white wolf is fighting the Cat-O-Nine-Tails boss, a large animal that looks like a fox or a cat, with nine tails. Image: Clover Studio/Capcom

It was a pain in the ass. Amaterasu’s ever-expanding palette of moves meant learning how to execute a new motion on the finicky Wiimote with perfect accuracy and timing. I would flail my arms about with all the gracelessness of a child holding a crayon in their sweaty fist. On more than one occasion, I nearly battered my parents’ TV. (My dad would check my wrists to make sure I had the straps on before I was allowed to play.) Imagine a boss battle that you have to repeat ad nauseam, because the controller won’t let you draw a straight line across the screen, and then rewatching the cutscene again and again every time you fail. Okami’s boss fights aren’t hard. Its paintbrush mechanics were.

But I didn’t care. These brushstrokes yielded such gorgeous results in Okami’s mutable world. An “O” around a tree’s naked branches made it burst with cherry blossoms, a vision of abundance. A curlicue in the air created a zephyr that gently riffled through the sky. The world was my sketchbook, and I wanted to beautify the game’s gorgeous woodblock and sumi-e ink art style. Each of these little actions brought the wolf one step closer to healing desiccated soil or restoring the enormous Guardian Saplings that anchored each region. I was also always snorting with laughter; Celestial Brush tornadoes could sweep up enemies as if in a blender. Drawing the sun in the sky instantly triggered daytime, waking up villagers — sorry to all the shopkeepers I forced into constant clopenings.

In a world before internet access gave me all the answers, I never knew whether hidden passageways would yield a small, buried treasure or entirely new regions blanketed with snow. Every boss fight, and every new Celestial Brush move, meant more of the world to unravel. A well-placed cherry bomb might reveal a chest with an extra ink pot. A cavern brimming with water — just too long for the wolf’s swimming stamina to breach — became a portal to another region, once I had the power to make lily pad platforms to traverse it.

I was also pulled into the game’s dungeons, each with a unique gimmick that taught me how to wield a new brush power. Even now, after hundreds of hours spent across Metroidvanias, these puzzles still strike me as unique. I summoned vines to jump from point to point in a swamp dungeon, drew lines from enchanted cat statues to invoke cat climb powers — which allowed me to scale up towers — and even used the brush to turn back time. Like in Zelda games, dungeons had elemental themes: I used levers to lower the waterline in a cursed pirate ship, and fire powers in a lava-themed dungeon. Though Okami’s puzzles are less open-ended than those of Breath of the Wild — it’s pretty obvious which brushstrokes you use to solve things — I was still wowed by the powers I amassed, and how they let me modify the world.

The white wolf looks out at the sea, and the sunken pirate ship sitting on the shore. Image: Clover Studio/Capcom

Playing Okami HD after playing a handful of Zelda titles has only revitalized my appreciation for the cult favorite. Okami’s woodblock art style in particular has remained beautiful over the course of numerous remasters (most recently, the Okami HD rerelease for PS4, Xbox One, and PC, which came to Nintendo Switch in 2018). I expected a larger gulf between the visuals of the relatively underpowered Wii and last-gen consoles, but it speaks to the whimsy and enduring vision of the game’s art style that it remains gorgeous today.

Sure, it’s a bit awkward to take your hand off of the Switch’s joystick in order to draw the brushstrokes on a touch screen, but it’s still leagues ahead of the finicky Wii controls. Okami’s gentle level design and open plains are not so new to me anymore, and yet this new, tactile way of playing has renewed that childlike sense of wonder.

Okami has become synonymous, for me, with that sense memory of newness — a particular pocket of adventure video game “firsts,” which felt novel as a kid who had only played Game Boy SP platformers and PC edutainment point-and-click titles before. It was a sensation awakened again when I played Breath of the Wild, a game with shocking scope, ambition, and whimsy, one that remade the notion of exploration and creative problem solving. In BOTW you can climb tall peaks and spires — gliding gently from such perches — tame an unruly horse, and fly into the sky using inane bomb physics. Okami’s toolkit is comparatively lightweight. And yet, the games are linked in my mind for the impression they left. I am always chasing this motivation to explore, and I hope to feel it again when Tears of the Kingdom arrives.

For now, with Okami’s brush in hand, I am content to wait.