I frequently speculate about how certain odd things in a game may have come about due to relatively late decisions in the development process, late enough that the change might have left some detritus lying around. I strongly suspect one such change is the role the Water Dragon plays in Okami.
The second act of Okami is a cartoon political drama centered on Queen Himiko of the capital city of Sei-An, the capital’s high priestess Rao, and the underwater Dragonian people who live under the waves off the nearby Ryoshima Coast (it should be noted that while the people are mostly drawn from Japanese legends dating back millennia, the locations were made up for the game).
When you first arrive in Sei-An City, the city is crippled by plague, so all the side quests are unavailable. There’s not much to do except follow the main plot, meeting up with Priestess Rao and salvaging a ship sunk by the rampaging Water Dragon off the coast. As you leave the ship, you are pursued by the Water Dragon. It’s possible to escape the Water Dragon, but only if you’ve invested in enough magic reality-warping ink to draw enough lilypads to let you jump from pad to pad safely to shore (Okami’s protagonist is wolf-form Amaterasu, and therefore much faster jumping from pad to pad than swimming). If you’ve been spending your XP on health or wallet upgrades (and possibly even if you’ve just been blitzing the game and not getting any XP from side quests or feeding animals and stuff – I had tons of XP and lacked ink because I gave it a low priority, but I’m a fairly thorough player), or if you try a less effective escape strategy like creating one lilypad and using ink to create gusts of wind to blow you towards shore, you will be caught by the monster, whereupon you…end up safely on shore, exactly the same as if you’d successfully escaped the Water Dragon.
A number of adventures ensue. You shrink down to tiny size and have a Fantastic Voyage in the Emperor’s body (different guy from Queen Himiko, but he’s a minor character) to defeat the source of the plague, meet Queen Himiko and a friendly orca who can swim fast enough to outpace the Water Dragon so long as you’re not stupid which lets you explore the outlying islands, find one of the zodiac gods who’ve been sharing their magic reality warping ink brush powers with you, and discover the hidden whirlpool that leads down to the city of the Dragonians. There, they ask you to go on another Fantastic Voyage, except this time instead of shrinking down to fit in a human body, you are staying normal size to go into the Water Dragon and purge the corrupting spirits that have driven him mad. Plus, once you get rid of the Sei-An City plague, a bunch of side quests open up, so you might run around doing those for a while.
I bring all this up to make the point that you do a lot of stuff between your first encounter with the Water Dragon and the point where you go inside. And the method of getting inside is that there’s a chamber in the Dragonians underwater palace where the Water Dragon perpetually has his head stuck in with his mouth wide open. It’s kind of a weird way to get inside the Water Dragon, and matched with the weird part of gameplay where you get chased by the Water Dragon away from the sunken ship and have to guess the fastest way to escape on your first try or else get deposited on shore automatically and anti-climactically. I suspect that originally the dragon would swallow you as you tried to escape the wreck, and you would do the Water Dragon dungeon before you cleansed the plague in Sei-An City, and all the plot beats with the cat god’s tower and exploring the islands and the underwater palace of the Dragonians were added later, likely because Okami’s Act 2 is pretty lightweight without them.
Further evidence in support of this theory: Ryoshima Coast is split into two zones, Ryoshima Coast proper and North Ryoshima Coast. North Ryoshima Coast is where every single plot beat required to get inside the Water Dragon is located, but Ryoshima Coast proper is where the shipwreck is located and where your first encounter with the Water Dragon takes place. If you move the Water Dragon dungeon to happening after you get swallowed while escaping the shipwreck, you can very neatly excise North Ryoshima Coast with only three small edits required: First, you must move the departure point for Oni Island (the stronghold of Act 2’s main villain Ninetails, which can only be reached with the help of both Queen Himiko and the Water Dragon) from the viewing platform in North Ryoshima Coast to the nearly identical viewing platform in Ryoshima Coast proper. Second, you need to make the route from Shinshu Fields (the first region of the game) to Kamui (where Act 3 starts) accessible by double jumping, without needing the cat god’s wall climbing power, because the cat god is no longer a thing. Third, you need to edit references to thirteen zodiac gods to instead be references to twelve. You get the double jump much earlier than the cat climb (in fact, if the height of the cliff was shrunk but its shape was otherwise left alone, you could reach the top with the wall jump you have at the start of the game), but that’s no problem, because you also need the thunderbolt to get to Act 3, and you get the thunderbolt from Oni Island at the end of Act 2.
And you probably know that the Japanese zodiac only has twelve signs in it to begin with, and that Cat is not one of them. You may also know that the Cat takes the place of the Rabbit in the otherwise identical Vietnamese zodiac, and that Japanese/Chinese legend has stories explaining why Cat didn’t get to be part of their zodiac (short version: Because Rat is a bastard). Cat’s inclusion as a thirteenth zodiac god makes perfect sense, but it would have made just as much sense to exclude Cat, so I find it noteworthy that it is Cat who is found in North Ryoshima Coast, the one zodiac god who could plausibly have been added near the end of development rather than planned from the start.
And the cat climb power is used almost nowhere in the game except North Ryoshima Coast. While the internet has no encyclopedic listing of all cat climb points, the Okami wiki does note that the cat climb power is one of the least used in the whole game (the wiki uses the power’s official name of “cat walk” – I have switched to “cat climb” to make its use more intuitive to people who have not played the game, but it’s the same power). The only three cat climb points I remember in the entire game outside of North Ryoshima Coast is one in a dungeon in Agata Forest, the one you use to reach Act 3 in Shinshu Fields, and once in an Act 3 dungeon (although, in fairness, the last one actually would’ve required redesigning a small section of the dungeon to add, rather than just adjusting the height of a cliff and adding a cat statue). Contrariwise, the super-dig power you unlock that lets you dig up hidden objects which are buried in solid stone has a couple of dig points at every map in the game, even though you unlock it at around the same time as cat climb (it’s in Ryoshima Coast proper).
Here’s a bonus speculation, although I’m much less sure about this one: I think Act 2 was originally meant to either come before the confrontation with Orochi at the end of Act 1, or else its antagonists Ninetails and Blight were originally supposed to be unrelated to Orochi. In the game as it is, these two emerged from Orochi’s slain body as two out of four dark spirits who fled to cause mischief far away from Shinshu Field where half of Act 1 takes place. But Act 1 also takes you to Taka Pass, and Taka Pass borders Ryoshima Coast, and the reason why you can’t go to Ryoshima Coast and start Act 2 early is because the city checkpoint is closed due to the mysterious plague fog that’s descended on the city (you have to use the inferno power you get from the end of Act 1 to blow up a cannon and knock the bridge back down). But Orochi’s not dead yet, so Blight and Ninetails shouldn’t be doing anything! If Blight and Ninetails are just other, lesser demons, like the Spider Queen and Crimson Helm you fight in Act 1, then this makes perfect sense, but if they spawn when Orochi dies, then who’s causing the plague fog? Was Orochi doing it personally and then Blight took over after Orochi is defeated? If that’s the case, then what did defeating Orochi even accomplish?
There’s a lot of explanations for this early Blight problem. Maybe it was decided late in development that Act 1 should be completely self-contained, which required bumping the defeat of Orochi up to much sooner in the plot, so that Susano’s arc could be tied off there. Maybe the whole plot of Act 2 was always supposed to come after Act 1, but was originally disconnected and episodic from Act 1, with Blight and Ninetails getting up to shenanigans totally separate from what Orochi was doing further north, and they decided that this made the game seem aimless (which is still a problem even after Act 2’s villains are tied to Orochi’s defeat – the first time I tried to play Okami some 5 years ago, I drifted away early on in Act 2 because it felt like Orochi was the climax and I was playing the world’s longest post-game section). Maybe it’s just an oversight, because Act 2 was built after Act 1, and the reason why Ryoshima Coast is closed to regular foot traffic was made up by someone who was thinking of the story as it was during Act 2, without stopping to think that players would first come here while exploring the boundaries of Act 1. Maybe it’s just a bug, and the guy who talks about why the bridge is closed is supposed to talk about how they’re trying to keep the cursed zones out during Act 1, and switch to talking about trying to keep the plague in during Act 2, but the flags weren’t made correctly so the guard talks about the plague fog during Act 1.
North Ryoshima Coast, though, I’m pretty confident that was added in after the game was already well into production in order to put some more meat on the bones of Act 2.