Sly Cooper: A Retrospective

Sly Cooper: A Retrospective

When you think of platformers, you immediately think of the tidal wave of titles to hit living rooms in the eighties and nineties, when red hats and blue blurs ruled the tubed TVs in the afternoon. Traditionally sidescrolling in an attempt to fit the most expansive game into the time’s storage, graphical, and technical limitations. They emphasized difficulty to draw out their length and relied on split-second timing to complete. In retro-revivalist games, we see many of the same characteristics, with only improved graphics–even when choosing the 8-bit style. There is the punishing difficulty of Super Meat Boy, the graphics and gameplay of Braid, and the (relative) brevity of Thomas Was Alone.

This is not where my nostalgia trip takes me.

I’ll admit something–I never played console sidescrollers outside of when I visited my cousins. No NES or SNES, no Sega, nada. The only ones I played at all were the Super Mario Land games for the Gameboy, and odd kid-friendly licensed titles–also for Nintendo handhelds. And I sucked at them. I never finished any of these. A year or two ago, I watched someone play through the first one in this series and was shocked at how short it was. I remember my struggles to get past the second world as a six-year-old and couldn’t believe how short it was.

My trip back down memory lane takes me to early 3-D platformers like Super Mario 64 and the Spyro series. I only played these casually, watching my mom and sister play them more than I ever did myself. The PS2 era ones are where I remember spending all of my time.

See one of my best friends in middle school–and the only one who lived only a creek and some woods away–had a PS2 and a plethora of games. I would spend entire weekends and snowed-in weeks at her house, treating her family like my own. When we weren’t playing hide and seek or truth or dare, we were camped out in front of her television. Here I was introduced to one of my favorite games series on the planet–Sly Cooper. I was transfixed from the start.

Here was the first time I remember ever truly noticing the environment puzzle element of platformers. One of the first levels I ever played involved making your way through an entire library while inside a barrel. The guards couldn’t see you if you stayed still, but the barrel wouldn’t jump with you, so you had to plan your path carefully. In the first game you could only take one hit unless you had a power-up, so fighting enemies was next to impossible, emphasizing the stealth.

Not going to lie, I was probably an awful friend. After a certain point, all I wanted to do was play this game. After the second one came out and introduced missions and more health, I became even more obsessed. Finally in the eighth grade I got my own PS2 and both of the games that were out and played them feverishly. These games were worth the nerves I got turning on in my room at night in the dead of winter when it was never light out at home after school.

The third one came out while I was in high school and extremely sick. But that didn’t stop me from playing until well past sunrise in a steroid-induced frenzy. I would even go down and eat breakfast with parents before even going to bed for the night (morning?).

After playing these games so many times over that I could predict the levels better than a senior citizen can predict bowel movements, I started looking for any games that had the same stealth and parkour elements. Obviously I picked up the first Assassin’s Creed when I got a PS3 and was partially satiated. It turned out that gameplay not the only thing that drew me in.

See this game’s cast of character is full of archetypes, but somehow makes them lovable, letting the games’ events naturally bring out character development emotion you would never expect. You have your snarky, rule-breaking ring-leader, you have you thick-head but loyal muscle, and your practical and cautious brain. You even get your sassy and strong female. You get comic villains presented in the style of antagonists to Adam West’s Batman. There were twists and injuries and tests of faith you would never expect in this genre at the time, and you would never know it if you hadn’t played it yourself.

Needless to say, I started a countdown the moment a fourth game was announced. I didn’t care that it was being made by a new company–I just wanted it. Considering the third game left the ending open–not a cliffhanger, but definite room for elaboration–I was ready to see where these characters were. It even gave me the opportunity to meet the ancestors who had invented all of the game’s mechanics, the ones who started it all. Well, besides the developers, writers, artists…but you know what I mean.

The story was great; the main gameplay was great; all was great. This game just missed the balance a little. Here the minigames present in the series from before were suddenly much more prevalent. Where before there were a few missions in each world based in minigames (hacking, tower defense, racing), there was still more platforming, brawling, and sneaking than anything else. I feel like the new developers wanted to put their own stamp on the game by doing this but seeing this as the only way to create new mechanics. Not to sound like a stickler for lore in this kind of game, Sly’s move set is tied to the Thievius Racoonus, meaning he already knew all he was going to know. This meant having to put more emphasis on Murray’s smashing and driving, and Bentley’s remote control cars and hacking skills if they were to make anything that wasn’t iterative.

I know the review of this game were mixed, and I can understand why, but not for the reason above. This game was a passion project. Sanzuru was the developer who put out the HD collection for the PS3 and and were given permission to keep working with the IP. Personally, it made me excited to have someone who felt as strongly about the continuation of the series as I did to be the ones developing it, and this heightened my view of what the game would be. But instead of expecting a certain quality, I expected a certain game. What I wanted was iteration. I wanted back that feeling of being a teenager who spent months out of school at a time but could fly from building to building and walk across tightropes no matter the state my body was in. I wanted the heart-in-throat feeling when the sneaking sound effect starts when walking behind an enemy to pickpocket him. I wanted to hear the voiceovers during the graphic-novel-style cutscenes. While I got all of these things, it made the new parts feel like a hurdle I had to jump to get back to the real game.

Have any of you ever had this happen with a franchise? Either your nostalgia glasses make it impossible to enjoy new games? Maybe a new one never came out or is stuck in production hell? Let me know. Commiserate with me.

Also Google the weirdness that is a Sly Cooper movie. He has a goatee. That is all.

Stay tuned.