Out of the Bargain Bin: Sly Cooper

I used to play a lot of video games.  Back in the 80s, I collected pretty much every Apple-compatible computer RPG I could.  Ultima, Bard’s Tale, Might and Magic, the works.  Infocom’s old text adventures were favorites, too.  When Nintendo ruled the consoles, I got those, too, and a fair selection of puzzle and action games while I was at it.

I don’t play so much any more, although this is a factor of lack of time, and not lack of interest.  When I do, it’s mostly Warcraft, Guild Wars, or one of the Civilization games — all of which I know I’ll like, and all of which offer a great deal to do.  Rarely any more do I buy a new game.  Assassin’s Creed was the last.  (It was worth the price.)  Mostly, I just don’t feel the urge to play something right when it comes out.  I’ve got games to play.  I can wait a while to try whatever it is.

I do buy used games somewhat more regularly, though.

Right now, in the dying days of the last console generation and the dawn of the new one, is a good time to buy used games for those old consoles.  So I’ve been searching out those games that I’d put off.  I’m still looking for Psychonauts and Okami, but today I picked up one of the few PS2 RPGs that I haven’t yet played:  Final Fantasy X-2.  I wasn’t impressed by X, and I don’t expect the sequel to blow my mind.  But for under $10, it’s hard to go wrong with an RPG.  I could practically use the disc as a coaster and still come out okay.

Lying next to Final Fantasy X-2 in the bargain bin was Sly Cooper and the Thievius Racoonus.  I remembered hearing the name; it’d been a popular enough game to spawn two sequels, and I had a vague impression that it’d received favorable reviews.  I knew it was a platformer, too.  I’m not a huge fan of platformers; my precision with a joystick has never been all that good.  That’s one reason I gravitated to RPGs and turn-based strategy in the first place.  I can select from a menu with the best of ’em.

I knew the name Sucker Punch from the upcoming Infamous, though.  And it cost less than my lunch would, so what the hell, right?  Maybe it’d turn out to be playable despite my joystick incompetence, the way Assassins’ Creed had been.  And if it turned out to be more along the agonizing lines of a Prince of Persia, no big loss.

I’m happy to say it’s closer to the former case.  The game itself is kind of unforgiving — there’s no health bar.  It’s the old-school “get hit and you die” approach.  Collecting coins in the levels or running across a rare item will give you an extra hit or two, and you’ve got 5 lives (with the possibility of collecting an extra), but for the most part, you get hit and you die.

Mitigating this is the general absence of enemies.  There are a couple, but the game focuses on figuring out a way through the obstacles.  As opposed to, for instance, figuring out a way through the obstacles while constantly swordfighting with three monsters, all while fireballs are being lobbed at you from the background.  Platforming is not my forte, but this is laid-back enough for me to deal with.  At the same time, actually executing the plan remains fairly challenging, relying a great deal on timing.  I’ve had mixed results so far, but I’ve managed to get through the early stages without too much grief, and I’ve had a lot of fun doing it.

If the gameplay were all there were to it, though, this game wouldn’t have grabbed me the way it has.

Mainly, it’s just charming.  The animated style of the graphics and the cartoon-like cut scenes might seem a bit childish at first, but they suit Sly’s over-the-top exploits very well.  The graphics are dated now, of course, but they hold up reasonably; the characters are a little blocky, but the game still looks pretty good.  The music is likewise a good fit.  The voice acting, especially Sly’s, is surprisingly good.  The writing is downright artful; the characters really spring to life.  That they’re archetypal, even cliche, no doubt helps — but this is still an achievement.  Many games try to do “the rogue with a heart of gold” and still manage to fail, for instance.  Sly Cooper pulls it off with flair.

The story is pretty basic:  Sly, a raccoon thief (with a heart of gold), and his band of merry accomplices are master thieves, who steal only from other criminals.  Convenient, yes, but like Sly says, where’s the challenge in stealing from normal people?  The five particular criminals he’s after in this game have stolen the Thievius Raccoonus, a codex of secret thievery techniques belonging to Sly’s family.  He’s out to get it back, and to take them down while he’s at it.

Simple plot, simple characters, even relatively simple gameplay, but there’s something brilliant about the way all of it comes together.

It’s a very pleasant surprise.  I just might be adding the sequels to my list.

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