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Sly Cooper, the Heist Game

Sly Cooper is the kind of series that you can’t replicate.  It’s funny.  It’s thrilling.  A game about criminals that’s criminally underrated.  The early 2000s were part of a golden age of 3D platformers, my favorite kind of game ever.  Rare had been kicking ass the past few years with games like Conker and Banjo-Kazooie, Nintendo had made games like Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64, Sega made the Sonic Adventure and Jet Set Radio games, and there were a whole lot of other contenders.  You had Gex, and Croc, and…Ty the Tasmanian Tiger?  Sure.

But, you know who were the champs of the new millennium?  Sony.

Crash Bandicoot ran the U.S. on PS1, and the same company went on to make the Jak series.  Spyro creators Insomniac Games moved on from PS1 to create Ratchet and Clank.  During this wave of awesome, Sucker Punch studios created a new game called Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus.

This game was trying something new: a cel-shaded, bouncy game that was basically a heist film under your control.  It stars Sly Cooper, an agile and suave raccoon, and his friends.  Murray the hippo, the mechanic and muscle, and Bentley the turtle, the planner and tech wiz.  They have to get together and foil the plans of Clockwerk, a steel bird of prey who seeks immortality and murdered Sly’s parents as a child.  To get to him, they have to bring down his colorful band of fiends in each game.

First of all, this game is beautiful.  The cutscenes look awful, since it was hard to make expressions and body language in this game.  But all of the in-game animations look fantastic.  Everything is bouncy and fluid, and all the characters have the proper weight.  Jumping as Murray feels much heavier than jumping as Sly, who feels more fluid than Bentley.  The slick primary colors, black outlines of the characters, and speed lines from quick movements combine to form a timeless art style.  Each of the games have around 5-6 different environments.  Some of them are tropes, like jungle world and ice world, but the in-game story makes them unique because all the locations are based on the real world.

Some of my favorites are the mountains of China, the snowy plains of Canada, the jungles of India and the streets of Paris.  None of the worlds are huge, but each world consists of a series of missions.  The missions are set up like your average heist film: you have to platform and fight your way through to gather intel, sabotage key structures, and use disguises.  They culminate in a final mission to fight a boss, who also happens to be the real, narrative boss of their own criminal outfit.

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Sly facing an enemy in Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves. (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

The missions mean that there have to be a lot of indoor spaces to get through.  That’s the beauty of these games: the depth of each world.  Missions will take you into different environments as the three main characters, and the fact that major structures have insides and outsides makes them feel real.  You can pickpocket and find clue bottles to open vaults, which will always be hidden in the corners of specific buildings.  If you find all the clue bottles, you can open the vault to get a special ability.  Brilliant.  Why?  Because it makes you explore every corner of the outside world, and then find your prize on the inside.

Paris Safehouse
The Sly gang in their Paris safehouse. (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

I’ve been a fan of heist movies my whole life.  I still watch the Ocean movies, The Italian Job, and even Now You See Me.  I love Sly Cooper because it’s solid, well-designed, and bursting with personality and color, but also because it captures the great things about heist movies.  Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves does the team-building perfectly right.  All of the games use the classic heist technique of giving the villain so much personality that they’re a major character.  In fact, a couple villains eventually join the team.  How cool is that?

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Sly 4: Thieves in Time (Photo: PlayStation Europe via Flickr)

I rented Sly 3 from Blockbuster one day and never returned it.  Still in its relic of a case.  To this day, it’s one of my favorite games of all time.  Sly Cooper as a franchise is one of those rare ones that shouldn’t exist — that take several amazing elements and somehow make them work together.  These games are timeless.  The future, though, is uncertain.  There was a Sly Cooper movie in production that’s now in development hell.  A TV show is announced with no release dates or trailers.  And a new game?  Absurd.

If Sly Cooper dies, I’ll be crushed, because we’ll lose a series that does so many things perfectly.  If you’ve never played these games, play them.  Make them a little less obscure.  They get my highest recommendation, and I guarantee that the Cooper Gang will steal your heart too.