Sly Cooper was probably the least popular of Sony’s trio of furry 3D Platformer mascots from the PS2 era. He was also the only one whose games I never played at the time, though I knew about him and have seen video and maybe played a demo over the years.
While Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon were Sony’s mascot platformers from the PS1 era, Sony did not own the rights to either character and they both went multi-platform in the sixth generation. Sony responded by creating a fresh set of characters, mostly using the same studios who had built Spyro and Crash. Naughty Dog made Jak & Daxter and focused on large open levels, evolving into something like family friendly GTA clones (though with separated locations and linear stage designs at points) with the second and third game. Insomniac created Ratchet & Clank, and focused on creative weapon and combat design, as well as a heavy focus on storytelling and minigames. Sly Cooper was the third leg of the stool, and while he was made by a newish studio (Sucker Punch) with only one game, for the N64, under their belt, he was pitched as marrying 3D platforming and stealth gameplay. Sly’s games didn’t seem to review or sell quite as well as the other two, and he seems even more forgotten (though he did get a PS3 game, unlike Jak & Daxter) but Sucker Punch is obviously still thriving as a studio and Sly got the PS3 trilogy remaster same as Ratchet and Jak.
For my own part I never played Sly because I did not like stealth games at the time, but I did pick up the remastered trilogy for like $4 on a PSN sale and after playing a bunch of Ratchet & Clank games in a row I got curious enough about Sly to brave the broken PS3 store and download the games.
So did I like it? Reader, I platinumed it. In fact it’s my first Playstation 3 platinum even though I’ve owned the system since 2009 (and yes this means that I got several plats on PS5 before I got my first plat on PS3.)
The first thing I learned about Sly Cooper when I started playing it is that it’s not actually a stealth game. It’s just a 3D platformer, starring the scion of a family of master thieves who were wiped out by an evil gang of criminals and had their book of thiefy secrets stolen and divided. Sly wants to get revenge for his family and retrieve the book and he will do that by platforming his way through over 40 stages of mostly linear platforming and minigames.
The gameplay in Sly is pretty typical for 3D platformers of the time. Sly can double jump, cling to various surfaces, whack enemies with his cane, and will eventually learn a host of other moves like being able to roll around or throw his hat as a remote bomb. There are five worlds in Sly Cooper (after the intro level) and the first four involve an intro level, a hub world, six other missions, and a boss fight, while the last one changes things up. The game does have some nods to stealth in that there are guards who walk around with visible vision cones (in the form of flashlight beams) and will almost always hit you if you get spotted, and there are a bunch of stealth-themes traps like spotlights and laser fences, but the vast majority of the game is more thief-themed than actually stealthy. There are enemies who you have to fight to progress and Sly is encouraged to smash up the environment for coins without anyone being able to hear his violent assaults on the furniture. You’ll need those coins too because every 100 of them gives you a lucky charm, which allows Sly to take a hit or fall into a pit without dying, and that’s useful because, possibly as another nod to stealth type things, this is a one hit kill platformer. Sly can have up to two charms at one time (any additional charms earned after that give Sly an extra life, because this game also has a lives system) and if you die a lot in any one level the game will start spawning you with them; a bonus you will continue to get even if you run out of lives and have to continue. In fact continuing also lets you keep any collectables you’ve found and just has the effect of starting you from the beginning of the level instead of a checkpoint. Also appreciated is the fact that the game tracks what in-game cut scenes and tool tips etc... you've already seen and doesn't repeat them when you're replaying an encounter, so you don't need to see the boss intro each time or listen to Bentley's radio prattle about how to do things you've already done a lot (like cling to pipes) over and over. This is very good design for a game this old. The fact that losing all your lives doesn't really affect much makes the lives system feel pretty superfluous to the game.
What’s not superfluous to the game are the only real collectable; green bottles with bits of codes in them that will allow you to open a vault at the end of each level with the help of your friend Bentley should you collect all of them (generally between 20 and 40) in any level. These bottles are strewn throughout the environment, often out in the open but sometimes cleverly hidden, and frequently in clumps of two or three. As collectables go these are just okay, fun to break but not visually interesting and often placed in boring locations, but unlocking a vault gives Sly a new ability, ranging from the fairly useless (roll around slightly faster than you can walk; see names and brief trivia about enemy thugs in your binoculars) to the very useful (you no longer drown in water) to the kind of gamebreaking (you can move while invisible, allowing you to walk past most spotlights, alarms, and guards.) I thoroughly enjoyed gaining the various abilities, which made for an excellent reward for collectable completionism and are the reason I bothered with the plat. Most of the levels allow for at least some backtracking and are only a minute or two long once you know what you’re doing, and some of the vaults unlock “blueprints” that let you see where the collectables are, so the process was never onerous or boring, and some of the best times I had with the game involved searching out a final bottle or two in a level cleared of hazards before finding it and getting some cool new power.
I had a lot of fun with the 3D platforming levels of Sly Cooper And The Thievius Raccoonus, but the minigame levels have aged very poorly. Crappy dual stick shooters, crappy turret sequences that feel floaty and bad using the Dualshock 3 analog stick, annoying 3D Super Offroad clones, and a mode where you have to bash 50 chickens while dodging roosters with bombs just don’t play well in 2021. None were super difficult so I can’t say I ever raged at the game, but I always wanted to get back to the core platforming rather than spend my time messing about with some side mode that probably seemed cool in 2002 but just isn’t fun anymore.
What is still a little fun but not as fun as it probably once was is the story. Sly’s comic book style voiced cinematics are still stylish, and his turtle friend Bentley and hippo friend Murray are likable enough, but Sly’s voice actor sounds bored and the game’s brand of early 2000s “stereotype as character” writing has aged very badly. The voodoo swamp alligator boss and Chinese fireworks factory panda boss probably didn’t seem as problematic then as they do now, but Sly’s love interest/nemesis, a police fox named Carmelita, would have been cringey even then. Especially the way the game calls her a Latina hottie in faux newspaper coverage after each episode. It’s not the worst stuff I’ve seen in a video game but it is jarring, especially from the company that would go on to make Ghost of Tsushima, a game that’s sensitive enough about Japanese culture to have been embraced by the Japanese market.
I came away from Sly Cooper having enjoyed the game but not loving it. I thought it was about a 7.5 out of 10. I decided to read Jeff’s old review on Gamespot and he gave it a 7.8, but his views were pretty different from mine. I liked that the game was a relatively short experience, since I got it very cheap and it didn’t stick around long enough to wear out its welcome despite its early PS2 era jank including contextual commands like grabbing surfaces that don’t always work and a camera that can be problematic even though it has preset angles designed for the mostly linear levels. On the other hand Jeff loved the minigames and thought they broke up the pacing well. In 2002 that might have been true but in 2021 they’re just too clunky and simple to be enjoyable. One area where we agree is on the visuals, which are marvelous and have aged very well. Cartoony games that have a unique style always age better than realistic looking games. Sly Cooper’s graphics and animations still look great and add personality and charm to the proceedings. Jeff really liked the soundtrack, I thought it was fine but not memorable.
I liked Sly Cooper a little bit less as I got further into the game. The first world was a ton of fun and the second world was probably the highlight; a neon-drenched casino city with gangster dogs as enemies and some really tight levels that coiled back on themselves. The third and fourth worlds were aesthetically less interesting (a swamp and a snowy Chinese mountain) and the final world is just a boring volcano level like we’ve seen in every video game ever. The game also ramps up the number of minigames towards the end, until the final world features almost none of the platforming stuff that I actually enjoyed. The boss fights in Sly all feature unique mechanics (including making the third world boss a rhythm game) and the last boss is an irritating Space Harrier type battle that I found frustrating and probably took me half an hour to learn and beat. I was left with something of a sour taste in my mouth, though it wasn’t enough to ruin the experience.
Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus has aged a little weirdly compared to many games. Some of the things that were charming about it in 2002, like the graphics and the solid level design, are still charming today. Other things, like the story and the game’s variety, have aged poorly. On the other hand some of its flaws at launch, like its short length, are much less of an issue when you’re not paying full price and it’s not a major release on a current platform. Is it worth playing in 2021? For 3D platformer fans and people nostalgic for the PS2 era. It’s not an essential game, but it has its moments. And whatever you think of it, it’s definitely not a stealth game!