A few years ago, I walked into a GameStop and asked the sales rep for a game without guns or sports. It wasn’t a sarcastic question and I wasn’t trying to make a point; I had been unexpectedly gifted an Xbox 360 and wanted a new game. The thing is, I don’t like guns or sports in my real life, and I don’t see why I’d change my stance on them in my videogames. The sales rep was flummoxed. Eventually he suggested that I pick up the videogame adaptation of G-Force, which is a movie about violent animated guinea pigs. “It’s better than you think,” he said. And, like, yeah. It would have to be.
Look, I know who Gabe Newell is. I know who Jonathan Blow is. I know about the current rumors of the Xbox 720, or whatever it’s called. I can quote Manny Calavera. I am a fan of the medium, is what I’m saying. I just haven’t really been an active participant.
And this week, I bought—okay, requested a (free) review unit of—the first new videogame I’ve played in about eight years. It’s the fourth in a series of games about a raccoon master thief named Sly Cooper. A little about Sly Cooper: he is best friends and members of a heisting crew with a turtle and a hippo, and he is in love with a policewoman fox named Carmelita who is typically seen shaking her fist and shouting “I’ll get you, Cooper!!!!” in between attempting to shoot him with a blaster pistol. I’ve been playing the game for a few nights, giggling, remembering what I liked about videogames and marveling at what happens in them now.
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time came out this past week. I was nervous to play it, because the creator of the original Sly Cooper trilogy has moved on to other games (they’ve since made the Infamous series) and Sanzaru Games, a small firm in California, took over. But, to my relief, it’s great. Sanzaru captured what I loved so much about the Sly series: you sneakily leap around multi-level, sprawling environments, usually cities, climbing ropes and ping-ponging from roof to spire to telephone cable to drainage pipe to tower to top of tree. You press the same button to grab, to climb, to balance on tall pointy things, to swing from hooks and climb ladders and sneak along edges. The only buttons you need are the jump button and this all-purpose action button. It lets you perform outrageous, complex physical feats with total ease. And that gives you freedom, as long as you remain unseen. And then you steal things in elaborate, multi-step heists, because Sly Cooper games are cartoon animal versions of Ocean’s 11.
The new game is so much more gorgeous than I expected. I had no idea what the PS3 was capable of, having ignored gaming for the better part of a decade. Jungle scenes are impossibly lush. Sewers are dank and palpably filthy. Rats scurry along. Water flows cartoonishly—the aesthetic of Sly Cooper is very comic-book, with words like KA-POW! appearing on-screen when you smack an enemy with your cane—but realistically. The cheesy dialogue and memorable voice actors—including Kevin Miller as Sly Cooper, played with about 80% charm and 20% oil—are back and perfect. This time, there’s a time machine, which you will use to visit the ancestors of Sly Cooper in improbable times and places. You find Rioichi Cooper, a sushi master, ninja, and broad stereotype, in feudal Japan. “Tennessee Kid” Cooper joins up in the Wild West, and Sir Galleth in medieval England. These ancestors will help Sly and the gang (remember, the turtle and the hippo? That’s the gang) stop a dastardly time-traveling villain from rewriting history. It’s all delightfully ridiculous.
The first enemy is a cigar-chomping Cuban tiger who is also a “merciless” mercenary. Later you will contend with a gun-slinging armadillo and a skunk mastermind named Le Paradox.
Playing Thieves in Time reminds me what I used to love about games. I remember the pleasure of completing a difficult, precise sequence after failing five, ten times before. I remember sitting in a dark room with a beer next to me, exploring new exotic levels for hours and hours. I remember looking at my watch and realizing it’s 3AM on a Monday. I remember the surreality of doing normal things like cooking dinner after battling cartoon armadillos for an hour. I remember being so absorbed in the game that I forget to blink, that it feels like I’m sucked through the glass of my crummy television and am playing the game from the other side. This is fun.
The game is made for people like me, those who came of age with the PlayStation 2 and have fond memories of Sly Cooper. Games like these don’t get made these days, I don’t think, except for the rare exception like Portal or a Zelda sequel. Innocent games, games theoretically for kids that have enough challenge and wit in them to please adults like me. It’s possible that games have just evolved beyond me, or that the only games out there now are idiotic hyperviolent blockbusters, online war simulators, sports games, impenetrable art games, and Mario, that eternal little bastard. It’s possible that Sly Cooper is a retro game—in other words, a relic. It’s also possible I don’t know what I’m talking about, that I have no right to talk about games in any general sense, having withdrawn myself from the conversation for so long. But I love Sly Cooper, and I would love to play more games that I love. I’m just not sure they’re out there anymore.