Sly 4: Thieves in Time essentially the last of a dying breed – the high-profile mascot platformer. Can Sanzaru Games resurrect a promising gaming model, or is the genre dead in the water?
It might not seem like it, but there’s a lot of pressure on Sanzaru Games and the upcoming Sly 4: Thieves in Time. For one, Sanzaru took over from Sucker Punch as game developer, so it’ll have a different look, feel, and gaming sensibility. It’s up in the air whether this is a good thing or a bad thing – we’ll see come October. But my bigger concern is that, in this day and age of super soldiers fighting in futuristic wars, alien invasions, or zombie apocalypses, of explosions and shootouts and humans involved in the fray (if we’re lucky, we’ll see some robots or sophisticated AI), Sly Cooper is essentially the last of smart, well-characterized “mascots” – non-human characters involved in a silly yet complex situation, all within a silly yet complex world.
The 3D mascot platformer took off in the wake of Mario 64. Developers and designers followed a very simply template – cute character, items to collect, bad guys to fight – and unloaded a sheer number of them onto us. We went through this before in the wake of Sonic the Hedgehog, substituting 3D for 2D, and very few of them survived or lived on in the collective conscious – Rocket Knight may be the only exception. Likewise, of the sheer number of 3D knockoffs we got, only a handful of them really survived: Jak and Daxter, Sly Cooper, Ratchet and Clank, Spyro the Dragon.
Naughty Dog essentially stopped with Jak and Daxter, especially since their Uncharted property took off. Ratchet and Clank was going strong right up until All-4-One, an ill-advised multiplayer game that sacrificed the wonder of a single-player, expansive adventure for an insular, complicated, too-many-players experience (it also surprisingly narrowed down the expansive cast and focused on a few key character who, while fine, were way overexposed). Insomniac Games claims to return back to basics with the upcoming new game Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault, although emphasis on “tower defense” doesn’t bode well. Spyro had a complex go of it, starting off as one of the many 3D platformer clones (yet still a good game), only to revamp into a questionably dark series of games that many considered okay, but lacked the whimsy fun of the first series. Then there was attaching the name to the Skylander games, and his awful, awful redesign. It was a classic case of burying someone alive.
Sly Cooper wasn’t immune from diminishing returns. The third game of the series was fun but way too wild, although it had a meekly satisfying end. Still, it was a strong series of games, and it’s nice that the fourth game will be a direct sequel, not a revamp or reboot or some way-off-the-mark followup, all things that tainted the franchises mentioned earlier.
Beyond that, Sly Cooper’s success will determine whether the mascot era is ultimately dead and buried, or if there’s still life and energy in the concept. Personally, I think there is: it’s simply a matter of taking those types of characters and settings and building them up to be larger and more detailed, similar to a mascot version of something like Uncharted, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, or even Gears of War. Focusing mascot games on stylized-yet-straight-forward platforming, or as the occasional outlandish RPG, is limiting already, and given the rarity for developers and designers to find inspiration in well-trodded ground, there’s little hope for that road to be in any way interesting. I even over-explained an idea I had here.
So here’s hoping Sly 4: Thieves in Time get the critical and commercial plaudits needed to resurrect a dying breed of games with immense potential. If it fails, I guess I’ll have to learn how to curse like a twelve-year old. Again.