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Fried Take - "Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus" (2002)

Even though I need to get back to watching Schwarzenegger films for my summer blog series (and I will, promise,) I figured I'd try and resurrect my Backlogged posts. Hey, remember, I said they would be infrequent to begin with, so no complaining. But I digress. This time around, I'm playing the first entry in a famous Sony mascot series that's much beloved by a devoted group of people. No, not Crash Bandicoot. Or Ratchet and Clank. Or Jak and Daxter. Nope, it's Sly Cooper and the Thevious Raccoonus, which I somehow managed to miss when I had my first PS2. But thanks to my trusty PS Vita, I managed to procure the HD Collection and started jamming out on the first one! Until I had to drive a car. Or beat chickens with a cane. Or chase down piranhas in a hovercraft to get fuel to light torches.

Look, just read on and we'll talk about it.

Sly Cooper was made during a simpler time. A time when companies competed not with grizzled white protagonists with guns, but with mascots that had some sort of central gimmick. Nintendo had been kicking ass for years with Mario and Kirby, and wasn't planning on stopping that gravy train anytime soon. Microsoft tried something a bit different with Blinx, to mixed results... and bought Rare, then ran them into the fucking ground. Sony? Well, Sony had a scattershot approach. They had just lost Crash and Spyro to Vivendi, who managed to churn out some halfway decent titles before folding and the latter character got ritually sacrificed and barely reincarnated into a Skylanders character. So, they needed to brainstorm. The results were three wildly divergent series that each brought something new to the table. And the least popular of these was the Sly Cooper franchise. Regarded for a long time as a cult favorite, the series mixed up stealth and platforming, while offering pastiches of old pulp cinema and homages to classic heist films. Y'know, the kinds of stuff that kids love. Anyway. This initial entry brings a lot of unique stuff to the table, and ties it together with gameplay that mostly works. Mostly. Emphasis on "mostly."

I'm sure that this game was incredible when it came out. Looking at all of the old reviews, I can totally respect why it got such high marks. The main game mechanics are pretty solid, even today, and the plot is charming, fun, and filled with some lovable characters. Honestly, when I'm platforming, sneaking, and getting the drop on enemies, it's a joy to play. Oh, and the boss battles? The boss battles are easily some of the most fun in all of gaming, from playing an impromptu rhythm game to getting in a martial arts duel with a fireball-throwing panda. So, what's the caveat?  Well, unfortunately, there are two caveats. And they're big ones. Firstly, the camera actively tries to kill Sly at every possible point. It's one of the most disagreeable, frustrating cameras I've dealt with in a while, and I'd hazard to say I've played games from the prior console generation that actually had better cameras and less finicky controls. Too many deaths were at the hands of the camera, picking an inconvenient angle to lock into, or swerving somewhere stupid. Downright annoying.

But that's not the worst sin of this game. No. The absolute worst part of Thievius Racoonus is the outdated structure coupled the godawful minigames. See, each world has a set of levels with one key per level. You need these keys that are inexplicably everywhere to do a thing in each world in order to progress. And it wouldn't be so bad if the ways to get these keys were platforming and sneaking. Unfortunately, you have to slog through some truly terrible minigames hamstrung by unforgiving difficulty and awful controls. There's a racing minigame with laughable physics controlled entirely with the analog stick, and a minigame where you have to kill 50 chickens because a ghost told you to, all while avoiding roosters that have bombs strapped to them. The minigames are stupid and pointless, and break the flow of the game. They require tedious amounts of trial and error, and ultimately boil down to dumb luck. I hate them with every bone in my fucking body.

The funny thing here is that even though I hate the structure and minigames of Thievius Racoonus, the game is still very endearing to me. Despite wanting to quit out of sheer rage and just move onto the sequels, which are supposedly way better, I decided to stick with this one. And I'm glad I did. Once you move past the frustration and outdated mechanics, it's a stellar game. The story is one that managed to capture my interest, which is rare for these kinds of titles, and the whole idea of a platformer mixed with a stealth game is novel. As a standalone game by today's standards, it's a bit rough. But as the first part of a tetralogy, it works perfectly. It's still charming, if a bit rough around the edges, and worth playing just to establish the characters and experience the framework upon which the franchise is built. I haven't regretted my time with it one bit, despite outright despising some aspects, and it's worth a look if you can forgive its faults.


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