There were no characters quite like the thieving raccoon of Sly Cooper when Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus snuck onto PlayStation 2 in 2002. In 2017, the series is now 15 years old. Even so, its signature wit, cel-shaded comic book-like art style, and endearing heist planning gameplay hasn't aged a single day.
Sly (along with the heroes of Ratchet & Clank and Daxter of Jak & Daxter) was a wise-cracking hero in the same vein that we see in a lot of game protagonists of today, perhaps most notably in Uncharted's Nathan Drake. Sharing a lot in common (they're both thieves, naturally), the only thing that truly divides them is their bodies; Sly is a raccoon in an interactive cartoon, Drake is a dude who murders people for treasure. Sly can be seen as one small part in inching forward a grandiose change in video game heroes; protagonists who toss out jokes and commentary almost incessantly. Yet Sly also closed the book on a particular time period, as a part of the last line in the former dynasty of video game mascots.
Sly Cooper was a big part of the early 2000s wave of video game mascots: postured among Jak & Daxter, (arguably) Master Chief, and Ratchet & Clank, the latter of which made a comeback in the form of a movie and reboot video game last year. Sly Cooper was always at the lower end of the spectrum, not as popular as the others. Yet Sly persevered, even as its series dwindled and initial developers Sucker Punch quietly stepped away to work on the Infamous series. Sly and company still popped up in other PlayStation-centric properties, like PlayStation Move Heroes and PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale (two games with heavy cross-pollination between Sony franchises), but ultimately was left to the wayside as the oncoming console generation crystallized.
The Sly Cooper games were vastly different from the other platformers of its era. While the Ratchet & Clank series and later entries of Jak & Daxter somewhat mirrored one another with their share of exploration and shooting, Sly Cooper stood on the sidelines with a more defined, unique identity. It was a game focused on stealth, from pick-pocketing keys out of guards' pockets to sleuthing around a restricted facility for intel. Sly Cooper made players feel genuinely like thieves in a silly cartoon. It was singular in its appeal.
Sly Cooper didn't completely fizzle out with the mascot craze though. Sanzaru Games, a development team now known for licensed games rather than their take on the mischievous raccoon, revived the series on PlayStation 3 after handling its remastered collection on the platform. Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time (also referred to as Sly 4), brought the familiar anthropomorphic animal team together again, and ushered the series onto a crisper console. Unfortunately, instead of being the start of a new trilogy, it ended up spelling the end for the franchise. Seemingly, at least.
September 23, its 15th anniversary, marks the day that the first game Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus released on PlayStation 2. Since that release, the Sly Cooper formula evolved. Sequels allowed players to play as more than just the sneaky raccoon himself, embodying his two allies Murray the hippopotamus (the tough guy of the group) and Bentley the turtle (the hacker and brains of the operation), in addition to others too. Environments opened up beyond linear pathways and levels, introducing hub worlds to sneak around in before embarking on the familiar more-linear areas. Sly 2: Band of Thieves is still seen widely as the highlight of the entire series.
Spoiler warning below for Sly 4.
After the original trilogy on PlayStation 2, Sanzaru Games took the reigns of the series and created the games' fourth installment. It ended notoriously on a cliffhanger. Along with the game's time travelling twist (which had players hopping through different eras of time, from Feudal Japan to the Wild West), Sly ended the game thrown back into a time travelling whirlwind, separated from all his friends. In a teaser ending, Sly is shown waking up in Ancient Egypt, heavily hinting at a sequel. Then the sequel never came.
In 2014, two years after Sly 4's release, Sanzaru Games announced on their Facebook page that they were not working on Sly 5. Given that Sly 4 only sold approximately 0.55 million units worldwide, a low commercial performance is a high possibility as to why Sony decided not to go forward with continuing the franchise. The context in which it released likely didn't help too; releasing in a time where hyper-realistic games were the norm and cartoon-ish platformers were no longer the focus, it's easy to see how Sly 4 suffered under the weight of reaching both a new audience and a returning one on a more powerful console.
At an Oculus-centered event where I got a chance to play Sanzaru Games' latest project Marvel Powers United VR, I spoke to development director Omar Woodley (who joined the studio after Sly 4) briefly about the potential for a future Sly Cooper game from the studio. "You never know what's on the horizon. Some of these projects come in of our own initiative trying to drive them, others are publishers outside Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, and they come to us with an idea and we come together on cohesion of a vision," said Woodley. "But you never know what you'll embark on next."
After a surprise movie trailer years ago, Sly Cooper was all set to make a comeback of sorts in a similar light to Ratchet & Clank's recent one. Yet with Ratchet & Clank's commercial mishap, despite a gorgeously animated movie tie-in game itself, the future of the Sly Cooper animated film was thrown into question.
The year 2016, the originally projected release window, came and went. News hit that the film hadn't even entered production yet. In June of this year though, other news tied to furthering Cooper's legacy was announced, with an animated series officially on the way from PlayStation and Technicolor Animation Productions. It's unknown if the 3D movie will ever come to light, but with an animated show on the horizon now, it's entirely possible that that instead is the route the future of Cooper will take.
Nonetheless, Sly Cooper will remain a beloved series, even if it's often regarded more on the sidelines. In a way, it's almost retroactively a cult series; flawed in more than a few ways, even if they were semi-popular and well-regarded in their heyday. When (and if) the animated series comes to pass, maybe Sly Cooper will get his deserved time in the spotlight again. Maybe he'll say a snarky comment or two, we'll get our preferred Sly 5 or reboot, and time will go on. Even 15 years later, it's hard to forget the simple joy of pick-pocketing, the ever-changing voice of Sly's love interest and foe Carmelita Fox, and plotting heists in a comic book-inspired setting. For its time, it was a refreshing take on 3D platformers. As for me, I'll always be eager for more.