They don't make games like Sly Cooper anymore. While there have been 3D platformer revivals in the past few years, like Snake Pass and Yooka-Laylee, most harken back to the Nintendo 64 era where the genre was in its infancy. All too often, nostalgia forgets the golden era of PlayStation 2's platformers, with the likes of Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank, and of course, Sly Cooper.
Sly Cooper was the most unique among them—the Jak sequels grabbed onto a Grand Theft Auto inspiration to mixed results, while the Ratchet and Clank series was always polished, but barely evolving. Sly Cooper iterated in a more subtle way in its leap from Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus to its immediate sequel, Sly 2: Band of Thieves. It never went edgy like Jak, nor did it stay in its comfort zone too long. On September 14, the landmark sequel turns 15.
It's funny; in backsearching for links, I found that USgamer's own former Editor-in-Chief Jeremy Parish also wrote an ode to this particular sophomore effort five years ago. "The game's unwavering focus on the heists made them feel essential; they comprised the meat of the adventure," he writes. "That, too, worked to the advantage of Sly 2's caper flick spirit. Where other heist games either feel too restrictive or else so wide-open that the caper missions feel like an aside or a nuisance, developer Sucker Punch managed to strike a perfect balance. You were always working toward the next heist, but you had considerable freedom in how to go about laying down the necessary groundwork."
And I agree: there's an undeniable charm to the cartoonish heists of the Sly Cooper series. Sly 2 doubles down on it, dragging you from Paris to Canada, and many places in between, rising above being a stealthy platformer into something much more exciting: a heist game.
I grew up loving heist and spy movies, from Lupin the Third (which Sly Cooper shares maybe the most in common) to Ocean's Eleven. I arrived to the Mission: Impossible series very late, and honestly, today they stand as the platonic ideal of a great heist series in my eyes. (Also for the record, the first one is the best one. You can't beat Brian De Palma!) They have all the makings of what works for heist movies: a strong kinship and rivalry amidst the group, a likable hero, wild setpieces, and, of course, those nail-biting moments when you realize that yes, they pulled the heist off, even when it seemed impossible.
Strangely, considering the obvious influence of action movies, there aren't many great heist-inspired games. There's the solitary Hitman, which feels very heist-like in action alone; even if you're really just assassinating evil rich people. There's that great heist mission in The Witcher 3's Hearts of Stone DLC, and Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption 2's own heist antics. And really... that's it. Many, such as the Payday series, fail to capture the personality and camaraderie that makes up a good heist. An exhilarating heist is about more than just pulling off the elaborate theft—it's about the carefully calculated setup, and having a backup plan (or not) when it all goes wrong. Sly 2 is setup after setup, elaborate heist after heist, with casual pickpocketing of armed guards along the way—because let's be real, the raccoon can't help himself.
It's a smooth feeling game too, one that I remember in a very tangible way. Pickpocketing armed guards, as I'd often do as Sly, is always satisfying, even if it barely serves a purpose except for the occasional key or coins. The stealth felt like it mattered, as I'd tilt the analog stick very slightly to slow to a creep, and Sly's hooked cane would sink into deep pockets. If he were caught; we'd scramble up pipes and far away. Fighting back was an option, but it was always a risk.
Sly never solo scales a cliffside like Tom Cruise, of course, but the stakes are felt in Sly 2 in other ways. Things go wrong all along the way, and Sly stealing the family heirloom of the Thievius Raccoonus in the first game didn't spell the end of his troubles. At the end of the sequel, Bentley even gets paralyzed after his legs are crushed. In the subsequent games, he's confined to a wheelchair, but it's hardly damaged his spirit. He continues to embrace being the hacker of the trio.
The locales help Sly 2 feel like an actual heist movie too. Sly, Bentley, and Murray zip across the world, taking on other anthropomorphic big bads, with Inspector Carmelita Fox always hot on their tail. The hub worlds serve as the introduction to each new area, while the levels themselves are the bombastic setpieces.
Whereas the first Sly Cooper was largely linear, Sly 2 opens up, giving each chapter its own hub world for Sly and co. to explore. Each hub was like an open-world, with enemies to pickpocket, collectables to hunt down on rooftops, and even danger lurking on the streets. Aesthetically, they all have a different vibe, like how the snowy wilderness of Canada is different from the India-based hub, as is the Gothic architecture of Prague to the Parisian rooftops of France. It was a stark change from its predecessor, but it helped enrich the Sly Cooper experience—especially now that there were two additional characters to control, the familiar Murray and Bentley.
Sly 2 had sequels too. Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves overcomplicated the formula, adding many more playable characters and diluting the simplicity. Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, handed off to Sanzaru Games from usual developers Sucker Punch, had Sly and his friends literally travelling through time in a fun twist, though it never quite measured up to the heights of Sly 2. Ever since Sly 4 though, the Sly Cooper vault has dried up, even with a cliffhanger at the end of it. A Sly Cooper movie was in the works, but we haven't heard much since its trailer in 2014, which then had a 2016 release window. Last year, reports emerged that a TV show was in development for release this year, but 2019 is rolling to an end soon with no news.
In all likelihood, as Sly was unfortunately the least popular of Sony's Big Three Mascots of the PS2 era, the time of Sly Cooper has come and gone. It's a shame too, because I'd love to see what the sneaky raccoon would steal in the modern era.