September 23, 2022 marks the 20th anniversary of Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, the first entry in one of the biggest series to grace the PlayStation 2. With unique cel-shading graphics, fun and tight platforming gameplay, and a sleek feel style that complemented its cast of villains, the game holds up to this day. Despite this, series publisher Sony has been content to let Sly Cooper fall by the wayside and into oblivion. There hasn’t been a new Sly Cooper game in almost 10 years, but the time has come for the series and its thieving protagonist to step back into the limelight.
The Sly Cooper series is set in a world of anthropomorphic animals where the titular protagonist, a vicious, suave raccoon, is the latest in a long line of master thieves. Accompanied by his best friends, the cunning but neurotic turtle Bentley and the incredibly strong hippo Murray, Sly and the gang face a series of heists across the world in each game. Along the way, they run into a variety of villains, including Sly’s rival and love interest, Inspector Carmelita Fox.
Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus made a name for itself in 2002 with its unique graphic style and storytelling. Animated cutscenes, resembling a comic book, tell Sly’s story, whose parents were murdered when he was young by a gang of villains who bore a grudge against his family. As an adult, he and his gang set out to defeat them and reclaim the pages of Thievius Raccoonus, a book containing his family’s greatest heists and techniques.
Sly Cooper’s gameplay is mostly that of a traditional platformer, where Sly can jump over obstacles and sneak while defeating enemies to reach the goal. Each level contained a series of missions and when you complete all of them you can challenge the boss. A dark atmosphere and story sets the game apart from its contemporaries, with a revenge plan that takes Sly from a dark and stormy night in Wales to a spooky swamp in Haiti. While it’s mature enough for older players, the cartoon graphics and fun, witty dialogue meant it didn’t put off the younger audiences it was intended for.
The original Sly Cooper was a huge hit for both developer Sucker Punch and publisher and rights holder Sony, selling over 1.2 million copies. A sequel quickly got off the ground, Sly 2: Band of Thieves, which was released just two years later in 2004. Sly 2 changed the formula, adding Bentley and Murray to the mix as playable characters instead of just playing as Sly. Bentley was meek and fragile but had a variety of gadgets, while Murray was not agile but could defeat anyone in hand-to-hand combat. Sly himself also acquired some new techniques, such as the ability to steal enemies or take them out with a single hit by sneaking up on them, which really made him feel like the villain he was.
Sly 2 was praised not only for these gameplay improvements, but also for its bolder, more mature story. Sly 1 followed a fairly rigid formula; Enter a level, complete the missions and defeat the boss. The story of Sly 2, in which Sly must collect the parts of an evil robotic owl, Clockwork, before he can be put back together, leaves this formula behind to be more dynamic and have more memorable twists. A fondly remembered mission has Sly and Murray betrayed and captured by a supposed ally, making the meek, shy Bentley the only playable character until he rescues her. Forcing the player to only use the weakest member of the team made it both tense and exciting.
Sly 2 is considered one of the PlayStation 2’s masterpieces, with the expansion of the playable cast and the more dynamic story making it popular with critics and fans alike. Sucker Punch wouldn’t stop there, however, as Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves will be released next year, 2005. This time the story revolved around Sly and the gang assembling a crew of experts to get into the vault containing the fortunes of Sly’s ancestors.
Sly 3 was experimental, with its very short development cycle leaving little time for the team to flesh out all their ideas. In addition to five new playable characters, multiple two-player mini-games, and a surprisingly robust pirate ship heist mechanic, the game also had to complete the trilogy. Although not quite as successful as its predecessors, Sly 3 was still considered a worthy conclusion to the series. Not all of the new mechanics prevented the landing, but the ones that did (like the pirate ship) were fun and exciting additions. The ending, in which Sly gives up his life as a thief in favor of living an honest life with Carmelita and bringing Sly’s story to a clean close, was also praised.
The series went dormant until 2010, when developer Sanzaru Games released a high-definition remaster of the trilogy for the PlayStation 3. Sony was so impressed with their work that they gave Sanzaru the green light to work on a real Sly 4. Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time was released for the PlayStation 3 in 2013. This time the plot focused on Sly and his gang time traveling, meeting his own ancestors and stopping a plan to ruin his family’s legacy in the past.
While Thieves in Time was praised for its high-resolution graphics and fun gameplay that stayed true to the originals, its story was highly controversial. From the start, it was seen as reversing the ending of Sly 3, with Sly immediately going back to stealing and ruining his relationship with Carmelita. Fans also lamented a mid-game twist where Penelope, one of the new playable heroes in Sly 3, was suddenly revealed to be a villain with no good build-up or reasoning.
However, the negative reception of Thieves in Time was mostly about the ending. Sly defeats the villain and saves his ancestors, but ends up in ancient Egypt as a result. Sanzaru had intended to resolve this cliffhanger in a possible sequel or downloadable content, but Thieves in Time’s disappointing reception, both critically and financially, prevented Sony from giving the green light to future games. Sanzaru was eventually bought out by Facebook to create virtual reality games, guaranteeing they won’t be working on a sequel to the franchise.
There was one last chance for Sly to regain prominence with a Sly Cooper movie from Blockade Entertainment, the same studio behind the Ratchet and Clank movie. A trailer was released to optimistic reception, but the film would never materialize. After the miserable performance of Ratchet and Clank, all plans for Sly Cooper were quietly dropped. There were also talks of a TV series in 2017, but the lack of news suggests they were canceled as well.
Since 2013, Sly has been stranded in ancient Egypt with no solution in sight. Sony apparently abandoned that franchise, and even Sucker Punch had to come out and declare that no one is working on new Sly Cooper projects. While every Sly game is now available on PlayStation Plus, making it playable on modern hardware, they can only be played via streaming, which often introduces significant input lag and lag. This can ruin the experience for anyone without an extremely solid, fast internet connection.
Sony’s lack of investment in this franchise is bizarre, especially given its own admission that it’s still popular. Sly still gets new merchandise regularly, like a Funko Pop or a $300 figure. To them, even giving the green light to this merchandise means they know that Sly fans are still out there and will be buying the products. In addition, Sony is currently investing heavily in very mature franchises such as The Last of Us and God of War. A kid-friendly franchise like Sly would help them diversify their games and appeal to a different audience.
Sly Cooper deserves better. The cartoonish visuals, smooth platforming gameplay, and unforgettable storyline and characters made the original trilogy one of the PlayStation 2’s greatest offerings. Sony has let one of its original mascots rot for far too long, allowing its story to end on the most sour note possible. Whether it’s a remake of the original trilogy or something entirely new, it’s long past time to bring Sly Cooper back for modern audiences.