Buying games for kids poses a conundrum. Generally speaking, the best kids’ video games feature unfamiliar characters who don’t have their own marketing juggernaut built up around Saturday morning cartoons, straight-to-DVD movies and toys. Yet kids, even more than adults, gravitate toward the familiar. I’d need four hands to count the number of times children I know asked for the latest video game based on a popular movie or TV show when there are far better games on the market.
In addition to indulging constant requests for run-of-the-mill games like “Lego Flavor of the Month” and “Pixar Movie 7,” it’s fun to mix things up by giving a kid a fantastic game starring an unfamiliar character.
Sony’s “The Sly Collection” (rated E to E10+, $40 on PlayStation 3) is the perfect purchase for showing a young gamer the excellence the industry has to offer players willing to look beyond movie- and toy-based games, or Nintendo’s ever-popular Mario.
The single, budget-priced disc includes three PS2-era classics starring raccoon thief extraordinaire Sly Cooper, as well as a collection of four minigames for the new PlayStation Move controller. The three classics have been prettied up a bit for the high-definition era, and “Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves” features some 3D portions on TVs that support it.
All three games are built upon the platform-jumping acrobatics and coin/item collecting that have been a staple of kids games ever since Mario’s early days. Developer Sucker Punch, which has graduated to the PS3-exclusive “Infamous” series, mixes things up, though, by mixing in a bit of stealth gameplay. In many of the missions, Sly’s job is made much easier by doing thief-like things like sneaking along rooftops and avoiding, pickpocketing or ambushing guards.
Like all great kids products, the “Sly” games feature a memorable hero. Sly is an orphaned raccoon who descends from a long line of master thieves. With a wit and elegance reminiscent of the way George Clooney played the title character in “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Sly begins the first game, “Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus,” in search of his family’s ancient book of thieving secrets. In true video game fashion, the book has been torn up and divided among the Fiendish Five, which isn’t a rap group but rather a cadre of dastardly criminals who killed Sly’s parents when he was just a boy.
At Sly’s side are bookish Bentley the turtle and muscle-bound Murray the hippopotamus, two friends he grew up with in an orphanage. Bentley’s the brains of the group, explaining each mission’s logistics, while Murray mostly drives the van. Working to stop Sly in all three games is Interpol agent Carmelita Fox, who also serves as Sly’s PG-rated love interest.
The gameplay in “Thievius,” the trilogy’s easiest game, is fairly straightforward, with Sly making his way through a series of pretty linear, platform-jumping levels. Each level has between 20 and 40 optional clue bottles to collect, and if Sly finds them all, he’s awarded a new special power or immunity to a certain type of death. (One teaches Sly how to swim, for example, so that he just jumps out of any water he comes into contact with.)
These platform-jumping sections are periodically broken up by minigames such as trying to win a race with the van, or driving a Jet Ski-like vehicle with a mounted cannon. Despite the variety, and an unnecessarily difficult final battle, “Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus” is an enjoyable, easy title that serves as a great introduction to Sucker Punch’s world and cast of characters.
“Sly 2: Band of Thieves” and “Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves,” build significantly on the first game. Each is organized into episodes, with each episode consisting of one heist.
Unlike in the first game, which had you playing each level so that you could obtain a “key” that allowed you to unlock even more levels, the sequels are a bit more open-ended. Each heist has a hub world that you travel around in, with missions you activate at your convenience.
The second episode of “Sly 2,” for example, requires players to steal a pair of giant metal wings. But to set up the heist, you have to engage in a number of preliminary activities. You’ll shoot down a helicopter patrolling the skies around the palace where the wings are kept, stake out a ballroom where a dance is to be held, steal a tuxedo to sneak into the dance and engage in a number of other support activities before the big heist at the end of the level.
Unlike the first “Sly” game, the sequels place a greater emphasis on Sly’s supporting cast, requiring you to switch between Sly’s sneaky moves, Bentley’s computer and demolitions skills and Murray’s brute force in “Sly 2,” and an even greater cast of characters in “Sly 3.”
The lone blemish on “The Sly Collection” would be the entirely forgettable PlayStation Move-compatible minigames included on the disc. Three of them essentially involve pointing at and shooting things on-screen, while a fourth has you piloting a remote-control helicopter through an aerial obstacle course. Those who might consider picking up the “Sly Collection” solely for this new addition should hold their wallets, but gamers who have yet to experience Sly, particularly those with young children, should snap up the stylish, well-written compilation.