Death by 1,000 Minigames

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time

When is a minigame more than just a minigame?

I've been thinking about this as I recently picked up the new Sly Cooper game for the PS3, Sly Cooper: Thieves In Time. The core gameplay of sneaking around and pickpocketing people is still fun, make no mistake, but this is a series known for being minigame-heavy, sometimes to its detriment — so many and so oddly put-together that they can actually detract from gameplay, rather than function as the refreshing palate cleanser that they are intended to be.

Luckily, Sanzaru seems to have avoided the fate that previous Sly developer Sucker Punch fell into on occasion. I find myself playing through the game smiling a lot more than I have in quite a while. Surprisingly, this is due in no small part to the minigames. Why? Well, they are well-integrated into the story, and more importantly, they're plain fun.

The idea of a minigame, as far as I can tell, is to switch up the gameplay for a short period of time to keep things from getting too stale. On a conceptual level I really appreciate this, but in practice it often feels … off. Contrived. Herky-jerky in a way that pulls me out of the narrative and kicks my brain back out of passive enjoyment to "Hey! What's going on here?" mode. I can't imagine that this is the effect the developers intend.

Luckily, roughly 65% of the way through Thieves In Time, I haven't hit that point yet. In fact, I almost — as sacrilegious as this feels to say — look forward to the minigames. They've all been dispersed into the story in such a way that they actually make sense. I think maybe the shoehorns are still in their wrappers at Sanzaru. More than that, though, they're both fun and funny, in that campy sort of way the series has always had.

So far, I've skated down railroad tracks at high speed while using bullet-time to shoot dynamite-chucking rabbits in cowboy boots out of the air; I've dressed an obese hippo as a Japanese Geisha and wooed clients with some DDR/Guitar Hero dance moves; I've slung sleeping-pill-laced sarsaparilla across a bar counter to irate guard bulls; I've even flown through a classic SHMUP as a Rambo-muscled turtle.

How on earth can all these things fit logically into the same game? I don't know. But somehow, they do. I'm sure the aforementioned campy humor helps smooth the transitions. The whole game is steeped in it. When the gang is stuck in the Wild West, Bentley's disguise mustache (of which he is so proud) grows a little bit after each mission. His spy goggles, which you have next to no reason to use in most cases, have a little photo of his missing girlfriend paper-clipped to the bottom corner. Guards who walk up next to each other will start slapping their thighs for no apparent reason, then walk away without saying a word. It's just silly enough to where my brain doesn't wake from its passive slumber at these otherwise unusual transitions.

The best example I've come across so far has been a Rocky Balboa training montage. The idea is to prep one of Sly's out-of-shape ancestors for a big heist. You're stuck in a prehistoric ice age. So what do you use to train? Penguins, naturally. Whack-a-Penguin. Penguin Sumo Wrestling. Penguin Bag Slingshot. Penguin Batting Practice. "But not for too long; otherwise the penguins might get … irritable."

These are all relatively easy, and they're woven between interstitial scenes of push-ups, jogging, etc., set to the classic motivational music. It's campy, it's silly, it has nothing to do with the core gameplay of the series, but it works. Perhaps the level designers and the creative/writing staff actually worked in tandem on this project. In my head, I picture Level Design saying, "We're halfway through this world, things have been relatively samey, let's shake it up with a minigame sequence." And Creative responding with, "Okay, but we need to fit it in the ice age. What if we made an ancestor who we had meet up with? And what if they had to teach him to be a Cooper? Or better yet, he was out of shape and they had to train him up a la Rocky? Oh! And let's make everything have to do with penguins. Because penguins are 17% funnier than other ice age critters. Look at them waddle around! Hahaha!"

… Anyway. Suffice it to say that they work. And because they work, the game as a whole carries pretty well. Unlike a minigame collection, Raving Rabbids or Wario Ware or something similar, minigames in Sly Cooper: Thieves In Time exist to break up and refresh what is already solid gameplay. And unlike other games like Bioshock or GTA IV, they aren't so bad that they're distracting. In fact, Thieves In Time may have the first fun hacking minigame ever. (Are you listening, Rockstar?) Unlike the Fable series or Mass Effect 2's planet scans, they aren't the same game that's fun the first time until you have to do them over and over and over and over and over and over and AAAAAAAARRGH. There's a whole lot of variety in these minigames, and they are integrated into the story.

The tragedy here is that we finally have a pretty nice example of how to properly finesse minigames, but very few people have noticed. The lack of any real marketing support behind this game on Sony's part is unfortunate. The GWJ Catch-All is nigh empty. I'm not sure this game will have any real monetary impact to speak of. And yet, it illustrates many principles that AAA developers seem yet to grasp. Thieves In Time isn't going to be #1 on anyone's GOTY lists (unless you have a thing for raccoons, I guess), but it's a very solid title that's worthy of attention for the things that it does very right. If you own a PS3 or Vita, this is definitely a game to keep your eye on.

Comments

Congratulations, Minarchist, you just successfully sold me on buying my first Sly Cooper game.

I miss Jazz Jackrabbit.

Farscry wrote:

Congratulations, Minarchist, you just successfully sold me on buying my first Sly Cooper game. ;)

Huzzah!

I should mention that, bizarrely, the PS3 version of this is a bit pricier but includes CrossPlay, whereas the Vita version is cheaper but does not. I'm told this is unusual.

Excellent article. Sly is one of my favorite series, so I may have to grab this one soon, pile be damned.

I would like to point out that "Obese hippo" is redundant.

I was planning to purchase it eventually one way or another. [/i]It was easily my favorite of the
various mascot series that came out during the PS2 era.

Farscry wrote:

Congratulations, Minarchist, you just successfully sold me on buying my first Sly Cooper game. ;)

You might also look into the Sly HD collection Sony put out, the ps2 games hold up surprisingly well and for my money Sly 2 is one of the best 3D platformers of all time.

Plus the story in Sly 4 is a lot more fun if you've played the previous games.

I've not put too much time into the game, but my boys have finished it. Usually, when they needed me to come help them through a part (which wasn't often), it was on a minigame. As a seasoned (read: old) gamer, I can pick up a minigame and immediately know what to do. "Ah, this is a shmup! Ah, this is just like Tapper!). My kids to not have that history, and therefore do not have that flexibility.

I just got the HD collection, and was going to work on that before buying the new game. Sadly, this means Sony will have already made up their mind about whether Thieves in Time was a success or not.

I actually thought of World 4 in Paper Mario: Sticker Star while reading this. Every level was somehow different than every level in the game before it, except for maybe the first. Things were switched around so well in that world that it was probably my favorite part of the game.

In truth, though, I feel like developers already have great examples of integrating mini-games into your story without being annoying. Super Mario RPG and Final Fantasy VII do this frequently.

I also think that if you are worried about your gameplay becoming stale, it's time to sit down and rethink your design doc.

That picture makes it look like Sly is wearing lipstick.

I enjoy the brake in game-play that a mini-game can provide, but it's a complete fail if the main game benefits they provide are not enough to go through the torture. Some recent examples I can think of are scanning in Mass Effect, hacking in Fallout 3 or New Vegas, and ohh yes the pipe games of Bioshock.

Experience, raw materials, and even entire rooms or pathways through the level can be lost to terrible mini-games.

theschap wrote:

I enjoy the brake in game-play that a mini-game can provide, but it's a complete fail if the main game benefits they provide are not enough to go through the torture. Some recent examples I can think of are scanning in Mass Effect, hacking in Fallout 3 or New Vegas, and ohh yes the pipe games of Bioshock.

Experience, raw materials, and even entire rooms or pathways through the level can be lost to terrible mini-games.

I actually thought the hacking minigames in FO3/NV were not bad. As for the benefits, well, the idea is that they are there simply as an optional way to play through the game, so what benefits you reap depend a lot on your play style. If you want some payoff that is so generally awesome that it makes it more like players must get good at hacking, well, that rather defeats the purpose of the mechanic itself. For the most part, anything you can achieve with hacking, you can do by other means that play to whatever strengths your character build has.

As for the scanning in ME, I agree. It wasn't too terrible, but it certainly wasn't fun.

Minigames should be a fun diversion or optional activity within a game, not a chore.

minarchist wrote:

In fact, Thieves In Time may have the first fun hacking minigame ever.

Am I the only one that enjoyed hacking in Bioshock?

LobsterMobster wrote:

That picture makes it look like Sly is wearing lipstick.

Oh, site update: We decided to start sourcing our images from Deviant Art and Tumblr.

S0LIDARITY wrote:
minarchist wrote:

In fact, Thieves In Time may have the first fun hacking minigame ever.

Am I the only one that enjoyed hacking in Bioshock?

Maybe it's just you and I, man. I liked it, as well. It gave a very pleasant sense of urgency; get it done fast enough or you'll regret it. It gets really difficult - sometimes unfair - in the late stages of the game, though.

brokenclavicle wrote:
S0LIDARITY wrote:
minarchist wrote:

In fact, Thieves In Time may have the first fun hacking minigame ever.

Am I the only one that enjoyed hacking in Bioshock?

Maybe it's just you and I, man. I liked it, as well. It gave a very pleasant sense of urgency; get it done fast enough or you'll regret it. It gets really difficult - sometimes unfair - in the late stages of the game, though.

At the end of the game you really needed to invest in some of the hacking-oriented perks. Without them a lot of the puzzles would be unsolveable. I was fine with that though, the tradeoff was always fair to me.

Timed "racing" minigames can die in a fire.

Mini games have an excellent experience to play with play station. I played some games developed by Sanzaru Games and enjoyed Sly Cooper on my PS 3.

S0LIDARITY wrote:
brokenclavicle wrote:
S0LIDARITY wrote:
minarchist wrote:

In fact, Thieves In Time may have the first fun hacking minigame ever.

Am I the only one that enjoyed hacking in Bioshock?

Maybe it's just you and I, man. I liked it, as well. It gave a very pleasant sense of urgency; get it done fast enough or you'll regret it. It gets really difficult - sometimes unfair - in the late stages of the game, though.

At the end of the game you really needed to invest in some of the hacking-oriented perks. Without them a lot of the puzzles would be unsolveable. I was fine with that though, the tradeoff was always fair to me.

I'm with you, I like it and thought it was a nice break.

minarchist wrote:

In fact, Thieves In Time may have the first fun hacking minigame ever.

Other than Sly 2 and 3, that is. From what I can tell - just done the first hack by Bentley in the first mission (museum) - it's the same. A little tank that you operate like Robotron.

Moggy wrote:
minarchist wrote:

In fact, Thieves In Time may have the first fun hacking minigame ever.

Other than Sly 2 and 3, that is. From what I can tell - just done the first hack by Bentley in the first mission (museum) - it's the same. A little tank that you operate like Robotron.

I'm in the middle of watching an LP of the Sega Shadowrun game.

An entire article about minigames and no mention of some of the sadistic stuff Sierra put people through in their adventure games?

S0LIDARITY wrote:
minarchist wrote:

In fact, Thieves In Time may have the first fun hacking minigame ever.

Am I the only one that enjoyed hacking in Bioshock?

I'm enjoying it!