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.