Sept. 23, 2022, marks the 20th anniversary of Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, the first entry in one of the greatest series to grace the PlayStation 2. With unique cel-shaded graphics, fun and tight platforming gameplay, and a sleek sense of style that complemented its cast of rogues, the game still holds up today. Despite this, series publisher Sony has been content to allow Sly Cooper to fall by the wayside and slide into obscurity. There hasn’t been a new Sly Cooper game in nearly 10 years, but the time is ripe for the series and its thieving protagonist to step back into the spotlight.
The Sly Cooper series takes place in a world of anthropomorphic animals, where the titular protagonist, a snarky, suave raccoon, is the latest in a long lineage of master thieves. Accompanied by his best friends, the smart but neurotic turtle Bentley and the incredibly strong hippo Murray, each game finds Sly and the gang going on a series of heists around the world. Along the way, they clash with a variety of villains, including Sly’s rival and love interest, Inspector Carmelita Fox.
Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus made its mark in 2002 with its unique graphical style and storytelling. Animated cutscenes made to resemble a comic book tell Sly’s story, whose parents were murdered when he was young by a band of villains that held a grudge against his family. As an adult, he and his gang set out to defeat them and reclaim the pages of the Thievius Raccoonus, a book containing his family’s greatest heists and techniques.
Sly Cooper’s gameplay is largely that of a traditional platformer, where Sly can jump and sneak over obstacles while defeating enemies to reach the goal. Every level contained a number of missions and completing all of them let you challenge the boss. A dark atmosphere and story set the game apart from its contemporaries, with a revenge plot that takes Sly from a dark and stormy night in Wales to a creepy bog in Haiti. While mature enough for older gamers, the cartoony graphics and funny, witty dialogue meant the younger audience it was intended for didn’t get scared off.
The original Sly Cooper was a great success for both developer Sucker Punch and publisher and rights owner Sony, selling over 1.2 million copies. A sequel was quickly set into motion, Sly 2: Band of Thieves, which released only two years later in 2004. Sly 2 changed the formula by adding Bentley and Murray to the mix as playable characters, rather than solely playing as Sly. Bentley was meek and fragile, but had a variety of gadgets, while Murray lacked agility but could defeat anybody in close-quarters combat. Sly himself also gained some new techniques, like being able to pickpocket enemies or take them down in a single strike by sneaking up on them, truly making him feel like the rogue he was.
Sly 2 was widely praised not only for these gameplay improvements, but for its bolder, more mature story. Sly 1 followed a rather rigid formula; enter a level, complete the missions, and defeat the boss. Sly 2’s story, where Sly must collect the parts of an evil robotic owl, Clockwork, before he can be reassembled, ditches this formula in favor of being more dynamic and having more memorable twists. One fondly remembered mission has Sly and Murray betrayed and captured by a supposed ally, making the meek, skittish Bentley the only playable character until he rescues them. Forcing the player to exclusively use the weakest member of the team made it both tense and thrilling.
Sly 2 is considered one of the PlayStation 2’s masterpieces, with the expansion of the playable cast and more dynamic story making it beloved by critics and fans alike. Sucker Punch wouldn’t stop there, though, with Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves releasing the very next year in 2005. This time, the story had 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 giving the team little time to flesh out all of their ideas. On top of adding five new playable characters, several two-player minigames, and a surprisingly robust pirate ship raiding mechanic, the game also had to wrap up the trilogy. While not quite as critically successful as its predecessors, Sly 3 was nonetheless seen as a worthy conclusion to the series. Not all of its new mechanics stuck the landing, but the ones that did (like the pirate ship) were fun and exciting new additions. Praise was also given to its ending where Sly gives up his life of thievery to instead live an honest life with Carmelita, cleanly wrapping up Sly’s story.
The series would lay dormant until 2010, when developer Sanzaru Games made a high-definition remaster of the trilogy for the PlayStation 3. Sony was so impressed by their work that they gave Sanzaru the greenlight to work on a true Sly 4. Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time released in 2013 for the PlayStation 3. This time, the plot focused on Sly and his gang going on a journey through time, meeting his own ancestors and stopping a plot to ruin his family’s legacy in the past.
While Thieves in Time was praised for its high-definition graphics and fun gameplay that stayed true to the originals, its story was extremely controversial. From the beginning, it was seen as undoing the ending to Sly 3 by immediately having Sly turn back to stealing and ruining his relationship with Carmelita. Fans also decried a mid-game plot 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.
The negative reception to Thieves in Time, though, largely revolved around the ending. Sly defeats the villain and saves his ancestors but ends up stranded in ancient Egypt as a result. Sanzaru had intended to resolve this cliffhanger in a potential sequel or downloadable content, but the disappointing reception to Thieves in Time, both critically and financially, prevented Sony from greenlighting future games. Sanzaru was eventually bought out by Facebook to create virtual reality games, guaranteeing they will not be working on a continuation of the franchise.
There was one final chance for Sly to regain relevance with a Sly Cooper movie by Blockade Entertainment, the same studio behind the Ratchet and Clank movie. A trailer was released to optimistic reception, but the movie would never materialize. Following the abysmal performance of “Ratchet and Clank,” any plans for “Sly Cooper” were quietly dropped. There were also talks of a television series in 2017, but the lack of news indicates that they were also canceled.
Since 2013, Sly has been left stranded in ancient Egypt with no resolution on the horizon. Sony has seemingly given up on this franchise, with even Sucker Punch having to come out and state that nobody is working on new Sly Cooper projects. While every Sly game is now available on PlayStation Plus, allowing them to be played on modern hardware, they can only be played through streaming, often causing severe input delay and lag. This can ruin the experience for anybody without an extremely solid, fast internet connection.
Sony’s lack of investment in this franchise is bizarre, especially due to their own admission that it’s still popular. Sly still regularly receives new merchandise, like a Funko Pop or a $300 figurine. For them to greenlight this merchandise at all means they know Sly fans are still out there and will buy the products. Additionally, Sony is heavily invested in very mature franchises right now, like The Last of Us and God of War. A kid-friendly franchise like Sly would help them diversify their games and appeal to another audience.
Sly Cooper deserves better. The cartoony graphics, smooth platforming gameplay, and memorable plot and characters made the original trilogy some of the greatest offerings of the PlayStation 2. Sony has left one of their original mascots to rot for far too long, allowing his story to end on the sourest note possible. Whether a remake of the original trilogy or something new entirely, it’s far past the time to bring Sly Cooper back for a modern audience.