"LittleBigPlanet’s appearance and demeanor, right down to its voiceover narration by Stephen Fry, are so friendly and inviting that you’d half expect the game to be a product of Pixar itself. The levels, seemingly constructed out of found materials and building blocks, look as though they’re set in the confines of a toy box, and the quirky, episodic nature of the plots accompanying them give the impression that the adventure is unfolding within a child’s imagination. It’s only appropriate ..."
LittleBigPlanet’s appearance and demeanor, right down to its voiceover narration by Stephen Fry, are so friendly and inviting that you’d half expect the game to be a product of Pixar itself. The levels, seemingly constructed out of found materials and building blocks, look as though they’re set in the confines of a toy box, and the quirky, episodic nature of the plots accompanying them give the impression that the adventure is unfolding within a child’s imagination. It’s only appropriate that LittleBigPlanet, with its old school 2D platformer stylings reminiscent of the SNES days, will go a long way to making you feel like a kid again.
That’s a clichéd phrase, I suppose, but it has a different meaning for me anyway. I’m younger than a fair share of today’s gamers and missed out on the golden age of 2D gaming almost entirely. It was the Nintendo 64, a very multiplayer centric console, that dominated my childhood. As such, my grade school-era memories have me and a few other friends sitting on a living room floor, racing to the finish line in Mario Kart 64 or engaging in gunfights with each other in GoldenEye, all within the space of a single television screen. The only real equivalent in this online age is huddling around a Wii – but LittleBigPlanet does its best to re-capture that experience of two friends (or three, or four) sitting on a couch, enjoying the simple, relaxing thrills that a video game entails.
Since I neither own a PlayStation 3 nor wish to, the entirety of my experience with LittleBigPlanet has been through cooperative play, though I’m not sure that’s the best word for it. Getting from point A to point B takes more teamwork than you'd expect, especially since all players share the same health bar. But each stage is littered with “score bubbles” that are available only to the first player to snag them, and when multiple people are thrown into the mix, the goal is not merely to reach the finish line, but to do so with the highest point total. As such, LittleBigPlanet develops bizarre player-to-player relationships, as you’ll find yourself trusting and double-crossing your friends in equal quantity. Players who fall too far behind get killed off, and the crafty (read: evil) can gain a lead and rid themselves of their teammates to get temporary dibs on all nearby score bubbles until the next checkpoint. At the same time, every spawn has its own health bar, and each death drains it. Lose too many lives at a single checkpoint and the whole group has to start over. When one loss is so damaging to everyone present, you begin to depend on one another more than you care to admit.
My favorite example of this happened in Boom Town, as hosted by the indispensible Uncle Jalapeño. My PS3-owning friend (let’s call him Mike) and I were both fairly experienced with LittleBigPlanet at this point, but we’d brought with us a third player, whom we’ll call Kenny. Boom Town, as its name implies, contains explosives. For a while they serve only as a visual motif, conveniently blowing aside walls that otherwise would have obstructed our path. Late in the level, however, the game had us donning jetpacks and manipulating a box of unstable mines. In time, our objective was to fly one of these explosives through a set of narrow stone structures that opened and closed rhythmically, so that we could use it to blow open a wall on the other side. Mike and I were reckless; we moved too quickly, and the bombs swayed back and forth under our weight. Several rushed attempts to move the bombs to their destination brought us to our ultimate end, and the checkpoint let off a siren signaling that one more death would bring us back to the start of the level.
Up until now, Kenny had been quite content to stand idly in front of the spawn and leave the dirty work to the two of us, but now we were both dead, and it was up to him to reach the next checkpoint and revive us. Mike and I were anxiously leaning off the edge of the sofa while Kenny did his careful maneuvering, and when he inevitably blew himself up – he didn’t make it, heavens no – we all jumped and yelped in unison, our spontaneous laughter drowning out the despair we should have felt over being force to venture through the entire ordeal again.
As with Boom Town, each level, in addition to having its own distinct visual and aural motifs, sports a unique theme that the player must grow accustomed to and master. A construction site, set to the funky experimental rock of Battles, is intertwined with teetering platforms that are each held in place by a single rope, and they rock and sway under each character’s weight until – should you remain stationary on one end for too long – they tip over and send you tumbling into an endless abyss. The trick to reaching higher ground is to trot back and forth, causing the platform to seesaw until you’re able to run up one side like a ramp and gain greater altitude. Having two players working at this in unison makes the move that much more difficult, and once you’ve mastered that maneuver, lo and behold, LittleBigPlanet pulls another trick out of its sleeve: One such platform divides a floor, while a rope hanging beneath it divides the floor below. So, worst case scenario, one player is swinging Indiana Jones-style on the bottom level while the person on the platform him above must contend with the incessant swaying caused by the shifting weight on the rope. LittleBigPlanet is filled with such moments, where multiple people with – and, inadvertently, against – each other to hilarious results.
One of the first things you’ll learn is that you can grab a hold of plush objects with R1, and you’d be surprised how far developer Media Molecule takes this mechanic. While it’s often simply a matter of, say, dragging square-shaped pillows together to form stepping stones (players can switch between three different 2D planes), other ways of utilizing the grab technique are far more inventive. An early stage confronts the players with a set of chasms too broad to merely jump across. Your only assistance is a line of windmills, each whirling at maximum speed. Cling to one of the blades and you’ll find yourself spinning in circles with it, until a well-timed release of the shoulder button sends you soaring to the next platform. A later scenario places the players in a bottomless tower, where a set of soft, rotating wheels are the only means of ascension. You leap onto one, get spun around a few times, gather yourself, and remain at running speed on top like a treadmill until you work up the determination to jump higher still. It’s another instance where the teammates’ deaths can create an unusual bonding; with only one player still alive, the deceased sit there anxiously, groaning at every slip-up and congratulating the player when they eventually stand victorious over their obstacle – or shame them when they fail.
A later trek through the delightful Meerkat Kingdom proves a joyous ride for simpler reasons still. It begins with a race through the level’s winding and crisscrossing underground tunnels – winning can contribute heavily to your overall score – and ends with the meerkats themselves popping out of the ground and sending our heroes bounding countless stories into the air. It’s as if someone constructed an old school Mario level entirely out of trampolines, and it’s every inch as fun as it sounds. Aside from grabbing, LittleBigPlanet’s only real in-game mechanic is the jump button, which further emphasizes Media Molecule’s ambitions: Simplicity of controls, elegant complexity of level design.
You can imagine that this is all nearly as enjoyable to watch as it is to play, and I’m glad LittleBigPlanet’s playful visual style acknowledges the silliness of its concepts. The running theme that this game world looks like something built from your child’s toy set is followed to the end: Birds flap hinged wings while hanging from chains, enemies run on wheels and motors, and supporting characters wiggle their bobbleheads while their googly eyes roll around in plastic casings. At the center of it all are the playable sackboys themselves, which represent a cute, cuddly mascot for the customizable generation. It’s up to you to personalize them, and I’ve found this aspect oddly reflective of the individual personalities of the players themselves. In real life, Mike is a wrestler and is considering joining the Air Force, and his sackboy’s costume makes him look like a Roman warrior. His mouth is locked in a permanent frown and his eyes display steadfast determination. Mine is much less formal: Made of denim, he dons a construction worker’s helmet, a pair of red-and-white striped swim trunks, and a frying pan. Furthermore, the Sixaxis’s tilt adjusts the angle of the sackboy’s head, and my elbow was on an armrest for most of my play time. As a result, my sackboy constantly had his head cocked, in a perpetual state of confused wonder.
Complimenting the sackboys’ theme of customization, LittleBigPlanet offers up a remarkably expansive level editor that, frankly, I never bothered with. This opens an entire mod community for console gamers, in which LittleBigPlanet owners can share their creations over PlayStation 3’s online network, but I’ve experienced mixed results with the game’s user-made content. We mostly stuck to the endlessly replayable campaign levels anyway, which were so outrageously clever (both visually and mechanically) that nothing homemade could ever hope to match them.
I still don’t know whether to define LittleBigPlanet’s multiplayer adventures as competitive or cooperative. Perhaps LittleBigPlanet's brilliance is that it's two very different things at once, but no matter how you categorize it, this is the sort of game that you shouldn’t be playing by yourself. For the same reason you wouldn’t go to an amusement park alone – it’s such a rich, varied and joyous experience that the effort is practically made moot if you can’t share it with someone else.
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