LittleBigPlanet may be the best game Nintendo never got around to making. There’s the fuzzy little mascot, colorful worlds, a charming story and an unending barrage of innovation. It’s Nintendo to the core; except the core is made by Media Molecule and it’s on a Sony console.
The clues are there, though… LittleBigPlanet looks better than any game pretty much anywhere, has a licensed soundtrack to die for, and doesn’t shoehorn in motion controls where they’re not required. LBP delivers constant laughs. It’s a game where you’ll sit through every tutorial just to hear plummy Fry scold you about creating ‘rude’ shapes or cuss-laden levels with the warning that every naughty you make causes a little Sackboy to die. And then there’s the Sackboy himself – a blank slate upon which you stamp your own personality. Squeezing the triggers will let you gesture with both hands independently, while tipping the Sixaxis will make the little fella look around or swing his pelvis like a wooly Elvis Presley. He’s an endearing little chap, and all the better for being tarted up with paint, stickers, and costumes.
Much of the hype surrounding LBP will focus on the ability to create and build, but all that crumbles if the core experience is more Bubsy the Bobcat than Jak and Daxter. LittleBigPlanet’s greatest strength, then, isn’t the creator, or the beautiful presentation, or the lengthy campaign, or the millions of downloadable levels, but the robustness of the platforming – the way the Sackboy moves and interacts with his environment. 2D platformers have fallen out of fashion so badly that, even if it were just average, LittleBigPlanet would still be the best platform game since, er, 2006’s New Super Mario Bros. on the DS; but with the fully physics-powered environments laden with outlandish contraptions and wonderful toys, LBP distances itself from what competition it has before even cracking into the level editor.
While other platformers throw focus on the protagonist – loading them down with new moves and gimmicks, Media Molecule give the Sackboy just enough moves to let the environments shine. With only a jump and a grab button, Sackboy has all the tools he’ll ever need. Jumping will take him over obstacles; grabbing will have him pull objects aside, hang from ropes, flip switches, and start up vehicles. Use your imagination a little, and that grab becomes something special. Take a concrete cube; attach rockets and a length of string with a spongy handle on the end; hook up the sponge with a switch attached to the rockets and drop the whole thing into your world. Then grab the sponge and hold on tight – you’ve just built a rocket-powered, land-based, water-ski thing. Put a ramp in front of it, and things start to get special.
You’ll build a lot of, er… things during your first few days with LittleBigPlanet. If the public beta has proven anything, it’s that the world’s first inclination is to build an object – be it cube, arrow, or penis – and attach engines to it, just to see what happens. The initial stages will be spent dropping weird objects into barren wastelands and experimenting with how physics affect it once you hit the gas. Try setting up a winch that propels Sackboys hundreds of feet into the air and then into a wall of spikes at breakneck speed like a fuzzy-felt trebuchet. The options are virtually unlimited.
In spite of Media Molecule’s amazing demonstrations of what the creator is capable of, it’s still a monumental feat to pull together your misguided experiments into something resembling a level. Yet, every stage in LBP is built with the same components that are on offer in the creator, and every world Media Molecule has crafted could be replicated on your own time. Yet, perhaps the greatest giveaway that Nintendo had no hand in LBP’s creation is the quality of the levels already on this disc – they exist more to demonstrate the power of the tools than as fun levels to complete. We got the impression that Media Molecule are better app-makers than game-makers at times, seeing as the campaign levels are a very mixed bag indeed.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are the finest creations in LittleBigPlanet. It’ll be hard graft to build Insomniac-quality, or even Media Molecule-quality levels, but it’s possible. Critically, giving life to worlds is fun; LBP’s level editor could have been a cumbersome chore, but instead, it’s as much fun to sit and build as it is to run around the completed work. The Popit menu (tap Square) works beautifully, every new object comes with its own tutorial, and a tap of Start will let you jump into and play your level at any time.
So much of LittleBigPlanet is experimentation that you’ll forever be diving in and out to test whether the rocket ship you’ve just built will support a Sackboy pilot; whether it needs more thrust, or whether it’s an overpowered three-second death ride. And does everything you build need to resemble a level? Why not just build crazy contraptions? Why not build a set of Jurassic Park gates, opened by a complex counterweight pulley system? Why not build a rocket ship which breaks into segments at the touch of a button, going higher and faster with every dumped section like we did? Why not build a pinball table? Why not build something, just to see what happens?
It’s easy to presume that with all of Sony’s hype, LBP is a game solely for closet level-architects and game-builders, but with just the content on the disc, LittleBigPlanet is already a bumper-sized chunk of fun. Once you crack into the online space, LBP becomes a game without end – often one of dubious quality – but an endless game nonetheless. Whether you’re one for building and creating is irrelevant. It’s true that even bad games become good with friends, and there’s a lot to be said for grouping up with three chums and leaping from user-created stage to user-created stage at speed, debating the merits of each before plowing onto the next. As more players enter the fray, creating, building, and rating one another’s work, the best stages will rise to the top. The beta trial already contains tributes to Mario, Shadow of the Colossus and GTA, rated by keywords like ‘fun’, ‘genius’ or ‘boring’. In truth, LBP, for most players, won’t be a game of construction but of experimentation.
The question then is whether to review the game on the disc, the tools you’re given to play with, or the creativity of the community and the potential longevity it offers. It’s a toughie, so let’s instead just say this – nothing like LittleBigPlanet has ever existed before. Even if nobody buys it, the file servers remain empty, and the co-op space stays a barren wasteland, it’s still a rock-solid platformer with enough levels and fun to justify your money. If you loved LEGOs and never lost that love for building and creating, you’ve got a lifetime of experimentation and play ahead of you. And if, as we suspect, the world falls in love with it, LittleBigPlanet is absolutely the best game on the PS3, the best game of 2008 on any console, and the best toybox you’ll ever get to play with.
Oct 15, 2008