The platformer has been one of the most stagnant genres during this generation of consoles. Aside from the occasional gem – namely Super Mario Galaxy — no real attempts have been made to take the platformer to the ‘next level,’ with concepts and functionality that could never have existed in previous hardware generations. Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet does exactly that. It elevates the genre to new heights with its innovative game design and introduces exciting new features that would have never been possible before on consoles, but it does so in a way that is familiar enough to be playable by anyone.
At its core, LittleBigPlanet is a side-scrolling platformer that can be played cooperatively with up to 4 players, online or locally. You play as Sackboy, an eternally happy character who can be customized at any time using the in-game character creator. You move your Sackperson across the screen, jumping over endless chasms, bopping enemies on the head, and collecting hidden items, which include stickers, costumes, and level pieces for use in a level editor. All of these should sound familiar, as every platform game since Super Mario Bros. has used these simple mechanics, but LittleBigPlanet adds three key innovations onto these standards.
Another innovation comes from the ability to walk into and out of the background at will. By tapping up on the analog stick, you can take a step backwards in the environment, and pressing down moves you one step frontward. This ability is used to its fullest potential, as items are hidden behind certain objects and platforms can exist in front of and behind other platforms. There is a slight problem with the depth in LittleBigPlanet, as it can sometimes be tough to judge what plane your Sackperson is on. This can occasionally lead to a mistimed jump or inadvertent landing in the wrong spot, but you do adjust to this mechanic rather quickly.
Finally, the Popit menu allows you to access some of the game’s overwhelming customization options on the fly. Discover a new costume in the middle of a level? Open the Popit menu and immediately change your character’s look. Find some new stickers? Use Popit to stamp those stickers all over the background of the level you are currently on, wherever you want. These freedoms have never been available in a game of this type before, and it opens up the gameplay experience to exciting new possibilities and a constant feeling of discovery as you play.
This feeling is consistent through the main campaign of LittleBigPlanet, where you can find a number of different premade chapters, each with three main levels and several challenge missions. Every chapter adds a new visual theme and fresh gameplay elements — including racecars, hot air balloons, and jetpacks — that bring some much needed variety to the well-worn platforming design. Unlike some platformers, where the different level themes are strictly visual differences, each new theme here reinforces a different style of play. The Haunted House levels have a creepy vibe that encourages running more than fighting, while the City levels have you bouncing off of taxi-hoods as you climb buildings and overcome industrial hazards. The game also has a steady difficulty progression to it, as the platforming, puzzles, and enemies all get much trickier as you advance.
Most of the game’s escalating difficulty is directly related to a level’s checkpoints, each of which has a certain number of lives attached to it. Reaching the next point resets the lives counter to however many that new checkpoint offers, but using up all of a checkpoint’s available lives forces you to restart a level from the beginning. While this system would be fine in most titles, it seems to be a little too punishing for a casual-friendly game like LittleBigPlanet. While hardcore gamers won’t mind much, the lives system here could potentially annoy the non-gamer audience that Sony is looking to ensnare. Some of the later areas get very tricky, with trial-and-error hazard sequences and difficult platforming segments, and the pressure of utilizing the limited amount of lives with the risk of having to replay several minutes of level might keep some people from advancing to the end of the game. While taking away the lives aspect might have made the game a bit too easy for hardcore gamers, it would have fit the “light” and “easygoing” nature of the title a lot better than the current system.
Despite the occasional frustration, the campaign is well worth playing, especially when you consider that the entire game can be enjoyed cooperatively with up to four players, either online or off. Having played the campaign by myself and with others, I highly recommend the multiplayer option as the way to experience Little Big Planet. Not only are there multiple “cooperative challenges” hidden throughout the levels, but the game loses a significant amount of its charm when you are left without another person to play with. The constant interaction, teamwork, and discovery that are all prevalent when playing together are lost in solo play, as is the unpredictability of having another mind working with you throughout the game. The game’s core mechanics are fairly simple and easy to grasp, and bringing in another player at any time is as easy as activating another PS3 controller. I encourage you to have the casual gamers in your life — be it your family, friends, or a significant other — try out the game with you, as they just might fall in love with the experience.
Once you have your fill of the campaign, the world of LittleBigPlanet online awaits. This mode allows you to search for people’s custom levels, find games online, and check out what levels your friends have rated and recommended, represented in the menu as a “Heart.” While the stability of these servers has been suspect in the weeks following launch, it appears as if Media Molecule has gotten everything under control; I was able to download levels, play with other users, and enjoy all of the functions of the service without issue during my play-testing. I tried online coop in both the premade and custom levels, and aside from a few brief bouts of lag, the gameplay was as smooth as it was offline. The level browser, shaped like a planet, lets you filter the results in numerous ways, even down to a specified keyword that allows you find exactly what you want to play. The level downloading is quick and automated, and once you are finished playing, you are able to rate and tag that level as well as add it or its creator to your favorites list.
Quality-wise, the levels that are currently being offered for download as of this writing are a mixed bag. Some of what I have played–like a clever God of War-inspired stage and a recreation of the Eliminator from American Gladiators–are brilliantly designed pieces unlike anything experienced in the campaign, but the majority of LittleBigPlanet’s online content is not worth your time. There are a lot of levels built specifically to aide users in attaining the more difficult Playstation Trophies that LittleBigPlanet has to offer. While great for Trophy-hunters, the overabundance of this level-type is causing a clog in the online system, which is a shame because these levels aren’t designed particularly well, and it makes searching for quality platforming experiences a bit more difficult. Still, the results can be filtered any which way you like, and I would recommend to anyone looking to find quality to check out the amount of “Hearts” a level has in comparison to how many people have played it. If a majority of the people who played the level also gave it a “Heart,” the level is pleasing most of its audience and is most likely worth your time. Both pieces of information are available once selecting a custom level, and will greatly aide your search for a download worth your time and disk space.
Of course, nothing online would be worth playing if the level creator wasn’t up to the task. The good news, for those who plan on using Create mode, is that the editor does not hold back. It offers to you all of the tools that the game’s developers used to produce the campaign levels in this game, and completely opens the door to whatever your imagination can come up with that fits into the structure of LittleBigPlanet. The game forces you to watch over a dozen tutorial videos, and doing so is a wise choice as the editor would otherwise overwhelm you with the amount of options at your disposal. The best way to tackle this endeavor is to grab a notepad, design a simple level on paper, watch all of the tutorials, take notes, and then use what you have learned to make your concept a reality. Jumping in and attempting to create an epic level experience will only lead to frustration, so be prepared to sink time into “demo” levels to build up your comfort level with the editor.
While the complexity involved in Create mode might keep casual users from crafting the next great LBP level, the editor can also serve its purpose as an entertainment tool. I tried the editor with 2 casual users, and while both quickly gave up hopes of making an actual level, they were both entertained by the ability to zap any object in the game instantly onto the landscape, and the session quickly evolved into a “who can make the largest giant flaming shoe” battle.
The soundscape also helps in bringing Sackboy’s world to life. Every unique element, from the Popit sound to the ghastly ambient noise in the Haunted missions and the nondescript mumblings offered by some of the characters you meet, further fuels the personality emitted from everything in LBP. The narrator, voiced by comedian Stephen Fry, is witty and entertaining, and his cheerful yet sarcastic commentary keeps the editor tutorial videos entertaining. The only drawback with the game’s audio is the inability to record your own music and sound effects for use in the editor. While this would have lead to an unspeakable amount of copyright infringement, it would have brought a more ‘homemade’ aesthetic to the user creations, which now have to rely on the media on the disk.
Overall, Little Big Planet is not only as good as its hype suggested, but actually excels beyond it in many ways. It is a game that is easy to pick up and play yet deep enough to spend countless hours creating and downloading all new ways to have fun. This game ushers in a new wave of console gaming, one built around level sharing and cooperative experiences, and the more games that build off of the foundation laid by LittleBigPlanet, the better that the future landscape of gaming will look.