I have a confession to make: I never played the original LittleBigPlanet on the PlayStation 3. Well, that's not completely true. I put about twenty minutes into the pre-release demo they had at E3 a couple years ago, but I would hardly consider that a thorough play through. While I've always been excited to go through Sony's adorable platformer, I just haven't had the chance. Now, thanks to the Sony PSP, I have finally had my chance to become a citizen of the LittleBigPlanet. And even though this shrunken version lacks some of what made the console game so memorable, I'm happy to report that it manages to offer a spectacular 2D platforming experience unlike anything currently on the handheld.
In case you're like me and missed it on the PlayStation 3, LittleBigPlanet is Sony's answer to the old school Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog games. At least, that's what I thought going in. What I quickly discovered is that there's a lot more going on than meets the eye. In its simplest form, LittleBigPlanet is a 2D puzzle game masquerading as a platformer. You don't have to contend with many bad guys or boss battles, there aren't any power-ups and most of the other trappings from the 8- and 16-bit platformer games are completely absent. In their place are exquisitely detailed puzzles that help teach you the basics of making your own 2D levels. The game is full of exciting ideas that I've never seen before in this type of game, a real compliment given the genre's thirty year history.
The idea is simple, you run around the world completing levels and collecting stickers you can use to make your homemade levels more interesting. Each region has its own unique set of levels, most having to do with the countries and cultures you are in at the time. You start out in Australia, but soon enough you are shipped to Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, North America and, you guessed it, South America (just in time to celebrate Carnivale). Each of these regions features several levels to complete, along with a series of constantly changing bonus levels for you to figure out.
To do this you create your own customizable Sackboy character, an adorable little mascot character made out of a, you guessed it, burlap sack. He's limited in his movements, you're only allowed to run, jump and grab on to things (using the left shoulder button). His movements are a little floaty, but he's certainly easy to control at all times. The nice thing is that Sackboy doesn't run out of lives, instead he's returned to a checkpoint and you lose some points. What sets this character apart from the Marios and Sonics is the fact that he's not limited to the one plane. The game is built around the idea that you can jump in and out of the screen, allowing you to get around obstacles and interact with the level in a number of interesting ways. Most of the puzzles are designed with this gameplay mechanic in mind, so expect to jump in and out of the planes a bunch throughout each level.
What surprised me is how different each of these levels is. This is not one of those games where you're simply trying to avoid obstacles and make it to the end of the level. There's definitely a lot more at play here. In most levels you'll end up meeting somebody who will task you with a specific mission, usually some multi-part puzzle that will have you running, jumping, climbing, dangling and other traditional platformer actions. And even when you've done that, you will discover that there's more for you to do. Complete all of the missions in a level and you'll find your way to the big computer at the end.
Unfortunately, simply saying that these levels is different doesn't do much to illustrate how creative and unusual each level is. In one level you'll have to solve a bunch of physics-based puzzles in order to unlock an animal-themed password, while in another you'll have to throw sheep in the correct cages before you can move on. There are levels where you race a boat and levels where you go sledding on a toboggan. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, by the end of the game you will have battled a giant King Kong-style ape who has kidnapped a beautiful (albeit lifeless) woman. There's an incredible amount of variety, much more than any other 2D platformer I've seen in the last twenty years. As you would expect, each of the levels takes advantage of the region they are located in. You'll see kangaroos in Australia, Chinese-style dragons in the Orient and even beautiful starlets in Hollywood. The levels are gorgeous, even if they can't quite match the level of polish found in the PlayStation 3 original. They are also long, sometimes taking five or ten minutes to complete. And chances are you won't find all of the orbs and stickers the first time through, giving you more than enough reason to go back and try each of the levels a second or third time.
Of course, anybody that has even heard of LittleBigPlanet already knows that the pre-loaded levels are only half the fun. The whole idea is to create your own levels and share them with friends. And what if you don't have any friends? Don't worry, because you can always upload them to the LittleBigPlanet server where others can download and rate your masterpieces. And if you're not the creative type, there are plenty of levels already on the server worth downloading. Some of these online levels are just as (if not more) creative as the pre-loaded levels, and many of them offer gameplay ideas that were not broached in the original game.
Creating levels is also a fun and exciting way to waste a lot of time. The level editor gives you a blank room and a floating Sackboy. From there you get to lay down items, change up the backgrounds, add stickers and so on so forth. Best of all, you can create a lot of different gameplay styles, from the traditional 2D platformer to a classic shoot-em-up. There's so much available to you in this mode that it's almost overwhelming at first. Actually, it's overwhelming no matter what. The idea of creating your own levels can be daunting, especially if you don't have much experience at that kind of thing. I'm not sure I'll ever become a master level designer, so I'm certainly thankfully that there are other, better designers already uploading their stages.
While the game doesn't feature any kind of multiplayer component (not even offline Ad Hoc), you are able to share levels back and forth between friends. Best of all, the new levels are integrated into the game, so it's not like you have to go into some special menu far away from the standard game. I can't wait until the game starts getting in the hands of gamers, that's when all of the truly interesting levels will be uploaded. As far as I'm concerned, LittleBigPlanet has an almost unlimited amount of replay.
The game's presentation is also first rate. While the graphics aren't as refined as those found on the PlayStation 3, they certainly hold up better than I thought they would going in. The animation is extremely smooth and there's a ton of details in every level. The only real knock I have is that some of the graphics have rough edges, but that's no different from what you would see in PlayStation 2 games. The game's visuals are definitely striking, though the real star of the show comes from the physics engine.
LittleBigPlanet also features an incredible soundtrack, full of atmospheric tunes that sound like they came directly from the PlayStation 3 game. Best of all, Stephen Fry returns to narrate this portable LittleBigPlanet. I don't know what is it about his soft, soothing voice, but there's something about him that fits this game perfectly. He can read just about anything and keep me captivated. If anything, there isn't enough Stephen Fry in this game. But then, part of me really wishes he would just be talking throughout the whole game. Of course, that's never going to happen, so I'll just have to settle for a few lines here and there and a bunch of incredible music to pass the time.
Given that this is my first real taste of LittleBigPlanet, I can honestly say that I'm impressed with what Cambridge Studio has been able to accomplish. The concept was sound, but what this studio has done is create a fantastic portable game out of the blueprints handed over by Media Molecule. Fans of the PlayStation 3 version may miss the four-player online mode, but I can't imagine that it will ruin this otherwise stellar experience. With solid gameplay, incredible graphics, tons of free downloadable levels, a robust level creator and, of course, Stephen Fry, you would be hard pressed to find a better game released on the PSP this year. LittleBigPlanet is an essential release, definitely one of my favorite games of the year.