Virtually all of the hype leading up to the release of LittleBigPlanet for the PlayStation 3 focused on the game’s remarkable level editor, or its adorable mascot, Sackboy, so I had no idea what I would encounter when I played the actual game. I was somewhat stunned to discover that it’s a surprisingly simple platform game – no powerups or special abilities, no life-giving collections of a hundred somethings, just basic running, swinging, and jumping. Relying on little more than the most basic components of the platforming genre, LittleBigPlanet is just a 2d platformer…the way a 1967 Shelby Cobra is just a car.

Your first glimpse into the simplistic brilliance of LittleBigPlanet is its control scheme: press X to jump, hit R1 to grab something. That’s it. Well, you can hold down X longer to jump further, but that’s about as nuanced as things get. As for the game’s plot – there really isn’t one. Each of the worlds fashioned by one of the game’s “creator curators” has a loose connecting narrative, but for the most part, you and Sackboy are exploring the world simply because it’s there and you can. There are few enemies in LittleBigPlanet, and no bosses to speak of. It’s just you and your jumping skills versus the perils of the environment. In any other game, this stripped-down approach might feel sparse or lacking, but it lets the best parts of LittleBigPlanet, the wonderfully creative levels, shine through without interference or interruption.

You’ll fall to your doom more than once in LBP simply because you’re so caught up looking at the scenery. The 2d levels are more like dioramas than game environments, with fabric trees, string rope swings, and paper animals dotting the landscape. It all has a very tactile quality that makes you feel as though the entire game were crafted with scissors, construction paper, and glue. It’s part game, part puppet show, and the effect is both charming and endearing.

What’s even more refreshing is that the worlds of LittleBigPlanet don’t fall back on the typical element-based themes like fire, ice, and water so common to platform games. Rather than design an entire world around such an overused trope, LittleBigPlanet‘s levels use them merely as accent points, such as in the level featuring a herd of rampaging buffalo. The forest they’re running through is burning, but that’s incidental to the real focal point of the level – the crocodiles causing the buffalo to run amok. (It’s not their fault, really, just the result of a misunderstanding with the meerkats.)

LittleBigPlanet isn’t a complete departure from platform gaming, however; it has its fair share of items to collect. Each level has scores of collectibles like stickers, fabrics, materials, tools, costume pieces and objects that you’ll use to customize your Sackboy and create your own custom levels. Each world also contains a few hidden keys that will unlock special survival stages whose goals are nothing more than scoring as much as you can before time runs out or you die. You don’t have to complete these stages to progress in the game, but they provide a healthy, and usually quite funny, break from the precision platforming action.

A less enjoyable way that LBP mirrors other examples of the platforming genre is its ability to inspire controller-hurling levels of frustration. Part of that stems from the game’s wonderfully complex level design, but unfortunately a great deal of it comes from jump controls that sometimes feel mushy and unresponsive, and an emphasis on plane-shifting that doesn’t always quite work. Though LBP is 2d, Sackboy can move in and out of the screen, which should happen automatically when he jumps. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. In most situations, it’s a minor issue, but in those rare instances when you’re trying to time something perfectly, only to run afoul of the game’s different planes, it can be maddening.

Occasional brushes with aggravation aside, playing through LittleBigPlanet is the perfect warm-up for using the game’s editor to make some of your very own levels. As an artistic medium, LittleBigPlanet‘s editor is rather a lot like modeling clay. It’s so easy to use that everybody can make something, but those with true talent and patience will be able to craft something truly extraordinary. Everything in the game was created using the same tools and assets at your disposal, though you’ll have to find a bunch of them within the actual game before you can use them. Knowing that you have the resources to create something as marvelous as LittleBigPlanet‘s Mexican Wedding themed world is inspirational; even if, like me, you have the artistic ability of a thumbtack, you’ll soon be itching to dig through your bag of tricks and see what kind of level you can pull out.

In fact, there are so many design options – different materials, paints, stickers, sound effects, machines, bolts, and objects – that you may find yourself staring helplessly at the screen, unable to pick a starting point for your masterpiece. Give yourself a break – start with one of the templates provided, then fill it with ready-made art and objects. Once you’re used to shuffling them around, you’ll begin to understand what works and what doesn’t, and can start a new file from scratch. When you’ve got a level to be proud of, upload it to the PlayStation Network, so that other Sackboys can take a run through it, then try some of the levels fashioned by other members of the PSN community.

It’s easy to point to the things that make LittleBigPlanet special, like its stellar level design, the cuter-than-clumsy-puppies Sackboy, or the easy-to-use level creator, but what’s more difficult to explain is how playing the game brightens your day. Even at its most frustrating, LittleBigPlanet is like a doubleshot of sunshine, a dose of condensed happiness injected right into your soul. Yes, it’s just a 2d platformer, but it’s also just what you need.

Bottom Line: You’ll be hooked by the time the opening credits are finished. Seriously.

Recommendation: The level editor or the game alone would make LittleBigPlanet worth having, but the two combined? Easiest decision ever.

Hippocratic Game Design

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