The Sly Cooper series is one of the most beloved games of the PS2 era, one of the so-called “Holy Trinity” of PS2 platformers. The series features a world full of anthropomorphized animals, where Sly Cooper, a roguish raccoon, and his friends have a series of globetrotting adventures pulling off heists in all sorts of exotic locales. The series is lovable, charming, and exciting. Oh, and it really, really hates poor people. Maybe I should start at the beginning…
The narrative of the game revolves around Sly Cooper and his allies fending off threats to his family legacy. It positions the protagonist as a rightfully privileged hero, and the antagonists as nefarious class usurpers. At every turn, the series reinforces the idea that the Bad Guys are bad because they challenge social hierarchy, directly or otherwise, and that the Good Guys are good because they defend Sly’s inheritance, which is presented as inherently good for arbitrary and never-questioned reasons.
The whole series starts with you learning about Sly’s central motivating tragedy. He’s descended from a long line of master thieves that aggregated all of their thieving knowledge into a single book that has been passed down through the generations. This clan takes pride in stealing only from other thieves, as they consider it the ultimate test of skill to rip off another larcenist. The very night Sly’s father intended to bequeath the book to his son, five mysterious strangers invaded and ransacked their home. These strangers, known as the Fiendish Five, murdered Sly’s father and tore the book into several pieces, retreating to the far reaches of the earth with their respective parts. This brutal and bizarre crime landed little Sly in an orphanage with nothing but his father’s cane, where he met Bentley (a turtle, and the brains of their gang) and Murray (a hippo, and the brawn of their outfit). They quickly became fast friends and started stealing stuff, honing their skills for the inevitable day when they would embark to recover Sly’s inheritance.
Why do Bentley and Murray agree to dedicate their lives to Sly’s inherently selfish revenge scheme? How did they end up in the orphanage and what are their backstories? Who knows? The answers to these questions are never provided. In fact, Sly is the only character in the whole series with a self-contained backstory. Bentley and Murray (and every other character you meet) seem to exist for the sole purpose of aiding, validating, and/or antagonizing Sly throughout his journey.
The first antagonist and member of the Fiendish Five, Raleigh, seems to contradict the thesis proposed above. He is the aristocratic British heir of a sizable fortune, turning to modern piracy out of boredom. Frankly, he’s a pretty straightforward jerk.
Not so with the second, Muggshott (a bulldog), or the third, Miz Ruby (an alligator). Both are bullied and ostracized as children. Muggshott pursues control of his social circumstances through bodybuilding, and Miz Ruby pursues control over her environment through her magical voodoo powers. Both turn to crime because… the story needs Bad Guys. There is never any clear motivation given for their choice to enter high-stakes crime. Instead, you are left to believe that in the process of overcoming their marginalization, they simply became evil.
The story of the fourth member, the Panda King, is even more absurd. He was born and raised poor in China. In order to escape poverty and indulge his love of the art of fireworks, he put together a display for some noblemen, who ridiculed him for his poverty. In response, he swears revenge on his critics and uses fireworks to pursue a criminal career. But not only is this runaway poor person thin-skinned and uppity, he’s also a sociopath. In the first level of his portion of the game, you see him bury a village under an avalanche. No reason for this action is ever given (except for some vague line about extortion), and you only see this incident from afar. In fact, you never see any bystanders harmed by Sly’s enemies, although you are frequently told he is helping innocents. You never see their faces, and Sly keeps everything he steals. He’s not Robin Hood. Instead, you are led to believe that a process of competitive larceny, whereby Sly ruins somebody and Inspector Fox rushes in to mop up, is a virtuous, populist societal good, without ever seeing the populations being “saved.”
The Panda King calls Sly on this when they finally meet, rumbling, “You are a thief, just like me.” Sly scoffs back, “No, that’s only half right. I am a thief…from a long line of master thieves. Whereas you…you’re just a frustrated firework artist turned homicidal pyromaniac!” Not only does Sly specifically cite his bloodline and inheritance as evidence of his moral superiority over the King, he explicitly links his enemy’s failed attempts as an artist, and by extension, his failed attempt to exercise upward social mobility, to his violent, evil tendencies.
The Big Bad of the game, Clockwerk (an owl), further validates Sly’s bloodline through contrast. Clockwerk shows up in virtually every image of a Cooper clan member that you see, but only as a shadowy silhouette in the background. He is an ancient nemesis of the Cooper clan, so envious of the Coopers’ thieving abilities that he mechanized his body to live until the day he destroys the Cooper line. His stated goal is to end the Cooper lineage, steal their relics, and make their name fade into obscurity, and his stated motivation is envy. That’s it. No other plans. He just hates the Cooper bloodline and inheritance so much that he founded the Fiendish Five solely to kill them all. Here, you, the viewer, are asked to accept some dizzying circular logic: the Cooper legacy is worth protecting because Clockwerk hates it and is evil. But why does he hate the Cooper legacy? Because the Cooper legacy is good and he is evil. He is so evil, in fact, that the whole second game is largely about stealing and destroying his mechanized corpse…