Here at Digital Chumps, we’re pretty big fans of LittleBigPlanet. The original game, as well as the Game of the Year Edition, both received considerably rare perfect scores. 2008 was a big year, but 2009 has been kind as well, with a steady stream of marginal downloadable content, the game of the year edition, and, of course, the never ending flow of user created levels. While the visual fidelity of the adorable presentation and the technical wizardry behind the massive level builder seemed intrinsic to the Playstation 3's architecture, a version of the experience has never the less been constructed for the Playstation Portable. Handled by Cambridge, in close collaboration with the original developer Media Molecule, LittleBigPlanet has finally made its way to the PSP.
The first thing I noticed was how much the PSP incarnation felt like its bigger brother. Stephen Fry's tuck-you-into-bed voice returns to guide you through the game, which, at first blush, looks hardly compromised from its counterpart. The polygon count is lower, of course, but the depth of the backgrounds, the cardboard cutout aesthetic, the burned edges of the screen, and the unmistakable charm of Sackboy are all well in place. Sound effects, like the unmistakable swoop of a jump, the squish of getting smashed, and the delightful zipping noise of changing skins also do well to bring a sense of familiarity to the initial experience.
For the most part, the mechanics remain the same. Though limited to two levels of depth instead of three, Sackboy still makes his way to the end of each level by grabbing onto things, hopping in and out of the background, collecting stuff, and dragging around blocks (and other...things) to solve puzzles. LittleBigPlanet remains a pure platformer with a good physics engine, though, thanks to a more simplistic design, slightly less complicated and cumbersome than the console game. Sackboy’s sloppy jump move, a source of heavy criticism, still comes down to a matter of taste and patience, but it’s less of a problem with only two layers of horizontal movement to navigate. Lastly, perhaps as a concession to a portable audience, there is no longer a limit on lives. Yep, infinite lives and frequent checkpoints all but remove the potential for frustration.
Another immediately noticeable concession is the lack of multiplayer. Obviously shaved off due to the technical limitations of the PSP, LittleBigPlanet now arrives as a single player experience. In a way this wasn't a problem, I gleefully played through the original's campaign entirely by myself, but the longevity of the title, through my experience, revolved heavily around playing with friends. Getting some buddies together and scouring the masses for random user levels seemed to only work in a party atmosphere; if a level was bad you could blast through it together and laugh at its mistakes, but if a level was awesome your minds were collectively blown. That shared experience was what made the game special, and, while looking and playing random levels on my own could be fun, it felt drab without my friends. Anyway, anecdotal experiences are intangible at best, but the lack of additional players also flushes away the competitive nature of trying to score the most point bubbles and fewest deaths, which is also a bummer. LittleBigPlanet PSP has to exist in its own vacuum where this isn't possible, but it still made me miss multiplayer.
The levels bundled with the game also do their best to mirror the feel of the original. On a world tour of sorts, Sackboy makes his way through setting like the Orient, an Arabian Bazaar, the Australian Outback, and, Tinsel Town, the set of a Hollywood movie. Level progression also borders on the original, with one theme covering three level installments; along with optional mini levels (should you find the key to unlock them). Gathering the entire prize bubbles, placing stickers on context sensitive objects, engaging in timed races, and, of course, making it all the way to the end remain your primary goals.
There are a couple new challenges too. Eggstraction is a multi-tiered level tied to a picture-based password; explore the four sections of the level, solving a puzzle in each, and receive the code to unlock the door. Dogged Determination places you on a dogsled (literally, a sled that is a dog) that you have to escort/ride through the level, and, when he wags his tail, he gives a hint at some subterranean bonuses. Sand Ahoy tasks you with two colored blocks that, with the assistance of some switches and cranes, are used to solve puzzles throughout the level. Throughout LittleBigPlanet PSP you'll evade a dragon, roll around a fat farting kid, rebuild the Great Wall of China, ride a magic carpet, make your way through an amusement park, and evade electric ice hazards.
The levels created by Cambridge, while easily outclassing typical user created content, don't seem to measure up to the bar set by Media Molecule. Care, time, and precision felt as if they went hand in hand with the Media Molecule's levels, but minor squabbles, such as not being able to progress after I missed the pizza cart in Thieves' Den or a text bubble appearing right as I had to jump over a flaming barrel, make it hard for Cambridge's efforts to measure up to the previous standard. What they have done in terms of level design is still significantly better than the usual PSP offerings, and there isn't anything else like it on a handheld, but it’s very much a copy of the original and very little of a new endeavor.
Only the Tinsel Town levels come off as feeling thematically different from anything experienced in the original LittleBigPlanet. Essentially shooting a movie about "malfunctioning robot aliens from space," the theme is unlike the more regional fare offered in the previous levels. You'll get a jetpack and have to stay in a shot as you evade aliens for an action scene, parachute out the back of a plane, make your way through instant death lasers, and save the damsel in distress. Tinsel Town feels like the only area where Cambridge really went nuts with the level design, and it really makes you wonder what they could have done with complete creative freedom. As it stands, I felt like the rest of their levels had the style from Media Molecule's, but came up short on spirit and inspiration.
I suppose close comparison, or outright replication, was the idea behind LittleBigPlanet PSP's creation. In an interview with CVG, Executive Producer Mark Green implied that they wanted to mirror the original LittleBigPlanet as closely as possible. It makes sense, Sony isn't wrong for wanting to stay as close as possible to their best original IP in years, but the tight track LittleBigPlanet PSP runs through makes it hard to evaluate LBP PSP as a standalone product, and not a portable recreation of an experience I've already had on advanced hardware. For me, the original LittleBigPlanet wasn't about proficient platforming, but exploring a variety of new worlds under the blanket of its adorable aesthetic, and the PSP version comes off as an extension of this idea, rather than a different take. Newcomers probably won't know the difference and it’s all still undeniably warm and inviting, but seasoned LittleBigPlanet players may emerge from the PSP incarnation with a "been there, done that" take on the game.
I touched on it earlier, but, from a presentation standpoint, LittleBigPlanet PSP nails the look and feel of the original. Sackboy’s little legs run in place when he grabs onto swinging objects, his face and mouth emote with the dpad, and the level of detail on the myriad of skins and clothing is quite remarkable on such a small screen. The music also takes some cue from the original by featuring some licensed tunes by relatively obscure bands (Glockenpop by Spiderbait is absolutely fantastic). In this regard, Cambridge's attempts to match the mood of the original are welcomed with open arms.
Like most else, LittleBigPlanet level builder has been scaled to fit the PSP. The biggest and most welcomed change is a grid overlay whenever you attempt to construct a new material. It adds a sense of distance and consistency to level building, and the grid comes into appreciation in everything from jump management to course navigation. Also new is the distinction of being able to make materials dynamic (as in subjected to gravity) or static (which renders any material the same as the "antigravity" material from before), which greatly streamlines the construction process. The lack of extra buttons transferred size changing and rotation to holding down R and using the analog stick, but such a change had to be expected. The narrated tutorials are still in place, but have had the in-engine cinematics replaced with little animated instructions. They're just as, if not slightly more informative than before - and I felt they fit the style of the game much better.
What didn't carry over so well was the overall smoothness of the process. Our review copy of the game was on a UMD, so if you've downloaded the game this might not be an issue, but the load times in create mode were atrocious. Rewinding to correct any sort of mistake resulted a loading screen and five seconds of loading time before it fully reset, and pulling out objects and materials from your Popit always required a few seconds to stream off the UMD and into the screen. Almost all of the tools were present, and the size of the levels you can build looks respectable, but it was such as slow and plodding process.
Building a level, once I got the hang of the differences in the interface, went along the same lines as the PS3 LittleBigPlanet. Now I wouldn't say I made anything nearly as creative as Azure Palace or NeoGAF's Contra recreation project, but I dumped several dozen hours into recreating my girlfriend's favorite childrens book and a fairly amusing racecar level. Trying to reproduce my previous ideas came without much fault, other than the considerably longer process to get it going. (Note: for a different perspective on the LBP PSP’s create mode, check out our interview with Azure Palace creator David Dino).
From the few user levels that were uploaded pre-release, finding and playing user content was a breeze. Once you find a level you'd like to play, it’s downloaded to your memory stick and available to play offline whenever you like. This makes it easy to find a wifi spot, go online, load up on whatever you can find, and then play them all no matter where you are. It's simplistic and maybe an obvious route, but its spot on and, once the rating system gets in place, should make having all the best stuff on your memory stick an effortless process. Should you wish, you can also link PSPs and receive the breadth of a friend's levels as well.
Though it is a single player experience, rarely will a community be so intrinsic to a game's success. With a fully featured but, thanks to awkward load times, unwieldy tools set and the prospect of hammering out a level for hours and hours on a portable platform, I'm not convinced the user generated levels will arrive with the quality or quantity of the PS3 counterpart. I scored the original game's user created-levels based on excellent offerings from the beta, but the PSP version doesn't have similar credence. I can't picture someone pouring endless hours into a less powerful version of the hardware, especially when their talents could be better cultivated on the big screen. I had a lot of fun making my little rocket car level again, and all the tools are there and ripe for use, but the potential of the portable community to stick with the game and crank out awesome levels is relatively unproven. It's potential versus practicality; how dependable will the community be? Cambridge, in the previously mentioned interview with CVG, stated that they want to do level packs with new gameplay content, which is good news if the user levels aren't up to par. Either way, this doesn't factor into my score of the game (as it’s unquantifiable), but it’s something to think about.