With every year that passes, Sony’s backing of the original LittleBigPlanet seems increasingly bold. It eschewed military greys and browns in favour of antique wallpapers and cotton reels for the course of its campaign; it chose depth and flexibility over friendly immediacy when it came to the level creation toolbox. More comfortable with Stephen Fry than Steven Seagal, Media Molecule’s kibble-filled playground remains an affable oddity with few obvious contemporaries – it’s complex, sweet-natured and demanding, and it’s possibly the most wayward best-seller yet created.
Now that it’s landed on Vita, it’s tempting to argue that it’s found a platform that matches its natural idiosyncrasies, too. After all, Sony’s troubled handheld represents a similarly brave bet on an equally specific audience, offering a high-quality portable console bristling with an embarrassment of inputs in place of a simple touchscreen tablet that plugs into a download shop. When hardware and software converge here, in other words, you see contemporary design at its most lavish and optimistic. LittleBigPlanet Vita is a game we’re being given whether or not the market actually supports it.
The platform supports it beautifully, at least, and the Vita’s roomy screen is a case in point. In create mode, it’s perfect for laying down objects and paging through the trusty clutter of Popit, of course, but it’s in Play that it truly comes into its own. Suddenly, this delicate world feels so much more dynamic, as you yank platforms around with a swipe of a thumb or send springboards – and Sackboys – bouncing high into the sky. During a dazzling stand-out moment early on in the campaign, you can even pick out chords on a hanging piano keyboard. It’s a sequence that would previously have either provided mere artful decoration or a bit of a haptic cludge, and this time it becomes a genuine timewaster.
The rear touchpad gets in on the action too, providing platforms that can be prodded out of the landscape as easily as they’re pushed back in again, while even the tilt sensors have their moment to shine in levels that ape the fantastical internal complexities of cyberpunk pinball tables. The handheld’s the perfect fit for a world of such obvious tactile richness, but the end result feels thematically apt, too. LittleBigPlanet’s always been the craftiest of Sony’s IP; with the Vita it’s found its very own penknife.
All of which ensures that, as a platformer, the franchise has lost none of its hand-made ingenuity, despite a shift in development duties to Tarsier Studios and the team at Double Eleven. If anything, this is the most inventive LittleBigPlanet campaign yet, in fact, with each level throwing in a new twist or an unexpected gimmick as you catch trains across an endless junkyard or move through haunted houses leaping from one dumb waiter to the next. The environments keep pace with the mechanics, shifting from clutters of dusty books to stacks of videotape, glossy telephone handsets, and mansions built from time-weathered driftwood, and there’s a hint of Super Mario Galaxy’s scattershot creativity in the way new ideas, and new scenarios, are cast aside after a single dazzling outing.
Beyond that, there’s also a growing sense that the series’ toolset – expanded over recent years to include grappling hooks, projectile weaponry and gauntlets that allow you to chuck blocks about – has finally reached robust maturity. Spurned on by the peculiarly pedantic strain of creativity that holds the expanded community together, this is the first LittleBigPlanet that truly tempts you through the entirety of its story mode and leaves you eager for a little bit more besides. Critics of the woozy physics won’t be entirely won over by this update, perhaps, but they may at least be distracted due to the sheer variety on offer. It’s easy to get drawn into the hectic series of quick-change routines that’s thrown your way – even if you’re marvelling over the craftsmanship on display as much as you are sweating over each jump and each drop.
As ever, the campaign’s largely in place to inspire you towards your own efforts, and, as creation suites go, this remains rather wilful and fiddly, paying the price for its staggering flexibility with a steep learning curve and a teetering pile of tutorials. Almost every tool from previous games is present in some form or another, from movers and emitters to Sackbots and microchips, and the ability to draw geometry straight onto the screen with your finger means it’s surprisingly fun for even the most amateur of designers to get involved – albeit in a messy, unplanned, and ultimately limited sort of way.
Commitment and patience, however, are rewarded with entirely fresh gizmos such as the Memoriser, which allows you to save the status of a stage for the next time you come back to it, and a handful of strange new materials. You can store and upload 30 of your own levels before running out of space, and while the busier designs seem more prone to performance issues than in previous outings, there’s a new focus on optimisation, with a handful of clever – and inevitably rather complex – workarounds available.
Semi-regular iterations were never going to make a game as singular as LittleBigPlanet feel like part of the cyclical release grind, then, but there’s still something rather surprising about how thoughtful and vivid this latest instalment is. If you’ve been writing the series’ Vita appearance off as a compromise or a contractual obligation, you’re in for something of a treat. That 5 inch OLED screen is a chance to see Media Molecule’s staggering achievement afresh, and to witness one of this generation’s most intriguing engines of creativity at its most energetic and effective.