Sep. 16, 2013 at 9:48 AM ET
As video games have matured as a medium, so too have they matured in terms of "adult" content. While Nintendo still puts out new Mario and Zelda titles, the rest of the "family-friendly" gaming turned towards Facebook or mobile. Xbox and PlayStation, meanwhile, have become almost entirely the domain of first and occasionally third-person shooters.
For PlayStation fans who remember superb, kid-centric titles like "Jak and Daxter," "Crash Bandicoot," and "MediEvil," before somber and violent games like "God of War" and "Grand Theft Auto" represented Sony's consoles, this is a sad truism. But with "Puppeteer," an excellent new game from Sony’s in-house Japanese studio, the company proves that it can still produce vibrant family-friendly content that's distinct from its rival, Nintendo.
Inspired by the ornate tradition of Japanese Puppet Theater known as Bunraku, "Puppeteer" is adorable and breathtaking. The story follows a tiny puppet named Kutaro as he embarks on a quest along with a flying Princess named Pikarina to retrieve his head from the Moon Bear King. In the process, you collect a magical pair of scissors that serve as Kutaro's main weapon to defeat bad guys and navigate through levels, along with an assortment of replacement heads. Some of these extra noggins give you special powers such as the ability to lob bombs or deflect enemy projectiles, but most ust look funny and occasionally unlock secret levels.
Keep in mind: this is a game about puppets, so things are meant to be silly. Indeed, it's the carefree spirit of "Puppeteer" that makes this one of the most whimsical and enjoyable games that Sony has released since 2008's "Littlebigplanet" — the company's last great foray into kids games that sadly didn't do much to start a trend despite achieving universal acclaim.
"Puppeteer's" gameplay truly shines in its two-player mode, which puts one character in Kutaro's shoes and the other in Pikarina's, so they can solve puzzles and fight bad guys together. Other recent 2-D platformers such as "Rayman Legends" and Nintendo's new "Super Mario Bros." games for Wii U have tried to create similar collaborative gameplay, but too often shunt one player into a meaningless assistant role. Maybe that's tolerable if you're a parent playing with your child, but it's not all that fun. And for "Puppeteer's" creators, that's the whole point — Gavin Moore, the game's creative director, said he was inspired to make the game after trying to play games with his son, only to find that he'd lose interest shortly after they started.
Even playing "Puppeteer" on single player, you can still feel the warmth of this communal ethos, a strength of the new game that points out an important phenomenon: Ever since video games migrated from arcade halls into PCs and living rooms, the experience of gameplay has become progressively more isolated, even lonely. "Puppeteer" may not be a perfect game, but it's a gorgeous one that encourages people to play together in all of the best ways. Ending the PlayStation 3's era on a note like this, it's hard not be excited about what the company comes up with in the next generation.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.