A history lesson on the subject of school-themed videogames would be a short one. It would begin, undoubtedly, with 1985's Skool Daze and its sequel, Back To Skool.
It would then pass through a handful of obscure Japanese role-players, PS2's survival horror, Obscure, and the Harry Potter games before inevitably ending with Canis Canem Edit.
That Canis drew inspiration from Skool Daze (lovable naughty boy lead character, stereotypical teachers, the chance to play as a swot or a rebel according to your own preference and, as in Back To Skool, get off with girls) is certain. That it makes us feel nostalgic for our own time in the education system is something quite remarkable.
TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL
You see, Canis drips with atmosphere. Bullworth Academy (the boarding school where the hero, Jimmy Hopkins, is dumped by his parents at the game's start so they can piss off on a luxury cruise without him) and the surrounding town is possibly Rockstar's finest game world yet.
There's nothing here wasted, no empty space thrown in just to make the map a bit bigger. In fact, it's quite small (at least compared to the GTAs), but still finds room to fit in the forbidding looking school building itself, a funfair full of games to play, a psychiatric hospital, residential areas, shops, bars, a gym, a beach (cycling over the sand as the sun sets is as beautiful and as the tranquil sunrises in GTA IV) and more besides.
Simply running/cycling/skateboarding about is tremendous fun in itself and the compact nature of the map means it never becomes overwhelming.
The characters are equally as terrific, and getting to know them all better is incentive in itself to keep plugging through the missions. There's not one of them who isn't entirely memorable, from psychotic PE teacher Mr Burton and bemused, bullied nerd Algie to repulsive old dinner lady, Edna, who enjoys nothing more than coughing her guts up over the liver and onions before dishing them out to unwitting schoolkids.
All stereotypes, but ones that are - crucially - utterly timeless and completely familiar to everyone. As long as teachers remain the same the world over, Canis won't age a jot.
Not that any of this would mean anything were the missions not up to scratch, but fortunately they still play wonderfully well two and a half years since Canis was fi rst released.
The novel setting allows for huge variety - you'll be escorting nerds to safety under jock attack, dressing as the school mascot to interrupt a football game, collecting panties from the girls dorm for Mr Burton (don't ask), beating up gangs of jocks, preps, geeks and bullies and even busting an English teacher out of the asylum.
There are a handful of duds - Stronghold Assault, for instance, in which you use a bottle rocket launcher to defend the nerds' precious observatory from a gang of attacking Jocks is awkward and enraging
- but nowhere near enough to really spoil proceedings. Besides, it wouldn't be a Rockstar game without making you swear like an angry marine at least a few times.
Most missions fizz with life, fun and irreverence, and hey, if you don't like the task you're doing at the moment, you can always go and kiss some girls, attend lessons (which are fun mini-games in themselves) or stuff some nerds into bins.
CAN'T BEAT A BULLY
Which, of course, brings us to the 'controversy' that surrounded Canis. Originally titled Bully, the mainstream media decided, without having seen the finished code, that the game was a 'bullying simulator', entirely about terrorising infants and kicking them in the face. Of course, Rockstar decided a name change would help mollify concerned stores, but Canis wasn't ever really about that.
In fact, it's more about helping the downtrodden members of Bullworth Academy and uniting all the school's various factions. Not that you couldn't push helpless kids down the stairs and boot them in the testicles (and we did with ill-disguised glee), but it didn't make the nation's schoolkids run out and attack each other. Curiously, when it came out on kid-friendly Wii, it went under its original moniker of Bully and no-one raised an eyebrow.
That Canis continues to compare more than favourably to nextgen sandbox games is testament to the love poured into it by Rockstar. If, when the school bell eventually rings to signify the end of PS3's time, there are even a handful of titles that offer as much variety, life and sheer fun as Canis, Sony's black box will have done well.
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