Ratchet & Clank Retrospective: Ratchet & Clank
We all have a soft spot in our heart for the first video game we purchase with our own hard earned money. My first contact with Ratchet & Clank was the demo disk that came with my Playstation 2; I got Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly with my PS2, but know I logged much more time on that demo version of Ratchet & Clank. So much so that I can still point out the differences between those demo levels and the final game to this day. I liked it so much I had to go out and spend my meagre allowance on the game. It just couldn’t wait until Christmas, or my Birthday.
Over the course of the last month I have undertaken the task of replaying the entire Ratchet & Clank series end-to-end; getting as much completion as possible, and I must say it has aged rather well — especially the original. The decision to have more stylized and “cartoony” graphics has meant the game is still bearable to look at in 2015. I should note that these retrospectives are based on the original PS2 versions of the games. I don’t own the HD collection, and can’t really comment on if it’s worth it or not besides the core games being amazing. Sadly, my original memory card with the original 100% complete save files of the first four games is lost to the ages, but I’ve felt engaged enough with the games still to attempt a good level of completion for each game this go-around.
In many ways, Ratchet & Clank follows in the footsteps of other Insomniac titles; their previous series Spyro was always overshadowed by the platforming offerings on the Nintendo 64 despite being very capable in its own right. The game also has a lot in common with the classic lineup of Rare games. They are about collecting things and exploration, even if Ratchet & Clank is a little more structured in how it does it. I make this comparison in a flattering way. I really do think Ratchet & Clank is good enough to stand next to the best games the genre has to offer.
Oh, and it has guns. A truck load of guns. Weapons and gadgets are kind of Ratchet & Clank’s thing; each one is unique, if not equally useful. But that’s to be expected as new weapons are needed to take on new and more powerful enemies. What strikes me is how few games have managed this level of weapon diversity; it added so much variety to the combat and that has remained one of the hallmarks of the series. One of my personal favourites is the “Glove of Doom” that sends out little robot minions that seek out your enemies and blown them to pieces. It’s the sound they make that really sells it; they make these evil little squeaks that are just hilarious.
Gadgets unlock the various gameplay elements, and are used to navigate and solve the various environmental puzzles. Many of these like the Heli-pack become defaults in later games, but here you start from scratch. Grind Boot for grinding, O2 mask for breathing underwater — it’s mostly common sense stuff. You even get a metal detector in case you feel like the game is too exciting and you want to goof off following frustrating to locate and generally quite low value caches of bolts. There are things you will forget you have here like the Metal Detector and the Sonic Summoner (which I think I’ve only bothered to use once) but, once again, there is a lot of variety and options for those who want to seek it out.
What Ratchet relies on most is his trusty wrench which is used for everything from turning bolt-cracks to smashing enemies and the scenery, although I don’t think we actually see him fix very much with it. We also have more odd fare like the “Walloper” which is a giant metal comedy boxing glove, “The Morph-o-Ray” which turns your enimies into chickens, “The Suck Cannon” which can suck up smaller enimies for ammunition, and “The Taunter” which is a giant megaphone that can lure enemies into hazards but is also handy for breaking the crates full of bolts that litter the world.
I don’t know if they eat the bolts, build things with them, or just carry them around like really a really awkward coinage, but over the course of the game you will accumulate enough nuts, bolts, and gears to build a Star-cruiser. Watching your enemies explode into bolts is always satisfying, and they fit into the mechanical world of Ratchet & Clank with its retro-style robots and sci-fi spires ripped from the pages of a 1950s comic book.
The soundtrack is also worth a mention in its own right. Composed solely by David Bergeaud; it fits very well in each level. Again, I think it can hold its own against the classics of the genre in this regard as well. It’s fun, sometimes funky, and very memorable. The theme to Metropolis on planet Kerwan is immediately recognizable with its theremin stings, punchy drums, bass, and deep orchestral pallet. The music never feels superfluous or incidental. The soundtrack has as much character as the game itself, and once again has not aged poorly at all thanks mostly to its eclectic mix of instruments and styles.
Looking back on it, there are also a really wide range of enemies in the game. Most planets have at least one unique and new enemy, and as weapons become unlocked you can tackle them in new and interesting ways. Sand sharks, Blarg, Robot lumberjacks, bigger robot lumberjacks, robot dogs, and more inhabit the game’s world.
Variety is the name of the game here. Ratchet & Clank features space combat, platforming, a few puzzles, hover-board racing, and of course the levels where you control Clank and Giant Clank. There are a lot of elements put into the game, and none of them feel too out of sync in terms of quality. The core gameplay has lots of bits and pieces to keep things from getting monotonous; underwater sections, grind rails, and obstacle courses along with Gold bolts to find and Skill Points to acquire. Action, exploration, and platforming can be difficult things to balance. There are a lot of disparate mechanics to juggle here, and the fact that Ratchet & Clank feels more or less cohesive is an achievement in itself. The fact you can return to it and still get compelling gameplay, and things to do, is an great bonus. Collecting all the do-dads isn’t as much of a chore as it is in some games.
One of the less developed parts of the game are the story and characters. Game stories have moved in pretty substantial ways since this era of games, and whilst it serves the game very well it mainly serves as a method to move through the games various, and excellent, environments. The character of Captain Quark has endured through the series for a reason; he is much more compelling than the “Evil corporate guy in a suit” Chairman Dreck and the Blarg; who never really return in the series or have a fully explained motivation beyond the ham-fisted environmental message about pollution and corporate greed. The over-arching plot is very 2002. I know I felt a lot more animosity towards the bumbling, washed up Quark; he’s one part washed up action star, one part used car salesman — and all ego.
The relationship between Clank and Ratchet feels genuine, but I think Ratchet himself gets very little development for a main character. In many ways Clank is very much the hero here; the one who has a sense of moral purpose. Until farther in the series (which we will get to in future retrospectives) Ratchet has no real reason to be there beyond going on an adventure and being swept up in events. But these shortcomings never get in the way of the game itself. and since the game is aimed at a younger audience in the early 2000s era it’s more charming and competent than we were used to getting.
What makes Ratchet & Clank as a series tick is all present and fully formed in its first iteration. This is quite an achievement considering they originally planned to develop a game codenamed “I5” and known as “Girl with a stick” internally as late as 2001. Ted Price, President and CEO of Insomniac Games, wrote a Gamasutra piece “Postmortem: Insomniac Games’ Ratchet & Clank” which reveals the game was made in just 18 months with about 40 full time staff — a pretty herculean undertaking.
Insomniac games always have a certain feel to them. I suppose even my 11 year old self could tell the Spyro series wasn’t as good as the PS1 originals. The game I got with my PS2 lacked that factor, that quality that I found once again in Ratchet & Clank. At their best, Insomniac games have a sense of humour and personality that permeate their projects, and make them more endearing and enjoyable than a lot of series out there.
When we think about “classic games” we tend to go back to the 80s or 90s; when we think of gaming mascots we tend to go back to that period as well. How much time has to pass until something is considered a “classic” game? 10, 20… 30 years? Our nostalgia comes from a narrow place when many younger gamers, and even gamers in their mid twenties, didn’t grow up with those games from the 80s and 90s at all.
I suppose that’s what makes games like Ratchet & Clank sail more under the radar then some more fondly remembered games. It occupies a period in gaming history where the icons were no longer platformers, and the focus was more on different styles of gaming. Ratchet & Clank was never a game that was in fashion; it has never been the game people are talking about at any given moment. It did its own thing, but in doing so provided an experience many of us now yearn for even more strongly then when they came out. I consider it a classic and must-play game of its era, and it’s certainly stood the test of time far better than some other “classic” games. Ratchet & Clank is a game where there are a lot of very good elements. Nothing genre re-defining, but it nails most of what it does and provides mountains of fun in doing so.
I think when we “go retro” we need to look more to the experiences in the PS2 era of gaming and not automatically think of the gaming world as big 3D blockbusters and tiny 2D scraped together indie games. By modern standards, Ratchet & Clank was built on a shoestring budget yet there is little in the way of ambition from independent creators to live up to games of its ilk.
Here we are, a full 13 years later, and I still feel confident recommending the first game in the series as a more than worthwhile game to play. I do miss the days when top shelve games were not afraid to be a little more family friendly, and a bit less cynical. Nintendo thrives precisely because it is able to do this. I can also recommend Ratchet & Clank because it’s something we see less of in the HD and “next gen” eras of gaming. It’s a bright and fun experience without having to venture into the minefield of indie or casual gaming. Family friendly gaming has gotten a bad name for being phoned-in and shallow in the intervening years, and that’s a little sad. I love first person shooters, but something was lost when the industry pushed into ever narrower genres and themes. Ratchet & Clank has been one of the few survivors of that push and I’m very glad of that.
Favourite Weapon: The RYNO. The Rip You a New One
Favourite Gadget: Swingshot
Next time on the Ratchet & Clank Retrospective, we’re Going Commando!
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