One Giant Leap, 2002: Ratchet & Clank

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: The 3D platformer meets the third-person shooter in Ratchet & Clank

We have talked a few times before about “Sony Platformer Trilogy Syndrome”, the tendency of Sony’s iconic platformer trilogies to start out firmly rooted in the genre for their first entry before growing bored and drifting further and further in the two follow-ups. It isn’t exclusive to Sony, of course; we see it in Crash Warped’s focus on vehicle levels to the exclusion of platformer levels, but we also see it in Banjo-Tooie’s copious FPS segments, or the much-maligned non-Sonic stages in the Sonic Adventure games. The late 90s were a time of massive innovation in console gaming, and it can’t help but feel like developers working on platformers (a genre already well-established in the 2D era) saw themselves as Squidward, looking outside forlornly at other studios having fun with shooters, or racing games, or open world titles, or any number of other exciting new possibilities.

Insomniac’s Spyro the Dragon trilogy is certainly no exception to this pattern. The first game was a very sparse experience, focusing almost exclusively on the game’s central glide mechanic, a pure platformer through and through. By the third game you weren’t even playing as Spyro half the time, and even when you were the game was full of minigames and other challenges that broke away from core platforming action. I have heard1 before that the developers were growing frustrated with their quadrupedal protagonist, and how his character design limited what they wanted to accomplish. After all, Spyro can’t really pick up objects in his hands with all four limbs on the ground. Most action games2 have humanoid player characters, which means if you want to take inspiration from your peers but your game has a quadrupedal dragon you will frequently be out of luck.

Now, I don’t know if this was actually the sentiment at Insomniac circa 2000, and I don’t particularly care. For my purposes it’s enough that it feels true. Because in many ways Ratchet & Clank is exactly the kind of platformer you’d make if you had spent years tormented by what you could have been doing if only your protagonist had hands. It’s a game where Ratchet can use a high-tech grappling hook to swing around, where he can use a specialized water gun to do Water Level Puzzles, where he can use a metal detector to find extra money in the ground. It’s a game with 15(!) different weapons, including a healthy assortment of guns. Basically, where Naughty Dog went back to the start of the Trilogy cycle with Jak and Daxter, Insomniac starts somewhere in the middle, with a game that already has one foot in an entirely different world.

Ratchet showing off his new Swingshot gadget. Spyro couldn’t do this!

But that’s not just attributable to an assumed fatigue. I think Ratchet & Clank is a pretty good illustration, even more than Jak and Daxter, of what you got for “free” conceptually when making a PS2-era platformer. There’s so much about the genre that developers (especially genre veterans) already know. Ratchet gets a double jump, with Banjo-Kazooie-esque hovering. There’s a high jump and a long jump and a ground pound, all with the inputs you would assume3. You break wooden crates for goodies, and there are explosive crates that you need to break carefully to avoid hurting yourself. Bolts (which are both this game’s currency and its “yellow coin” equivalent) are maybe one of the most viscerally satisfying pickups in all of gaming, with the way they zoom into Ratchet and the little *ching!* sound effect, and yet they simultaneously feel almost incidental, like something that somebody tossed in one afternoon because “well it’s a platformer, of course you have something like this”. The platforming parts of this game feel effortless, which I absolutely mean as praise.

Getting the platforming for “free” is important because it allows Ratchet & Clank to focus its attention on other aspects. Namely, combat. As said above this game features 15 different weapons, most of them guns, making Ratchet & Clank a third-person shooter. It’s not to the same degree as basically any subsequent Ratchet game; there’s no-ish strafing4, and aiming while moving is more-or-less impossible, relying heavily on auto-target rather than the right analogue stick or even a player-controlled lock-on. But the game is still primarily focused on weapons as a method of interaction. To the point where I’d even say that it’s the game’s primary mode of interaction, with platforming being secondary as a change-up.

And it’s a combination that really works! It pays immediate dividends in the camera; unlike Jak and Daxter this game’s camera lets you control the pitch as well as the yaw, and even has options to invert either or both, letting players decide if they want the 20th century “you control the physical camera object” or 21st century “you control a point on the center of the screen” paradigm5. The combat is immediately satisfying, even in this nascent form. Spinning in circles with the Pyrociter to clear out a swarm of enemies is nearly as rewarding as collecting bolts. But even more than that, it’s a strong foundation for sequels. Ratchet & Clank has a LOT of sequels. It’s in the Mega Man category of “they have a formula”; every so often there will just be another Ratchet game, and it’s basically always going to be at least pretty good. Which I guess is the other big way this series differs from the other Platformer Trilogies; there’s way more than just 3 of these games. And even with the first 3 games, that arc isn’t there; the first game already exists in two worlds, the second one refined the combat half of the loop in many ways, and then every subsequent game has that one’s skeleton.

As a historical object, Ratchet & Clank also seems to exist in two worlds. In the early 00s the console space was transitioning to a mindset where “a shooter of some sort” would become the default template for what a video game was, which means there’s always room in the AAA space for another Ratchet game (there was a new one just last year!). But it also doesn’t really feel like any other third-person shooter. Being developed with so much platformer DNA, with the huge jumps and casually fast movement and even the bright cartoon aesthetic makes parts of this game and this series feel very of its time, forever tied to the zeitgeist of the early 00s, before the brown-gray revolution. That’s not exactly a bad thing, though. No mater what era it’s compared against, Ratchet & Clank stands out.

Stray Observations:

  • The first game has a very different economy than basically any of its successors. Bolts are surprisingly hard to come by (not made any easier by the frequent “buy the Info-Bot from me for 2,500 bolts” progression gates) and I find it kinda hard to buy every regular weapon in the game on a first playthrough. The numbers in general are also scaled lower; the R.Y.N.O.6 costs just 150,000 bolts, which in any other Ratchet game would be something you could easily afford by the late game but here you’d be lucky to buy it after two full playthroughs; I know the one time I bought one was on a 3rd generation New Game+.
  • Ratchet is such an asshole in this one. I get that they’re going for an arc where Ratchet learns to care about other people and they want him to have room to grow, but they get the balance all wrong. He’s kind of a bland do-gooder in every other game, and while that’s boring I fully understand why they do that.
  • This game has a generally humorous tone, even as a lot of the jokes are little more than “yes I have watched Futurama“. But one bit that really lands here is how Drek goes from Chairman Drek to Executive Chairman Drek to Supreme Executive Chairman Drek to Ultimate Supreme Executive Chairman Drek throughout the course of the game. It’s understated, appearing only in title cards on Info-Bots, which helps it land.

Other 2002 platformers of note:

2002 sees Super Mario Sunshine, Nintendo’s first follow-up to their seminal Super Mario 64. This one has proven to be fairly divisive over time. Some players really love the game’s tropical island setting, or the uniqueness of F.L.U.D.D as a movement-enhancer. But I’m among the haters; I think Sunshine is the worst 3D Mario by a pretty healthy margin. A lot of the imprecision from 64 is back, now without the excuse of pioneering. And it’s joined by sometimes bafflingly unpolished levels. Some of the most infamous sequences in all of Mario (pachinko, poison river) come from this game, and unlike, say, 3D World‘s Champion’s Road it wasn’t even intentional.

Ratchet and Clank wasn’t the only hybrid platformer to come out this year; we also get Kingdom Hearts, a platformer/JRPG. More famously, it’s also a hybrid of Disney and Final Fantasy, a mix of great tastes that taste together. I’m a fan, but I understand why somebody wouldn’t be. It’s very strange, but also the strangeness is the point?

Next Time: I fall into a pit of spikes and die.
…wait, that’s not right. Let me start again.

Next Time: We check out the time-traveling parkour of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time