On planet Rilgar, one of two game areas available in the demo for Ratchet & Clank, there is a seemingly impassable tunnel. This tunnel, a platforming gauntlet made all the more desperate by the pressure of a rising water level, can only be passed with a combination of gadgetry, mechanical understanding and flawless timing. Most first-timers aren’t capable of making it through this treacherous challenge with anything approaching casual decorum. But once you attain the skill and understanding to master it, you appreciate this formative sci-fi character action game more keenly than when you first took a chance on its fuzzy-eared protagonist and his robotic sidekick.
He’s a what, now?
Before I continue with this Replay in earnest, allow me to share a brief anecdote about my discovery of the game. I remember when I first laid eyes on Ratchet and Clank. The Lombax, a furry, cat-like being with a cheeky grin, and green-eyed robot stared back at me from the centre of a double-page advert, in a game magazine my parents had bought for me during the 2002 Christmas holidays. Bizarre-looking gadgets, with names printed beneath each one, surrounded the duo: Swingshot, Taunter, Devastator, Morph-O-Ray, Glove of Doom, and others.
“What on earth is all this rubbish about?” my 12-year-old self thought. I scanned the logos at the bottom of the ad, and recognised Insomniac Games as the maker of Spyro. “Nah. Still not for me. I wished they’d stuck to the purple dragon” was what my mind told me. But I was still interested to learn more. So when the opportunity came up to play a demo of the game, I took it. And it blew my mind. I showed it to my brother, who was equally impressed, and one week later, we scraped together every penny we had to pick up a copy of the game at the lowest price we could find (Argos, Walthamstow, £29.99). We took it home, popped it into our PS2 and started up Insomniac’s brand-new adventure.
And what an adventure. Ratchet & Clank was a huge step forward for character action games and 3D platforming. The main characters had a lot more to them than their cutesy aesthetic implied. They had personally and a reason for being, which brought them into conflict with one another as the story progressed – there were even striking emotional exchanges that are not hinted at from the outset.
Ratchet is a mechanic on a backwater planet, who dreams of being able to leave his home behind in search of new worlds. Clank is a robot anomaly, who learns of an insidious plot that threatens the safety of planets throughout the galaxy: Blarg ruler Chairman Drek’s home planet is polluted and overpopulated, so he has ordered construction of a new one from the best parts of existing planets. When the two of them meet, they figure they can help each other, and, so, your planet-hopping escapade begins.
Weapons, gadgets and hours of fun
On each of the distinctive worlds you visited, you had a different set of tasks to complete, but the dissemination of these tasks was fluid and nonintrusive to you, the player. You were able to make up your own mind as to what you wanted to do first. This was a 3D platformer that gave players agency. So while you could boil a large portion of the missions down to collectables and traversal, enemy ambushes and puzzle solving, it was the reason behind it all that gave R&C a leg up on the other platformers of its day, such as Rayman 3 and Super Mario Sunshine.
So, typically, you would land on a planet with a loose goal to find a piece of equipment or reach a certain area. But there was always other areas to explore, others sights to see and other things to do – and you didn’t always have the means to reach those places on your first visit. This gave you reason to acquire the game’s various weapons and gadgets that have become the series’ mainstay.
Hours of fun originated from the 35 or so weapons and gadgets at your disposal. Some were similar to conventional arms, like a flamethrower (Pyrocitor), pistol (Blaster) and rocket launcher (Devastator). Others were more inventive, such as the electricity-casting Tesla Claw, the Visibomb Gun, which shot missiles the player was able to guide manually, and the Morph-O-Ray, which turned enemies into chickens. Yep, chickens. It was a satisfying feeling to use your growing armoury against the game’s varied enemies: blasting your way through swarms of robotic critters, throwing down decoys and automated mini-bots to deal with one group, while you focused your heavy arms on the larger monstrosities.
Equally as exciting as the offensive weapons were the gadgets. These were vital in allowing you to access or traverse areas. There was the Grindboots, which allowed Ratchet to zip along poles, train lines and cabling like a surfer. The Swingshot, the Batman-style grappling hook that allowed Ratchet to swing his way across platforms and up buildings. And the trusty Heli-Pack, which enabled the backpack-bound Clank to transform into a propeller pack that gave Ratchet the ability to glide, high jump and long jump – the latter manoeuvre being crucial to master in order to survive Rilgar’s sewer gauntlet mentioned at the beginning of this post.
Your hunt for new firepower and equipment with which to continue you adventure inherently brought you into contact with a colourful and comedic cast of characters: Al, the nerdy, loveable robot repair guy; the joy, Billy Connolly-like plumber; the expectant resort owner who was like a cheeky incarnation of Robin Williams’ Genie; the sweet-talking Help Desk girl; and the fat-bottomed trainer Helga, with her exaggerated German displeasure, and, of course, the series’ boastful, but loveable, klutz, Captain Qwark – a combination of Captain Kirk, Zapp Brannigan and Buzz Lightyear.
What all, save for a few, of these three-fingered aliens had in common was a thing for cold, hard bolts – the currency in the Ratchet & Clank universe. Accruing bolts was easy enough to begin with, but with limited funds you soon had to make choices about whether to spend your bolts on a new weapon or a mission-critical piece of equipment or deal. Collecting enough bolts to acquire rare weaponry – like the deadly RYNO – soon became a fixation, and you’d return to levels to hose up bolts in anticipation of how much more formidable your next weapon could make you.
That’s really saying something, considering the original Ratchet & Clank lacked many of the basic functions that we take for granted in most character action games nowadays. You couldn’t strafe, which meant putting your projectile weapons to effective use often required targeting enemies in the first-person camera from a safe distance. The quick select wheel only had space for nine tools, yet there were some 20 weapons and gadgets you could equip. And the lack of a RPG-like health and weapon upgrade system, coupled with currency being comparatively slow to accrue, meant the challenge got very steep by the final level.
Still, in the early 2000s, when the standards for 3D character action games and, indeed, many other genres, such as console first-person shooters, was still being established, Ratchet & Clank’s mechanical issues did not cripple its pioneering proposition.
A whole galaxy to explore
Since the days of the picture-book worlds of Spyro the Dragon, Insomniac hasn’t disappointed when it comes to creating environments that teem with imagination. The worlds of Ratchet & Clank went beyond anything the studio had realised on the original PlayStation: there were planets shrouded in perpetually twilights; planets with gloopy brown mud that could consume you; planets that we’re being bombarded by Chairman Drek’s Blarg forces, and were a mess of battered buildings and crumbling architecture; planets that combined futuristic cityscapes with jungle flora; eerie space stations situated amid asteroids; hazardous areas that forced air-breathing Ratchet to hang back while Clank explored solo.
Some environments had dozens of spaceships flitting about in the atmosphere. Others had a variety of fearsome-looking creatures roamed the lands and seas. And others were made comedy by bring real-world subjects – pest control, washed up celebrities, personal hygiene – into the tongue-in-cheek sci-fi universe.
An adventure like nothing before it
All of this – the sci-fi game worlds, the distinctive platforming, the neat puzzles, the outrageous assortment weapons and gadgets, the engrossing story and the drama between the duo themselves – made Ratchet & Clank a phenomenal adventure to embark on for the first time. Returning to this whooping, great space adventure after school and on the weekends was a thrill like nothing else back in my pre-teens – and I’m sure it was the same for many others. From the humour and heart of Futurama, to the spectacle of Star Wars, to the innovation of Jak and Daxter, Inspector Gadget and Robocop: Ratchet & Clank had it all, and I completely adored it.
The series has come a long way since its first step on the PS2 way back when. Several iterations later, Insomniac’s has completely re-imagined the PlayStation classic for the PS4, and the series is also making its way to the big screen this year. But no matter what lies ahead for the duo, the purity of their very first adventure will always be special.
Ratchet & Clank was not “just a game”: it was an elaborate playground that invited you to lose yourself to the joys of exploration and experimentation – a place that felt like hundreds of stories and possibilities were out there, just waiting to be discovered.
For more gaming retrospectives, see my Replay archive.
Images: Insomniac Games/Sony Computer Entertainment/Ratchet-Galaxy.com