On Nov. 4, 2002, gamers were introduced to one of the last great mascot platformer duos, Ratchet and Clank. Fatigue from the wave of 90s heroes like Sonic the Hedgehog, Banjo and Kazooie, Crash Banidcoot, and Spyro the Dragon was beginning to set in, putting Ratchet & Clank in a precarious position before release. Despite the trend, the unlikely heroes managed to make their way into the hearts of millions, starting a franchise that is still held in the highest regard today.
The story of Ratchet and Clank cannot be told without first explaining the decline in platforming games’ popularity. In 1998, 15 percent of the money spent on video games went towards platforming games. In 2002, when Ratchet & Clank was released, that number was down to just 2%. While some platformers had financial success, it was generally reserved for established heroes like Mario. Even then, the genre had developed a reputation as a something for kids.
With Ratchet & Clank, Insomniac managed to circumvent that notion by creating a game with a little edge to it. At its core, Ratchet & Clank really isn’t an adult game, but Insomniac was able to successfully catch older gamers by making its heroes push the game’s rating from E to T. The series is known for its harmless sex puns, and while they weren’t overly common in the original title they were there nonetheless. Ratchet, while no means the most creative protagonist ever written, also wasn’t a true blue hero. He opens the game looking out for himself, unlike the purely noble heroes that proceeded him. Like Sonic, he had a rebellious air about him, but found more success thanks to the world that surrounded him.
What really gave the game its wider appeal, however, was the cartoon violence not yet seen in the mascot platformer genre. Conker the Squirrel aside, Ratchet was the original bad boy hero, seeking glory by blasting away aliens and robots with over the top weapons. While Mario was busy squirting piranha plants with water, Ratchet was blowing down helicopters with a missile launcher. The game’s cover sent the exact message Insomniac wanted. Ratchet, with an arrogant grin, shows off the launcher (called The Devastator), with Clank posing for a fight behind him. The background is loaded with the game’s weapons, showcasing the crazy variety Ratchet had in his arsenal.
The messaging was a success, as Ratchet & Clank ended up selling over 3.5 million copies world wide. Its commercial success was only outmatched by its critical reception, as the game earned overwhelmingly positive reviews. It boasts an 88 on Metacritic, and for good reason.
Ratchet & Clank took the concepts of 3D platformers before it and shook things up just enough to create something that felt entirely new, yet somewhat familiar. Using Ratchet’s crazy array of weapons, including a flamethrower, drone missile, and claw that shoots electricity, to take on foes made for some explosive fun. Adding in a wide array of gadgets, like the Swingshot and Grind Boots, kept exploring fresh, with new challenges that required different skills just around the corner.
The levels themselves, each a different planet in the Solana Galaxy, serve as the perfect playgrounds to blow up. Levels aren’t really based around themes or one particular gadget. Instead, they’re broken up into sections that each lead to a different reward. Some of these paths can only be traveled by getting a gadget in a future level and returning, one of the few frustrations the game has, but the majority can be entirely covered in 30 minute excursions.
Like the collectathons of yore, Gold Bolts are hidden in tricky to reach or hard to find locations. Gathering them allows you to upgrade each weapon to a golden variation upon starting New Game+, adding significant replayability. While Ratchet & Clank isn’t an overly difficult game, finding some of these Gold Bolts requires creativity and excellent platforming skills. Cheats can be unlocked as well through Skill Points, earned by completing specific challenges on each stage. Figuring out the requirements is usually the true challenge, as the only clue players have about what they are is their names, but many require getting through specific challenges at high speeds or blowing up space cars. The main game only takes about 6 hours to beat, but completionists need to beat the game several times in order to buy every gold weapon, find each Gold Bolt, and earn every Skill Point.
The cast of characters stand out as well. While Ratchet and Clank aren’t breaking new ground, the duo have fantastic chemistry and their relationship develops effectively. Captain Quark, a hero of sorts in the newer games, makes for an excellent villain as well. He’s funny yet easy to loathe, and his eventual fall from intergalactic hero to Personal Hygenator salesman is a role that fits him perfectly. Ratchet games have a distinct sense of humor that really blossomed with Up Your Arsenal, but the foundation was set here. Every character is treated irreverently, but none feel like jokes. Supreme Executive Chairman Drek’s only redeeming value is the number of synonyms in his title, and although the clumsy Quark stands out more, Drek is one of the most evil villains in history.
There are other memorable stand outs as well. Pro-hoverboarder Skid McMarx, The Plumber, and Robotics-expert Al have distinct personalities that made them fan favorites. Almost every planet has someone new to meet, each with an interesting personality. The voice acting is notably excellent as well.
All things considered, Ratchet & Clank holds up well today. The controls are solid, and the environments still look good. Graphically, it was ahead of its time. It does have some camera issues that so often plagued 3D platformers, and occasionally aiming at a target is finicky. The game also requires you to use your in-game currency (bolts) to buy mandatory items as well, which can definitely get annoying. Still, you’ll rarely have to go grind for money unless you want that 100% completion.
Big set piece moments hit their mark as well and change up the gameplay. Hoverboard races, jet fighting, and turret sequences all are great detours from the main game. The best moments, however, come when the game throws something unexpected at you. Easy though it may be, pushing the Big Red Button on Drek’s ship in the Blargian Transport Station and racing back to the shuttle before the ship self destructs is thrilling as it is funny. A few stealth sequences towards the end of the game have the potential to drag, but players choosing violence will have a blast trying to kill the guards before they can sound the alarm.
In some ways the success of Ratchet & Clank seems obvious. Insomniac proved they understood the platformer genre with the Spyro franchise, and Ratchet continues those ideas while adding some unique twists. But when you look at the gaming landscape at the time, it’s astounding these two heroes managed to become so legendary. While their peers, including the equally adored Jak and Daxter, faded into obscurity or retirement, Ratchet & Clank have dominated sales charts across three generations and become icons. Each mainline entry in the franchise has been fantastic, the high water mark impossible to place. Personally, Up Your Arsenal takes my number one spot, thanks to phenomenal weapons, level design, and fantastic writing, but all of them are worth experiencing.
In an era where platforming games were dying, Ratchet & Clank started a franchise that has flourished for 15 years. It’s a Quark-tastic chapter in video game history, and one that anyone with a PS2 needs to play.