For a 10-year-old Lombax, Ratchet sure gets a lot of love. Insomniac Games has kept up with nearly annual releases of the Ratchet & Clank franchise since the series debuted in 2002, and with a couple exceptions, the adventures of Ratchet and his robot pal have grown progressively more awesome with each installment. Still, many PlayStation veterans hold fond memories of the original trilogy on PlayStation 2. With that in mind, Insomniac (alongside developer Idol Minds) has seen fit to release Ratchet & Clank, Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando, and Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal in full 1080p glory as the next in a growing line of PS3 HD collections. And while technical issues and strange design oversights add sour taste to this three-course meal, the flavor has by-and-large stood the test of time. You’ll devour these games like it’s 2004, and remember why Ratchet and Clank captured your heart in the first place.
First, let’s take a look at what’s new and noteworthy with this collection. All three games are presented in 1080p high definition (if you choose), stereoscopic 3D (if you dare), and offer full Trophy sets (if you care). Upon booting up the collection, you can freely select which game you want to play from a menu that is – oddly enough – adorned with artwork from Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One. Changing games requires quitting to the XMB, but that’s typical for collections of this sort. What’s not typical is the inclusion of online multiplayer, which was introduced in Up Your Arsenal and is now fully integrated with PlayStation Network. Well, sort of. You’ll still have to create an in-game profile with the name of your choice, and it’s impossible to hook up with PSN friends directly – their in-game profiles have to be added as "Buddies".
The fact that online multiplayer was included for this collection is remarkable and should be applauded, but eight years later, it simply doesn’t play well. At all. Single-player tactics of strafing and flipping to avoid enemy fire are your only real defense, and the image of two player characters using the same avoidance strategy against each other is laughable, especially when hardly any shots are connecting. Team Deathmatch is essentially a frantic weapons-grab, but you might find a bit more fun with Capture the Flag and Siege. On the whole, multiplayer is far from the main attraction; I appreciate that it’s there, but I forgot about it in minutes.
Such is not the case with the games themselves, which hold up remarkably well despite years of innovation and gameplay additions since. Each game boils down to a roughly similar formula: you’ll travel from planet to planet in a mostly linear fashion, hunting down quest objectives, new weapons, and rare items as you go. Almost everything you find is brimming with variety. Gadgets like the Hydrodisplacer and Dynamo allow you to manipulate the environment in clever ways, while traversal devices like the Swingshot and Gravity Boots add spice to impeccable level design and platforming. Certain items are optional, and thorough exploration tends to reward the player with a funny cutscene or useful new abilities.
Of course, any Ratchet fan knows that these elements take a backseat to weapons. Revisiting these classic tools of destruction is both a nostalgic blast from the past and a breath of fresh air that showcases just how creative and forward thinking the folks at Insomniac can be. Everything from the Visibomb Gun to the Rift Inducer has its place, and the satisfaction of utterly destroying enemies both robotic and organic with the *CRACKLE POP* of the Bouncer or the *FSHINNG!* of Chopper stars never, ever gets old. It’s a good thing, too, because the weapon-leveling and RPG upgrades of Going Commando and Up Your Arsenal will keep you playing and shooting for dozens of hours apiece. The latter ups the ante considerably, giving each weapon five levels of destructive power, functions, and mods. That’s BEFORE Challenge Mode kicks in, which nets you extra experience, bolts, and weapon upgrades in a New Game Plus with significantly harder enemies.
Challenge Mode is present for all three installments, but with only a few extra weapons to buy and no difficulty increase, it feels rather empty in the first. In fact, the original game is another beast entirely, as many of the Ratchet & Clank staples we’ve come to love weren’t introduced until Going Commando. No strafing, no weapon upgrades, and limited mini-games make Ratchet & Clank feel especially dated, but for all that it lacks, excellent level design, beautiful art direction, and the nostalgic origins of our heroes make the experience worthwhile. Chances are you’ll get much more playtime out of Going Commando and Up Your Arsenal, but Ratchet & Clank is still a surprisingly fun jaunt 10 years later.
Much of the games are exactly how I remember. Going Commando is the hardest of the three, but hits a home run with excellent side attractions. Up Your Arsenal is tremendously deep and moves the overarching plot in a satisfyingly epic direction. Ratchet & Clank has uneven pacing, but represents the series’ truest platforming presence. All of the original content that I loved is preserved: catchy music, gorgeous cartoon visuals, and pitch-perfect humor that ranges from slapstick to not-so-subtly sexual. What’s here is undeniably awesome, but technical losses in translation muddy an otherwise exceptional product.
Maybe it’s because I’m a diehard Ratchet & Clank fan, one who has lost countless childhood hours to playing and replaying and replaying all three games. Maybe it’s because I’m a nostalgia junkie with an unyielding desire for perfect preservation. Maybe you won’t notice that each game’s trophy logo is a carryover from the differently-named European versions, or that All 4 One artwork inextricably adorns the game’s entrance menu, or that framerate problems are more prevalent here than they were in the original releases. The aspect ratio of certain cutscenes breaks from widescreen and shifts to 4:3. Ratchet’s Nanotech health meter and HUD are somewhat noticeably lower-res than the rest of each game’s visual display. The cumulative impression is one of laziness.
The purist in me wants all of these quirks to be remedied because Ratchet & Clank is (and continues to be) undeniable PlayStation history – this trilogy deserves impeccable preservation. Of course, I understand that these issues won’t bother some of you. What WILL bother most of you is the fact that starting a Challenge Mode playthrough will automatically overwrite your save at the first opportunity. You can’t revisit your old adventure for collectables, or travel back to your favorite planets to earn Trophies – you start the journey from scratch. It’s the only feature that’s well-and-truly stripped from the original games and a maddening oversight. And while we’re on the topic of stripped content, where’s Ratchet: Deadlocked? The fourth game in the series was divisive among fans, but as a fellow PS2 installment, this collection seems just a bit lacking without it – especially since an HD version of Deadlocked is already confirmed and in development.
As Insomniac continues to explore means of innovation (All 4 One focused exclusively on co-op and Full Frontal Assault looks to be tinkering with tower defense), it’s nice to go back and replay three absolute gems that defined PS2 platforming and left an indelible mark on PlayStation history. It’s not a perfect restoration – odd design choices and framerate drops mar the experience – but a fantastic amount of literal bang for your buck awaits in a trilogy that is still one hell of a lot of fun. You certainly won’t regret your purchase, but you might wish that Ratchet and Clank were treated just a little better in their epic return.