"There's no way a Ratchet & Clank movie could go wrong," I said to myself as I settled into the movie theater for an early-morning showing of the kid-friendly sci-fi feature.
"They found a way to make a Ratchet & Clank movie go wrong," I countered once I got up again and stumbled out into the harsh, purifying sunlight.
I couldn't explain it then, and I still can't. Ratchet & Clank, the beloved video game series, seems tailor-made for a movie adaptation. The action/platformers feature delightful characters who walk the perfect line between cute and snarky, bizarre weaponry that's as much fun to watch as it is to use, and breezy adventure stories that still manage to convey a real-world moral. Equally fun for kids and adults, Ratchet & Clank, the game series, is funny, heartfelt and unique.
Ratchet & Clank, the movie, was none of those things.
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I'm not going to bother with exhaustive detail about why this was the case. I'm not a film critic, and honestly, the actual film critics did a much better job of explaining it than I could have. The movie is disjointed, shallow and unfunny, which is almost incomprehensible given the source material. Its worst sin, however, is that in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't even that bad. It didn't fail spectacularly because it set its sights too high; it aimed for mediocrity and hit a bull's eye.
When I got home, there was only one thing that could improve my mood, and that was to boot up my PS4 and play some Ratchet & Clank (2016). As the trailer said, it's the video game, based on the movie, based on the video game. And save for perhaps X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it's the only movie tie-in video game that surpasses its source material by a comfortable margin.
Summer 2016 is upon us, and that means you may have a little more time for gaming than usual, thanks to long weekends, vacations and just plain lazy afternoons. I intend to make an argument for why you should definitely not spend that time watching the Ratchet & Clank film, why you should spend some of that time playing the reboot game and why you may want to continue your adventure back into the original continuity after that.
The Game Based on the Movie Based on the Game
Let's get one thing out of the way: Ratchet & Clank (2016) is not the best game in the series; in fact, it's not even in the top five. Having to pull double-duty as both a reboot and a movie tie-in, the game is hampered by weird pacing, forced character development and a storyline that feels stretched too thin. Even so, good luck putting it down once you've started.
If you've never played a Ratchet & Clank game, the reboot is essentially a crash course in what's made the series so successful. You'll take control of Ratchet, a cat-like creature called a Lombax, and Clank, his diminutive robotic companion. Together, the two of them explore colorful worlds and collect bizarre weaponry. As you battle a variety of comical foes, your health and weapons will upgrade. You'll also collect a cache of gadgets to help you swing across chasms, hack locked doors and even fly around big, open levels.
The average Ratchet & Clank game is an appealing and open-ended mix of platforming, combat and puzzle solving, and the reboot ticks off all of those boxes. Watching Ratchet use the Combustor gun to take down henchmen in the film isn't much fun, but taking control of the sequence yourself is delightful. Clank's journey through an enemy warship is a slog on the big screen, but it's an engaging brainteaser when you get to play through the level.
Even the story, which follows the lackluster film plot, is much better this time around. With about 10 hours of gameplay and lots of cutscenes, the story has plenty of breathing room. The characters aren't as deep as they could be, but you do get a much better understanding of their motivations and relationships. For example, when Ratchet upstages the intergalactic superhero Captain Qwark over and over and over, it's much easier to understand the good Captain's fall from grace than the film's "one-and-done" approach.
The biggest advantage the game has, though, is that it's simply fun to play. Because there's no director and no hard time limit, players have lots of room to invent and influence their own scenarios. Ratchet's final confrontation with Dr. Nefarious in the film is, in charitable terms, an enormous letdown, as the two characters yell at each other suspended over a pit until one of them falls. (No, really. That's it.)
In the game, Dr. Nefarious leads Ratchet on a chase across a perilous series of grind rails, hops into a gigantic robot and confronts Ratchet across four crumbling platforms orbiting a dying star. Ratchet, armed with a jetpack and an entire arsenal of weapons, takes to the skies and fights Dr. Nefarious and his army of killer robots as only a video game protagonist can. Why this wasn't also the climax of the film, we can only guess. (Budget? Time constraints? Not dignified enough for a feature film?)
The Ratchet & Clank game isn't perfect, but it is very good — and it's a perfect place for a new player to get his or her feet wet with the franchise. Of course, if you want to make this a summer-long project, you could take a slightly more ambitious approach.
Start from the Beginning
Not counting two cellphone spin-offs or the new reboot, did you know that there are 12 Ratchet & Clank games in the original continuity? Not only that, but they're consistently good. (Some are even great.) From Ratchet & Clank on the PS2 in 2002 to Into the Nexus on the PS3 in 2013, the series averaged one game per year and made sure that each one was worth playing at least once.
One of the big reasons why the original Ratchet & Clank series holds up so well, even when the reboot falls short, is that it's a long, sequential story. It took a lot of time to introduce and develop its characters and gameplay concepts. In the reboot and film, Chairman Drek's Deplanetizer, the rise of Dr. Nefarious, Ratchet meeting Clank, and Captain Qwark's fall and redemption all take place at the same time, and it's a mess.
In the original series, this all happened — but over the course of three 10-hour games. Ratchet started out as a callous jerk, and Clank as a single-minded prude. The two didn't like each other at all but had to work together. Captain Qwark wasn't just a glory hog; he was also a scummy sellout. Chairman Drek and Dr. Nefarious never even met; there was room enough in the original timeline for different kinds of villainy.
The gameplay wasn't a polished masterpiece at the beginning, either. The weapons were a bit conventional, and they didn't level up with use. Ratchet & Clank (2002) was a pretty difficult ride, and failing checkpoints could be punishing rather than instructive. Ammo was often scarce, and boss fights were harrowing and infrequent. What people think of as the "Ratchet & Clank formula" wasn't a formula at all until the third game, Up Your Arsenal.
But as much fun as the earlier games were, the series hit new heights on the PS3, when it embarked upon the Future trilogy: Tools of Destruction, Quest for Booty and A Crack In Time. (Another thing the series used to love? Mildly raunchy humor.) These games took a deep dive into Ratchet's backstory, and what resulted wasn't the happy-go-lucky tale of a space adventurer and his robot pal. Ratchet faced off against an evil emperor, a fleet of pirates and a former mentor as he learned that the galaxy could be a downright hostile place, and the line between good and evil was not as clear as he initially thought.
Critics lauded the Future trilogy as the video game equivalent of playing through a Pixar film, and they were right. These games were both hilarious and earnest, and pulled off a precarious balancing act between pure fun and genuine sentiment. New, more sincere characters, such as Talwyn Apogee and Alister Azimuth, shared the screen with older, jokier ones like Captain Qwark and Dr. Nefarious, but nothing felt incongruous. The series had reached its zenith — and just like that, it was gone, with a decent reboot and an abysmal film.
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But that's the beautiful thing about gaming. The older games aren't gone; in fact, they're cheaper and easier to find than ever. While it would take too long to list every game here (Wikipedia does a good job), the easiest way to dive in is to grab a copy of the Ratchet & Clank Collection on PS3 or PS Vita. This includes the first three games: Ratchet & Clank, Going Commando, and Up Your Arsenal, and the series really hits its stride by the third title.
While there's something to be gained by playing every entry in the series, if you want to skip ahead to the Future trilogy (which actually contains five games — don't think too hard about it), the whole thing is available on the PlayStation Now streaming service, which you can access on the PS3, PS4, PS Vita, PS TV (remember the PS TV?) and certain Sony TVs. This is about as good as the series gets.
Even if you've avoided the series until now because it looked kiddie, or because platformers rarely have good plots, it's time to give it a second look. Sequential space opera stories are hard enough to find in gaming, much less ones that are consistently fun to play and have a great sense of humor. Now that the film has tanked and the reboot has received polite acclaim, it's hard to say where the series will go next, but we know from experience that Ratchet and Clank are, if nothing else, very hard to kill.