Gamers are used to their favorite franchises going into stasis for one reason or another, but no hiatus felt so sudden like that of Ratchet & Clank. One minute, Insomniac Games was pumping out installments on the regular, and then everything ground to a sudden halt in 2016 with the PlayStation 4 reimagination of the original game.
A return for the series seemed unlikely, but last week’s release of Rift Apart for the PlayStation 5 has only underlined what luck the franchise has been blessed with. When the first game came in 2002 on the PS2, it was an era when 3D, mascot-led platformers were in plentiful supply. Legacy franchises like Mario and Donkey Kong had deftly made the jump to 3D, and newcomers like Naughty Dog’s Jak & Daxter further crowded the field. Those games, though, were built around simply making it to the end of a level or collecting various items to progress. Not Ratchet. Its big hook was its arsenal and multitude of alien worlds.
The game may have been named after the titular duo, but its guns were the true star. No other game had a catboy in cargo pants with a robot on his back wielding a rocket launcher or a gun that could turn enemies into sheep. And, if the live-action trailers showing average people using the weapons didn’t stick in your memory, the innuendo-laced subtitles certainly would.
Success found Ratchet, and the series went on to release titles on every PlayStation system following the PS2. While the portable PSP and PS Vita systems were home to the spinoffs, the PS3 is where the franchise received new life with the Future sub-series. With Pixar-like visuals and a cinematic story focused on Ratchet’s Lombax origins, this transition greatly helped the series as platformers were largely falling out of favor in the AAA gaming space. Online multiplayer had firmly established itself in the industry thanks to shooters like Call of Duty and Halo, and anything that wasn't focused on multiplayer attempted to chase the cinematic thrills of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted. Outside of Ratchet, the biggest names to keep platformers stable afloat during the 2010s was Mario and Kong, with some occasional help from Sony’s LittleBigPlanet and Ubisoft’s Rayman.
What certainly helped Ratchet stand out is that it never was just a simple platformer. Starting with 2003’s Going Commando, the series gradually incorporated more shooting and RPG elements for Ratchet and his guns, and it’s a formula that’s defined most of the games ever since. 2005’s Deadlocked even ditches platforming almost entirely to focus on combat. The aforementioned spinoffs like Full Frontal Assault and All 4 One returned to platforming, but added tower defense and co-op modes to their respective titles. Given how the series quietly became annualized, it was surprising how it managed to retain its core identity with each title. Not every entry in the series is great, but it was admirable how committed Insomniac was to keeping the duo around.
And make no mistake, there truly was nothing stopping the developers from letting their buddy cop duo fly off into the stars, never to be seen again. It certainly wouldn’t have been the first time this happened, as Naughty Dog and Sucker Punch respectively dumped their PS2 mascot franchises Jak and Sly Cooper once the PS3 rolled around in favor of the human-led Uncharted and Infamous. The urge to be more than “the Ratchet team” led Insomniac to branch out, various levels of success: they also developed the Resistance trilogy, an underappreciated alternate history sci-fi shooter for the PS3; and Fuse, a co-op shooter that lost favor immediately once it stopped looking like its debut trailer. They found better success in the form of cult classic Sunset Overdrive, an Xbox One exclusive from whose IP they retain the rights to and are likely keen on continuing. And of course, there are the two Marvel’s Spider-Man titles, and the original 2018 game was so successful that Sony straight-up bought the company the following year.
Trends come and trends go, however. The western game industry’s gradual shift away from mature, gritty shooters and open-world games to a more diverse roster of colorful games has made it so that Ratchet is in a prime position to matter again. Instead of looking like an oddity as it had in the past, it now has similar games like the recent furry RPG Biomutant to stand beside. Even with other shooters like Borderlands getting everyone used to a colorful arsenal of guns, Ratchet stays distinct by not focusing on status effects, but on tangible differences between each of its armaments. There’s still nothing quite like it, even as it seems that sci-fi games are slowly making a comeback in the AAA space.
What awaits Ratchet in the aftermath of Rift Apart isn’t entirely clear. After all Insomniac’s done for the PlayStation brand, they’ve likely earned enough freedom with the blockbuster-obsessed Sony to make whatever they please. (Hopefully, this also includes more Sunset Overdrive.) With an additional heroic pair in the form of Rivet and Kit, it feels like the series is in a place to be present without overloading its own existence. Time will tell what the future holds for Ratchet and Clank, but for now, it’s nice to have them back.