No matter where you look these days, the genre of this generation is shooters. Used to be 2D adventure platformers but the times… you know the song.
However, while the world and a rather idiotic branch of gaming journalists fixate on shooters that tinker with the ideas of realism much like a polygamist tinkers with the idea of fidelity I prefer my shooters to have so little basis in reality to the point where it’s damn near farcical. I want my super powers, I want absurd enemies, and yes I want a countdown timer which signifies something huge getting blown up.
Always that goddamn timer.
Anyway, in honor of that I’m going to look back at an old sub-genre of the shooter now labelled a niche market, the action platform shooter. Specifically I’m looking at two franchises, specifically their debut titles and see not only how they measure up, but how they measure up against one another.
Now then. In the three dimensional corner weighing in at one PS2 DVD it’s Ratchet and Clank! This shooter debuted in 2002 by newcomer studio Insomniac games. It was released to mass critical and commercial appeal becoming the first, if not only western PS2 game bundled with the console in Japan. The series is known for it’s openly farcical nature combined with excessive weaponry. The series first spawned the Skill Point system which might be the precursor to the Achievement system today. Rachet and Clank would, as a franchise, become one of Sony’s go-to titles, premiering on every console from the PS2 on with multiple titles for each. The games have been compared, at their height, to be at a Pixar level of storytelling in game form.
In the 16-bit two dimensional corner weighing in at… 4.2 megabytes it’s Cave Story. Premiering in 2004 as a freeware game by developer Pixel, the game became recognized as an instant critical hit (HA HA! Homonyms!), garnering a massive cult following. The series is widely recognized as a tribute to classic 16-bit storytelling and game play using branching story paths via the player’s choice to create entirely different arsenals. Several developers have since ported the game to Wii, 3DS, Dsiware, PC (remastered) and MacOS with add-ons and remasterings for each. Several proponents for the game have gone so far as to name it the only truly perfect game.
So how will these two measure up? Let’s find out. Our first category, main characters.
Oh, before I go on. Spoiler warning.
There. I’m cleared.
First Category: Player Character. Ratchet VS. Quote
So where do we begin? Well both are heroic protagonists, both plunge headfirst into danger without more then basic weapons to save countless innocent lives, all that good stuff. The biggest difference between the two comes to the fact that Ratchet speaks and Quote never does. That is where the crucial difference lies. So what works more? A talking hero or a silent one? Well, if I were judging Ratchet by any game other then the first one, especially the Ratchet we see in A Crack in Time, he’d win. He’s a very subtle, emotive character and actually is a likeable character and by then his friendship with Clank is one we could imagine someone crossing galaxies for.
Unfortunately I’m judging Ratchet by his first game and this Ratchet isn’t the one we come to love. Ratchet here is an adventure seeker but is oddly hesitant to do anything to actually save lives with is a weird contradiction in itself. He’s openly against helping Clank save entire planets and at some points it actually takes away from enjoying the game. After all, if he doesn’t care why should we? His voice is irritating and his face is straight up uncanny valley ugly with a permanent Joker smile forced on his face despite angry moments.
Quote on the other hand is the silent protagonist but we can infer a lot. He’s not afraid to fight alone but he appreciates help. He’s willing to help others without asking anything in return and he’ll fight despite insurmountable odds. Also he’s dedicated to saving his friends. Him unraveling his forgotten past is a major drive for the plot of Cave Story adding to your motivation to play. That combined the novelty of his 16-bit design he takes it.
Point to Cave Story.
Second Category: Partners. Clank Vs. Curly Brace
Seriously? Okay we’ll put it to the test. Clank in the game acts as Ratchet’s backpack and navigation device. He’s the moral compass of the team and openly trusting of people’s good nature. He’s intellectual without being annoying (which when put side by side with the turtle from Sly Cooper you come to appreciate more) and brave. In the gameplay itself he let’s you jump higher, glide, and assists dodging and swimming. Also in the rare moments when you don’t have Clank’s support, the difficulty of the game ramps up considerably simply because of his absence and he is sorely missed.
Curly Brace is a brave soldier robot from the surface who’s dedicated to saving the Mimigas despite loosing her memory. She offers a weapon trade for Quote, joins him for one section of the game as a free moving ally and at the end strapped to your back firing at enemies behind you. She’s enjoyably spunky, kind and a delightful character overall. Conversely, Curly Brace also spends a good couple of portions of the game broken after a certain point and you have to go through a couple of fetch quests (including one you can miss entirely if you don’t know about it) and a series of complicated jumps just so that she survives to the real final battle. Sorry Curly Brace but the point goes to Ratchet and Clank.
Third Category: Weapons
Aww yeah, now that’s what I’m talking about. The tools of destruction, the conductors of explosion, the building blocks of victory… the weapons.
This is a tricky one considering that Ratchet and Clank weighs in with sixteen weapons, ten of which get gold upgrades. Cave Story counters with… ten weapons. That can’t be right. Give me a sec.
Nope ten guns. Well, Cave Story‘s weapons can all level up from one to three when you get the weird triangle powerups dropped by enemies so maybe.. no… kay.
Anyway, you might ask which arsenal is better? Well with Ratchet and Clank a lot of weapons are designed to be easy to use, you can acquire all of them in one play through of the game and five of the gold upgrades are available a bit before the end. With Cave Story that’s not the case. As far as I know (and that includes what I’ve learned from hackers and game masters on the internet dedicated to this game) you only can get five weapons a run depending on if you decide to trade certain weapons for others or not.
The problem is with Cave Story is that a lot of the weapons like the Bubbler and the Fireball have their own nuances with their movement pattern which even varies from level to level of power. This is tantamount to frustration when you are trying to snipe a flock of projectile shooting enemies from a distance. Even the most memorable weapon, the sword, has a nasty habit at level 3 to not always hitting things that are nearby and attacking you, even if you’re trying to turn and attack it but the prior attack hasn’t stopped yet. Really, the ultimate weapon, the Spur is probably the most reliable and even it has a shot delay.
Compared with the R.Y.N.O. which is the ultimate weapon from Ratchet and Clank that automatically targets enemies… including ones on the other side of the map and hits with four to seven instant kill (for all non vehicle/boss enemies) rockets to a round. Yeah, Ratchet and Clank wins.
Fourth Category: Best Enemies
This one I’m giving to Cave Story. The enemies here are beyond bizarre and they are extensively memorable even if they are ludicrously difficult. With Ratchet and Clank a lot of enemies tend to blend into one another. You have small enemies that die in one hit and have no ranged fire, you have larger enemies that shoot and take a few more hits and you have tanks and some elite flyers. The problem is each planet has their own take on those categories and not much change. It’s almost like they’re trying to say, “Look! Here in Germany we have a restaurant called McKenshlimer! It’s not McDonalds at all!” The clear winner is Cave Story.
Fifth Category: Bosses
So, who has the better bosses? In a game a boss is supposed to be like a test, a final challenge where the player pits all they’ve learned against an enemy designed to render all previously learned skills useless.
With Cave Story the bosses are memorable but the trick to defeating them doesn’t lie in using skills learned earlier in the game or using new weapons (since that happens rarely). With some exception a lot of the boss fights hinges on learning their patterns and simply avoiding the shots, especially at the end of the game with the three boss gauntlet. For that though, you just have to develop movement patterns and employ then so you can avoid getting hit long enough to win. I don’t consider that the way bosses ought to be designed.
With Ratchet and Clank while the bosses aren’t memorable, you’ll spend a lot more time deducing how to beat them using your weapons then you will avoiding them. That’s what you end up remembering. I can’t recall what the bosses look like but I distinctly remember how I discovered their weaknesses… and exploited them!
Point to Ratchet and Clank.
Sixth Category: Stages
Damn, this is a hard one. Both games have interesting and innovative designs behind each area as well as numerous secrets. Cave Story fans argue that it is akin to Metriod design for how the player explores and unlocks new areas. Each area is lovingly rendered in 16-bits and features numerous jumps that test the player’s ability.
Ratchet and Clank has players jump from world to world at will throughout the game as they are opened up. Each planet is incredibly nuanced with unique challenges and secrets accompanied always by a stellar backdrop visual.
On this one I think it goes to Ratchet and Clank simply because no matter how hard Cave Story tries, and that effort is to be commended, it is always a cave, always. Ratchet and Clank will have you in caves, space stations, massive cities full of flying cars and enemy military facilities. It’s not even a fair fight on this one. That and the design of the stages in Ratchet and Clank gives the impression of inviting exploration through the open spaces and areas you can see from a distance. Cave Story doesn’t have that effect, instead with the difficulty being what it is, players are encouraged to move as a fast as possible through stages to avoid losing life or weapon levels.
Point to Ratchet and Clank.
Seventh Category: Music
Music in gaming is often about being memorable while not dominating the moment. The entire point of it is to enhance every tense plot point and give each stage it’s mood. It’s one of the hardest things to master musically, let alone in gaming.
Ratchet and Clank has a catchy upbeat tempo for most stages along with some decent tense music for boss battles and racing moments. However the cut scenes have no musical accompaniment whatsoever and while that makes sense, there are some great moments of the game that could have some nice subtle scoring to it. That and a lot of the tracks are really forgettable because of how subtle they can be.
Cave Story is renowned for a lot of its music and it’s easy to see why. Each area has it’s own unique theme which changes over the course of the plot in some cases. A lot of the music, despite limitations also manages to capture a sense of wonder when arriving at each new area. That and with cutscene moments being highlighted with the appropriate music when needed, it works really well. Also a lot of Cave Story’s music frequently gets remixed which I’ve never seen happen to Ratchet and Clank.
Point to Cave Story.
Eighth Category: NPC Characters
The merit of NPC characters in video games is an oft debated thing, well I think it is. On the one hand you can look at NPC characters as nothing more then a mission dispenser, a simple means of conveying quests to the player (lord knows that’s how World of Warcraft looks at them) or you can view them as powerful characters in their own right whose troubles motivate the player to help them.
Ratchet and Clank has a nice diverse bunch of characters but many of them aren’t very memorable and despite the fact that the main villain of the game Chairmen Drek is openly harvesting planets of their crusts to make a new world most planet’s denizens rarely show any concern about it save for the occasional character in a warzone. That’s sort of the unfortunate compromise of having characters in a comedic situation, a lot of the dramatic tension of the moment gets lost. Sure the Plumber, Captain Quark and Big Al are all series mainstays and each makes their appearances but only Quark has an extended part in the game as the corrupt hero. The others simply have one note appearances, not enough to remain memorable.
Conversely, Cave Story, despite having characters with several humorous quirks, never sacrifices the dramatic tension and by constantly using them within the game they make a stronger impression. I can easily recall of the various characters, even those who have brief moments such as Toroko who simply spent her appearance in the game trying to stop her own people from treating Sue like an outcast among the villagers. I remember Sue as a brave and reckless little girl turned mimiga (it’s that kind of game), even Arthur the dead mimiga hero who never makes an actual appearance has a memorable effect on the game! And let us not forget Balrog, the world’s happiest kidnapper, continually smashing through walls to kidnap test subjects.
Point to Cave Story!
Ninth Category: Difficulty
So we’re all tied up, it actually is the top of the ninth and final category. Difficulty. Which game has the best difficulty? Now this doesn’t mean which game is hardest or easiest to master but specifically which game has the better difficulty curve?
Creating difficulty curves in video games is often one of the great make or break points. The game must challenge the player but not be too difficult to dissuade them from continually playing. The player must know that every challenge is capable of being defeated and thus be driven to complete it.
Cave Story is tits-up hard. Period. Every boss has a complex movement pattern (beyond the first few) and a variety of defenses and attacks. Most attacks drain your weapons down from their maximum level of power which forces you to immediately alter your strategy and shift from being on the offensive to being defensive. Of course, if you prolong a fight with any boss you get hit more and you die. Thus you spend a good part of the game fighting defensively so that you don’t loose health or weapon levels before you fight bosses until you get the really good weapons late in the game.
With Ratchet and Clank the hardest challenge is in skill points, a series of forty challenges throughout the game that the developers placed to challenge players in the unique facets of the game. Kind of like an achievement system except you ACTUALLY GET SOMETHING FOR YOUR EFFORT IN THE GAME!
Sorry, just being silly… yes silly. I’ll move on.
Otherwise the hardest parts remain the gauntlets of enemies you fight and they never gain more hit points or do more damage then they would normally, they’re simply deployed in unique tandems and formations which you can easily dismantle with the right weapon combinations (or the R.Y.N.O. that works too).
The big problem with Cave Story is that despite being praised by fans as a “Metriod” style explorer game that rarely occurs. There are two stages you will revisit briefly for items before abandoning them forever and several areas lock you out once you pass a certain point, including the entire game once you pass the hell stage. And since the game has only one save file, if you don’t know it’s coming up you can’t backtrack and get items you missed so playing the game blind is the most frustrating way to play since you will not be able to always explore at your leisure. That means it’s difficult to actually access content in the game meant to be accessed. I count that as a flaw.
Ratchet and Clank never, ever has that problem. The few areas that do lock down after you play them have nothing of value once completed. At any point in the game you can explore any preceding area which allows for a level of backtracking that makes each player’s experience unique. Sure you can play the levels in the obvious sequence but you can miss entire sequences only to visit them later when you have the weapons or personal skill level to take them on.
And in the end the last true measure for me as a player between which game was superior is this: I beat Ratchet and Clank in fact I plan to beat it again. I have no intention of beating Cave Story or really touching it in the near future.
That makes the winner clear in my mind: Ratchet and Clank is the superior game!
Ladies and gentlemen that marks the end of this journal’s first cross-comparison article and the largest on on it to date. Thank you for your patience and time.
And as always, so too does this work exist.