[Many video games build upon the concepts and mechanics of their forerunners. Off-Brand Games examines those that draw just a little too much... inspiration.]
I played the original Ratchet & Clank for the first time the other week and can easily see the parallels between it and the Jak series. Both star a traditional comedy duo, feature a cache of fantastic and inventive weapons, and even share engine assets. Insomniac and Naughty Dog have made no secret that they were in bed with one another, resulting in a pair of franchises that was the vanguard of the PS2's platforming library.
Something else to note is how these games showcase Western platforming design philosophies. Western developers dedicate a lot of focus to smooth animations and slapstick, sharing more in common with Saturday-morning cartoons than Super Mario Bros. Just look at the third pillar of the PS2's platforming foundation, Sly Cooper. I can't be the only one catching a SWAT Kats vibe from that game's art.
See, I'm a very Japan-centric gamer, but I'm not opposed to Western efforts that effectively bottle the spirit of childhood whimsy. What I oppose is the slop that rapes those childhood sentiments in a forced bid towards edginess. The Jak series crossed this line after the first game, and it's a testament to the skilled developers at Naughty Dog that the sequels managed to rise above those shortcomings.
Ruff Trigger does not.
Offender: Ruff Trigger: The Vanocore Conspiracy Developed by: Playstos Published by: Natsume Released on: PS2, 2006 Tastes like: Ratchet & Clank
Never heard of Playstos, have ya? It's an Italian game company that tried its hand at developing full-blown retail titles before getting spanked with the brutal realization that nobody knew what the hell they were doing. It has since settled into the role of digital-download developer and hasn't looked back.
It's safe to assume that Ruff Trigger, the company's first major project, did not have the smoothest of dev cycles. In the works since 2002, the game was originally scheduled for a 2004 release on PC, Xbox, and PS2 but missed its launch date by two years. When it finally appeared, it was under a new publisher, on a single platform, and with a budget price. Clearly, Playstos was attempting to cut its losses.
The new publisher was Harvest Moon distributor Natsume. By the way, have you played a Natsume game recently? Are you aware of the slogan that appears below the company logo?
"Serious Fun"? Isn't that an oxymoron? Now, I personally take that as a guarantee of quality. If a company approves a product and declares "shit be bangin'," I expect to hear some fuckin' drums. You don't say stuff like that off-hand. You've gotta mean that shit because consumers will take that promise to heart.
That guarantee is blown to shambles after reading the game's full title -- Ruff Trigger: The Vanocore Conspiracy. Can't be edgy and cool without a pretentious subtitle, can we? A conspiracy, eh? Oooooh! Sounds mysterious! What's a Vanocore? It's a mystery within a mystery! Everybody loves a mystery, and everybody loves conspiracies! Ruff Trigger must be mature like The X-Files!
How do we draw in children? Let's make the characters anthropomorphic animals in space! They act human but are animals! Clever! And there's this bounty hunter dog Ruff Trigger who is tracking these creatures called Piglots, a new breed of pet genetically manufactured by the Vanocore Corporation, but nothing is as it seems! Totally edgy yet kid-friendly! Like Loonatics Unleashed!
This is gonna be bad.
HOW SHAMELESS IS IT?
Despite making zero sense and despite having plot holes the size of football fields, Ruff Trigger tries to play it totally straight. The voice acting just kills it, though. The character of Ruff is attempting to be tough and cool but comes off as a big poseur who tries way too hard. And he says "hell" in a kids' game! So edgy and mature!
There's the character of the Boss, the leader of Ruff's investigation outfit, who's got this big-ass cigar jammed in his mouth and wears those goofy shoulder fins from Dragon Ball Z. His voice is... remember how your mom would read you stories when you were younger and would voice all the characters? Whenever there was like a bear, wolf, or some other large, aggressive creature, she would force a deep, masculine voice, and it sounded extremely strained and non-threatening? The Boss sounds just like that.
Most offensive of all is this persistent aura, this nagging feeling that the developers wanted so desperately to turn this into a franchise. I mean, hell, why else would you append a bullshit subtitle to the main one if not to swap it out with an equally bullshit one for the eventual sequel? Ruff Trigger: The Hands of Fate could have very well been in the pipeline! I hate this notion that developers or publishers can simply will a franchise into existence, like if they wish hard enough then all their dreams will come true. Remember Cheetahmen? There were action figures planned for that shit! Hey, Dennis Dyack! How's the Too Human trilogy coming along? How big must your ego be to assume the market will be receptive to your "grand vision," eh?
It's a good thing Ruff Trigger was stillborn because Ratchet & Clank pulled off everything it did a billion times better. The guns are better, the platforming is better, and even the damn manual is better. Yeah, Ruff Trigger gets the standard black-and-white, twenty-page spread while Ratchet & Clank gets a kickass product catalog of all the tools in the game plus a poster on the flip side. I know it seems unfair to compare manuals when most are garbage anyway, but these are the rules I play by.
The controls are a joke. You've got a selection of melee combos that are effective as fuck all. Enemy hit stun is a fuzzy thing in this game, so closing the distance in order to pull off these melee attacks is almost guaranteed to sap your health. It would be preferable to use your weapons if doing so wasn't synonymous with operating heavy machinery while drugged up on propofol. You can't fire your gun without first locking on to an enemy, so you press R1. A reticule will appear, but if you move anywhere, it will disengage! So you also have to press the L1 button to engage strafe mode! However, if you try to jump out of the way, you lose the lock. If you strafe too far to the left or right, you lose the lock. Most games only require a single targeting button, enabling you to circle the enemy at will. Not so in Ruff Trigger! Did these guys play any other game, ever?
Your weapons carry a pitiful amount of ammunition, but thankfully there are ammo boxes scattered everywhere. Every two inches is a breakable box or a pipe or a computer monitor, and my OCD compels me to smash EVERY! LAST! ONE! Most of my play time is spent smashing crates, collecting ammo as well as credits to buy weapons and armor at the shop. With the abundance of money, you'd think all the supplies would be priced outrageously, but you literally have enough to buy everything in the game three levels in! Of course, you are artificially locked out from buying the pricier equipment until you collect enough experience tokens, so... what's the point?
And what's with the camera? Tilt the stick to the left and the camera pans... right? Tilt right to go left? Tilting the stick forward and backs tilts the camera down and up, respectively and as it should be, but when you enter first-person view, they flip it around! God dammit! That's not how cameras work, you assholes! And you don't even offer inverted camera options? That should come standard in any game that gives the user camera control!
Early in the game, you gain the ability to transform into a werewolf akin to the Dark Jak transformation in Jak II. Unlike Dark Jak, you are able to transform at any time, but aside from greater jumping proficiency, this form has no real benefits. Your new abilities drain your power meter, requiring you to seek out vials of green goop to replenish yourself, yet the new moves aren't any more effective than weapon fire. The form certainly doesn't make melee attacks any less ass!
I wouldn't mind half the nonsense in Ruff Trigger if I at least had a plucky sidekick with which to trade witty barbs. Where's my Clank, my Daxter? Instead, we get busty, feline, whack-off material in the form of Cecily, the female pilot who spends the entire game giving Ruff a major league case of blue balls.
And wouldn't you know it, she's the one exemption to Rule 34. My God, all I want is a tiny measure of relief and the game can't even deliver on...
Don't you look at me like I'm crazy! She's a cat? So what? EVERYBODY'S a little bit furry! Don't... don't shake your head! Yes, you are! Oh, no? Your pants didn't get a little tight when you saw those Minerva Mink shorts on Animaniacs? You never had the hots for Cheetara? Yeah? YEAH? Bullshit. Don't judge me.
With all this repressed desire, how am I to take out my frustrations? Well, there are those Piglots I mentioned from earlier. The game is driven by your quest to locate all the lost critters and lead them into a teleporter, a mechanic not unlike that found in Pikmin. Unfortunately, Piglots can't die, so my dreams of relieving stress by ripping apart the little bastards are left unfulfilled.
I love abusing animals in videogames. My favorite part in Mega Man Legends was kicking the bejeezus out of those guard dogs. I love sniping birds out of the sky in any game that allows me to do so. I am one sadistic sonuvabitch. Since Ruff Trigger tallies the number of fat little bastards you rescue at the end of a level, I assumed they'd be susceptible to injury. However, if you jump into the water while holding one, it'll reappear in its original location. They can't be shoved into pits. Any direct attack will only stun them. I just wanna blow the little buggers up! Please!
Aside from gaining experience tokens for your efforts, there is no requirement for rescuing Piglots at all! Your only real incentive is to unlock a bevy of lame-ass minigames, many of which are variations of Pac-Man. You control a Piglot as it runs around a maze, rescuing other Piglots or trying to reach the exit. Somehow, Playstos even managed to fuck up Pac-Man by turning direction commands into mere suggestions! Need to turn left? Hope and pray that the punk turns left! Maybe it'll go right! It's a battle of wills and the user always loses.
Let's recap -- the controls don't work, the camera doesn't work, the weapons suck ass, the voice acting is grating, the abundance of collectibles is out of control, the female eye candy won't put out, and the objectives don't serve any necessary function. What about bosses? Most games pride themselves on their inventive boss encounters, but not Ruff Trigger! Remember all those weapons you've been struggling to work with? Throw 'em away! They aren't used in all of the three major boss battles. In these fights, you gotta pick up wandering Piglots in the arena and drop them onto these target pads in order to trigger a context-sensitive action. What a kick in the balls!
And what of the big conspiracy? Turns out that the Piglots are actually vicious beasts that transform when they drink the same goop you drink to become a werewolf. People would buy the pets and inadvertently welcome these murderers into their home. The whole adventure has been a lie. Instead of rescuing the little gits, you should have been exterminating them. But of course, you can't actually kill them, can you? So what was the point of the whole affair? Where's the satisfaction?
I finished this abortion of a game, watched the facepalm-worthy non-ending that resolves absolutely NOTHING, and tossed the disc back in the case. Four years of development and this was it? The thing barely looks like a first-generation PS2 game as is, but there is just so much pure garbage that I can't recommend this to anyone. What was going through their minds?
If you like Ratchet & Clank... just... don't. Stay away from this game. It's offensive on every conceivable level. It'll make you sterile. It teases you by literally dangling pussy in your face. It's stupid and I hate it. I wish nothing but the worst for Playstos. I hope their mobile apps brick every iPhone they are downloaded on, forcing the company to close up shop in shame.
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[Image credit: Mike Lambert]
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