There’s a rule in life that I learned many eons ago. It’s a rule most often missed or outright disregarded for a combination of ignorance and, frankly, snobbery. The rule is that you must never underestimate the power of a simple, cuddly-looking, cartoon aesthetic.
Such is the case for Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando, the PlayStation 2 classic about furry “lombax,” his robot sidekick, and lots of weird, sci-fi weapons. From Insomniac Studios, which would go on to make Sony’s modern Spider-Man video games, Going Commando paved the way for the developer’s future projects when it comes to gameplay, narrative, and character.
Released on November 11, 2003, Going Commando was the second game in the still-ongoing Ratchet & Clank franchise. After their galaxy-saving endeavors from the debut title, the eponymous duo get to lounging around on sofas and doing a whole bunch of nothing (as one rightfully does upon saving an entire galaxy). But their R&R is quickly interrupted by a fellow named Abercrombie Fizzwidget, the CEO of MegaCorp, the galaxy’s largest consumer goods and electronics manufacturer in the galaxy. Noticing Ratchet’s boredom, Fizzwidget offers him a job and mission for the company to track down one of their most important assets, a “Protopet” creature that was recently stolen.
In dire need of some action, Ratchet accepts the mission, and we’re off to the races.
The story is pretty simple, but when I first experienced it as a young lad who was also deeply bored and in need of some dire action (or didn’t have many friends, whichever works), many of the story beats flew over my head until a while later. The original Ratchet & Clank certainly had its own share of interesting subtext, but it was a lot more surface-level by comparison. Going Commando drives it up a notch, with a story that very viscerally attests to corporate greed and indifference to
The Protopet is just one of a batch intended to be sold (hence the whole “pet” part of the name) to consumers across the galaxy, even though there are some clear issues with its behavior around people (like eating people). And yet, they’re shipped out anyway, causing a whole boatload of chaos throughout the galaxy.
There are plenty of other sprinklings of anti-capitalistic commentary in Going Commando, but the game isn’t presented in a doom-and-gloom sort of sense. Insomniac has a knack for humor, which applies to everything from the cutscenes to the titles of subsequent sequels like Size Matters, Up Your Arsenal, and Quest for Booty.
It’s easy to see how Insomniac’s penchant for mixing humor with heart and a hint of darkness translated perfectly to Spider-Man. The superhero’s dark origin story is often no match for his upbeat attitude and tendency to trade quips with his enemies.
Just like another beloved PlayStation sequel of the PS2 era, Going Commando made some significant upgrades to the original Ratchet & Clank. Some are typical, like a “More weapons! More levels!” sort of thing, but it goes further than that.
There are numerous quality-of-life changes that make the first game feel unplayable in hindsight: Multiple weapon wheels, a quick-select option that pauses the game, health upgrades, and even the ability to strafe. That last one may sound small, but it dramatically improves combat, making it more fun and less annoying all at once.
The weapons in Going Commando aren’t just stronger and more numerous, they’re more creative too. There’s a blaster that shoots a stream of lava, a bazooka that fires a large bomb that explodes into hundreds of smaller ones, a grenade launcher that forms little mini-mushroom clouds, and even a device that shoots giant saw blades. Beyond new weapons, the game also introduces space combat to test your aerial skills.
Most important of all, Going Commando is a testament to Insomniac’s penchant for rewarding players for simply playing the game. Unlike the original, weapons can be upgraded the more you use them, gaining experience for every bullet, bomb, or Spiderbot until they evolve into an all-new super weapon. It’s an absolute thrill to see what your new toys will turn into.
Defeating enemies also gives you experience that can upgrade your health bar to survive more than just 4-5 hits like in the original. You can collect hidden Platinum Bolts to upgrade your weapons even further. You can purchase different sets of armor to preserve your health. You can accomplish secret tasks for “skill points” that let you add little cheats to the game like big-head mode and different skins like a clown suit. You can even purchase upgrades to your ship in the form of both practical weapon boosts or aesthetical flare.
There’s so much to do and hardly any of it is hidden. Instead, it’s all slowly but surely accrued the further you go. It’s invigorating. The more you play, the more you’ll want to stay, and that’s been the case for many of Insomniac’s titles following Going Commando. Aside from Ratchet & Clank, there’s the underrated Sunset Overdrive, which features its own array of absurd weaponry to unlock in an open world with engaging traversal and platforming mechanics.
This all goes double for Insomniac’s Spider-Man games. Sure, they’re about punching bad guys and swinging around New York City, but the gameplay is all about rewards. You gain experience for missions that you can use for new upgrades to Spidey’s powers or boosting your gadgets (you may remember the original PS4 title has its own Ratchet-esque quick select wheel). You can take photos for some heartwarming anecdotes and unlock a ton of new suits, all while having plenty of side missions to keep you busy.
Perhaps in the hands of a lesser developer, these rewards would feel like too much — like a video game participation trophy — but it’s all balanced so well, with so much creativity, that you continue having a blast throughout.
Ok, one more thing about Going Commando: Before the whole New Game Plus phenomenon became more mainstream, The Ratchet & Clank sequel was one of the first to do it in the form of “Challenge Mode” where you could upgrade your weapons even further and purchase some Challenge Mode-exclusive weapons, too.
It may seem weird that Ratchet & Clank is my favorite video game series of all time. It’s a stance that surely would cause some surprise or even elicit a few roasts, as hardly any individual game in the series has any “all-time” sort of praise. But what it does have is consistency. These games are consistently funny and deceptively smart. The gameplay is consistently rewarding. And they’re consistently filled with new toys to cause mayhem with.
Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando is where, for my money, that formula was born. 20 years later, that gameplay and design philosophy can be seen through Insomniac Games’ entire catalog, making it one of the most talented and respected developers around.