Ratchet & Clank: a Western platformer so good that even the Japanese loved it - and for good reason. While the 16-bit old school have continually pined for Sonic or Mario to come up with the platforming goods, Sony has basically sewn up the genre over the past six years, with four superb Ratchet games right at the centre of this unexpected world domination, with Sly Raccoon and Jak & Daxter ramming the point home in some style.
And now a PSP-exclusive fifth Ratchet title enters the fray, proving not only that the series remains as essential as ever, but survives that tricky one-stick transition to the Sony handheld almost intact. But more of that later, camera fans.
The most important thing to stress is that Size Matters feels every bit as enjoyable as any of the previous versions, marrying, as it does, the platforming and combat formula with consummate ease. And despite development duties switching from Insomniac to High Impact, you can hardly see the join. It has a typically grin-inducing storyline, superb voice-overs (from the usual cast) and the kind of cut scenes you feel guilty skipping.
As you might expect for a handheld debut, the formula hasn't changed one bit. You're tasked with working your way through a series of largely linear levels, smashing a procession of baddies to pieces with a series of progressively more powerful weaponry. You get the rather hopeless wrench to kick off with, but quickly accumulate a standard loadout of upgradeable weapons like the Lacerator, Concussion Gun, as well as the more typically 'wacky' homing weapons like the Agents of Doom and the Hive and so on. Choosing between weapons is all part of the fun, and not only are the controls a doddle to configure, but the more you use a particular weapon, the more it powers up - so you get to shape your own combat style through your own path of destruction, which is nice.
Rather like all the previous Ratchet games down the years, there's a real sense of reward for everything you do, with more upgrades, enhancements and new gadgets packed in than practically any other game we can think of. And it's the sort of game that packs in plenty of secrets to make it feel good to play through all over again. Admittedly, few of the weapons, gadgets or upgrades in Size Matters feel new, but framed in the context of solid, enjoyable new levels, it's not something that feels like a problem.
Once again, there are plenty of mini games and interludes to freshen up the gameplay every now and then, but not all of them feel like welcome additions. For example, the hover board races that crop up occasionally are possibly the vilest inclusion in any Ratchet game to date, with horrendous, wobbly controls, impossibly bad collision detection that snags you in all manner of improbable places and terrible course design. The only reason we're not more annoyed about their inclusion is the rest of the game more than makes up for such botched design.
Elsewhere in the mini-game stakes things improve immeasurably, such as giant Clank shooter sections which not only look phenomenal, but are a huge amount of fun while the last. Taking their cue from old school third person space shooters like Mega Apocalypse (bonus point if you can name the composer), the gameplay's pretty straightforward blasting fodder, but looks so damned good while it lasts that it could easily form part of a standalone game if someone were to develop the idea a bit further.
On top of that, there are some other optional Robot Wars-style destruction derby challenges where you have to smash up the other robots before they smash you, and a basic 'throw the robot through the goal posts' interlude. And we're not even done yet - during the main game itself you have to perform a few basic obstacle-avoiding grind rail sections, while other portions of the level might involve guarding Ratchet with an emplacement gun while he hacks a door, or have Clank commanding little robots to stand on pressure pads to open up security doors and so on. It's a game full of variety and, fortunately, most of it is thoroughly enjoyable.
Crucially, Size Matters works equally well as a bite-sized handheld experience, too, with each potion of any given level or challenge carved up into digestible slices that can fit into your commuting schedule just perfectly. And with the streaming technology ported over from the PS2, it's the kind of game where you only ever encounter loading pauses when you're flying between planets - and even then they're perfectly respectable.
On a technical level, Size Matters is a real showcase for what the PSP can do. Apart from some relatively minor pop-up, the overall detail levels and artistry lavished upon the game makes it feel every bit as delightful a spectacle as any of the PS2 versions. Thanks to the smaller confines of the PSP screen, the visuals look pin sharp and there's never a frame rate hitch even when the screen's full of marauding baddies and their accompanying explosive effects. Possibly the only thing that looks slightly odd is the way the rendered cut scenes show Ratchet without his armour on, but that's something we can live with.
Predictably, the lack of a second analogue stick rears its ugly head once again, forcing High Impact to try and work around it the best it can. Fortunately, numerous upgrades (like auto lock-on) and plenty of configuration options let players choose whichever solution works for them. We got on pretty well with strafe assigned to left and right joystick movements, with the shoulder buttons for manually moving the camera left and right, and with the odd exception the computer tended to help out really well with its auto camera decision making. Something as simple as letting the computer automatically lock-on to the nearest target during combat made the game instantly playable, but needless to say when it made the wrong choice it could get pretty annoying. All told, such quibbles are the main reason the game doesn't score a solid 9, because in all other areas the game's a resounding success, and a real feather in Sony's cap in its push to re-establish the PSP in the face of massive negativity from all quarters.
As an added bonus, even the multiplayer mode is fully supported online via the somewhat underused infrastructure mode. That said, we should perhaps stress that four player multiplayer is very much a 'bonus' rather than something to get massively excited about. There's four maps and the usual deathmatch, capture the flag and the objective-based 'Iron Lombax' mode, but nothing you haven't seen done better elsewhere. Still, with the ability to tweak weapon load-out there's scope to have a fair bit of handheld fun if you can muster up a few like minded souls.
On balance, Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters deserves a place alongside Daxter as the best that the PSP has to offer - not only in the platforming genre, but as a showcase for the machine as a whole. Despite a few minor camera niggles and the odd mini-game gaff, Ratchet has made a decent handheld transition. Far from being a stopgap teaser in the run up to the PS3 game's launch, Size Matters deserves a place in any discerning platform gamer's collection.
8 / 10