Metroidvanias sure are different these days!
If there’s one thing civilization at large can agree on, it’s that Aesop wrote some real bangers. The Fox and the Grapes and The Tortoise and the Hare are both titanic entries in his “The X and the X” franchise, but none of ol’ Soppy’s tales are ever quite as iconic as The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Although the story dates back to Classical times, the cautionary narrative of a smug boy lying to his neighbors about what’s hot and what’s not hits with such precision in our irony-tainted culture that it might as well have been written yesterday.
Consider it this way: how many times have we experienced developers, storefronts, players, and even journalists crying wolf on games that simply aren’t good? Unpleasant, boring, or just plain half-baked titles such as Wild Animal Racing, Lift It, and the entire canon of Digital Homicide subsist on the train wreck gawking of the Internet at at large. Some personality, be it a streamer, YouTuber, games writer, or whomever, scrapes tripe off Steam’s front page for onlookers to gawk and jeer at the sheer audacity of someone to birth such a turd into the world. This, of course, initiates an endless cycle of players purchasing the game for irony’s sake, and developers using that perfectly spendable cash to create more terrible titles, such as Bad Rats Show and Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back.
As we watch, purchase, play, and share these titles, we indicate they’re adventures worth taking. Most of the time, they aren’t. Once the giggles wear off, the experience is hollow, the wallet is empty, and the wolf doesn’t exist. I myself am guilty of taking part in this system, and that would be okay if the consequences were limited to my personal bubble. However, that isn’t the case: public perception of large-scale services such as Steam Greenlight has grown so poisoned by our implicit support of poor and insincere games that titles of genuine quality are trampled underfoot and never find the recognition they deserve.
So, what happens when a Steam game worth playing is waylaid thanks to its aesthetic and low-budget vibes? What happens when the wolf turns out to be real?
This is the unfortunate case of Ratz Instagib, a one-shot one-kill online FPS which appears as bizarro streaming fodder, but is almost certainly one of the best multiplayer Steam games of the last five years. If you’ve never heard of it, you aren’t alone. Outside of the errant streamer and odd game bundle, Ratz ultimately fails to occupy any space in gaming culture whatsoever. Its two biggest boosts were a 2015 video by YouTuber Jerma985, and a brief PC Gamer profile in 2016. The game’s player base peaked at 2,037 after inclusion in a September 2015 bundle, before immediately plunging to 31 players in October. This is an average count which subsists to this day. You could say the Ratz Instagib community disappeared, but it’s more accurate to say it never existed at all.
Ratz Instagib was dead on arrival, and it’s not hard to see why. The title conjures unfortunate associations to Bad Rats, and the sheer level of irony imparted by the “Z” flashes red on all charts. The Steam store images do little to convey the action of the game, and the languid trailer is no favor either. These visual aids only serve to reveal the eponymous “Ratz,” which fall somewhere between the Butt-Ugly Martians and Doomguy’s fursona. With sculpted faces permanently affixed in freakish grins and a texture not unlike damp clay, the Ratz are perhaps the most aesthetically unappealing game protagonists since your Fallout 3 character. At a first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was another slapped-together novelty game meant for giggles at ugly character models running and shooting and exploding in garish arenas. But, improbably, that isn’t the case.
Somehow, everything which might be a detriment to lesser Steam titles works in Ratz’ favor. Why? Because Ratz Instagib is an extremely stupid game which grasps its own stupidity, but doesn’t flaunt that idiocy as a selling point. Here, silly things exist as they should: small elements which flavor the game without overwhelming the taste. The title is insipid, but it’s also an extremely blunt descriptor of the game’s content. The Ratz themselves are heinous, but that only makes it more hilarious when they explode into pieces with faces still locked in a “kiss my ass” smile. The levels are garish and simple, but that’s because they favor function over form. Ultimately, none of this is meant as some primary “so bad it’s good” appeal of the game, unlike, say, the aforementioned Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back.
With Bubsy’s most recent outing, it’s easy to absorb the scope of the game through gameplay videos and streams and other secondary methods of experience. The Woolies Strike Back’s “appeal” lies solely in cultural context and aesthetics (namely, the universe of Bubsy), but the gameplay is too simple and stale to inspire any manner of personal connection. Ratz Instagib is the opposite. It has no connection to any larger context, and its minor stylized aesthetics deliver the bare minimum for a modern FPS. That’s because much like Tetris, Pac-Man, or any other classic arcade game, Ratz Instagib is an experience which lives and dies on the physical and emotional experience of its gameplay.
Ratz doesn’t look nice because it doesn’t need to. Beneath whatever visuals it wears, the soul of Ratz Instagib is raw; almost primal. Although an easy mechanical reference would be the fast-paced deathmatch arenas of Quake, Ratz finds deeper territory. By stripping itself down to three inputs (shoot, jump, rocket jump), Ratz Instagib becomes elemental. It’s a pure distillation of what makes any online FPS worth playing: you jump, you shoot, and you compete for the most kills. No power-ups, no trick weapons, no strategy aside from desperately dodging and instinctual fight or flight. All Ratz are created equal, and born into a world in which they are simultaneously the least and most powerful; a breakneck playing field in which the king is also the prisoner. As such, Ratz Instagib taps directly into the most competitive corners of the human psyche.
Hallway, corner, and open space alike all become a breeding ground for instant annihilation and sheer absurdity alike. In one second, you’re weeping at the cruelty of a rat decked out in a clown nose and leather vest; the next you’re dealing out that same destruction with a laser you colored yellow because it looks like a piss beam. Were it not for the sheer thrill of the hunt, Ratz might be a hollow farce. Instead, the game itself works to fan the flames of competition, spawning players in bizarre locations and providing tight levels for every conceivable style of battle. This inherent unpredictability, both on official and community maps, makes it all the more rewarding when you finally score and blow “GhostReconChris” to pieces inside the protagonist’s bedroom from Persona 5.
Perhaps that’s why the game is so disgustingly entertaining. Assuming you can find matches to play in, it’s easy to sink a few hours at a time into Ratz without blinking an eye. Every laser shot, every kill noise, every single gib is so utterly satisfying that it’s almost criminal. As with most games, the best way to experience Ratz Instagib is by playing with a dedicated group of friends. Not only does this ensure you’ll never run dry while looking for a match, but it also allows for the sort of chat and trash talk which provides an oh-so-welcome layer to the deceptively intense gameplay at hand. You might have ridiculed the Ratz at first, but you’ll be hollering once “Show Me That Russy” breaks your lead.
I’ve had more fun playing Ratz Instagib than maybe any other game in 2018. Sure, part of that is decking out my rat in giant sunglasses and playing on a rat disco map, but the majority comes from the sheer adrenaline rush provided by the one-hit kill gameplay. Good things come in unexpected packages, and finding such a visceral experience wrapped in ugly-ass Ratz is maybe the best surprise of the year. Despite whatever first impressions you might garner from the title’s Steam page, my adoration of Ratz is 100% genuine. If you’re looking for a riotously entertaining game to play on slow nights with some friends, you’d be hard pressed to find a better rodent exploder than Ratz Instagib.
It’s impossible to argue that every weirdo game on Steam is actually a hidden gem, but Ratz is certainly among them. I’d go so far as to argue the game is life-changing, but that depends on how funny you find anthropomorphic rats grabbing their crotches and launching fifty feet into the air after taking a laser to the groin. Like I said, it’s a idiotic game, but an incredible brand of idiocy that very few games manage to get right. Some aim for irony, and others bloat themselves down with jokes, but Ratz Instagib actually has the substance to back its stupidity. Beating your friends in fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping matches is the appeal; blasting ghoulish rats to smithereens is just an added bonus.