One of the best things about Nippon Ichi Software is the company’s willingness to take some risks and put out some highly creative, artistic titles alongside its longstanding cash cow franchises.
A reliable source of these fascinating “B-tier Nippon Ichi” titles is designer Yu Mizokami who, to date, has given us the Yomawari series of horror games and contributed to the excellent (and perpetually overlooked) Lapis x Labyrinth. Now he’s back once again with a brand new but equally stylish title: Mad Rat Dead, which aims to blend rhythm action with 2D platforming.
Both are genres that demand committed, attentive players with an eye for detail and a willingness to put in some practice. But can these two styles of game work together? Let’s take a closer look.
In Mad Rat Dead, you take control of a nameless rat (who subsequently becomes known as both “Little Rat” and “Mad Rat” according to who is addressing him) that has only ever known life in a scientific laboratory. As the game opens, he is pinned to a workbench with a scientist’s tools bearing down on him; as the game asks you, the player, a series of bizarrely probing, philosophical questions we witness his final moments and his dissection at the hands of the faceless scientist.
It’s a striking opening, for sure, and one that immediately sets us up to empathise with the rat, who seemingly did nothing to deserve the fate that befell him other than being born in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As you might expect, death is not the end for our rodent friend; waking up in a dark void that he assumes to be the afterlife, he is confronted with a flamboyant (and super-cute) figure who claims to be the “Rat God”. She offers him an opportunity: relive his final day in an attempt to fulfil a wish of some sort, on the condition that he will still die at the end of the day.
Realising that this provides an opportunity to at least ensure his death isn’t as seemingly meaningless as it appeared to be, the rat accepts the offer — and thus begins a very strange journey in which nothing is quite as it seems.
At the outset of the game, all appears to be perfectly cute and adorable. Bouncy, chirpy music plays as the Rat God introduces you to the basic controls and the core concept of pressing buttons in time with the beat of the music. A tutorial stage of gradually increasing complexity, unfolding in a surreal landscape drenched in melted cheese, spreads out before you — and before long you’ll be bopping your way through various obstacles and having a thoroughly lovely time.
Mad Rat’s basic method of moving forward is dashing with a tap of a button. This can either be a short dash or a long dash according to whether or not you’re pressing a direction at the same time as the button. The dash can also be done in mid-air, but there are limits: when dashing from a leap or a fall, you can only perform a single dash, though if you start one dash on solid ground and it takes you over a pit, you can then dash again for a little more distance.
You can also jump; this is a platformer, after all. Like the dash, this needs to be done in time with the beat of the music. Jumping again in mid-air causes Mad Rat to somersault, which extends the length of the jump somewhat as well as getting a tiny bit more height. If colliding with a wall in mid-jump, he can wall jump back and forth to ascend narrow passageways , and if enemies are nearby, Mad Rat also has access to a Sonic the Hedgehog-style lock-on attack.
The lock-on attack is particularly interesting, because it functions in a very specific way that takes a bit of getting used to. Mechanically, it takes the place of the second jump in the double jump, and as such if Mad Rat has already double-jumped in the vicinity of an enemy, he cannot then lock on to that enemy. This might not sound like a huge problem until you discover that several stages in the game have significant segments where there are no platforms and a bottomless pit beneath you, leaving you completely reliant on the lock-on attack for traversal as much as dispatching enemies in your way. A helpful tip for dealing with these circumstances is getting into the habit of following an attack-dash-attack-dash pattern; while it can be tempting to follow up the “bounce” from a successful attack with a double jump, this will just leave you plummeting into the abyss in most cases.
Talking of plummeting, Mad Rat also has access to a “quick fall” move which, again, must be performed in time with the beat of the music. Since his movement, jumping and falling speed is all determined by the tempo of the music in each stage — and that tempo varies significantly over the course of the game — sometimes it’s in your interest to quickly drop on the beat in order to avoid obstacles, land on a moving platform in time or simply get through the stage a bit more quickly.
Finally, Mad Rat also has a “charge” button, which, as with all the other moves, must be performed in time with the music. Hitting the charge button then immediately following up with a dash or jump will make that subsequent move a little more powerful; there are actually very few circumstances throughout the game as a whole where this is necessary, but it can occasionally get you out of a tough scrape or help you find the optimal route to the finish line.
All these moves are fairly conventional for a side-scrolling platformer, but the rhythmic aspect is what makes Mad Rat Dead really stand out. You start looking at the level designs less as terrain to navigate and more as a sort of musical score; you’ll come to recognise particular patterns of scenery as requiring a particular combination of moves, and as your experience with the game grows, you’ll become more comfortable in chaining together long strings of actions in order to create a completely free-flowing “dance” that will lead you through the whole level.
As the game progresses, you’ll work your way through a variety of different musical styles, beginning with some thumping electro swing, passing through some trance-style tracks with a distinct influence from traditional Asian music, before heading into some more aggressive techno numbers as the narrative builds to a climax. While the basic mechanics are the same, the different feel of each track — and the distinctive style you’ll notice each of the contributing composers on the soundtrack has — gives each stage its own sense of personality.
One important thing worth noting for beginners is that you can simply not do something on a beat and you won’t be punished for it; it doesn’t break your combo, it doesn’t count as a “missed” note or anything. Indeed, there are numerous times throughout the game where you’ll have to stop for a moment in order to make sure you’re in sync with other things around you — enemy movements, moving platforms and, in some particularly devious cases, short phrases in the music where the tempo changes or holds long notes rather than maintaining a completely regular pulse.
On top of all this, the concept of rewinding time isn’t just a thing in the narrative — it’s an important part of gameplay, too, particularly when you’re learning the levels. Get into a situation where Mad Rat would die prematurely — falling into a pit, colliding with an enemy, being injured by an obstacle — and time will freeze, allowing you the opportunity to rewind a beat at a time and pick up where you left off. The only penalties for doing so are that you’ll lose your combo count and that you don’t get any time back — meaning if you die and rewind too often, you’ll run out of time before you reach the end of the level. There’s otherwise no limit on how much you can do this.
Early in the game, when you’ll be dying a lot, the constant “rewinding” can feel like it’s breaking the flow of the game significantly, but that’s sort of the point — the incentive to get better comes from the inherent satisfaction of being able to flawlessly “perform” during longer and longer passages of music, until you can reliably clear most, if not all, of the level in one go. This is one of the reasons all of the musical tracks are so catchy, with clear melodic and rhythmic hooks; it’s extremely enjoyable to be able to hear them without interruption while successfully working your way through the game.
All of the core mechanics are turned on their head during the several boss battles throughout the game. Here, rather than following the set course laid out for you by the level scenery ahead of you, you’re instead challenged to improvise a “dance” to avoid the boss’ attacks and be able to attack (or escape) during suitable openings. The rhythmic nature of the gameplay is still present and correct, but the movements are less defined; you’re instead having to deal with situational cues rather than static, fixed patterns ahead of you.
The interesting thing about the boss fights in particular is that they act as something of a twist on more “conventional” encounters of this type in regular platformers. Pattern-based boss battles can already be described in terms of “dance steps” you have to perform in order to counter various attacks, so setting them to music is a natural next step. Indeed, besting Mad Rat Dead’s bosses is a matter of not only recognising visual telegraphs of incoming attacks, but also understanding the rhythm of those attacks in terms of how they relate to the music.
It’s all extremely engaging, and even without the narrative component, Mad Rat Dead would be a fascinating example of two genres we haven’t seen combined quite so deftly since Vib-Ribbon on the original PlayStation. When you throw that narrative component into the mix, however, Mad Rat Dead becomes something truly special; a genuinely intelligent, thought-provoking and emotionally engaging game that isn’t afraid to go in some unexpected directions.
I’ll refrain from spoiling too many of the details since the story as a whole isn’t super-long and is worth experiencing for yourself, but suffice it to say for now that this is a prime example of the “unreliable narrator” trope in action. Except the “narrator” in question isn’t exactly “narrating” things as such — we’re just seeing what he’s seeing and understanding the situation as he understands it. As the narrative progresses, it raises a wide variety of fascinating questions that muse on how we perceive the world, whether shared ordeals can change seemingly hard-coded prejudices, how making important decisions in the heat of the moment isn’t always the best approach and, of course, differing attitudes towards mortality — both our own, and that of others around us.
There’s a lot of allegory going on in Mad Rat Dead, but it never crosses a line into becoming preachy; Mad Rat himself is a deeply flawed character, but that gives him plenty of opportunity to go on a fascinating journey — and for the audience to really get something out of witnessing his growth. We don’t spend a long time with him, but it’s certainly a memorable time, for sure.
As for the game’s long-term appeal, it would be easy to set Mad Rat Dead aside once you’ve cleared the main story mode, since nothing really “unlocks” when you’ve done so. There are, however, a series of trophies to unlock — including on the Switch version — that mostly demand you clear each stage with an “S+” ranking by doing so quickly, with a high combo and a high degree of accuracy. It’s worth noting that you don’t need a perfect performance to get an S+ rating, so if you’ve made it through the game as a whole those high rankings are well within reach of the average player.
For more confident players, additional challenge is provided by the opportunity to play each stage on Hard mode, which introduces syncopated rhythms rather than simply tapping on the beat, as well as special red notes that only trigger an action if you hit several in sequence. The note charts here aren’t anywhere near the complexity of the Beatmanias or Project Divas of this world, of course, but in those classics you’re not trying to play a 2D platformer at the same time. Hard mode does, however, provide an interesting additional challenge in that you have to pay attention to the note chart as well as the platform gameplay; at normal difficulty, for the most part, you can get through using basic musical, rhythmic instinct.
Finally, when replaying any of the stages, you can actually choose to replace its music with any of the other tracks you’ve unlocked. Fancy replaying that super-simple tutorial stage with the chaotic final boss theme? Go right ahead. A simple change of music — and the corresponding change in tempo — can really change the feel of a stage, providing plenty of variety for those willing to explore the game a little further than everything that is laid out on a plate for them. In some cases, a change of music might even help with the pursuit of those elusive S+ ranks, so it’s certainly worth experimenting.
Even if you choose not to engage further with the game beyond the dramatic finale of the story, however, Mad Rat Dead is a fine experience that not only has something meaningful to say from a narrative perspective, it’s a fascinating exploration of the mechanics of side-scrolling platformers, with the rhythmic element forcing you to think about things in a different way to what you might be used to.
It’s a great example of what “B-tier Nippon Ichi” is all about — and I for one hope we continue to see the company continue to take chances on this type of bold, experimental experience for many years to come.
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