Mad Rat Dead is a duplicitous beast. Take a quick glance at any of the below screenshots and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s just another bog standard 2D platformer. But that’s where you would be wrong, because Mad Rat Dead is a rhythm action 2D platformer. How the blue hells does that even work? Well, you’ll have to keep on reading to find out.
Mad Rat Dead follows all the normal rules of a 2D platformer. Your avatar, a recently deceased lab rat, must bound from left to right through increasingly challenging platform-filled levels. The crucial difference is that accompanying Mad Rat’s leaps, flips and dives is a funky musical tune. Time your button presses to the rhythm and Mad Rat’s movements will be boosted, leaping further, flipping higher, and diving like a premiership footballer. Mistime the beat though, and it’ll be like Mad Rat’s wings have been clipped, sending the cute, but oh so angry vermin plummeting into the void of despair at the bottom of the level.
Each level has a different tune for you to follow. Nail the timing, follow the melody, and you’ll flow through the level so smoothly you’d make a free runner envious. Lose the beat entirely and it’s unlikely you’ll reach the finish line before the timer runs out. Yes, that’s right, your objective is to finish the level before the musical track ends. Now, if you’re currently thinking: “Hang on, so not only do I have to navigate precarious platforms, dodge weird blobby baddies and escape cunning traps, I now have to do all that whilst tapping out a rhythm?” then worry not. Mad Rat Dead has a neat rewind mechanic that helps avoid too many frustrations and provides that game with a compelling puzzling element to boot.
When you die – and you will die – the game provides you with the opportunity to rewind time a few precious seconds, providing you with the crucial benefit of hindsight. That previously unavoidable obstacle will now be easier to dodge as you know it’s coming. Things are complicated by your rewind not affecting level’s timer, though. Spend too much time going all Back to the Future to figure out how to get through a particularly tricky section and you’ll have unwittingly spoiled your chances at reaching the finish line in time.
Developers Nippon Ichi Software explore this mechanic to great effect, crafting devious levels that will soon rob you of precious seconds, creating a riveting and pulse-pounding dash to the finish line. No other game has left me punching the air in sheer delight or holding my head in my hands in commiseration as much as this one. There were moments when playing Mad Rat Dead that I couldn’t believe it actually worked. This game should be a thing of nightmares, but in the hands of a skilled developer this hybrid mishmash breathes new life into an age-old genre. None of this would matter if there weren’t some seriously funky jams to rhythm action platform too. Fortunately Mad Rat Dead is full of catchy jingles, each one an ear worm that you’ll find yourself humming for the rest of the day.
Storyline wise Mad Rat Dead is a surprising treat. Despite the cutesy visuals, the narrative poses some pretty deep questions, exploring philosophical pontifications like the meaning of life, what a “good” death is and how to live a fulfilling life. It’s also deliciously bonkers, featuring talking hearts, rat gods, ghost monsters and rat zombies. It does a remarkable job of making you question the protagonist’s motivations; is mad rat truly mad or can he really see things that no one else can? The plot keeps you guessing and offers a satisfying resolution at the end of it all.
Just don’t expect to see the conclusion anytime soon. This is a challenging game, one that will push even the most experienced of platforming prodigies to the limits of their powers – particularly on hard mode. There’s some fantastic boss fights to be had on the way, each one offering a cathartic thrill as you attempt to see off the boss before the time limit runs out. The boss battles are frequently thrilling, all of them avoiding the tried and tested ‘do the same thing three times to win’ trope that afflicts so many boss encounters. The innovation and creativity on offer here is nothing short of astonishing.
The game mostly plays it fair with solid collision detection and responsiven controls. When things do inevitably go wrong it’s because you messed up, not because the game did. However, there is one crucial exception that proves the rule: the targeting of enemies for dash attacks can be surprisingly tricky. Most of the time the mechanic works fine, but on occasion the game refuses to acknowledge the attack, usually resulting in Mad Rat’s premature death. Fortunately this issue rarely rears its head to spoil your fun. Also, despite how much I enjoyed the plot, I’d rather not have to watch the same cut scene again and again when I’m forced to restart a level. You can speed the dialogue up, but a full skip option would be welcome.