Never in my life have I played a game like Mad Rat Dead. I’ve played rhythm games, platformers, games where you play as undead animals, and even combinations featuring two of said elements, but never a game with all three at once. I really didn’t know what to expect from the game before playing it, aside from music and the normal NIS-brand of goofy weirdness, and I had no idea where the game would ultimately take me—but I wasn’t expecting to end up where I did.
Mad Rat Dead is weird. Like, really weird. But it’s also an amazing game. It not only surpassed any gameplay-related expectations that I had of it when I first started playing but even went so far as to add a compelling and surprisingly sobering story for me to enjoy along the way. Mad Rat Dead is unlike any rhythm game I’ve ever played before—and that’s why I like it so much.
Live and Let Die
NIS has always had a penchant for making weird stories for their games, but Mad Rat Dead might just take the cheesecake. The game begins with, of all things, the player being probed to answer a series of emotionally charged questions while our hapless hero gets vivisected in the background by a mysterious scientist. The game then cuts to the point of view of a now-dead Mad Rat as a dapper, winged rodent known as the Rat God asks him if he would like to re-live his final day over again. Mad Rat, who is, understandably, very mad, eagerly accepts the offer of his squeaky savior—not so much as stopping to ask why he has a giant hole in his chest—and rhythmically runs away in order to kill the person responsible for killing him.
After reading that last paragraph, you might be asking just how many hallucinogenics I took before writing this review, but I can promise that the answer is zero—this game’s story is very weird from the get-go and only gets weirder. Even by NIS standards, this game’s story feels bizarre, and it doesn’t even stop there. Personally, I was expecting at least some level of zaniness, but I wasn’t expecting it to end up getting as serious as it did. While I can’t get into detail, the narrative really ramps up after a while, subtly examining several different ethical dilemmas along the way, and the end of the game left me feeling more emotionally heavy than it ought to considering that we’re dealing with an angry, dancing science experiment and his sentient heart. NIS, you never fail to impress me with your stories.
A Real Deadbeat
As far as I can remember, Mad Rat Dead is the first actual rhythm-based platformer that I’ve ever played. Sure, I’ve played stuff like Bit. Trip before, but those were more rhythm-runners than platformers. Mad Rat Dead literally requires both platforming skills and a good sense of rhythm—and boy, are you in for a world of hurt if you can’t multitask well enough to put those two things together.
First, let’s get down with the rhythm-based portion of the game. Unlike most other rhythm games, which throw a myriad of note combinations for the player to juggle, the entirety of Mad Rat Dead‘s story only asks that players keep time to whichever one of the joyfully jammable tunes that they’re currently listening to. There are a few times when songs change tempo here and there, meaning that players will have to be a little more careful, but this is most definitely the exception and not the norm. The game also has a combo system, meaning that more accurate playing leads to a better rank, but, thankfully, doesn’t break combos if you choose not to hit a button with a particular note.
Keeping a beat may the standard way to play, but NIS knows that rhythm game fans are masochists when it comes to their favorite genre. That’s why they added a Hard Mode to this game! While not necessary—or even possible—to use if you simply want to play through the story, Mad Rat Dead allows players to have another go at levels they’ve beaten in a more challenging way. Curiously enough, cranking up the difficulty doesn’t change levels in the slightest—instead, it changes how players move through it. Hard Mode ditches the basic tempo-keeping schtick in favor of a more standard rhythm game approach to its music. None of these changes are drastic in any way—the worst thing you’ll need to do is keep double-time on some parts—but, by making players need to actively keep watch over both the score and the level, Hard Mode truly lives up to its name.
Scurrying to Safety
Much like its other, more musically inclined half, platforming in and of itself is not difficult in Mad Rat Dead. It features all of the mechanical basics that you’d find in a New Super Mario Bros. title—plus an air dash and homing attack—and the level design is simple enough that I doubt you’d have much trouble with a no-death playthrough. That’s without the music, though; all of that easy-peasy nonsense flies straight out the window once you start pumping up the beats.
Mad Rat Dead‘s true brilliance shines when you combine both its music-based and platforming-based halves. While neither keeping time nor simple platforming are difficult on their own, things become surprisingly hard to manage when they’re together. Even when doing something like pressing buttons to the time of the music, it’s very easy to get tripped up while playing through a level, and you start making mistakes—like ground-pounding when you meant to jump forward—that would normally be embarrassingly easy to avoid.
If you’re worried that getting that coveted S+ Rank in each of Mad Rat Dead‘s levels mean playing perfectly, don’t—the game doesn’t expect perfection. Mad Rat Dead knows that you’re going to die, and it knows that you’re going to die a lot. Not only is getting the best rank in this game possible even when making mistakes, but you can (technically) die as many times as you’d like, as well! Rather than forcing players to restart the level when their movin’ and groovin’ doesn’t carry them far enough, Mad Rat Dead allows players to rewind time in order to immediately have another go at whatever part of the level was giving them problems. It doesn’t mean that you’re invincible, though; each level has its own time limit, and, unlike with Mad Rat himself, turning back time doesn’t restore the clock. So, while you may constantly be eluding death’s cold grasp, you most definitely don’t have all the time in the world!
Mad Rat Dead‘s approach isn’t one that I would have expected from such a rhythm-heavy game. Perfect timing and perfect combos have always been the foundation for almost every rhythm game out there. But, the more that I think about it, the more I appreciate how this game handled its own ranking system and level mechanics. Perfect runs are possible, but they’re much harder than perfectly playing through a traditional rhythm game—especially when it comes to things like boss levels. Instead of torturing players by expecting from them a level of perfection that they’ll most likely never achieve (not without plenty of practice, anyway), Mad Rat Dead instead chooses to strike an agreeable balance between challenging the player and making sure that they, themselves, don’t end up mad (or dead, or a rat, I suppose) by allowing them to reach perfection without actually being perfect.
Dance ‘Til You’re Dead (and then Dance Some More)
It’s not a stretch to say that NIS’ rodent-themed rhythm game might have very well created a new sub-niche of the rhythm game genre. Not only does Mad Rat Dead succeed as both a rhythm game and a platformer, but it masterfully mashes the two together—creating a new and beautiful Frankenstein’s Monster of genres in the process. It’s easy to see that NIS’s new title has a whole lot of heart.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4; Publisher: NIS America; Developer: Nippon Ichi Software; Players: 1; Released: October 30, 2020; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Mad Rat Dead given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.