The Unsung Praises of Jak and Daxter

The Unsung Praises of Jak and Daxter

In 2003 a young Northern lad on the cusp of manhood managed to save up enough pennies to buy a shiny new PS2, conveniently bundled with two games. Ratchet & Clank: Locked & Loaded, Sony’s pre-eminent mascot platformer of the day and Naughty Dog’s Jak II. Having never played the original game I was somewhat reticent to take up the sequel, but I gave the game a chance and something just clicked. While critics derided the game’s darker tone and obnoxiously angsty protagonist it was catnip to thirteen-year-old me. Existing in that perfect midpoint between the charming 3D platformers of the PS1 and the gritty open-worlds of Grand Theft Auto.

Having since consumed most of the series (Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, Jak III and racing game Jak X) I consider it one of the last great mascot platformers of its time. A colourful combination of platform challenges, vehicle sections, melee and gun combat that somehow never becomes overly complicated. However, compared to the rest of Naughty Dog’s work with Sony it barely warrants a mention in gaming history. Lacking the nostalgia value of Crash Bandicoot, the critical acclaim of The Last of Us or the relentless prominence of Uncharted.

The cause of Jak & Daxter’s status as the unfortunate middle child lies in its development. Naughty Dog had already developed one of the original PlayStation’s best-selling games with Crash Bandicoot, and in 1999, Sony set them the task of designing a new intellectual property to be the mascot of its upcoming PlayStation 2. Initially labelled ‘Project Y’ the original concept art shows the influences of the game in Disney’s animated characters and Japanese Manga. Set around the primitive but idyllic Sandover Village, with a culture built around respect for the land’s natural energies, known as ‘eco’ and reverence for the godlike figures The Precursors. In an effort to break away from the linear gameplay and minimal story of its predecessor, the world of Jak & Daxter would also be presented as open environments that the player could navigate freely.

To accomplish this designer Andy Gavin created his own programming language, GOAL, which almost all of the game’s source code was written on. GOAL allowed each environment could compile and process new information without needing the game to stop and update. The result was the rich and expansive levels of the first game; from Sandover Village to the dark and complex Spider Cave, which the player could transition across without relatively little loading times. Each level was unique in its own design and could be progressively expanded through platform challenges and puzzles. In fact, the game’s environments might be too expansive as, upon revisiting, they can be somewhat unintuitive and confusing, especially without maps or objective markers.

It was a stroke of luck then that the sequel Jak II relocated the series to the dystopian setting of Haven City after a Precursor artifact propels them into the future. Drawing inspiration from steampunk, the enclosed urban environment made it far easier for the game to funnel the player to the correct locations. The change in setting also gave the series the chance to flex its narrative muscles. In Jak & Daxter the story had been a simple affair: Dark Eco turned Daxter into an Ottsel, Jak must try to turn him back and stop the villains behind the Dark Eco. Effective, but lacking in nuance and compounded by Jak’s inability to speak. Jak II made the decision to give him a voice and personality, albeit the personality of an angry teenager. Compounded by the addition of aggressive Dark Eco powers which granted Jak his own rampage mode.

However juvenile they might seem, these changes worked because the children who’d grown up on Crash Bandicoot were becoming angry teenagers themselves (myself included). But also because the character never stopped being fun to play; Jak visibly enjoyed the carnage he and Daxter wreaked on a truly despotic Baron Praxis. Seeing him supported by a cast of similarly grey figures, from hardened resistance leaders to slimy crime bosses, gave the game an extra adolescent edge that satisfied players.

Despite strong sales and positive reviews though Jak II received some criticism for the new, darker tone. The follow-up, Jak 3, attempted to sand (no pun intended) off some of the edges; relocating to the sun-bleached wastelands outside Haven and balancing Jak’s Dark Eco powers with Light Eco that focused on defensive abilities. This was also where the storytelling hit its peak; having evolved from Jak’s personal journey of helping Daxter to save Haven City and eventually the entire planet. Also revealing Jak’s origin as the time-displaced son of Damas, Haven’s noble founder who was betrayed by Praxis. Which laid out in its entirety make it perhaps the most story-dense of any of Naughty Dog’s works. 

The series continued in minor forms after the climax of Jak 3, the mandatory racing game Jak X, a Daxter spin-off on the PlayStation Portable with all the relevance that that entails. In 2009 a final instalment titled Jak & Daxter: The Lost Frontier was released for PSP and PS2, however, you’ll note that this was a full three years after the release of the PlayStation 3. The game received mixed reviews at best and was not included in any of the collections released for PS3 or PS4. Save for an obligatory appearance in PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale the series was effectively done, though rumours and concept art have confirmed that a reboot is never off the table.

The question all this raises then is: if the games were good and sold well, why does the series remain the also-ran of Naughty Dog’s library? The concept was appealing and the software behind it was almost innovative for the time. However, while Jak & Daxter did a lot of things well it never did one single thing extremely well. It merely improved on things already trialled in existing games: the open-world platforming of Banjo-Kazooie, the weapon variety of Ratchet and Clank, the anarchic racing of Mario Kart. Jak & Daxter attempted to do everything and as a result, focused on nothing.

It could also be that Jak & Daxter came about in the dying days of the Mascot Platformer. By the turn of the millennium 3D graphics had been established as all but essential to gameplay and despite the best efforts of Mario, Sonic, Crash and countless others, 3D platforming just didn’t work. The Precursor Legacy even indicates this with camera controls jankier than any game with analogue sticks should be. A quick scan of the most popular games on the PS2 reveals a great deal of variety from Resident Evil 4, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and God of War. However, mascot platformers are almost entirely absent, the exception being Ratchet & Clank which could be said to have overshadowed Jak entirely. PS2 gamers were growing up and demanding that the medium grow up with them. With more story and violence than was expected of jumping simulators with adorable animals. 

However just as serendipity doomed Jak & Daxter, it is also the reason why I took to it so strongly. As mentioned, I was around thirteen when I first played Jak II, the perfect age to enjoy its attempts at a dark and edgy tone. The concept of an open-world city to freely navigate was exciting, especially as Haven City proved far more accessible than the vast, intimidating environments of Grand Theft Auto. Jak II was the perfect game for acclimatising a gamer my age away from mascot platformers and into the open-worlds that would dominate gaming. Proof that while we forget the also-rans they serve an essential purpose, training gamers to take on the new and preparing them for the future. 

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