With the first four Jak and Daxter games coming to PS4 as PS2 Classics, it’s an amazing chance to revisit some of the greatest and most underappreciated games of that era. Not only were the Jak and Daxter games extremely good, they represent an important piece of gaming history. This is a series of games from developer Naughty Dog, which went on to create the critically acclaimed The Last of Us and entire Uncharted series. Playing these games is crucial to understanding Naughty Dog and the games the studio has gone on to create.
If you missed out on Jak and Daxter on the PS2, their arrival on the PS4 is a great way to catch up. If you love Uncharted, or even Crash Bandicoot, or want a great slice of Naughty Dog gaming action, Jak and Daxter needs to be on your radar. And here’s why:
Naughty Dog’s transition
From colorful action adventure
Naughty Dog began work on the first game, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, right after Crash Bandicoot: Warped, alongside Crash Team Racing. Armed with the new PS2 hardware, larger team sizes and a bigger budget, they set about creating a much more ambitious game. Rather than the level-based structure of Crash Bandicoot, this new series would start with a seamless open world with a narrative woven throughout.
But it wouldn’t stray too far visually from Crash Bandicoot at this stage. These were still very much the same developers, so it was still a colorful action adventure game. However, the source material the Jak and Daxter series took inspiration from was very different. Their artists were inspired by both Disney cartoons and Japanese anime, and Jak was given an African name to give it a broader, more global appeal.
For the gameplay, it’s not hard to see where The Precursor Legacy takes inspiration from. Jak has a move set very similar to Crash but Jak uses his abilities to explore a free-roam environment. This meant that The Precursor Legacy plays a lot like several N64 platformers, including the likes of Donkey Kong Country, Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie .
To gritty dystopian setting
The Precursor Legacy was a smash hit for sales and beloved by critics, but the gaming world was changing. With ageing demographics and gritty photorealism becoming the norm in games, Naughty Dog believed it best to evolve or die. Furthermore, right before The Precursor Legacy finished, the Naughty Dog developers began to hype over a very recent release: Grand Theft Auto III. This gave the team ideas to develop a game similar in scope, which made them push for a game much more ambitious. Jak II, therefore, was now set in a dystopian futuristic Haven City, in which Jak was a rogue who robbed flying cars (or zoomers) and took out guards with his Morph Gun. Despite how smooth this transition was made in the narrative and gameplay, it was impossible for the differences between the games to not be a little jarring.
The Jak games weren’t just getting grittier, the narrative was evolving too, getting much deeper and more involved. The story in Jak II was told through a series of very well animated cutscenes rendered in-engine. Heroes have more morally grey areas, villains have clearer motivations, and both have far more lines of dialogue than The Precursor Legacy did. Naughty Dog had already created a coherent setting, but they began to fill it with rich lore and a deep narrative.
This continued with Jak 3, and even their kart racer Jak X: Combat Racing featured a very involving narrative. The shift marks Naughty Dog changing with the time and shows very clearly how a developer can go from making Crash Bandicoot to Uncharted. Naughty Dog is well known to this day for its storytelling, particularly with The Last of Us, and for us, it all started with Jak II.
Defining an era
More than anything, the Jak and Daxter series and its transition showcases not just Naughty Dog’s history, but that of the era as a whole. The first Jak and Daxter was released right at the tail end of the life for many platformers and many associate it with its sister franchises Ratchet & Clank and Sly Cooper, which were well-known as the three main “platforming mascots” of the PlayStation.
Platformers in this gaming era were as popular as first-person shooters and open world RPGs are today. This trend gradually died as the demographics changed, and all the hype was around God of War and Grand Theft Auto.
Ahead of their time
The Jak and Daxter series pushed the technical boundaries too, pushing the PS2 to its limits. Naughty Dog wrote its own programming language (GOAL) specifically to develop the games with and even made use of the PS2’s own PSOne processor (designed for backwards compatibility) just to squeeze more power out of the console.
All of this may have made it extremely hard to port to PS3, but allowed Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy to become the first game to feature a seamless world with no load screens. Not to mention, Jak II received an award for the most number of cutscenes in a game, which was incredibly groundbreaking at the time.
Will it come back?
The current gaming climate and with the PS2 Classics arriving on Ps4, it seems there’s never been a better time for a brand new Jak and Daxter title.
Firstly, we see platformers making a resurgence. The Shovel Knight series is one huge nostalgia-fest for SNES era platformers, merging the fun bits from many games of the time. Yooka-Laylee is a nostalgia-trip made by former Banjo-Kazooie developers (a game that heavily inspired the first Jak). Successful Kickstarter campaigns have proven that the demand for these games is higher than anticipated, even if the demand mostly comes from a an older gaming fanbase. Whether platformers can gain a new audience (given the pre-teen to teenage gamers that were the target demographic of platformers now game on tablet rather than console) is another question, but the nostalgia-hungry fans are clearly large enough in number to turn a profit.
Another perfect example of a game of its type doing extremely well? The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It’s on track to become the biggest game of the year, with 10/10s from most outlets, and has no doubt played a part in the Switch’s very strong start. Naughty Dog has achieved similar things with The Last of Us, so maybe it’s their turn to compete with that. At a time when a colorful, open world action adventure game about a protagonist with pointy ears uncovering ancient ruins is doing so well, is it not time for Naughty Dog to bring out Jak again?
One can only hope. Until then, it’s very worth checking these PS2 Classics out once they hit the PlayStation Store. The PS4 Classics being released this year are as follows: Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, Jak II, and Jak 3, along with Jak X: Combat Racing.