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The Original Jak & Daxter Is By Far Naughty Dog's Biggest Accomplishment To Date

The Original Jak & Daxter Is By Far Naughty Dog's Biggest Accomplishment To Date

Naughty Dog have always been trailblazers.

Despite having several titles under their belt prior, it wasn’t until the release of 1996’s Crash Bandicoot that Naughty Dog started to gain much prominence within the gaming industry. It was a critically acclaimed 6.8 million seller, with the titular marsupial earning the prestigious title of being PlayStation’s first true mascot, yet in comparison to Nintendo’s foray into 3D platforming with the landmark Super Mario 64, Crash’s debut felt almost archaic. Its presentation may have been a cut above most early 3D titles, but it played like a much more conservative transition into the third dimension.

Releasing on the PlayStation 2, the following console generation’s Jak and Daxter: The Precursory Legacy would be Naughty Dog’s first truly exemplary title, with the developer not only ripping some pages from Super Mario 64’s playbook, but utilising ambitious game design in tandem with more dynamic technology. This resulted in a product greater than anything the studio had previously accomplished.

Structurally, Jak and Daxter plays out similarly to Super Mario 64: there’s numerous levels connected by hub areas, each with collectibles to find in order to progress through the game. Where the former differentiates itself, is with how it frames each of these areas. Unlike most 3D platformers - which are more focused on ferrying the player to disjointed levels without much concern for worldbuilding - Jak marries the two through a cohesive, interconnected world that’s easy to navigate. There are three distinct hub areas, each connected seamlessly through their own linear pathways which branch into more traditional platforming levels. The player doesn’t hop through a painting to get to Sentinel Beach - they walk there from Sandover Village. A teleporter isn’t what gets players from the Volcanic Crater to the Snowy Mountains, but instead it’s a lift that would have likely been used by miners in the years prior.    

What makes this all work is the absence of loading screens. The longest the player will be taken away from the action is through the fast travel portals that are dotted around to allow quick access to previous areas. And even then, it’s only a second-long cut to black before jumping right back into the action. It’s not just a technically impressive feat for an early PlayStation 2 title, allowing Naughty Dog to flex its programming proficiency that it’s become known for, but it’s something that authentically aids the experience beyond superficial presentational benefits. Scaling to a high altitude in one level, only to see glimpses of other explorable areas on the horizon, isn’t just a nice touch, but a way to immerse the player into the world and it gives the title a real sense of a tangible, persisting atmosphere.

Jak & Daxter /
Naughty Dog

All of this is achieved without ever sacrificing the necessary variety needed to keep exploration and platforming exciting. I’ve already mentioned a few areas, and even those more generic settings (such as the ice level, or the lava world) often collide with the technological undertones that are pervasive throughout the world. Every level in the game features at least some of the eponymous Precursor’s otherworldly architecture, and it emboldens the universe with an inspired flavour that was missing from the likes of Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot trilogy, and plenty of other 3D mascot platformers. In some locations, the game leans on this unique technology entirely, leading to some of the more memorable levels in the game. It even gets as wild as giving players a large, once heavily populated, underwater citadel to explore, six whole years before BioShock’s Rapture came onto the scene.

Naughty Dog’s technical prowess also extended to the core of the gameplay itself, with movement and environmental interactions being crammed with so many minor details that enhance the moment-to-moment gameplay. For my money, Jak and Daxter may be the most satisfying characters to control in a 3D platformer, due in part to how they animate. For each punch, jump, and spin, their bodies briefly contort for a few frames to give their actions exaggerated presence, before quickly snapping back into place like a rubber band. It’s an odd juxtaposition of sharp and silly that works to a great effect, and the natural inertia of Jak’s shifting weight as he bounces around from point-to-point culminates in characters that never feel sloppy or awkward.

The reactive nature of different objects also helped breath an extra layer of life into the world. In a recent PlayStation.Blog post celebrating the game’s 20th anniversary, Charlotte Francis, senior technical artist at Naughty Dog, recalls the excitement of the minor addition of bridge physics. “We were just jumping up and down on the bridge and marveling about how it reacted to Jak jumping on it.” By today’s standards it’s no big deal, and a lack of these kinds of physics in a big budget platformer would probably be more noteworthy than their inclusion, but it shows the evolution that Naughty Dog was undergoing at the time of Jak and Daxter’s launch, with the team’s remarkable obsession with minor details contributing to a greater sum.

To this day, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy is somewhat of a marvel. It controls just as well as any other 3D platformer on the market, its sense of immersion is arguably unmatched within the genre due in part to its worldbuilding, and it’s taken the new generation consoles to make a lack of loading screens a ubiquitous feature across gaming. Naughty Dog may have had its first taste of success years prior to this release, but Jak and Daxter was the first time the developer felt truly ahead of the curve.

Featured Image Credit: Naughty Dog

Topics: Naughty Dog, The Last Of Us, Crash Bandicoot