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The Jak and Daxter Trilogy: Naughty Dog’s Forgotten Masterpiece?

Jak and Daxter

With the release of the critically acclaimed survival/action game The Last Of Us, video game developer Naughty Dog is being heralded as one of the greatest studios of all time. In recent history, Naughty Dog has gained widespread critical and commercial success due to the Uncharted series, with the main protagonist Nathan Drake becoming one of the iconic characters of the Playstation 3 era. Before this, the studio is mainly remembered for the Crash Bandicoot games, with the 1996 original and the subsequent sequels being fondly remembered by a certain generation of PS1 owners as childhood favourites.

Uncharted and Crash Bandicoot, then, have become the most notable releases Naughty Dog has produced. However, for some it is another series, released in between these two major games, that really represents Naughty Dog and what they are capable of. This is the Jak and Daxter series, one of the Playstation 2’s greatest trilogies and the oft-overlooked masterpiece from the Naughty Dog studios. If indeed they are the greatest game developers of modern times, it is in this series that they first showed how ambitious and truly brilliant they could be.

In the late 1990s, after finishing work on Crash Team Racing, Naughty Dog started to develop a 3D platformer for the PS2 system. This eventually became 2001’s Jak and Daxter, and was met with critical acclaim. With memorable characters, free roaming gameplay and stunning graphics, the release is considered a genre great. It is also notable for the lack of any loading screens throughout the whole game, which given the size of the world is still impressive by today’s standards.

However, it was not until 2003’s Jak II that the studio started to spread its wings. Jak II begins with the lovable duo being sent to the future, resulting in Jak being kidnapped and tortured for a number of years until Daxter can rescue him. This plot development immediately changes the tone of the series from a fun platformer to something a lot more mature. This alteration continues with the gameplay, with an added action/adventure aspect. Suddenly, Jak was a mercenary, with giant guns and craving for revenge.

Jak II was extremely ambitious, shifting the tone and style of the series in a completely new direction. It kept the free roaming elements, making it larger and more diverse, added some excellent voice acting and, importantly, a consistent and driven story. The release successfully adapted a fun 3D platformer to a dark, more adult experience, while losing none of its charm.

It is this shift in tone which represents Naughty Dog’s growth as a developer. The addition of an interesting and consistent plot and adult themes to the pre-existing quality of platforming gameplay and graphics, showed the studio as extremely capable. 2004’s Jak III consolidated this, with a more measured combination of platforming and action, with a further emphasis on racing elements.

As a trilogy, the series works in multiple ways. Clear character development is seen, plot lines alter the world in notable ways, and each game offers something new. There is no lazy rehashing of ideas, but just considered development and new gameplay aspects. The games still hold up as playable almost ten years on, as proven by the 2013 release of an HD collection.

The Jak and Daxter series is a key trilogy in understanding the history of Naughty Dog. After Jak II, they proved that they could create more serious games, while still keeping a basic charm and humour. These games represent Naughty Dog as a developer, including platforming excellence, detailed and intricate graphical capability and a compelling storyline. They are three extremely fun, interesting and captivating games, and started to move Naughty Dog towards a more considered and serious type of game.

The term “forgotten masterpiece” used in the title is not entirely true. The success of the HD remake, as well as Jak’s inclusion in the recent Playstation All-Stars shows that this series is fondly remembered. However, because of the prominence of the Crash and Uncharted series, Jak and Daxter is often forgotten as part of Naughty Dog’s growth as a studio. While it may not have the nostalgic charm of childhood classic Crash Bandicoot, nor possess the technical and storytelling excellence of the Uncharted games, the Jak games should be remembered as yet another classic series from this giant studio.

If, and it seems extremely likely, The Last of Us proves to be as successful commercially as it has been critically, the studio could soon be producing yet another series of quality games. So, it seems that it is more important than ever to promote and remember the Jak and Daxter trilogy as a masterpiece, in hope that it is not forgotten under the gaming blockbusters the studio now creates.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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10 Comments

  1. James Gregory

    Great article! I totally agree with you, Jak II in particular was a huge part of my PS2 gaming experience. It was well-scripted, the characters were memorable and, unlike many other platformers of the era, it stuck to its guns. I actually preferred it to Rachet and Clank.Yet to play the HD collection, but it’s on my list!

  2. Not that big on Lost Frontier. The Graphics of the game are very good, but aren’t up to the standard of the previous games.

    • The Lost Frontier wasn’t developed by Naughty Dog, which is probably why it was awful. The Lost Frontier was developed by High Impact, which is another great company, but they obviously didn’t put much time into that specific installment.

  3. Jessica Koroll

    I was so excited when I originally saw this article sitting in the drafts section of the newsdesk and I’m happy to see that it finally made it through. The Jak and Daxter series is a long-standing favourite of mine and I think you’re right to point out the strong role it played in developing Naughty Dog as a company. Although the series certainly isn’t as gritty and complex as their most recent releases, the mix of humour, character development, solid gameplay, and variation in environments makes it highly deserving of praise.

  4. Christopher Dibsdall

    Not such a fan of the 2nd and 3rd games, but Precursor Legacy remains one of my favorite games of all time. In terms of their masterpiece, it’s got to be Uncharted right now for me, at least until I play the Last of Us.

  5. Kevin Wong

    Great retrospective on Jak and Daxter, I love the series and the PS2-era platformers that seem to have disappeared in this console generation.

  6. Thinking here that J&D will be coming back in the spotlight now when Naughty Dog is climbing their way to the top.

  7. Ewan Wilson

    Although I fall under that umbrella of Bandicoot loving PS1 owners, I never played J&D. I’m thinking it’s worth getting a hold of to see what I missed out on!

  8. Andy Cashmore

    I remember picking up Jak II without really playing Jak and Daxter and adoring the game to pieces. Not only was the story gripping but the game play was rarely dull and rather challenging at times (I recall attempting the level where you have to fight your way through an onslaught of guards to get off the docks over and over again). My friends and I often think back to Jak II as a brilliant game and it’s good to see Naughty Dog enjoying more success with The Last of Us.

  9. Luke Martin

    I used to play Jak & Dexter all the time as a kid. Now looking back on the game, it was excellent!

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