Naughty Dog’s PS2 debut was a whole new world
This month we look back at the origins of Naughty Dog with Jak And Daxter: The Precursor Legacy
As studios go, Naughty Dog is one of the most consistent and illustrious in gaming. Yet, at the start of the PS2 era, the studio had a point to prove as it bid goodbye to Crash Bandicoot, who started its legacy. Swapping one mute lead character who runs around a variety of environments for another might have felt like a safe bet, but Jak was far more ambitious than his older brother.
Plans for the game began in 1998, when it was dubbed ‘Project X’ and had just two programmers working on it, while the rest of the studio focused on shipping Crash Team Racing. In 2000, the entire company transitioned onto Jak And Daxter, increasing the team size to 36.
The team aimed for a mix of cultures in the game’s visual design, and Andy Gavin, the game’s co-creator, told the PlayStation Blog how they went about achieving this: “We asked every Naughty Dog artist to spend a couple of days sketching concepts for the look of the game. We threw these on a giant table and picked elements we liked as a group.” This might explain where the elf ears came from.
Because this was Naughty Dog’s first game on PlayStation 2, not only was the team dealing with new hardware, but Gavin also created his own programming language called GOAL. According to him, these challenges meant it took 20 months of work before the game was hitting the standard the team aimed for. Fortunately, it was worth the hassle.
The result was one of the most impressive 3D platformers of the PS2 era. Okay, there’s no denying that Jak And Daxter’s core ideas had roots in the likes of Super Mario 64 or Banjo-Kazooie, with the sheer volume of collecting trinkets (in this case, Power Cells) you had to do. Yet what set it apart was the gorgeous – and, importantly, seamless – world Jak could explore. Despite GTA III being regarded as the start of the 3D open-world era, Jak And Daxter was the first game to possess a seamless world. It’s even got the Guinness World Record for that. It’s not quite what you’d call a modern open
Developer Naughty Dog Publisher Sony Released 2001 Format PS2 Get it PSN, eBay “THE RESULT WAS ONE OF THE MOST IMPRESSIVE 3D PLATFORMERS OF THE PLAYSTATION 2 ERA”
world, with specific levels and areas which you progress through linearly, but it was a huge step up for platformers.
There was also a surprisingly engaging story at its centre, with Jak trying to find a way to turn his friend Daxter back into a human, giving you a purpose that Crash and company never really had. On top of that, Jak was a sprightly fella who was a joy to move (the most important part of a platformer, natch) and his pal Daxter had some surprisingly complex animations as he perched on Jak’s shoulders. It felt like the step-up Naughty Dog was aiming for.
Yes, it was the sort of game that cherry-picked the best parts of others. But it moulded them into a package that was technically impressive and charming. It’s not hard to see why people quickly fell in love with the pair.
Jak and Daxter was pretty much an instant success. The duo’s first adventure was praised by reviewers (scoring a very respectable 85% from GM) and shifted roughly 3,640,000 copies worldwide.
It’s no surprise, then, that a sequel came in the form of Jak II: Renegade. Yet expectations were subverted with a Jak who could not only talk (yay), but who was also moody (err) and could turn into a dark version of himself (um). Despite the darker tones being very early noughties, it built on the foundations of the first game to still capture imaginations and paycheques. Jak 3 followed on its heels, with a welcome Mad Max vibe, while Daxter got a chance to shine in his own spin-off on PSP. And
then came Jak X Combat Racing, part of a now sadly defunct Naughty Dog tradition of racing spin-offs.
But the template Jak set – a compelling world with storytelling a cut above that of its peers – became one which Naughty Dog would closely adhere to. Even Uncharted, with its level breaks and heavily scripted set-pieces, falls under that broad category, with the writing maturing along with the themes Naughty Dog addressed in its games. Still, let’s hope one day it finds the time to give its yapping Ottsel another outing.
The game’s had shiny remasters and rereleases on PS3 (pictured) and PS4 over the years.
Samos Hagai is the Green Sage who first sends Jak on his quest.
We can think of a few people who’d be improved by turning into Ottsels.