Jak and Daxter celebrates its 20th anniversary on Dec. 3. Compared to many of the previous era’s platformers, the series has aged with real grace. In fact, when most people think of PlayStation 2-era platformers, it’s probably the one that stands out most in their minds. It spawned a well-regarded trilogy as well as several spinoffs. But amid plenty of platformers in that era, how and why has Jak and Daxter particularly stood out in fond remembrance two decades later?
The previous generation of 3D platformers, those on the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation, tended to have finicky, floaty controls and terrible cameras. After an entire generation fumbled through the foibles of creating and navigating in 3D, the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo GameCube showed huge improvements when it came to the third dimension. The implementation of DualShock and the C-Stick (instead of the C-Buttons on the Nintendo 64) allowed for a much smoother camera experience.
Jak and Daxter's Game Design
Naughty Dog, now known for its Uncharted and The Last of Us series, developed Jak and Daxter as one of the earliest PlayStation 2 titles. Codenamed Project Y, work began on it as early as 1999. Thanks to many optimizations and revisions to the engine, it had no loading or need for distance fog, ensuring a smooth play experience. Other titles released in the same era, such as Nintendo’s Super Mario Sunshine (July 2002) and even Sony’s own Ape Escape 2 (also July 2002), featured load screens and pauses during gameplay. From a technological standpoint, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was an impressive feat. Despite a rushed, somewhat troubled production to finish the game before the holidays, the team managed to pull off an enjoyable platformer. This achievement did still come at the expense of cut levels and enemy designs.
As for the game’s design, its initial foray used cartoony graphics and a vivid color palette. With a shock of yellow-green hair atop his head, oversized ears and feet, and large blue eyes, Jak had a distinct look that was both reminiscent and quite distinct from Nintendo’s Link. As the series progressed, Jak developed a considerable following after his physical and emotional growth into a rugged anti-hero. Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy and its character designs hold up. This is at least partially thanks to using stylized environments and proportions in lieu of emulating realism.
This almost artful simplicity extended to its gameplay: Jak could run, jump, and attack enemies with punches, slams, and whirling strikes. His companion, Daxter, frequently provided assistance (and sardonic advice) throughout his quest. The two traveled throughout the game world in search of Precursor Orbs, along with a number of other collectable items such as Power Cells. Jak and Daxter’s setting featured elements of sci-fi contrasted with the fantastic scenery that could be found in lava tubes and ancient lost cities. These sci-fi elements became more pronounced as the series went on, a marked contrast from many of the fantastical magitek vibes of the original.
Jak and Daxter's Legacy
The universe left behind by The Precursor Legacy includes several sequels. Jak II is an infamously difficult platformer eschewing the collectathon genre for mission-based gameplay while retaining a semi-open world. It improved on its predecessor in just about every way, from controls to writing and general gameplay. Jak II and sequel Jak 3 took on a much darker, more dystopian and cynical tone than the original’s rather standard heroic fare. This was quite typical during the early 2000s, as those who played the titles as young children grew up and began gravitating towards more mature content.
Besides the mainline games, the series produced a fair number of spinoffs and cameos. The dynamic duo made an appearance in mascot fighter PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. For the most part, these are regarded as perfectly acceptable, though not as good as the original trilogy. Jak X: Combat Racing was a racing game with, rather predictably, vehicular combat set in the same universe. Daxter takes place in the two year gap between the events of the first and second games, starring Jak's ottsel friend as the main protagonist. Many fans consider the less said about The Lost Frontier, the better, with some considering it the franchise's killer.
Compared to the cooling reception of Donkey Kong 64 and similar collectathons, Jak and Daxter aged much more gracefully. With the revival of the genre thanks to acclaimed titles such as A Hat in Time, it may be time to revive the series. The last major entry was the widely panned Jak and Daxter: The Last Frontier, after all. The PlayStation 2 and PlayStation Portable title developed by High Impact Games released in 2009, nine years into the former console’s lifespan. Besides some rereleases with updated resolutions, there hasn’t been a new Jak and Daxter mainline game in over a decade. The studio has not announced any plans regarding the series, though Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells expressed fondness for the series back in April.
Still, we have those early-mid 2000s memories. The Jak and Daxter series is enjoyable, and it might be time to break out your old PlayStation 2 and relive some of them. Now that we're moving into an era of these sixth-generation consoles definitively being considered "retro," we at TechRaptor are excited to see our games age.