After the innocence of Crash Bandicoot’s ‘collect everything in this room before moving on to the next one‘ gameplay, and before the epic globe-trotting of Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake, we had the blissful adolescence of the Jak and Daxter series on the PS2.
It’s a good way to guage the development of Naughty Dog. Crash was the learning curve in their early years as a PSOne developer, a time spent learning all of the tricks they would later refine into something bigger. Uncharted was the journey into adulthood, peaking in middle age with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, maturing well in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.
Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy is the teenage equivalent; the result of a developer just starting to realise their potential and using it without a care for the more mature issues and responsibilities in life.
Naughty Dog took what they had spent four years learning on Bandicoot and expanded the ‘collect everything‘ principle into a vast, free-flowing environment that lived and breathed independent of the player’s actions. Day would transition into night. Tides would alternate between high and low. Such elemental behavoural patterns were unheard of for platformers at that time.
Elements played a large part in the game, no two levels being the same, as you travelled from lush forests bathed in sunlight to flooded ruins in the midst of a rainstorm to the depths of an underground volcano.
Wisely, though, they didn’t get ahead of themselves by planning an expansive plot to go with the beautiful game world, instead giving players an expanded version of what they already knew and loved from previous platforming experiences. You take control of young Jak and his sidekick Daxter, the latter having fallen into a pool of ominous ‘Dark Eco’ and been transformed into a rodent. The only way to restore him to his former self is to visit the Dark Eco sage, who is conveniently on the opposite side of the world map, with 100 collectible power cells standing between you and your ultimate destination.
Eco is the source of everything in the game. Green, red, blue and yellow correspond to earth, fire, water and air respectively, leading you to many diverse parts of the (in-game) world; some bright and uplifting, some damp and depressing. Emotion seeps from the game’s atmosphere thanks to brilliant cartoonish visuals and a realistic physics engine.
It was a watershed moment for platformers. Ratchet and Clank would change everything one year later with its introduction of weaponry into the genre, making Jak and Daxter the last (and also the greatest) of its older platforming kind. This is what makes the game a classic; not any great gameplay innovations or story revelations. It is simplicity itself. It didn’t create a new form; rather, it mastered the original one. It became a 3-D Mario, Sonic and Zelda all rolled into one, the pinnacle that we should look to when inspecting the remnants of a once playful generation that has since been handed a machine gun and told to fight for the action-adventure genre like some kind of captive child soldier.
9 / 10.