The Evolution of Naughty Dog, Part 2: Jak and Daxter

As we discussed last time, Crash Bandicoot was a much-needed mascot for PlayStation during the nineties. He was a colourful inclusion, world renowned for his zany antics, absurd villains and insatiability for saving the day through any number of ridiculous situations.

However, developer Naughty Dog were only signed on to produce three Crash Bandicoot games (which later expanded to four, with the release of the spin-off kart racing game, Crash Team Racing, being their swansong), and by early 1999, the ambitious team already had their sights set on the upcoming PlayStation 2 console.

With their relationship with Universal Interactive about to come to an end, Naughty Dog began development on a brand-new platformer, codenamed Project Y, in January 1999. The developer initially assigned only two programmers to work on the franchise, as the rest of the studio were preoccupied with finishing up development on the aforementioned Crash Team Racing.

Early Project Y concept art shows Naughty Dog’s clear Disney and manga influences.

Following the launch of CTR and the Japanese release of the PS2 in early 2000, the full team turned their attention to the first game in the new series, which would soon come to be known as Jak and Daxter.

With the budget of the first game in the series, The Precursor Legacy, reaching around $14 million, Naughty Dog soon came to the realisation that being an independent developer on the next-generation of gaming consoles was not going to be a financially viable option going forward. As a result, the company was sold to Sony during pre-production of The Precursor Legacy, and became an official part of the Sony Computer Entertainment family.

Published as a first-party exclusive, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy eventually arrived on the PS2 in December 2001, after a nearly three-year development cycle. Similarities crossed over between platforms and the beloved Crash Bandicoot series, but this time, everything was touted as being bigger, better and deeper than ever before.

The new hero of this series was Jak, a spiky haired, elf-like teenager with a passion for speed. He may have shared some of Crash’s attributes in The Precursor Legacy: his spinning, double jumping and lack of a distinct voice, but soon became a character that had his own life, thoughts and feelings through progressions in successive games.

Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy retained much of Crash Bandicoot’s vibrant, colourful art style.

He was no longer a walking caricature; he was an expressive young individual. This had been done through the inclusion of a gravelly, no-nonsense voice in the second game (essentially his best Solid Snake impression), allowing Naughty Dog to give him more complexity, and to provide investment within the protagonist to progress the story in more satisfying ways across the trilogy. The absence of a voice in the first game had been utilized to allow to player to imprint their own persona upon Jak; he was a blank canvas ripe for empathy.

One character that refused to remain voiceless was Jak’s best friend and sidekick, Daxter. Quietness was an unknown force to this loud-mouthed ottsel. While Naughty Dog had given Crash some sidekicks per se, such as Coco and Aku Aku, none had been as fleshed out as Daxter; they were simply friendly faces that provided information throughout Crash’s journey.

Daxter was the central plot point of The Precursor Legacy, as Jak set out on his adventure because of his friend’s accidental transformation into an orange-furred creature. Not only that, but it is worth arguing that Daxter was the true hero of their first foray; his choice in the finale was as difficult as it was tragic. He chose to stay in his bestial state, in order to save the land from the forces of a mysterious power source known as Dark Eco. He was certainly a character of silly and grouchy demeanour, but showed that selflessness is the epitome of heroism.

Although Jak and Daxter were able to grab the most screen time, that doesn’t mean that their unusual world was devoid of other inhabitants. The first game’s starting area, Sandover Village, was evidence enough of the rich ecosystem that had been created. Multiple houses could be found there, along with a variety of colourful citizens with their own quirks and back stories. The detail given to the town was astounding: distinct qualities were added to each home; windmills provided a feasible power source for an ecologically conscious society; coastal and rural roots were heavily emphasised through farms and fishing supplies.

Sandover Village.

The use of more detailed environments, along with the evidence of a Precursor civilisation, allowed Naughty Dog to create a game that was deep in lore; it was up to the player to find nuggets of this history through the numerous side quests available.

These missions were given to Jak by various characters throughout his world, providing a deeper mission structure than the linear levels of Crash Bandicoot, and adding personality to each and every one of its residents. Despite many of the characters being the same species as Jak, they were all diverse in any number of ways. The sages (magical beings that controlled a specific colour of Eco) had individual styles, the mayor had the aura of an unsure political figure, the villains of the piece, Gol and Maia, were threats of untold menace. Expanding upon characters through quests helped to build a vibrant and intriguing world that would continue well into future instalments.

Naughty Dog were able to increase the vibrancy of the game not only through its characters, but through its environments as well. The emphasis on lush foliage and sunny tropics, from the Crash series, had been transferred across platforms, but this time, the islands available for exploration were much larger, and were presented in an open-world 3D structure.

The expansiveness of The Precursor Legacy was an unbelievable step away from the corridor-like levels of Crash, and with no loading screens between areas, travelling truly felt like an epic journey. Although the game began with a number of beaches, rainforests and sparkling lagoons to explore (swimming included this time), these zones quickly developed into levels with much more visual variation, each of which was highly detailed and with its own unique tone.

Snowy Mountain.

There were prehistoric vistas, lava-filled craters, ancient underwater cities, murky swamps and snowy mountaintops – clearly the lush variety of environments had been carried over from Crash 3. But these were not merely static lands populated by enemies and collectibles; they were full of little details that made the experience all that more enriching. Examples of this could be found within even the most mundane of creations: the slippery nature of icy pathways, the swaying of rope bridges when crossed, the swimming of fish amongst clear rivers, the inclusion of a day and night cycle. These may only be minute details strewn throughout a massive world, but they went a long way towards the establishment of a game that focused on realistic, as well as imaginative, qualities.

The large size of this fantastical landscape then meant that a number of futuristic vehicles were needed for quick traversal across the terrain. Crash Bandicoot may have had a friendly dinosaur on hand for a jaunt through some tar-soaked lava pits, but this wouldn’t cut it for Jak; an array of hover bikes were his raison d’être. They allowed him to speed from one area to another in no time at all, and in Jak II, he was able to pull out his JET-board at will to zoom around Haven City and its neighbouring zones. Jak 3 expanded upon vehicle usage even further, as dune buggies became a necessity in navigating the game’s hazardous wasteland.

Jak II’s sudden development of Jak from a wide-eyed, adventurous teen into an angry, tortured young man (not to mention his Dark Eco-driven alter-ego) was a radical shift for the series. The tragic loss of Jak’s innocence was mirrored by the transformation the world had undergone: beautiful forests, sparkling beaches and charming towns gave way to a dirty sardine-can metropolis of labyrinthine slums, strip mines, fascist police and a towering monolithic palace at the centre of it all. Weaponry, introduced to the franchise for the first time, became a necessity for survival. Growing up is no picnic.

The series grew notably darker as it progressed.

Jak 3 was where the titular character actually began to mature, becoming a kind of redemptive phoenix rising from the ashes. Exiled by those he tried to help, Jak was understandably upset, but the emergence of a new threat to the world eventually stirred him to action (absorbing a whole lot of Light Eco helped balance out his anger too). No longer was he cutting a bloody swathe to exact vengeance; he fought because it needed to be done. His gradual acquisition of the legendary warrior Mar’s armour visually represents this change within him, as he goes from selfish avenger to selfless protector.

The success of Jak and Daxter only grew as the trilogy developed from a humble platformer into a full-blown epic adventure. The character roster began to expand, and the titular hero evolved deeply, as he was thrown mercilessly into action, exploration and maturation. Naughty Dog completed their work on the franchise with the release of spinoff racer Jak X in 2005, but that did not end their desire to craft wonderful games with high-stakes concepts. This marked the beginning of their own journey towards sophistication; a journey that would hurl Naughty Dog into the stratosphere in terms of their critical appeal and mainstream reach. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune would become their very own ‘El Goddamn Dorado’.