I don’t know how and I don’t know when, but somewhere over the last decade, publishers decided that mascot platformers were a thing of the past. Nevermind that Mario still sells gangbusters based on every game being a great platformer, nevermind that the likes of Crash Bandicoot, Spyro The Dragon and Sonic The Hedgehog have proven endurance records greater than that of almost all of gaming’s action heroes – mascot platformers were simply made redundant on the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. There were valiant efforts, sure – Little Big Planet‘s Sackboy enjoyed a quaint half-life under the spotlight – but if someone actually wanted an adventure game that didn’t require a boatload of shooty bang and a protagonist ripped out of (or ripped off of, depending on your levels of cynicism), one had to either a) own a Nintendo console to play the Mario games there, or b) buy the remasters of the platformers from the previous generation and play those.
Thankfully, many of the greatest hits of the Playstation 2 are actually absolutely incredible, so replaying them isn’t actually that much of a chore. And one of the finest platformers ever was actually an early release on the system; Jak and Daxter. Naughty Dog’s free-roaming successor to Crash Bandicoot has a very special place in my heart as it was the first PS2 game I ever bought for myself. I was given The Mummy Returns with the console for Christmas (a good try to play to my interests, but even at a young age I knew that was bollocks), but an Xtra-Vision voucher from an aunt meant I could get something that really tickled my sense of wonder. Jak and Daxter was bought on St. Stephen’s Day and the next two weeks were me playing that game religiously.
The funny thing is, since the Jak trilogy, Ratchet and Clank trilogy and the Sly Cooper trilogy (Playstation 2’s library has it ALL), the well has all but dried up for slightly saccharine, cartoon-y platformers with action elements. So revisiting Jak and Daxter wasn’t even something I completely intended on doing throughout my years, but everytime I wanted a free-roam jaunt through a fantasy land without having to worry about stats or character development, Jak and his fine furry friend were he go-to out of necessity. It’s more fantasy than Ratchet and Clank and more platform-y than Sly Cooper, so if ever I want to switch off and have a jump around with some magical powers, it’s all about Jak and Daxter.
During my most recent play-through (which ended only recently as you can above), I came to the conclusion that it might be one of the best platformers, well, ever. Naturally, as I’ve gotten older, the design seams become more glaring as my eye for how games are made and how they and the player interact improves. Jak and Daxter is not a perfect game, but to think it came out 14 years ago and it still holds up at all and competes with the best of them makes it something very special.
Naughty Dog had finally made the jump to full 3D on the Playstation 2, despite Spyro having already done it on the Playstation 1. Instead of levels, Jak explores areas which have a certain amount of objectives to accomplish. Each environment is slightly different, with swamps and caves and forests and mountains covered – the usual selection of adventuring templates. What makes Jak and Daxter so fascinating from an exploration perspective is that the transitions between these environments is seamless almost through-out the entire game.
Loading new sections nowadays in-game isn’t a new idea, Call of Duty does it all the time with corridors of enemies used to distract you while the game makes sure the next warzone is ready to go when you get there, but Jak and Daxter was doing similar in a much less obvious way. Every area will have a slight climb or set of platforms to traverse to get to and its during these traversals that the new expanse is being created. There’s a value put on how the player flows through it, only using transport elements when absolutely necessary (like when getting to the top of a mountain). The game doesn’t want you to know that it’s working to lay the path out in front of you, but it also doesn’t want to take you away from the gameplay either.
Jak’s movement is very smooth as well. His arsenal of attacks are very satisfying to pull off and stringing together bunch of lurker kills before nailing a tricky set of platforms is a very rewarding process. The spin-kick and dive punch are both weighted with the controller to give a satisfying oomph when they land and a crude joy when they fail. Many of the mechanics obviously have their roots in Crash, indeed so do many of the sounds, but Jak and Daxter see’s the toolset brought to it’s logical conclusion, a full realization of what they had in mind.
With so much coming from Crash Bandicoot, it’s a wonder as to why the game simply wasn’t another instalment for Crash himself. Well, the actual answer is probably something political to do with licenses, sales and publishing rights etc. but I also believe it has to do with how Jak and Daxter is written. The lore of Jak and Daxter is rich with lots of emphasis on the history of the Precursors who populated the land long before any of the main characters are alive. Learning about this mythology and the eco and the land itself is a journey in itself that the game, rightly, leaves a mystery for practically the entire series. But creating that mythos is something that wouldn’t have been possible with Crash as it was already so established, so in creating Jak and Daxter, Naughty Dog could take a more active role in creating a world that they could define for the long-term, rather than the short.
Jak and Daxter is kind of game that won’t get talked about like its peers, but very much deserves the praise and attention. It set standards, was part of a generation’s gateway into games and still holds up, something many games its age really don’t. Given that Yooka-Laylee has done so well on Kickstarter, perhaps we’ll see a resurgence in lovely, fun platformers. If not, trust me, this is still worth your time.