Dozens of video games are released every year, and invariably a lot of the best ones are released around the same time of year. It can be difficult to keep up with all of the noteworthy games that are worth your time (especially if you keep going back to your love-hate relationship with World of Warcraft). Unfortunately, you can’t play every game, as ambitious and admirable a pursuit that may be, and to be fair, not all of them are worth playing. This column provides a weekly retrospective about a video game that might have slipped by you, but is nonetheless worth a retroactive playthrough.
Ah, 2001. Back before Facebook or even MySpace, the sixth generation of gaming consoles was fresh-faced and new, and there were no debates over IP authorship regarding the ending of certain trilogies. Naughty Dog, the developer who would later make the Uncharted series, had just been acquired by Sony after wrapping up their work on the Crash Bandicoot games. In December, Naughty Dog launched their new franchise: a 3D action/platformer that would be for the PS2 what Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie were for the Nintendo 64. While Jak & Daxter did not reinvent the genre, everything the game did within that genre, it did very well, making it, as well as its sequels, well worth playing.
I first learned of the game after receiving a demo disc in the mail (back before digital distribution was all the rage). As I had grown up with the Crash games and was familiar with Naughty Dog, I was intrigued. The opening cut-scene introduced me to a boy named Jak and his sidekick Daxter. During an act of mischievous disobedience, the duo stumble across a secret army of creatures called Lurkers, and Daxter is transformed into a small orange ottsel (otter/weasel) after falling into a pool of Dark Eco. The duo then set out to find the sage of Dark Eco who would know more about the mysterious Lurkers and might even have the knowledge to turn Daxter back.
Eco (Not that, no not this either) is a mysterious essence that has a variety of effects, depending on its color. In the game, different types of Eco will grant you additional abilities, and in typical action/platformer fashion, each subsequent area of the game is unlocked by navigating platforming sections, completing puzzles, and finishing boss fights. Also in keeping with the genre, each level has a distinct theme (jungle, snow, volcano), and gameplay focuses on exploration and item collection. However, collection of the mysterious Precursor Orbs and Power Cells is integrated within the story and game world, serving as more than just Macguffins.
The game’s bright and colorful world is presented in a stylized manner, almost looking like a cartoon, and the graphics, animations, and environments all look great for their time. And while the fuzzy sidekick’s wisecracks after each death can get a little wearying, the various characters you meet in the game world are each quirky and amusing in their own way.
Most notable, however, is the world’s seamlessness. The game’s engine underwent nearly three years of tweaking and optimization, resulting in a long draw distance free of fogging and absolutely no load time in between levels. Consequently, there is no downtime between the gameplay and the cutscenes, a cinematic quality that Naughty Dog would perfect in their subsequent franchise a few years later. Because of these flowing transitions, the player is always immersed in the game, making it harder to pick a stopping point within the interconnected world.
And besides, the main villain is voiced by Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, so what’s not to like?
The Precursor Legacy sold around two million copies worldwide, prompting Naughty Dog to develop an trilogy. Taking on a slightly darker, more mature tone, the sequels further explore the game world and Jak is much more developed as a character. In these regards, the sequels are even better than the original, and equally worth playing, especially since an HD collection of the entire trilogy was released in February, so anyone who missed this gem the first time around can now enjoy it in 720p.