Jak and Daxter Retrospective

Believe it or not, there was a time before Uncharted was the flagship series of Naughty Dog studios. There was a time even before The Last of Us made everyone on the planet collectively weep. A time when Crash Bandicoot had fulfilled its purpose and was being left by its original creators in the bygone era of the Playstation One. That time, my friends, was a magical time for me, because it was when Naughty Dog were busy creating one of my favourite game series of all time. It was the series that would take them from the realm of simple platformers into games that swore, blew things up, and starred genetically-altered murder-machines/ heroes. That series was Jak and Daxter.

For reference, it looked like this.

For reference, it looked like this.

The entire series is made up of the bright, colourful, cartoonishly appealing visuals you see above and the first game definitely plays up to that image. It’s a pretty classic story. Teenagers are told they should never, ever travel to a specific place and immediately proceed to travel there. While busy doing Things Not Allowed, Jak, the silent hero of the series, accidentally knocks his friend Daxter into a pit of dark eco, changing him into an ottsel (a weird cross between an otter and a weasel). Jak sets off on a journey across the known world to try to turn his friend back, only to uncover a plot to undo creation and finding that the two of them are the only ones capable of stopping it. Truly it is a tale as old as time.

Speaking of time, the sequel, Jak II: Renegade, involves everyone’s favourite trope – Time Travel Shenanigans! You see, Jak and his friends find themselves flung through a terrifying portal and stranded in a strange, unwelcoming city in the opening cutscene. Jak is captured, tortured and experimented on for several years by the villainous Baron Praxis until Daxter, still in ottsel form, manages to rescue him. His first words upon release and, indeed, the entire series?

"I'm going to kill Praxis"

“I’m going to kill Praxis”

Yeah. Jak II gets dark. Not only does the main character finally find his voice, but he starts down a path of vengeance against the one who tortured him for over two years. It was a sharp turn for the series, which had, up to that point been almost Saturday Morning Cartoon worthy in its innocence. Suddenly the main character had a goatee (the ultimate mark of a bad boy), an arsenal of guns, and transformed into a murderous nightmare (a murdermare?) now and then thanks to his time in Praxis’ dungeon. Once again, this seemingly simple quest for revenge leads the heroes down a path toward saving the world from a swarm of vicious insect-like monsters with glowing gems in their heads. Along the way, we encounter a cast of characters that includes the broody rebellion leader, the broody and hot daughter of your sworn enemy who is helping said rebellion (and presumably banging said leader), and a talking monkeet (parakeet and monkey hybrid. Keep up, folks). It is a decidedly more adult story, though it still makes time for a good, old fashioned fart joke now and then.

What makes the game so good is that it managed to become incredibly dark at times, with themes like betrayal, overcoming trauma, and the desire for revenge driving good people to do very bad things, while still keeping the bright and colourful aesthetic that the first game established. Bright colours everywhere. Almost cartoonish character designs. No matter how serious the story got, it was always told through a very innocent looking medium, which, in a way, made it work that much better. The contrast between the dark subject matter and the bright visuals made both feel that much more effective and surreal.

That is probably why I have such fond memories of the series. To switch the tone of a series so drastically, especially when the first instalment sold reasonably well, was a very brave move. True, part of the motivation probably came down to the fact that, shortly after the first game was released, something called Grand Theft Auto III came out and made games like that seem downright dated. Suddenly, swearing, killing, and stealing everything was not only acceptable but kind of expected. Innocent games like Jak and Daxter weren’t in style anymore. Heroes were out and anti-heroes were in.

Every few years, I hear that Naughty Dog is thinking of returning to Jak and Daxter. Before The Last of Us, we saw some new concept art. Before Uncharted 4, rumours spread of a potential reboot. There is a part of me that gets excited at this prospect. After all, I wouldn’t have spent the past 800 words writing about how much I enjoy the series if I didn’t, you know, enjoy it. But as much as I love the way it blends comedy and action and balances the dark themes with a simple art style, I’m also a huge fan of stories that end. That reach a satisfying climax and then allow us to go on with our lives. The story has been told.

There is a reason why Naughty Dog are one of my favourite game companies at the moment. It’s not just because they make stellar games that I trust to give me my money’s worth on launch day. It’s because, unlike most companies who find something that works and then never, ever move on (Ubisoft, Square Enix, Bungie, and so many others), Naughty Dog are willing to just let the story come to a close and then find a new series to make.

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About Trent Cannon
An American trying to infiltrate and understand English society, Trent is a writer of novels and player of games. He has a serious addiction to JRPGs, the weirder the better, and anything that keeps him distracted from work.