Monday, February 1, 2016

Jak and Daxter Retrospective: A Masterful Execution of 3D Platforming

Everything about this game was amazing.

First, let's look at Naughty Dog's previous output. At the time, their only other significant series was Crash Bandicoot, the highly regarded PSX platformer. Crash was full of character and style, and was known for its airtight gameplay. Jak took the foundations of Crash and ran with them, while adding in a crucial element most, if not all other platformers of the time lacked: a cohesive and comprehensive plot. It's not very sophisticated, but it's a charming and captivating story remnicent of a Disney or Pixar film. Your best friend, Daxter,

Daxter as a human.
falls into a vat of "dark eco" and is mysteriously transformed into an "ottsel"

Daxter transformed.
And it's up to you to journey "far, far to the north" in order to seek out the lost sage Gol's advice on how to change him back. It's simple, it's effective, and it provides reason for the journey that Jak and Daxter undertake. It works on several levels - it gets you interested in Jak and Daxter's world, it gives you an ethos for your journey in curing Daxter, and it lays out breadcrumbs for future character introductions and plot points in seeking out the sage of the north. But the real strength of Jak and Daxter isn't in its story, but rather its world and atmosphere. Lost ruins of an ancient civilization, The Precursors, dot the landscape, and the world's inhabitants still wonder what that civilization was like and what could have caused it to fall.

The Precursors and their advanced tech are omnipresent throughout the trilogy, with their "power cells" being a primary source of energy and the enigmatic precursor orbs being used as a valuable commodity.
Their influence is everywhere. Present tech seems to be based on old Precursor tech, at least to an extent, as power cells seem to power everything from basic windmills to hoverbikes. There are lost underwater cities that have been abandoned for reasons nobody can explain. Their ruins are found even in the remote, snowy mountaintops of the world, with several of the game's objectives involving reactivating ancient Precursor tech. The sense of mystique The Precursors add to the game's atmosphere is immensely appealing. It's apparent that Naughty Dog took the fusion of a tribal world with advanced technology from Crash Bandicoot and evolved it into a world with a story and a history.

Precursor ruins scattered throughout Precursor Basin, outside of Rock Village.
Then there's the level design. There's about three hub worlds in the game, clearly aping the Mario 64 Castle, but each hub world has branching levels that are very organically connected to its center. Sandover village, the rural, nature filled southern tip of the continent, has a beach and a jungle connected to it. Rock Village, the dilapidated, rainy land to the north, is connected to an underwater city, a swamp, and a basin. The volcano even further north is connected to an ominous underground network of caves, and you can ride a gondola to its peak to experience a snowy mountain. The entire world is seamless, with no loading times in between, and Naughty Dog went the extra mile to make its entire world feel connected in an extremely natural way.

A panorama of Sandover Village, the game's first hub world. In the distance, to the right, you can see the Precursor Temple located in the Forbidden Jungle, and to the left you can see the waterfall and beginnings of Sentinel Beach. The world is entirely seamless.
Then there's the gameplay. It's a collectathon, there's no doubt about that. Despite this, the collecting doesn't feel arbitrary. You're always collecting your power cells for a reason, whether it be to power up the town windmill or trade them to a destitute gambler eager for something of value. There's a clear ethos behind the collecting of the items in this game, and the game even lets you go back and collect everything after beating the final boss; the secret ending is laid out to the player clearly with the final cutscene, which features a door that opens only with 100 power cells - about the amount of power cells present in the game. The game itself plays extremely smoothly, running at 60 frames per second and refining the gameplay seen in other 3D platformers of its time. Jak has a punch, spin, and double jump, and all of his moves are easy to learn and useful at all times. The platforming itself is designed to be consistently engaging. Jak has a three hit health meter, but is able to regain his health by collecting green eco scattered throughout each stage, both from enemy drops and from treasure chests. Every gameplay mechanic is meticulously placed and helps to add to the game's overall cohesive design.

Collecting precursor orbs on Sentinel Beach. You can see how the platforms are designed to appear organic with their environment, yet still provide an engaging platforming experience.
The "eco," essentially the J&D world's natural energy, is also a nice aspect of the game. It plays a central role in the story, with dark eco having transformed Daxter, and the various colored forms - Green, Blue, Yellow, and Red - all serve as different power ups within the game. Green restores health and is found in treasure boxes, but the other three are more specialized and can be found in "eco vents" scattered throughout the world (left there, of course, by the Lost Precursors). Blue speeds you up and allows you to operate Precursor tech, Yellow allows you to shoot eco powered energy blasts, and Red powers up your melee abilities with a boost in raw strength. Eco is a clearly identifiable, visually unique powerup that also ties into the overall story. Jak's reasons for being able to channel eco are explored in subsequent games, but that's a story for another time.

Jak powers up using a blue eco vent.
Overall, this game is still the pinnacle of 3D platforming, taking the best parts of Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, etc. and perfecting them to a T. Its sequels refined its gameplay, but also took a huge thematic shift to a futuristic setting, adding in guns and a GTA-esque mission structure, which, in my opinion, was a huge misstep for the series, despite me loving those games on their own merits. I still await a game that recaptures the magic of the first Jak and Daxter.

There are some definite flaws with the game when you view it from a modern perspective, maybe more so than the timeless design of Mario 64 or Banjo. Its end half is rushed compared to the first, with its final hub world possibly having been removed in development (Yellow Sage hut where?) and the volcano hub is a bit lackluster compared to the first two villages. The graphics are obviously no longer cutting edge, even if they've aged relatively well. The character design is a product of its era and doesn't jive as well with modern aesthetics. Nothing has come to take its place, though, not even its own sequels that I love so much, so it still stands on top for me.

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