Jak and Daxter was a franchise with an unusual evolution. While most game franchises use their sequels as a way to iterate upon previous entries, improving and polishing prior ideas and trying to address past criticisms, Jak and Daxter instead went in a completely different direction after its first title, with its sequels having wildly different tones and focussing on different styles of gameplay.
For the uninitiated, the original Jak and Daxter released in 2001, and was a 3D platformer much in the same vein as Super Mario 64. While Naughty Dog had already proven themselves capable in the platforming genre with the hugely successful Crash Bandicoot franchise, Jak and Daxter proved to be an even more ambitious project, with the linear levels of Crash being replaced with large open areas, seamlessly connected through a single world with no loading times.
This next leap forward for Naughty Dog proved to be a success, with Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy earning a strong critical reception and selling over one million copies soon after its release. This was partially due to the game pulling from various different cultures for its style, which helped give it world-wide appeal. Despite being developed by an American studio, the characters were given designs that were meant to be closer to anime and manga. Jak’s name is also derived from South America. This cultural variation at the core of the game made it hard to pigeonhole the title’s appeal to one region, with it instead appealing to a large number of demographics.
The contrast of technology-meets-nature within the game also helped it to cement its own unique identity amongst the numerous other 3D mascot platformers at the time. The title ended up also showcasing the technical prowess that Naughty Dog has become well known for in recent years, with titles such as the Uncharted franchise and The Last of Us.
Despite Jak and Daxter’s success, Naughty Dog did the unexpected: instead of sticking to their guns with a winning formula, they decided to chase the conventions of other large titles at the time, transforming their family friendly 3D mascot platformer franchise into something with a bit more of an edge. Grand Theft Auto III ended up becoming the biggest inspiration for the team, a game that had come out the same year as the first Jak and Daxter title, and as a result fans were greeted with a sequel that differed largely from its predecessor.
Jak II: Renegade released in 2003, and abandoned a lot of the platforming focus of the first game for an open-world mission structure, where players would traverse the dystopian Haven City to take on tasks from numerous characters. The Grand Theft Auto III inspirations didn’t stop there, as Jak could also wield several guns to dispatch enemies with, alongside his returning punches and kicks from the previous game. He could also steal vehicles from innocent civilians to get around, a far cry from his days as a well mannered village boy.
Jak II also saw a larger focus on narrative. The once silent protagonist Jak was finally given a voice which helped flesh out his personality, and the cast was largely expanded, with a story about a rebellion against an oppressive baron and time travel sitting at the heart of the game.
While the title still received a largely positive critical reception, it saw a decrease in sales with the Japanese market in particular disliking the more Westernised approach. Fan reception for the title was mixed as well, with some believing it betrayed the core spirit of the franchise.
For the next sequel Jak 3, Naughty Dog took inspiration from the PlayStation 2 launch title Smuggler’s Run, as well as retaining the previous elements seen in Jak II. The Smuggler’s Run inspiration manifested itself in the large Wasteland, which can be traversed and explored with a plethora of four-wheeled vehicles (as opposed to the hover vehicles of Haven City). The scope of the game may have grown even larger, but this led to the gameplay feeling even more splintered, with the platforming from the first game being even less prevalent in this final instalment of the trilogy.
Despite critical reception remaining strong, sales saw another slight dip, with the Jak and Daxter franchise seemingly losing player’s interest. After reaching a satisfying conclusion with the overarching narrative of Jak and Daxter with Jak 3, Naughty Dog decided to follow in the footsteps of Crash Bandicoot, and create another spin-off racing game titled Jak X: Combat Racing.
If Crash Team Racing is Naughty Dog’s take on Mario Kart, then Jak X would be their take on Twisted Metal. This title finds Jak and his friends entering a “Combat Racing” tournament to win an antidote to the poison they’ve been inflicted with. As the title implies, these races focus on destroying opponents’ vehicles with a variety different weapons as much as they do on fast and efficient driving.
Yet again, this instalment received mostly positive feedback, but due to numerous factors - including a difficult transition from the PlayStation 2 to the PlayStation 3 - Naughty Dog were ready to take a break from Jak and move on to a different series. A couple of years prior to the release of Jak X, a new development studio named Ready At Dawn had just been formed comprising of former Naughty Dog members, and as such they became the perfect candidate to take the reins of the franchise.
Ready At Dawn ended up releasing the early PlayStation Portable title Daxter in 2006, which became a huge success for the up-and-coming studio, selling over two million copies and receiving positive feedback from fans and critics alike.
While Ready At Dawn found success with the IP, Naughty Dog would yet again bring the franchise in-house for the second PSP title Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier. The initial intent was to create the title alongside their 2009 hit Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, however balancing the two projects ended up becoming more challenging than they had expected, leaving them no choice than to pass the next Jak and Daxter title to High Impact Games.
High Impact Games not only consisted of past Naughty Dog and Insomniac employees, but they had seen moderate success with Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters and Secret Agent Clank. Unfortunately, that success didn’t translate to the 2009 title Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier, with the game receiving a more lukewarm reception than any of the previous titles.
Despite releasing on both the PlayStation 2 (surprisingly) and the PlayStation Portable, The Lost Frontier failed to attract much of an audience, and is generally considered to be the weakest entry in the franchise by fans.
This, however, wasn’t enough to dissuade Naughty Dog from attempting to take the franchise under their wing one final time. This new PlayStation 3 title was going to be yet another transformation for the ever-evolving franchise, with an even more grounded and gritty approach being taken. Unfortunately, the team behind this new title couldn’t quite pin down a tone and direction that they felt was suitable for the franchise, and the title became abandoned in the early stages in favour of The Last of Us.
Since then, the Jak and Daxter series hasn’t received any new instalments, only living on through various re-releases and remasters. It’s no doubt that the constantly changing nature of the franchise and its identity crisis damaged the series in the long-run, but it’s hard to say that the series could have lasted as long as it did without change.
In the early 2000’s, the popularity of mascot platformers was waning rapidly. This left Naughty Dog with a hard choice: stick to what they knew and hope that Jak and Daxter would be lucky enough to continue finding a success in a market that seemingly had very little interest in family friendly platformers, or adapt and capitalise on trends to try and find success with the franchise with different demographics.
As of right now, it seems unlikely that Naughty Dog will revisit the Jak and Daxter franchise, and while myself and many others have a soft spot for it, it’s hard to blame them. They went on to find greater success with both the Uncharted franchise and The Last of Us, and if they can’t decide on a good direction for Jak and Daxter, it may be better off being left alone. I just hope that if the series ever does return, it can recapture the sense of focus and identity it once had.