One Giant Leap, 2001: Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: We kick off the PS2 era with the ultimate N64-era platformer, beefed up for the 21st century: Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy

This article series has become dominated of late by the 3D open-world-ish platformer; we’ve featured a game in that style in 2000, 1998, and 1996, and games adjacent to it in 1999 and 1995. And I think in every single one of those we’ve talked about cameras; if we haven’t we easily could have. Figuring out the 3D camera was probably the hardest industry-wide goal during these formative early 3D years. There simply isn’t anything like it in 2D games to draw from. And while there are games that do better and worse jobs at it, in this era I’m not sure there’s a single open game that I would say has a “good” camera, certainly not by modern standards.

The main reason why is that, ultimately, the industry settled on the idea that a third person camera for a game too non-linear to be scripted needs to have a level of fine control only possible via an analog stick. And unfortunately, despite the 1997 introduction of the DualShock, the fact that neither of the generation’s relevant consoles shipped with a dual analog controller meant that no games were able to really properly take advantage. (After all, why split your audience by making a game for a controller some of them won’t have?) So the PS2, being the first major console to ship with that all-important second stick, provides us with our first opportunity for a truly modern camera.

And in that context, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy is only half-complete. Credit where it’s due; the game uses the right analog stick to control the camera, something that wasn’t yet a given this early in the generation. And when it comes to the camera’s yaw1 the game is basically fully modern. You have fine control of the camera’s rotation; when you press left or right it rotates around your character for as long as you hold that direction (it even goes more slowly if you only press the stick a little!). The meaning of left and right are reversed compared to a modern game, but that’s more a difference of convention rather than an outright mistake2. The only thing I’d criticize there is the lack of a menu option to toggle this. But for 2001 this is very good.

I have to look this image up every time I talk about rotation in any detail, so I might as well drop it here since we’re getting way in the weeds

Having this level of control is useful partially because it guarantees that the player will be able to see exactly what they need to at any given time. In a non-linear game, the developer can’t really know where the player will be or where they’ll want to be heading at any given second, making a scripted camera a la Crash Bandicoot (or indeed most 2D games) impossible. But there’s a less obvious benefit too, which is especially important to platformers. Being able to constantly make micro-adjustments to the camera allows the player to simulate depth perception3, which makes it much easier to gauge where your jump is going to land. This is something that comes up even in linear 3D platformers that otherwise don’t “need” a player-controlled camera because it can show the whole playspace via a scripted camera (and incidentally, why many modern linear 3D platformers allow a slight amount of camera wiggling).

However, Jak and Daxter‘s camera falls short in one key area: it doesn’t give the player any control over the camera’s pitch4. Instead pressing up on the right stick zooms the camera in slightly, which is entirely useless. Pitch control is useful for much the same reasons as yaw control. It’s especially helpful when descending, as it’s nice to be able to see if you’re walking down an actual staircase or if you’re about to step off a cliff into an abyss. This absence is understandable; most N64 games5 used left and right C to control the camera’s yaw, but used up and down C to control the zoom (often using up C to enter a first-person look-around mode), and so Jak and Daxter was at least making a common mistake. But it’s probably the biggest problem with the camera from a modern perspective. Even with the proper tools available, even with years of precedent, this was an exceptionally tough nut to crack.

Anyway I just went 5 fucking paragraphs on this game’s camera. There’s a game here too! In a way, though, I’ve already covered the gameplay of Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. This game is a distillation of the collectathon platformer, perfected over the course of the previous generation. You have a series of relatively small, open levels that you can fully clear out6 giving you those “building mastery of a space” vibes from Banjo-Kazooie. The game has three main collectibles, at this point falling into some pretty solidified archetypes; Power Cells are your main reward for major tasks and the game’s primary progression gate, and are the equivalent of Stars or Jiggies. Precursor Orbs are less important (mostly useful as fodder to trade to certain NPCs for more Power Cells) but more numerous, filling the Musical Note/Yellow Coin slot. And Scout Flies give you a major reward for collecting a complete set of 7, which appear in every single level a la Jinjos or Red Coins. You have a pretty barebones moveset, which is not necessarily a bad thing; it highlights what elements of Super Mario 64‘s expansive, experimental movement are truly necessary on a basic level. You have a double jump, crouch jump that goes higher, slide jump that goes longer, and an attack. Technically two attacks (a punch and a spin), the game’s one indulgence. There’s no reason you can’t make a 3D platformer with more than this, but it’d be hard to make one with less.

Also it’s got sassy animations for important collectables, what more could you want?

Which I think really speaks to what Jak and Daxter is like. It’s an archetype, now fully defined. During the PS2 generation the Jak and Daxter-esque light collectathon would become a sort of default game template; if you had a hot, kid-friendly license and you wanted to pump out a quick video game based on it, you were almost certainly making a Jak clone. And while there are definitely games from the collectathon heyday that I like better, Jak and Daxter is probably the most accessible entry point to the subgenre for a newcomer. It plays fair, it’s modern enough that even someone raised on PS4 games7 should be able to grok it, and it’s also pretty fun, with enough variety to mix up the platforming without so much that it gets lost in gimmicks8. It’s also caught between worlds; while it’s wholly contiguous with the 90s platformers that came before it, I won’t be covering many more games in this vein. Jak and Daxter perfected this style just in time for everyone (including Naughty Dog!) working with purpose in the genre to branch out. It’s a high school senior finally perfecting the 5 paragraph essay just in time to get to college and learn that they never need to write one ever again. But there’s a simple pleasure to mastering the basics. After all, a 5 paragraph essay would never have spent so much time talking about cameras9.

Stray Observations:

  • The shift to full analog controls was really jarring to me as a kid. I think this was the first PlayStation game I played where you couldn’t use the d-pad to move, and I spent maybe 5 minutes wondering if the game was broken the first time I played it as a result.
  • The game ends with the main villains falling into a vat of Bad Stuff (Dark Eco) and the wise sage character saying “well, they’re probably dead”, pretty clearly setting up a sequel hook where they weren’t quite dead. But despite the fact that this game does get a sequel, it winds up going in a wildly different direction, so these characters are in fact just fully dead and Samos is hedging for no reason.
  • There can be a fine line between “archetypal” and “uncreative” and when it comes to level names Jak and Daxter crosses into the latter. “Boggy Swamp”? “Snowy Mountain”? Come on now.
  • You get the secret ending by collecting 100 Power Cells, but the game has 101 Cells. I wonder if there’s a specific “extra” cell they meant to let the player skip with this, or if they intended to have 100 total but messed up the count somewhere or what.
  • This game is surprisingly impressive on a technical level, running at 60 frames per second. It also incorporates the levels directly into the overworld: you don’t jump into a painting or through a door that triggers a fade to black, you just walk down a path and are in the level seamlessly. It’s a neat trick that keeps players in the groove and makes the world feel more real.
  • Daxter can be very obnoxious at times, a prisoner of the worst aspects of late 90s/early 00s ‘tude. The parts where he mocks Jak after the player dies (looking directly at the camera) are just impressively ill-conceived.

Other 2001 platformers of note:

Jak and Daxter may be the most important platformer of 2001, but my heart belongs to another. Sonic Adventure 2 is the Sonic game I played when I was 1010 and since every Sonic game is made to appeal directly to a 10-year-old’s sense of cool I am forever bonded to it. It does a good job of refining the ideas presented in Sonic Adventure into something more polished, cutting elements that didn’t work great (like the overworld or the fishing sections) and putting more time into aspects like treasure hunting and shooting stages to make them work much better. It also focuses the Sonic11 stages around pulling off tricks for extra points, a la Tony Hawk games, which helps to give them more direction, especially on repeat playthroughs. It also has the best song in video game history:

Elsewhere in “games every kid I knew owned for their GameCube”, Super Smash Bros. Melee brings its platformer roots closer to the surface. The original Super Smash Bros. was a fighting game with some platformer grammar (characters move and jump in multi-tiered, wide-open 2D stages) and Melee‘s single-player Adventure mode fleshes this out with full-fledged platformer segments. You still probably wouldn’t call the game a full platformer but it’s a neat hybrid.

Next Time: Naughty Dog’s pseudo-sister studio Insomniac gets in on the PS2 action with Ratchet and Clank