MBF's Retraux-Spective: Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy (Part 1)

Looking back on my blog, I see that the only Retraux-Spective I have bothered to do so far was Donkey Kong 64. It's a fairly interesting read, as I had an epiphany midway and began to realize how stale and crummy the game really was from a certain standpoint, so I think it's about time I bring some life back to this blog and revisit another childhood favorite of mine.

Naughty Dog was riding on the coattails of success from the moment they came up with Crash Bandicoot and its sequels, which I've also had the pleasure of playing recently and might eventually do a Retraux-Spective on as well. In the advent of the PS2, however, Naughty Dog decided that they wanted to shy away from the extreme linearity of the Crash Bandicoot games and come up with a new title that rivaled the likes of Mario 64 in terms of exploration and gameplay. Thus, in a 3-year time span starting in 1999, the team began work on Jak and Daxter. While still deeply rooted in the traditional slapstick humor and wacky animations that Naughty Dog made themselves known for in Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter introduced more exotic locales and made an attempt to piece together a more serious plot. This game was an integral part of my experiences with the PS2 when I was younger, and I remember it being a fantastic platformer with plenty of humorous gab from the cutscenes.

Then again, I also thought DK64 was fantastic, and you all know how that mess unfolded.

Well, hopefully, I can find it in the good of my heart to not bash this game ruthlessly like I did DK64, so let's begin. Here is a lengthy Retraux-Spective on...

Before I begin, let me answer a question before it gets asked: Yes, I plan on eventually doing a Retraux-Spective on all 3 of the original trilogy titles. Why those 3? Well, I haven't played Lost Frontier, my copy of Daxter is broken and I can't find my PSP, and I just plain don't like Jax X: Combat Racing, so I'm avoiding those titles at the moment. We'll start with game numero uno, since shit gets real different and serious as the series rolls forward.

The first game starts with a monologue from Samos the Sage, also known as the Green Eco Sage. He talks about prophecies and rocks and other gobbledygook before we see our heroes, Jak and the still-humanoid Daxter, taking a boat to the ominous Misty Isle. It's there that they bump into the game's antagonists, whose names completely escape me, but all you need to know is that they're bad and one of them sounds like a robot that's programmed to sound like he has strep throat.

As they trot around aimlessly, they encounter a pool of Dark Eco and an ancient Precursor artifact. Jak investigates the canister, and when he picks it up it starts to glow in his hands. The duo's curiosity is cut short, however, when they are attacked by an armored fiend. Jak fights it off by throwing the glowing artifact, but the explosion knocks Daxter into the pit of Dark Eco, transforming him into a weasel-otter hybrid called an Ottsel. When they arrive home, they receive scorn from Samos for not heeding his warnings to stay away from Misty Isle. He then explains that the only way to transform Daxter back would be to search for the Sage of Dark Eco beyond Fire Canyon, which is too hot to traverse on foot. They're then tasked with collecting Power Cells - essentially this game's Jiggies and Power Stars - so that Keira, the Sage's daughter, can upgrade her Zoomer with a heat-repelling shield so they can get across.

When I was a kid, I liked the cutscenes. I didn't pay attention to all of the dialogue, but I laughed at the banter between Samos and Daxter. But now, um, well...

FAHFJAFHAJHFGAGFHGAFHA PLEASE KILL IT

Jesus jumping Christ, what is wrong with these models? I mean, I get it, they're supposed to be cartoony, but I never noticed how... uncanny they are. Samos isn't looking too much better...

Good god, it's like a three-way love child between an orc, a dwarf, and a sycamore tree.

They're not so bad in the oversized still images, but they're much creepier when they're in motion. Imagine Jimmy Neutron, but twice as... flappy. Here's a video demonstration for you:

This is actually toned down in later installments, but this is one of the first problems I had when revisiting the game. Others may think the traditional 'always-100%-wacky-movements' style of animation works well for Jak and Daxter like it did for Crash Bandicoot, but it's so jarring and strange that I can hardly pay attention to the dialogue that's supposed to explain critical elements of the game's plot.

Nitpicking aside, after the first cutscene, you're dumped onto Geyser Rock, the tutorial level. Jak and Daxter controls much like you'd expect an open-world Crash Bandicoot game to control; you can move in all directions with the left stick and you have two main attacks, one being a dashing punch and the other a short-range spin attack. There's a dive attack for busting open crates, and you can crouch by holding either L1 or R1, which allows you to perform a long or super jump much like in Mario 64. In fact, that's basically how you can sum up the controls to this game, it's Crash Bandicoot and Mario 64 combined, and it works about as well as you'd come to expect from both games.

The game runs at a stunning frame rate even on the original PS2 version. I personally believe this is why Jak, Ratchet and Clank and Sly Cooper were the most visually impressive titles of their time. Not only did they all look very colorful and artistic for being PS2 titles, but they also ran at a crisp 50-60 FPS for most of the playthrough, with the occasional lag hiccups here and there, and this was on older console hardware! Nowadays, games like to cram in so many visual artifacts and shit that you'd be lucky if you got 24 FPS on a 360 title. I usually don't like to praise or detract a game for its video output, but I definitely can't fault these games for looking good, especially in the PS2 era.

Getting back on track, the main goal of Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy is to collect Power Stars Power Cells to upgrade or power some sort of contraption to get to the next hub level. Levels are littered with egg-shaped artifacts called Precursor Orbs, and collecting enough of them allows you to trade them with other villagers for more Power Cells and other goodies. Jak has 3 hit points in total, and for every 50 green eco bits he collects he can regain lost health or store another hit for a total of 4 hit points. This is actually a rather interesting strategy towards making the game a bit more challenging; as most breakables only give you clusters of 4 to 6 green eco bits, it limits the amount of health pick-ups you can acquire, so taking less damage is accentuated more than plowing through the game using power-ups.

Speaking of power-ups, there are other kinds of eco as well that affect Jak's abilities. Blue eco makes him fast, turns him into a collectible magnet and allows him to power up platforms or generators with the electricity stored in his body. Yellow eco allows him to shoot projectile fireballs, and red eco boosts his attack power. The most commonly-found type of eco is Blue, considering it's used to power up several precursor machines throughout the game, but you'll eventually utilize all 4 to your advantage.

When you finish the tutorial level 5 minutes later, you're dumped back into Sandover Village. You can talk to Samos and Keira and they'll relay information about nearby levels that you can explore and objectives that grant you a Power Cell when accomplished. Other villagers can be found and conversed with for much the same deal... but honestly, would you really want to talk to a guy that looks like this for more than 2 minutes?:

I know, I've hammered the point in by now, but screw you, they still freak me out.

Most of these guys are willing to give up a Power Cell in exchange for some dough, but some of them also require additional help, such as that ugly mug above. Alongside funds for his re-election campaign as mayor, he also believes he can win the village over if he restores its power, which has been cut off from the Forbidden Jungle, and is willing to hand over a Power Cell if you turn it back on. You have to question the election process of a village with a total population of, what, six people, let alone a village that houses one of the four sacred sages of the land, but whatever makes the game move forward, I suppose.

From here, we have two choices as far as which level we want to visit first. Chronologically, I usually start with Sentinel Beach, as it's a bit less crowded than the Forbidden Jungle and is altogether a bit more lax as far as challenge. The fact that Sentinel Beach has one of my favorite tracks in the game certainly helps wonders.

The sky actually goes from dusk to dawn as you play. Isn't it a thing of beauty?

Before I go forward, there is one little tidbit I'd like to mention: Jak and Daxter has its own day/night cycle. It's completely unnecessary, it doesn't affect the gameplay in any shape or form, and I love it. The dynamically-changing sky helps to make it feel like I'm actually traveling through a living, breathing planet with flowing ecosystems. The environments don't look too shabby, either. The diversity between habitats and organisms in each level is really apparent, and even the enemies within each level are appropriate to their surroundings, such as crab Lurkers on the beach or slithering snakes in the vast jungle.

Anyways, Sentinel Beach. It's a fairly standard beach level, all things considered. There are windmills up on the cliffs that power rotating platforms, coastal caverns, waterfalls and all sorts of beautiful surroundings to gawk at.

Up on the cliffs, you find a birdwatcher who has spotted a rare species of bird that's alone and prime for hatching. She wants to study this bird species a bit further and requests that you bring the hatching egg down to her. Unfortunately, you can't carry the egg with you, and it's perched on a high cliff top. Yes, that solution you're thinking of is the only way to complete this task, but fortunately, the drop doesn't shatter the egg into several pieces, and the small crack that ensues weakens the shell enough so that the hatched bird can climb out. It's a heartwarming tale, but the reason I'm mentioning this specifically is that this isn't the last time we'll be seeing our feathery friend in this game.

There's also a particularly annoying Power Cell that's hidden in plain sight. It seems ripe for the picking - until a giant pelican swoops down, gobbles it up and carries it back to her nest in the middle of the gulf. You have to swim over to the island and punch it out of her stomach, but then it becomes a race back to the mainland where the Power Cell was. You have like all of 12 seconds to get back there, and it doesn't help that the giant pool of water slows you down tenfold. It'll take at least a couple of tries before you manage to pass this one.

After you collect the rest of this level's hideously-easy Power Cells, you may notice that you're missing one. That one happens to be situated at the top of the tower that's shooting explosive bags of gunpowder at you. You'd think you could just swim over there, but swimming too far out into the ocean results in you being devoured by a humongous Lurker fish for an instant kill. The correct way to go about this is to bounce off the electricity-powered pads between the tall cliffs in the gulf of the beach, but there isn't any blue eco that's close enough to activate the pads. There's a vent nearby, but it isn't activated. If you talked to Keira previously, she mentions that all of the blue eco vents nearby have been deactivated, and the only way to turn them back on is to venture into the Forbidden Jungle and find a switch.

Like I said earlier, I like to go to Sentinel Beach first, but you really unlock everything in the first hub world if you visit the Forbidden Jungle first, since that's where you turn on the blue eco vents. There's also a third level - the island you went to in the game's prologue, Misty Isle - but to unlock that, you also have to go to the Forbidden Jungle and help out the fisherman so he can let you use his other fishing boat again. Looks like we're out of options, let's visit this Forbidden Jungle and see how treacherous it really is.

Forbidden Jungle is slightly less feasible to navigate than Sentinel Beach and appears to have a bit more to it under the surface. You start the level as you would expect, navigating the dense foliage and deadly traps, but the first thing that should catch your eye is the gigantic, obtuse structure in the middle of the jungle:

I mean, what gives?! I thought this level was supposed to be all jungle, not half-jungle-half-ancient-temple! I didn't sign up for this shit!

Leaning away from that part of the level, let's talk about the fishing minigame.

AAAAAAAFHFJDHGJHSGJHGHSJG I HATE FISHING BRAGGLE FRAGGLE SAKDJFKJSAFHSAFJKHSA

Believe me, it gets worse. Much, much worse.

Translated: For those of you who haven't experienced Jak and Daxter before, you're not going to like the minigames (I'm sensing a theme here with these retrospectives; I need to pick a Mario Party game next time or something), and this one is a precursor to all the annoying ones to come, no pun intended. To win, you have to steer your net on the bottom of the screen and catch 200 pounds of fish. The green ones are worth 1 lb each and the yellow ones are worth 5 lbs each. There are two stipulations that make this challenge so much more frustrating than it ought to be: One, you're only allowed to miss 20 lbs of fish in total, so you have to go through the minigame without missing a maximum of four bonus fish. Two, there are eels floating down the stream as well, and if you catch even one of them, you fail the whole minigame. The net maneuvers quite slowly, so you'll need the utmost of good timing if you want to get through it. It's bad enough that this is the hardest challenge in the Forbidden Jungle bar none, but you also are required to complete it if you want to go back to Misty Isle. Yep, of all the activation flags they could have chosen for that instance, they decided that this was their best bet. Beautiful.

Besides this, it's safe to say that you might have noticed the dozens of spiked vines poking out of the ground by this point. There is a way to get rid of them, albeit it requires you to fight a large plant monster in the depths of the temple. This is one of the first boss fights in the game, and although it isn't required that you defeat him, it makes traveling the mainland a lot less cumbersome. The actual fight with him is kind of lame, though. His only methods of attack are through sending spiky bugs at you and by lunging at you with his giant head. After all that, he tilts his head up and leaf platforms form under him, which lets you spin attack his face, and 3 whacks upside the head does the trick. Considering there isn't a boss between the first two hub worlds to tide things over, it's somewhat of a letdown.

There's not much else to say about the Forbidden Jungle other than there are some other Power Cells tucked away in the other areas you haven't explored yet and there was at least one point where the game tried to give me a seizure, or at least take advantage of my sensitive eyesight. The part in question?

AAAAAAAAAAAGH MY EYES (it doesn't look so bad from PNG format, but imagine it flashing rapidly on an LCD TV and try not to cry)

Okay, I'm all tuckered out of writing about Jak and Daxter for one day. It's great to be back on Giant Bomb and actually doing something for once, but let's just hope I can find the time to write more of these. Next time, I'll talk about Misty Isle, and I might even get to the next hub level. For now, this is MisterBananaFoam signing off. Stay classy, world wide net!

3 Comments
3 Comments
Posted by believer258

Ah, I loved Jak 1 and 3. I enjoyed Jak 2 as well, but... I dunno, that one doesn't always work so well. Honestly, I'd rather play through Daxter again than the second game. Why can't we have a big-screen version of Daxter, Sony? It's the second best Jak and Daxter game!

The minigames in all three of these games suck, by the way, but thankfully there aren't too many of them. Jak 1 came out in an era where a lot of platformers were tossing weird minigames in odd places and making them too difficult for their own good.

Posted by bgdiner

I actually loved Jak II and Jak 3 more than Precusor Legacy, but that might be because I didn't really find myself all that interested by the Crash Bandicoot/Spyro/Mario 64-esque type of game growing up. One of my first really defining gaming experiences was GTA III, which naturally led to mission-based games like Jak II.

Posted by MisterBananaFoam

@bgdiner: Well, like I said, I'll get to those two later. I personally enjoyed all 3 from what I played, and I have had a history rooted in growing up with 3D open-world platformers so Jak hits pretty close to home.