I’ve been playing games since before I could remember. I literally cannot think of a time when video games were not a part of my life. The games that I’ve played as I’ve grown up have come to define the person I am and will stay with me forever. It’s slightly magical then the way that one developer has grown with me, entering the game industry at about the same time as I entered the world, a dev studio that has never (apart from one exception) let the quality slip. So I’m writing this not only as a thank you, but more importantly as an urging to keep on keeping on. Naughty Dog you haven’t done wrong yet, and I can’t see you doing wrong in the future.
While their early days were marked by a Genesis title and a handful of games for the Apple II, as well as Way of the Warrior on 3DO, it wasn’t until Sony’s original PlayStation that they managed to establish themselves as a big player. Crash Bandicoot, a game that many would argue defined the PlayStation, was seen as Sony’s answer to Nintendo’s Mario and Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog, becoming something of an early mascot for the machine.
I didn’t play it at the time of its release, but it was the first console game I ever played when I got my PlayStation a few years later in what was arguably the heyday of 90’s console gaming. It’s a little basic these days compared to more modern games – there isn’t really much more to it than rudimentary side-scrolling platforming, into-the-screen levels and simple combat – at the time it was serious fun, and the graphics, while dated, are still decent enough today, boosted by some great, cartoony character design and animation which injected everything with bags of personality. Wacky and zany, without overstepping into tediousness, it stood apart from other PlayStation titles at the time which opted for realism and sleek sci-fi trappings (Jumping Flash and Rayman aside).
The success of the early Crash Bandicoot games cemented the relationship between Naughty Dog and Sony, a relationship that continues to this day. This strangeness was the strength that carried a game I count among my top 10 of all time and another answer to Nintendo’s dungareed mascot: Crash Team Racing.I have few fonder memories than spending a day with my friends playing Crash Team Racing, firing TNT at each other, trying to collect apples and racing against a giant mask. Now that I think about it that definitely doesn’t sound like a brilliant pitch for a game, but it definitely left its impression on me. When a modern franchise releases a kart game we see that as a sign of desperation, an attempt to milk the goodwill of an existing fan base. Say, for example, the fan base of a game about a human-elf like young man with an orange ottsel friend who go on adventures together uncovering precursor artefacts. Cause that would be like just shooting an amazing franchise in the face.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about then this article has probably gone over your head, but Jak and Daxter was just as important to the PS2 as Crash Bandicoot was to the PS1. A little older and getting a lot more serious as the series went on it was in many ways just a more sophisticated Crash Bandicoot, with more developed conflict, harder platforming and more serious subject matter. It grew with age, moving on from the cartoony feeling of the original Legacy of the Precursors to the intense, almost apocalyptic atmosphere of Jak 2 and Jak 3. And for those of you who played those games when you were younger, think back about how dark those settings were: a dark and dirty city controlled by aggressive secret police and threatened by an external enemy, you wouldn’t be remiss to draw parallels to Nazi Germany or Orwell’s 1984.
It’s tragic then that Naughty Dog, in their one bad move (at least in my opinion), turned such a serious and unique franchise in an exceptionally designed universe (one of the most underrated settings in gaming in my opinion) and attempted to recreate the success of a game that worked thanks to a very unique set of circumstances – Crash Team Racing. Kart games are almost always a bad idea – they rely on an innocence and cartoonish nature that very few other racing games share. How anyone could think that one would work in the Jak and Daxter universe is beyond me, but developers are only human, and given how many things Naughty Dog gets right, I think they can be forgiven for getting one thing wrong. Jak X: Combat Racing boasted great visuals and admittedly was receiving well by critics (albeit less well than any of Naughty Dog’s previous titles in the series), but with a heavy metal soundtrack, focus on combative racing and leaving platforming behind, it was brought down by its attempts to have “attitude” and is something of the black sheep of the series.
If the studio’s work during the PlayStation 1 era represented the enthusiastic, colorful childhood years, and the PlayStation 2 era represented the brash attitude of teenage adolescence, PlayStation 3 saw the developer transition into adulthood. Despite its failure to recapture the magic of their previous games, without Jak X we may not have seen the game that came to define the PlayStation 3 for most of its existence (are you beginning to see a bit of a trend here?).
It’s unlikely any owner of a PS3 hasn’t played one – or all three – of the Uncharted games: it’s arguably the best-loved series on the platform and one of the most popular franchises of the last 8 years. Mechanically, it’s not particularly ground-breaking – a hodge-podge of influences taking in everything from Tomb Raider, Indiana Jones and the increasing popularity of the cover-shooter; but its character design, witty script and voice acting, combined with a new-found cinematic flair that’s closer to a blockbuster movie experience than David Cage has ever managed to achieve, surpasses just about anything I’ve ever played before or since; and I’ve played a lot.
Nathan Drake is just so damn likeable, Sully is always funny, and if you’re looking for strong woman you don’t have to look much further than Chloe and Elena. The chemistry and sheer likability of this cast sells the game, so i f you enjoy story driven games and have never given Uncharted a go, stop reading this, run to your local gaming store and dig through the bargain bin until you find Uncharted: Drakes Fortune and be prepared to have your mind blown.
Over the course of the main PS3 trilogy, there’s a clear feeling of progression in each successive game, as well a sense that Naughty Dog was gradually becoming increasingly familiar with the tricky architecture of Sony’s third home console, which often struggled to match the performance of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in the early years of the last generation. Without doubt it’s the second game that impresses the most. [pullquote]While Drake’s Fortune saw Naughty Dog finding its feet on new hardware with a new, more mature IP, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves showed that the studio had a new confidence in their abilities[/pullquote] and working with Sony’s Cell processor, while turning the sense of scale up to 11 and introducing more variety. This is apparent right from the start of the game, opening with a well-loved and critically lauded action sequence in which Drake has to escape the wreck of a disastrous train crash before it falls off the edge of a cliff in the Himalayas. It only gets better from there, flying through its story beats at a dizzying pace while still taking the time to craft an engaging story full of witty interplay between the cast members and a sense of scale yet to be matched.
Sadly, Uncharted 3, while still an excellent game, suffers in comparison. It starts off strong again, with a wonderful early sequence in which Drake and Sully need to escape a burning building while under attack by enemy forces. But many of its later setpieces feel like new riffs on familiar ideas, leading to a distinctly weaker second half. Despite this, the script kept the whole thing entertaining from beginning to end, and even found the time to flesh out more of Drake’s backstory as a young thief on the streets of Cartagena in Columbia.
In 2011, SCE Bend brought Nathan Drank to Sony’s then-new Vita handheld, with development overseen by Naughty Dog. While the resulting Uncharted: Golden Abyss was a solid adventure
which took excellent advantage of the new machine, its short length – it could be completed in an afternoon – combined with relative low difficulty and high price point led to it receiving criticism from many, who were hoping for a more fully-fledged adventure to digest on the go. It’s still a perfectly decent handheld romp, of course, but it’s clear throughout that while it still felt like an Uncharted game, it lacked the je ne sais quo of Naughty Dog’s games.
As hugely successful as the Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter and Uncharted were – and still are, in 2013 Naughty Dog gave their fans what they wanted without them being aware that they wanted it. Part apocalyptic zombie movie, part coming-of-age story, and part an examination of grief and how it has a tendency to linger despite the span of decades, The Last of Us (our PS3 review can I be found here) is merely the latest stroke of genius in the history of Naughty Dog – a last hurrah for a console generation that brought us so many memories, it only made sense to go out on an ultimate high.
In a sort of amusing irony, if it weren’t for The Last of Us then Uncharted would be remembered as the pinnacle of PS3. Naughty Dog stole the trophy from themselves. Another story and character-driven game in yet another exquisitely designed universe, it’s exactly what Naughty Dog do best, albeit often depressing as well as powerful at the same time. From an incredibly downbeat opening sequence that establishes the world and the character of Joel, to its emotional – and equally tragic – conclusion, The Last of Us stunned both critics and players alike.
Moment-to-moment gameplay is, as with Uncharted, not particularly groundbreaking. It’s essentially Naughty Dog’s take on a zombie apocalypse, seen through the lens of the kind of stealth mechanics employed in series’ such as Metal Gear Solid and the action of Left 4 Dead and Gears of War. Instead, The Last of Us’ innovation comes through its powerful storytelling and the touching bond that develops between the Joel and Ellie over the course of its 10-12 hour tale. Equal parts Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and P.D. James’ Children of Men, with a liberal dash of Lord of the Flies and Romero’s Living Dead series, Naughty Dog managed to side-step the tired formula of zombie action games by switching the focus from horror and the monsters which populate the ruined future dystopia to the characters. As a result, writer Neil Druckmann is widely credited with being one of the biggest factors in the game’s success which, at time of writing, holds the record for being the most awarded game in the medium’s history, with over 200 awards to its name and recognition and respect from high-profile members of the movie-making industry. A prequel DLC, Left Behind, delved further into Ellie’s backstory, dealing with LGBT themes, childhood friendship and innocence in a post-apocalyptic world. As with the main game, it was critically acclaimed and even earned recognition from LGBT organizations the world over for its realistic and touching examination of sexuality. It was a wonderful conclusion and a heartfelt goodbye to a game which has touched millions the world over.
For the past 30 years, Naughty Dog has gradually refined its craft, building on almost every area of interactive creativity and going from strength to strength. As with everything, at some stage I’m
sure Naughty Dog will slip up and deliver a dud – and the further you get to the top, the easier it is to fall, and fall hard. It happens to even the best studio, and it may even happen with Uncharted 4, which remains a largely unknown quantity. But Naughty Dog shows no sign of slowing down and for now, they remain one of the best developers in the industry, commanding an almost Godlike respect. Even those who don’t appreciate their games will admit that they’re a force to be reckoned with, and it’s hard to find a developer that doesn’t recognize the impact Naughty Dog’s work has had on a variety of genres over the years.
Naughty Dog may have started from humble beginnings, making simple games for home computers; but they’re now at the top of their field – standing proudly alongside legendary figures such Miyamoto, Mikami, Spector and the legendary Bullfrog Productions. From Crash Bandicoot, to Jak, to Uncharted and The Last of Us, they’ve been responsible for some of the most memorable gaming experiences of the last 20 years. And that, my friends, is why they will always have a very special place in my heart.
[The featured image shown at the top of this article was originally created by comicleo. It is reproduced here under Fair Use guidelines]