Jak'd up on the way down
Mass Media did an exceptional job transferring Naughty Dog's beloved Jak and Daxter trilogy to the PlayStation 3. A faithful reproduction of the PlayStation 2's premier platformer was all that was necessary, but Mass Media iced the cake by stabilizing all three games at sixty frames-per-second (as god intended), establishing a suitable set of trophies for each game, and avoiding any of the weird, detrimental inconsistencies that sometimes plague HD collections (look at what happened to Silent Hill 2 and 3, for example). Whether or not Jak and Daxter’s adventures were more enjoyable than offerings from Ratchet and Clank or Sly Cooper will always be up for debate, but the Jak and Daxter Collection on PS3 was the definitive, better-than-the-original way to experience those three games.
The Vita version of the Jak and Daxter Collection is certainly not the best way to experience Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, Jak II, and Jak 3. In fact, each game is functionally inferior to their decade-old predecessors on PlayStation 2. What they gain in portability to loses in playability - a compromise that's a little hard to swallow. Before we get to why this collection stumbles and suffers, let's take a brief trip down memory lane and examine each game's time and place in interactive entertainment.
Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was Naughty Dog expelling demons forged by Crash Bandicoot. By the time their third game Crash Bandicoot: Warped came around, one could sense Naughty Dog was screaming to apply their talents beyond Crash's literal surroundings. What they delivered with The Precursor Legacy was the then-premier iteration of the 3D platformer; a vibrant beautiful world that pushed the genre forward both technically and interactively. In 2001 a complete absence of load times, dynamically shifting music, a day and night cycle, and quality voice acting were as appreciated as they were uncommon - and that's not even including competent platforming mechanics and levels designed to take advantage of them, two facets of platformers then-exclusive to Mario.
This isn't to suggest The Precursor Legacy didn't occasionally submit to cliché. Its environments ran the gamut of usual tropical islands, snowy peaks, fiery volcanoes, and claustrophobic jungles. As was the trend of the time, there was also a metric ton of stuff to collect, although a good deal of it was thankfully optional. The Precursor Legacy also suffered the usual trope of annoying missions (chasing down the moles in the Precursor Basin and dealing with virtually every part of Spider Cave is something I'll never enjoy). Those qualms aside, and condolences to Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, The Precursor Legacy remains the best pure platformer of its generation.
Jak II, on the other hand, is one of the most divisive games of its time. Rather than iterate upon a design Naughty Dog had already, quite frankly, perfected, they obliged influence from both Ratchet and Clank and Grand Theft Auto III. Gone was the platforming focus and happy-go-lucky atmosphere of the first game and in its place were hover cars, a variety of firearms, a gritty tone, and a true open world to explore. I have vivid memories of first taking in Jak II's Haven City and feeling blown away by the sheer amount of activity on screen - both the hover cars and pedestrians - and it was one of those rare moments when I had to pause the game and collect myself before proceeding. That situation is admittedly anecdotal, but it speaks to the power of Naughty Dog's programming team. In each generation, they've arguably gotten the most out of Sony's hardware.
I replayed Jak II to 100% completion a few months ago, and it didn't seem to hold up as well as its predecessor. Hover car traffic, and the vehicles’ tendency to explode at a moment's notice, was supremely aggravating. Likewise, certain missions (destroying the platforms in the sewers, anything that required an escort, and fighting through endless waves of aggressors in the Water Slums) through both pure difficulty and frequent bad luck rendered Jak II significantly harder than the other two games in the series - and probably one of the most difficult on the PlayStation 2. It felt more like a first attempt a wide variety of ideas that had yet to see significant refinement, leaving Jak II as a 1.0 version of mechanics that would later be improved by its sequel and other, similar games.
But, man, it's hard to fault Jak II's ambition. The game tried to retain its platforming chops with the occasional traditional mission. It integrated a hover board and full blown races into its open world. It maintained the illusion of zero load times and boasted an iconic, ominous soundtrack. It upped the storytelling of the series, complete with lovable (and gross) characters with legitimate twists, and an odd sense of joy in an otherwise disheartened world. Despite Haven City's dismal feel, the cleverly faked draw distance when standing atop the Baron's palace was mind-blowing at the time, and made for an unrivaled sense of scale. When it comes down to it Jak II errs on the side of greatness, even if it's been diminished by time.
Jak 3 was a more natural step forward. It retained Jak II's sandbox design, but expressed greater interest in the openness of its world. Casting Jak into the desert as a fugitive of Haven City, it gave way to an earthy, more organic Spargus City. Outside the city walls lied the Wasteland, a huge sprawling desert easily traversable through Jak 3's signature mechanic; dune buggies. Naughty Dog clearly spent a lot of time on nailing vehicle physics because, with the exception of some occasionally island hops, each of the dozen or so vehicles handles like dream. For once being tasked with hitting a bunch of checkpoints in an open world was fun and engaging rather than a chore bound to progression.
To put it simply, Jak 3 wasn’t subject to the variety of sins committed by its predecessor. Even when Jak returned to a recognizable but fundamentally different Haven City, it felt welcomed. The traffic had been smartly reduced, the pedestrians didn't get in the way nearly as much, and every activity tasked there was primed to take advantage of Jak 3's either new or greatly refined mechanics. Flying a hang glider, the considerable variety of weapon upgrades, the risk and reward of Light and Dark Jak, arena battles, and classic platforming all felt at home in Jak 3. As is the common case with Naughty Dog's third console entry, they always seem to save the best for last.
While these three games are some of the finest of their time, what Mass Media's compromised to translate the collection to Vita is not. While the original trilogy didn't (always) hit sixty frames-per-second, the HD reissue made it a point to 100% of the time. The Vita version, on the other hand, seems content to stick with thirty. This was actually jarring when I first booted The Precursory Legacy, to the point where I wondered if my copy was defective. Jak’s spin attack looked like it was missing animation, and other little touches, like the stars Jak sees after he rolls into a wall, were conspicuously absent. Jak II didn’t seem as bad off (or I was used to it at that point) but either way it's disappointing that Jak and Daxter's silky smooth visage has been reduced to a choppy mess by comparison.
Worse are the sacrifices made to accommodate a reduced controller layout. Tasks previously assigned to L2 and R2 have been shifted to the Vita’s rear touchpad, and results are nothing less than disastrous. As an adult with large hands there's literally no comfortable way for me to hold the Vita without cradling the back touchpad, which lead to all sorts of unnecessary commands. In the case of Jak II and Jak 3, said commands are tried to engaging Dark Jak, which means I was activating Dark Jak at increasingly inopportune times. Likewise, busting out the hover board and switching between high and low lanes with Jak II and Jak 3's vehicles can be equally infuriating. I don't know what the proper solution to this problem is, but it certainly wasn't employing the rear touch screen.
Adding touch controls to minigames doesn't do much to stop the bleeding, nor does the puzzling absence of a cross-save option. I understand the PlayStation 3 and Vita version of this collection were issued over a year apart, but it presents a lack of polish starkly uncharacteristic on current PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita releases. Even the (identical) trophy packs are separately unlocked, and while the price is $10 cheaper than new Vita titles, it's the same going rate as the PlayStation 3 Jak and Daxter Collection. Portability is the only feature of merit in this collection. If you're new to the series or simply can't get enough of Jak and Daxter, this might suffice, but otherwise I can't recommend it next to its dramatically superior console version.