The Holy Trinity of PS2 Platformers: Ratchet, Jak, Sly

The PlayStation 2 is remembered for a great many things: being an inexpensive DVD player, playing home to classics like Metal Gear Solid 2, Grand Theft Auto III, God of War, Shadow of the Colossus and Final Fantasy X, and selling like hotcakes. Of all the genres it proudly represented, none were more prominent than the 3D platformer. Yes, the house that Super Mario 64 built positively flourished on the PS2 and there were three franchises that carried its running, jumping and exploring spirit better than all others: Ratchet & Clank, Jak and Daxter and Sly Cooper.

The three studios responsible for the core games in these series, Insomniac Games, Naughty Dog and Sucker Punch Productions, would go on to create even bigger games and franchises for Sony on subsequent consoles. But there’s something special about the place in time in which each studio cranked out three big entries for the same wonderful system, for nine total experiences that still have fans clamoring for more (twelve, if you count Ratchet: Deadlocked and Jax X, which you shouldn’t). So here we pay tribute to those inexplicably fun experiences, go over what made each game special, see where the studios came from and where they’ll go from here.

Ratchet & Clank: A Lombax and His Backpack

Insomniac Games was founded in 1994 under Ted Price, who became involved in the industry as a young child. They released a first-person shooter called Disruptor for the original PlayStation in 1996, but they truly came into their own with the Spyro the Dragon trilogy of 3D platformers between 1998 and 2000 for the same console. But when Sony’s next system began to come into view, Insomniac decided they wanted to move forward from their little purple dragon. The property has since bounced around various publishers and developers, ultimately landing in the hands of Activision, who now use the property primarily for their Skylanders series.

Insomniac, on the other hand, began the hard work of dreaming up a new IP. They first resisted continuing down the 3D platformer path, and instead wanted to try their hand at something completely new. One of their first ideas was called Monster Knight, a third-person, real-time, action-adventure game that integrated monster catching mechanics with the playable character’s weapons and armor. The idea never got past early stages of development, however, as Insomniac decided to pursue a fantasy/adventure game tentatively titled Girl With a Stick. This “Tomb Raider meets Zelda” title was in development for about six months, and was scheduled to be a launch title for the PS2, but the development team lost interest, and felt that the game they were making really just wasn’t much fun. So, they decided to double down on 3D platformers, and with a little inspiration from Marvin the Martian and a jumpstart using Naughty Dog’s engine for Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank was born.

Ratchet & Clank was released in November 2002 – two years after the PS2’s launch. Ratchet & Clank was a natural evolution from Spyro the Dragon, with its focus on humor, platforming and anthropomorphic creatures. It was also a quantum leap in creativity, giving Ratchet various unique and futuristic weapons to wield over this twelve hour adventure. Ratchet, a fictional and furry creature known as a Lombax, met Clank by chance, a malfunctioning robot intended for evil that turned good. The two initially didn’t see eye to eye, but formed a synergistic bond, with Ratchet swinging his massive wrench and doing the legwork while Clank offered various traversal advantages, like transforming into a propeller-pack, underwater jetpack, and more. Ratchet & Clank was reimagined for the PS4 in 2016.

Between the development of the last Spyro game and the second Ratchet & Clank, Insomniac grew from a team of about 25 people to a whopping 50+ employees. That second game, Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando took everything that made the original great and improved upon it substantially. There were more weapons, bigger environments, more environments, a higher level of difficulty, a story that further ingrained Ratchet and his pal Clank into the video game lexicon and a graphics and performance upgrade fitting of such a tech-centric game. It reviewed even better than its predecessor and was released just one year later. The series would only go up from here.

Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal took all of these improvements just one step further, giving players the ability to customize their weapons like never before, introduced new traversal equipment, and gave the player more armor and other defense options unavailable in previous releases. It, once again, only took Insomniac one year to crank out this sequel, but it is widely considered to be the best game in the series. Of the three main-line Ratchet & Clank games to grace the PS2, Arsenal is almost undeniably the best.

Following this trio of games, Insomniac released the arena-style (and generally less exceptional) Ratchet: Deadlocked. They went on to create a trilogy of Resistance games for the PS3, a few more Ratchet and Clank titles for the PS3 and PS4, and are currently working on the upcoming Spider-Man game exclusively for the PS4. Only time will tell if Insomniac will return to new Ratchet games in the future, but the series has become a mainstay in the video game world – it’s hard to imagine them ignoring it for long.

Jak and Dakter: A Boy and His Ottsel

Naughty Dog has become the king of the playground. After all, the Uncharted series has been an unstoppable train of praise and sales, The Last of Us and its story about love still has fans clamoring for more, and its sequel is hotly anticipated by almost everyone in the industry. But they started from much more humble beginnings. Naughty Dog started as JAM software in 1984, which stood for Jason and Andy’s Magic – a project by then-high school friends Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin. They primarily worked on games for the Apple II, which ultimately culminated in the release of an RPG called Keef the Thief in 1989, by which point they officially changed their name to Naughty Dog.

After Universal Interactive Studios offered Naughty Dog a three-game contract in 1995, Naughty Dog decided to start producing a game for the then-upcoming PlayStation instead of the 3DO where they had most recently released a fighting game called Way of the Warrior. For their next game, they took inspiration from Looney Tunes and Donkey Kong Country and created a new orange, bipedal, zany character known as Crash Bandicoot. Their 3D platformer infamously confounded developers on the PlayStation, as it seemingly broke various established architecture rules in order to achieve the graphical fidelity that it did. Naughty Dog was rushed to make two sequels: Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back and Crash Bandicoot: Warped, as well as the kart racing game, Crash Team Racing. After finishing these games, Naughty Dog walked away from Universal and the Crash IP (which would eventually go on to Activision) – Sony bought Naughty Dog in 2001, while their first PS2 game was in development.

Following up Crash was a daunting feat: he had become the de-facto PlayStation mascot, the games sold millions and were beloved by fans and critics alike. Naughty Dog decided to keep the spirit of Crash Bandicoot in their next game, but wanted it to be “bigger, better, and more open-ended.” Naughty Dog grew substantially under Sony’s management, and in December 2001, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was released. It was, in fact, far bigger, better, and more open-ended than Crash, with a heavier emphasis on story and exploration. Jak seemed to just be a normal boy, and his friend Daxter a wisecracking sidekick who fell into a pool of dark eco (i.e., evil goo) and came back out as an ottsel (an otter/weasel hybrid). The two would jump, spin, and generally bash their way through this ten hour journey. Jak and Daxter received critical acclaim and is widely considered to be the best game in the series, selling over 2 million units over its lifespan.

Naughty Dog didn’t rest on their laurels with a sequel, however, as its sequel perhaps had more differences than similarities to its predecessor. Jak II dropped Daxter’s name and the subtitle the original went with, added a decidedly darker tone to the story, traveled into a futuristic dystopian setting, included upgradeable guns, upped the difficulty substantially and gave it a semi-open world structure that made this follow up far more massive than perhaps even the developers intended. The game was heavily influenced by Grand Theft Auto III, and it retained far less of its platformer roots than its predecessor – though it was still decidedly an action-platformer above all else. This move towards a more mature type of game stuck with Naughty Dog up through today, and has ultimately paid off for the company. During this period, Naughty Dog openly shared technology with Insomniac, and Insomniac reciprocated by improving upon their technology and sending it back. The two companies and their IP’s (Jak and Ratchet) became inextricably linked in the minds of fans.

Jak 3 retained much of Jak II’s DNA, as it continued its streak of seriousness, gunplay and an open-world structure. It eased up on the difficulty significantly, and included Mad Max/Smuggler’s Run influenced dune buggy sequences to the game, making it even more massive and sprawling than ever before. It introduced Light Jak, a counterpart to the dark transformation created in Jak II, and ultimately tied together the series wonderfully. The dune buggy sections helped inspire a final entry for Naughty Dog in the series – Jak X: Combat Racing. It took Naughty Dog less than a year to complete this vehicular combat game, and it served as a nice transitioning tool for the two new leads of the company to take over: Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra.

Under new leadership, Naughty Dog went on to create the Uncharted series, which has become one of the most well-regarded franchises in the industry. The development of these games was wrought with difficulties, however, and the team barely made it out of the transition to the PS3 intact. Ultimately, Naughty Dog created five Uncharted games, and cranked out The Last of Us – a post-apocalyptic third-person shooting game that has been heralded as one of the greatest games of all time. They’ve left the Uncharted IP behind for the time being, and are hard at work on The Last of Us Part II for the PS4. It’s unclear if Naughty Dog will ever return to Jak and Daxter, but they’ve more than toyed with the idea in the past. It would be unfortunate if the franchise were to fade away indefinitely, but there’s always a chance that Naughty Dog, or even another development team, could return to the series in the future.

Sly Cooper: A Raccoon and His Gang

Unlike Insomniac and Naughty Dog, Sucker Punch Productions had never worked on a Sony console prior to the PS2. In fact, they only had one game under their belt prior to working on Sony’s second console – Rocket: Robot on Wheels, a 3D platformer for the N64. It used a semi-realistic physics engine to fuel its dynamic puzzles and gameplay, and was supposed to be titled Sprocket before a trademark dispute forced them to change it just a few months before the game released in 1999. The team then created their own gameplay engine called SPACKLE (Sucker Punch Animated and Character Kinematics Life Engine) to run games on a next-generation system. They ended up producing three games in a single series for the PS2: Sly Cooper.

Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus was released on September 23, 2002 to positive critical reception. It was immediately recognized for its comic-book art style, as it used extensive cel-shading technology to create both expressive characters and interesting backgrounds while taxing the hardware very little – much like Nintendo did with The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Unlike Ratchet and Jak, Sly Cooper had a focused emphasis on stealth, but its style of sneaking was a lot more forgiving than total stealth-action games, like Metal Gear Solid or Syphon Filter. At its core, however, it’s a smart platformer with intriguing worlds, and a couple of fun sidekicks to go heisting with: Bentley the Turtle, and Murray the Hippo. It was a shorter game than its contemporaries, clocking in at only seven hours, but it became a delightful foundation to build more intricate games off of in the future.

Sly 2: Band of Thieves brought so many new ideas  to the table, it feels like more of a reboot of the series than a standard sequel. In the game, players could finally control Bentley and Murray, with Bentley acting as more of a strategic technophile, and Murray providing the muscle and comedic relief in the gang. The crew traveled to locations like Paris, Prague and Canada, planning out heists to recover scattered parts of the original game’s main villain, a giant mechanical owl named Clockwerk. Each new world included a safe house that players could plan their next move in and evade capture from guards. Each world sprawled, and almost felt like a set of small open-world environments that the player could explore to their heart’s content. Sly 2 is widely considered to be the best of the series, and it stands the test of time for balancing stealth, exploration, platforming and humor brilliantly. Further ingraining Sly’s connection with the other major 3D platformers for the system, a demo for Sly 2 was included with Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal.

Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves operated as a late-life addition to the PS2, coming out in September 2005. Though not quite as well received as its predecessor, Sly 3 built upon the base set by Sly 2 and continued its trend of blending platforming, stealth and semi-open worlds. Even more playable characters became available, including Inspector Carmelita Fox, a mystic shaman called The Guru, Bentley’s romantic interest Penelope mouse and more. Each character brought unique abilities to the table, and gave Sly 3 the most variety of any game in the series. It perhaps came with too much content, too many playable characters, that the gameplay felt as if it were being stretched just a little thin in the process. The story offered a satisfying (albeit temporary) conclusion to the gang’s adventures, and remains a satisfying adventure through and through.

Following the Sly trilogy, Sucker Punch started work on the open-world, super-power infused InFamous series, with two full releases on the PS3, and the excellent InFamous: Second Son for the PS4. Since releasing some standalone DLC for Second Son, Sucker Punch has been whiling away the hours on their new IP, Ghost of Tsushima for the PS4. It’s an open-world game set in feudal Japan, where the player controls the island’s last surviving samurai. Another developer, Sanzaru Games, made a fourth Sly Cooper game for the PS3, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. It’s a fun adventure that looks and plays very much like its predecessors, but didn’t contain a huge amount of its own ideas. Earlier this year, Sony announced that an animated TV show of Sly Cooper was in the works. Sucker Punch may very well return to Sly Cooper in the future, but for now, their sights are set on Japan.

All Their Powers Combined

Between Ratchet, Jak and Sly, nine 3D platformers of excellent quality hit the PS2 over a four-year period between 2001 and 2005. This trio of franchises complemented each other beautifully. Where Ratchet & Clank focused on crazy weapons, Jak and Daxter took a closer look at exploration. Where Sly Cooper reveled in stealth mechanics, the others decided to display a more action-forward approach. Ratchet & Clank became more humorous with each game, Jak and Daxter doubled down on a darker tone and Sly became a nuanced, lighthearted noir game. Ratchet had Clank, Jak had Daxter, and Sly had Bentley and Murray – each game explored themes of friendship, teamwork and the disunity that often crops up in the strongest of relationships. But most importantly, all nine of these games were excellent 3D platformers through and through, making the PS2 perhaps the greatest system the genre has ever seen.

The legacy of each series carries on in its own ways. Each franchise released an HD remaster trilogy: Ratchet & Clank Collection, Jak and Daxter Collection and The Sly Collection, respectively. Ratchet is the only series that has continued on regularly since the PS2 days, but it’s possible for any one of these franchises to return in the future. None of the three have appeared properly outside of a Sony console and each set of characters stand on their own as mascots for PlayStation to this day. Though each developer is still working for or with Sony actively, they don’t seem to share the same bond that they did during the sixth generation of video game consoles. Insomniac remains independent and delivers a wide-variety of games for multiple platforms, Sucker Punch has begun to focus entirely on open-world experiences and Naughty Dog is perhaps the greatest developer of story-centric adventure games in the industry. The fact that these franchises thrived like they did and coexisted alongside one another during their time and place in history is a testament to their individual strengths and outright high levels of quality. Here’s to a future with more 3D platformers: only time will tell if Sony will once again lead the charg, or if games like Super Mario Odyssey will keep it going strong on the Switch.