The first video game I ever remember playing was 'Crash Bandicoot' on my new Playstation when I was 4, and ever since then, I've been hooked. Not with video games as such mind you, but specifically the video game developers Naughty Dog, and as the company grew and matured, I grew and matured along with it, and seemed to be perfectly aligned with the target audience as each of their 13 titles were released.
I'm an adult now, and as such I feel in what is sort of a tribute to this amazing company, and also a treat for myself to write about them, I have ranked their games from least best to best. Here we go!
13. 'Jak X: Combat Racing' (2005)
'Jak X: Combat Racing', the fourth and final game in the 'Jak and Daxter' series which Naughty Dog would produce, truly feels like it may be the only misstep in the company's incredible legacy. Complete with a slightly out-of-place soundtrack by early Queens of the Stoneage, the entire thing just feels kind of like a redundant shoe-horned entry to close out the Playstation 2 era.
As with all of Naughty Dog's games, there's a huge emphasis on story, which serves 'Jak X' pretty well in bumping it up to be more than just a racing game, but it is definitely the weakest story in the series. The races themselves leave something to be desired, and despite having all the ingredients for a great party game, I don't think I ever saw anyone other than myself playing this game, even for its multiplayer, which is strange considering the cult status of ND's previous racing spin-off.
12. 'Uncharted: Drake's Fortune' (2007)
You know this is a quality company when a game as good as this is ranked so low. I'm not the first to say that while Naughty Dog's launch onto the Playstation 3 was a fun and new release, 'Uncharted: Drake's Fortune' is not the most original game. That's fine though, because it served its purpose by being visually stunning and the real-world setting allowed for a more 'grown up' story to be told, and the sequels totally kicked ass.
However at the time (I was 14), the little kid inside me was still clamouring for the next generation 'Jak' game that we would basically never get (if you don't count those abominations 'Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier' or that stupid Jak/Ratchet/Sly Racoon game that no one in the world played).
That first 'Uncharted' game really nailed the 'Indiana Jones' styled explorative adventure that kids like me had nurtured growing up. It was a simple game, but it served its purpose.
11. 'Crash Team Racing' (1999)
I haven't met one person who dislikes 'Crash Team Racing', the final instalment in ND's 'Crash Bandicoot' series, which, like 'Jak X' six years later (side note: wow! only six years? That felt like my entire childhood!), would close out the original PS1 era of Naughty Dog's pantheon.
Only for some reason, 'CTR' is regarded as a classic which people still play today, where 'Jak X' seems mostly forgotten. This is strange, because 'Jak X' is arguably more of an original game, taking everything 'CTR' (which is basically just a 'Mario Kart' clone with better graphics and controls) had built and expanding upon it, but I guess the difference is 'Jak X' maybe took itself too seriously, while Crash and his wacky friends were silly enough to justify changing genres at the end of a series, and because of this the nostalgic quirky characters and exciting level designs of 'CTR' live on in the hearts of thousands of millennials.
10. 'Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy' (2001)
I remember BEGGING my parents to buy me a Playstation 2 so I could play this game. 'Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy' blew everyone away when it was released, sporting an open world environment with no loading screens, a brand new IP for Sony and of course, hilarious characters.
I can't remember how many times I played this game, enough for me to quote it off by heart and get 101% with my eyes closed. It's funny, because going back, and ignoring the ways it and its sister series 'Ratchet and Clank' paved for platform games, it isn't really that great of a game. It uses pretty basic and unoriginal gameplay techniques, and the story isn't that amazing and doesn't really make sense in parts when viewing it with the rest of the series (dark eco turns Daxter into an Ottsel but makes Jak and badass demon in the second game? okay), but I played it with wide-eyed wonder back when I was 8, and I'd continue to replay it over and over for years to come.
9. 'Crash Bandicoot' (1996)
This entry on my list is probably my most contested. Pure, unabashed nostalgia makes me want to put it in the top 3, but when I truly look at it with the rest of the games Naughty Dog has made, its notorious difficulty and shoddy controls land it at number 9. That's the thing though, I love this game for how stupidly hard it is, and I love that 50% of the reason it's so hard is because it is so damn finicky to maneuver Crash with the D-pad, especially while jumping across a narrow set of floating boxes above certain death.
The story is simple, the bosses seem to alternate between really easy and nearly impossible, there's a strange half-hearted environmentalism theme that you won't see in any of the other games and the save system is unforgiving, allowing you only to save your progress if you complete one of the treacherous bonus stages which spread themselves thin across level to level.
The game is so bizarrely difficult with levels like 'The Road to Nowhere' or the infamous 'Slippery Climb', that your frustration reaches into overdrive and it just becomes fun and silly again. All of these aspects are what make this game great, and almost none of them are intentional.
Good luck getting 100% on this game without using the all levels SUPER password (Triangle, Triangle, Triangle, Triangle, X, Square, Triangle, Triangle, Triangle, Triangle, Square, X, Triangle, Circle, Triangle, Triangle, Triangle, Circle, Square, Triangle, X, X, X, X).
8. 'Crash Bandicoot: Warped' (1998)
I think a lot of critics regarded the third 'Crash Bandicoot' game as objectively the best of the original four, but for me the advanced game mechanics (such as double jumps, sprinting and operating a bazooka) which made the game so adored by fans, don't outweigh the lack of atmosphere 'Warped' has compared to the previous two entries in the series.
Now, before you click out of this blog in a huff, I should mention that I do love this game, and out of all the original 'Crash' games this is the one I remember playing the most as a kid, but I'm just saying that as a trade-off for the fun time travel theme of this game, which takes Crash and his sister Coco from medieval castles to futuristic cities, it loses the lost-in-the-wilderness feel of the other two in the franchise.
Even though the original 'Crash' game was the only one to actually have you progress linearly from place to place, 'Crash 2' still felt like you were moving forward, with each new warp room of levels becoming more dangerous and darker than the last. 'Warped' kind of throws you all over the place, and so it doesn't feel like stakes are getting higher as you move through the game.
HOWEVER, with some of the greatest levels designs in platformer history, a multitude of different vehicles to drive/animals to ride (all which operate in their own unique way), and the inclusion of important characters like Uka Uka, Dingodile and N. Trophy, I would be lying to myself by placing it any lower on this list.
7. 'Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back' (1997)
I didn't know what a sequel was until this game. I vaguely remember looking at a pamphlet with my mum in 1997 and being so confused by the concept of "another 'Crash Bandicoot' game". A few months later I remember getting out of bed at night to discover my dad had bought and was playing the game with my mum and brother.
Combined with the collectable trading cards and the irrevocable way this particular game influenced my family and my 4-and-a-half-year-old memories at the time, it has become, and always will be my favourite 'Crash Bandicoot' game. Everything about 'Cortex Strikes Back' is exciting. The new levels, the warp rooms, the bosses, THE ADORABLE POLAR BEAR, the secret levels that were each accessed by discovering secret paths in other levels (WHICH LEAD YOU TO A SECRET SIXTH WARP ROOM!!!). Even the story is pretty good compared to the relatively simple plot of the first game; slowly learning Cortex is using you and getting mysterious broken warning messages from Coco and Nitrus Brio actually made a pretty interesting and rich narrative, which serves now as an indication of the storytelling heights Naughty Dog have proved themselves capable of.
We eventually lost or sold our original copy, and I remember 3 years later pretending to be sick to get the day off school because my dad had promised to hire out 'Crash Bandicoot 2' for me if I wasn't well enough to go to school. Haha.
6. 'Jak 3' (2004)
I think 'Jak 3' may have been the first game I ever bought with my own money. I was 10 or 11 when it came out, and I had somehow saved up $110 to go and pre-order my copy from EB games.
I remember being so excited, reading gaming magazines, watching trailers, so unbelievably pumped for the game, and it did not disappoint. The only reason I rank it lower than 'Jak II' on this list is because I don't feel the story or its ending are as strong as its predecessor, but everything else was, and is, immaculate. You're just thrown into the middle of a desert at the start of the game, and the plot, which if you've forgotten involved with finding your entrance back into Haven City, balancing the new angelic 'Light Jak' form, stopping a giant monster ship from destroying the world and exploring ancient temples, combined with the game play mechanic of surviving in wasteland sandstorms, hooning over sand dunes in dope-ass dune buggies, flying with your new angel wings and even more developed Daxter playable stages, made 'Jak 3' such a wonderfully rich experience.
By this stage as well, I cared so deeply for each of the characters, making me so invested in this adventure. Oh, and the plot twist towards the end of the game remains to this day one of the greatest moments in a story I have ever witnessed.
5. 'Jak II: Renegade' (2003)
Darkness. Violence. Guns. Swearing. This was probably the most grown-up game I had ever played at the time. I couldn't get my hands on a copy for a while, I remember finally getting the game for my birthday, probably six months or so before 'Jak 3' came out. So much of my 10-year-old self was ruled by this game. I played it all the time, and when I finally finished the story, I would continue to play it for the side-quests, which to this day I've still yet to complete.
Games back then felt like you could play them forever and never find all the hidden treasures, and as I've got older and have found less time to play games all the time, 'Jak II' and 'Jak 3' are probably the last games I ever continued after beating the final boss. 'Jak II' is also the last game I remember legitimately taking me a few weeks to finish, everything I've played since then has only seemed to take me a couple of days.
Anyway, what I love about this game, outside of all the obvious things like the 'Grand Theft Auto' inspired carjacking mechanics, exploring the free roaming city, riding a hoverboard around and destroying armies of Metalheads with a Dark Jak bomb, is that the story was so weighty. It kind of disowns the original 'Jak and Daxter' game in a way that suggests maybe ND regretted making it so kid friendly, and as such this darker sequel takes itself completely seriously while still maintaining charm and cheekiness (mostly through Daxter and Pecker). Jak is actually developed as a character instead of just a mute Link clone, the mythology of the Precursors and time travel and Haven city is built in such a way that there could still be material to mine from this world for future games (fingers crossed), and the stakes are heightened consistently through the game to the point where the entire city is under attack and it is up to YOU, player, to save everyone.
It's nothing short of genius. Where 'Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy' kind of set up the characters and their history, and 'Jak 3' built on the characters and the world, 'Jak II' is where it all started, and the incredible story it carries on its shoulders is damn near pitch perfect.
4. 'Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception' (2011)
'Uncharted 3' is hands down the most fun I've ever had playing a game. Drake gets absolutely pummelled in this venture, going from sinking cruise ship to crashing cargo plane to wandering hopelessly through a desert. That moment, where you fall out of the plane and you have to control Drake as he free-falls, flailing in the wind like a leaf, so that he can land on a falling cargo crate which holds a parachute, is the most breathtaking ten seconds of gameplay I've ever played through.
What 'Drake's Deception' mastered, which was set up in the second game 'Among Thieves', was controlling the character through scenes that would be a cutscene in any other game.
The main problem with 'Drake's Deception' in the end, is that the story kind of sucks. Maybe that's too harsh, and I feel bad because I know that this game was the turning point for Naughty Dog, where they especially focused on story to enhance the player experience, but that's why I question how they chose their narrative for this game.
It seemed (and I recall somewhere where the developers acknowledged this), that they chose the story based on where they wanted Drake to go in the game, instead of developing the story first and placing the set-pieces within this. The result is such that you go from the aforementioned sinking cruise ship to the aforementioned crashing cargo plane within maybe 20 minutes of gameplay. It just ended up feeling ridiculous and inorganic that this character would concisely go from one giant wreck to another, it was almost like there was an omnipotent force specifically punishing the guy.
Luckily, the game is balls-to-the-wall fun which makes up for a lot more than you'd guess, and judging by later entries Naughty Dog have changed their storytelling philosophy to the more organic method.
3. 'Uncharted 4: A Thief's End' (2016)
Interestingly enough, 'Uncharted 4', which as of writing this came out about two weeks ago, falls down in the exact opposite way of the third game. While 'Uncharted 3' had too much focus on gameplay instead of story, 'A Thief's End' focuses so much on story that I don't remember once getting that same thrill from the last two games; there's no falling out of planes, there's no traversing ancient forgotten monuments as they crumble beneath your feet, but there is a lot of character exploration.
The final (?) game in the series felt very much like a sequel to 'The Last of Us' as opposed to the previous entries in the 'Uncharted' series, and I think Naughty Dog clearly took what they got right in their critically acclaimed zombie epic and implemented it into this new game, and as a result this both swings and misses.
It is definitely the most emotional and introspective game in the series, which is great for story, though at times a little awkward when characters slip in and out of deep discussions in between life threatening gun fights as if they weren't any trouble. Still, I found myself pretty invested in Drake and his friends in 'A Thief's End', and it actually made me care a lot more for the character, more than I had already done in previous games. If this truly is the last 'Uncharted' game, then it's a worthy adventure to ride out on.
2. 'Uncharted 2: Among Thieves' (2009)
What a game. Anyone who was questioning Naughty Dog's jump to a new franchise with 'Drake's Fortune' didn't say a word when this masterpiece hit the shelves. Even from the trailers you could tell the first 'Uncharted' sequel was going to blow people away.
I love the snowy theme of this game, I love that you begin the game desperately escaping the derailed train carriage which hangs off the edge of a cliff, I love the twists and turns of the story, which actually rises all the elements from the tentative first game into a genuinely intriguing and deliciously dark tale.
It's easy to see how Naughty Dog got a little too excited with its set pieces in the third game, because all the similar moments from 'Among Thieves' are so damn cool. Escaping the collapsing building in Tibet and fighting bad guys on top of a train as it speeds through the mountains are my two favourite moments. I also think that the reveal of Shambala is the most interesting and visually stunning lost city out of the four games, and the terrifying purple-skinned natives and the big Russian villain add great tension to the game too.
'Among Thieves' is very much the 'Empire Strikes Back' of the 'Uncharted' series, and for a long time I would have told you it was the greatest game I've ever played, until...
1. 'The Last of Us' (2013)
I feel like it is a little cliche to praise this game, and even to put it at the top of my list, but I can't help myself. 'The Last of Us' is pretty much the greatest game I've ever played, Naughty Dog or otherwise. It's so grounded compared to the 'Uncharted' games that they almost look silly in comparison. You can't scale buildings as crotchety old Joel, and crouching behind shelter won't replenish your health without a med kit, which like the weapons and other items in the game, you are forced to construct yourself with scraps you've found through scavenging. You have to be a scavenger to survive this game, which I haven't seen done anywhere else.
On top of that, the fact that so much of the game is filled with small PLAYABLE moments of reflection and daily life make it an unforgettable experience. Now, the shooting and the zombies and the survival horror of this dark world are all pluses, but what really makes me want to play this game over and over is the moments of humanity and relationship sprinkled throughout: The optional conversations you can prompt with Ellie about life before the infection, or explaining how to whistle or observing old forgotten movie posters. I don't think I've ever cared more for a pair of video game characters as much as I cared about Joel and Ellie.
This game was huge when it came out, but the story is so wonderful and nuanced compared to other big games at the time. It wasn't boastful. It was quiet, and told a beautiful story with razor sharp precision. Every moment in this game is placed exactly where it needs to be, and it just wouldn't be the same as a movie or a TV show, because as a playable interactive medium, it becomes so deeply personal. This is my favourite game of all time, and I rank it higher than a lot of my favourite movies and TV shows in terms of visual storytelling.
It wouldn't be fair to close out this list without mentioning a few other games. The first and most obvious one is 'Left Behind' the 3-hour spin-off to 'The Last of Us' which came out as DLC in 2014. Since it isn't really a full length game, I didn't want to rank it with the others, though to be honest, it's right up there with the original game for me, taking the aspect of playing through seemingly small and redundant tasks and moments of life (taking photos at a photobooth, having a water gun fight and practicing your best ROAR to name a few) and cranking it up to make a very sweet coming-of-age story.
I'd also like to recommend 'Uncharted: Golden Abyss', a Playstation Vita launch title in 2011 that wasn't actually made by Naughty Dog, but I found it to be a pretty great game and at the time remember thinking it was at least a better story than 'Drake's Deception'. I could be wrong though, I only played it once.
Similarly, the Playstation Portable 'Daxter' spin-off in 2006 was alright too, the gameplay was fun, and it was cool to return to familiar territory, but I don't think it has aged well.
I would love to know YOUR thoughts on Naughty Dog's impressive legacy! Tell me how you'd rank the games in the comments, or tweet @CultPopture. Tell me I'm wrong.
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About the Author:
Alexander Jones (AJ) really likes movies and TV. He really likes you too. You can find more of his stuff all over Cult Popture, in the blogs, vlogs and podcasts