Nathan Drake’s explosive finale is currently swashbuckling its way across screens worldwide – the latest stunning achievement from a studio with a rich heritage to their name.
But Naughty Dog haven’t always been the best-selling Uncharted behemoth we’re all familiar with today; founded in 1984, creators Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin were simply two young guys with a passion for video games at the cusp of a rising industry.
Emanating from this passion, the pair pioneered a legacy of excellence by seamlessly combining eye-catching graphics, memorable characters and bold new touches that sent tremors of excitement throughout gaming.
Here’s a potted history of Naughty Dog’s key landmarks – and the influence and inspiration they’ve provided.
Naughty Dog’s console debut, Crash Bandicoot, blitzed its way onto the original PlayStation back in ’96 in the form of an eccentric orange marsupial with a penchant for oversized fruit.
As the titular bandicoot named Crash, you traversed a host of 3D and quasi-3D levels; jumping and wildly spinning through obstacles, running into the screen from rolling boulders, and away from the screen on runaway hogs, as you attempted to save your girlfriend – and stop a mad scientist’s plans for world domination.
As well as being both seriously challenging and superb fun, what made this zany adventure stand-out was its successful bridging of 2D and 3D platforming, showing a brave new world beyond the classic side-scrolling platformers like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario.
Naughty Dog had added more depth to the gameplay – literally – allowing players to effortlessly traverse an extra dimension through a plucky, fast-paced protagonist adorned in beautifully rendered textures.
It wasn’t long before marsupial madness consumed gamers worldwide, and Crash Bandicoot became the new face of PlayStation; its technical prowess setting the bar high for other titles.
Soon a whole host of 3D platformers with wacky lead characters quickly followed suit: Croc: Legend of the Gobbos, Spyro the Dragon and even Rayman were all drawing inspiration from the triumph that was Crash.
Innovation – and the seeds of narrative excellence
The spiritual successor to Crash Bandicoot came in the form of a 3D platform adventure on PlayStation 2 in 2001, revolving around two outlandish characters named Jak and Daxter: a young elf-like troublemaker and his comical furry partner in crime.
In Jak and Daxter, Naughty Dog placed a greater emphasis on narrative, integrating gameplay and story elements to weave a surprisingly compelling adventure filled with amusing dialogue. At the time, these techniques felt almost revolutionary, but Naughty Dog didn’t stop there.
Jak and Daxter was littered with innovative technical improvements including the ability for players to seamlessly transition between levels without seeing a loading screen. An advanced animation engine breathed added life, and a dynamic day and night cycle was even implemented to breath realism into the world.
Some of these techniques are taken for granted today, but they had real impact at the dawn of the millennium; and in the years that followed a host of quirky platform adventure titles featuring charismatic anthropomorphic mammals began to surface, chief among those being Sly Cooper and Ratchet and Clank.
Fast-forward six years to the PlayStation 3, where Naughty Dog embraced a whole other genre and raised the bar yet further; by pushing graphical limits and adding a layered narrative supported by an intricate tapestry of characters, headed up by a sharp-witted icon in the making.
Lo, the Uncharted franchise was born.
Debuting in 2007, Naughty Dog went from creating quirky animalistic characters and cartoon, family-friendly antics to placing a greater emphasis on realism, this time committing to a human protagonist in an action-adventure epic.
Enter Nathan Drake, the charismatic, quick witted, fearless treasure hunter; Naughty Dog had found their dashing ‘movie star’.
Initially, many parallels were drawn between Uncharted and Tomb Raider, with Nathan Drake’s globetrotting quest for treasure reminiscent of Lara Croft’s own adventures. However, it was Naughty Dog’s ability to create a powerful cast of characters and conceive truly astonishing cinematic moments that lead to Nathan Drake usurping Lara Craft as the dominant treasure hunter in video games.
From Assassin’s Creed to, somewhat ironically, the newly rebooted Tomb Raider franchise, the seeds of Naughty Dog’s influence can be seen as a growing number of video games placed greater emphasis on dazzling spectacle and cinematic set-pieces, keeping players engaged through spectacular blockbuster moments as the narrative unfolds.
The Uncharted series set a new standard for third-person adventuring. But it wouldn’t be the developer’s sole major contribution to the previous generation.
Far from the last of them
The PlayStation 3’s swan song came in the form of The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s astonishing post-apocalyptic saga that revolved around two sympathetic, relatable characters, Joel and Ellie, as they struggled to survive in a disease-ravaged world overrun with twisted creatures and deranged humans.
Here, Naughty Dog made the clear decision to scale back on explosive set pieces in favour for a more subtle and nuanced experience; a slower pace focusing more on the bond between Joel and Ellie than simple shock and awe.
Expressive interactions were captured through powerful performances that carried emotion in every syllable, allowing Naughty Dog to craft believable characters that had us invest thoroughly in the suspenseful tale. If Uncharted has always been about entertaining escapism, this was about raw, heartbreaking realism.
It was this attention to Joel and Ellie that reverberated through the games industry, encouraging developers to create dynamic characters full of depth.
It’s unlikely we’d be seeing the current boom in story-led experiences and hard-hitting character pieces from both indie and Triple A studios, were it not for The Last Of Us selling like hotcakes and garnering countless ‘Game Of The Year’ accolades – proving that sometimes, just sometimes, it actually pays for games to take themselves seriously.
The next generation
Out in recent days, and wowing gamers the world over, Uncharted 4 draws influence from the now-extensive toolbox Naughty Dog has spent years developing. The result is an adventure full of incredible cinematic moments, innovative gameplay and powerful characters.
From cartoon bandicoots to blockbuster boundary-pushers, it’s been quite the journey so far.