You know, video games have had a history of referencing or building mirrors of themselves for some time. I’m sure everyone remembers Mario showing up as the referee in Punch Out back on the original Nintendo. In 2009, we all found it oddly coincidental that two super hero sandbox games, Infamous and Prototype, released in the exact same time window. I think we all just finaly got over calling Nathan Drake “Dude Raider” or “Man Croft” or whatever. Ironically enough, now anytime you see a new guy with brown scruffily hair, broad shoulders, a cleft chin, and voiced by Nolan North, they’re all basically trying to become the second coming of Nathan Drake, so now the supposed copier is being copied.
And yet there is one parallel in the gaming universe that has always puzzled me, mostly because I can never tell whether it was intentional or coincidental. Being a hybrid Nintendo/Sony fan, this pairing actually came to me quite early in my gaming career. I have always wanted to wait until the perfect moment so I could address this topic at my intellectual best, but as of now, it has set on the backburner of my mind for so long that I simply feel like winging it. Therefore, today’s Let’s Think Deep is about Link from the Legend of Zelda Series and Jak from the Jak and Daxter series: Two video game characters that are similar, but different.
This will be the first time I have physically placed these two characters back to back with one another, and simply looking at their design, the writing is on the wall. Both characters are young males roughly 16-18 years of age. Both have blonde hair and blue eyes. Both have long elf-like ears. Both of their attires include fingerless gloves, boots, skirts, and over-the-shoulder belts where they place their respective weapon of choice.
But those are simply visual comparisons. How do they stack up plot-wise? Well, both Link and Jak (whose real name is Mar) are descendants of legendary heroes, of which they are so named after. Both explore vast open worlds with people always asking them to perform fetch quests. Both are granted magic powers from lost deities they find hidden in temples, shrines, and underground caves. Both travel through time. Both battle hoards upon hoards of monster-like minions that are simply smaller lesser versions of what the final boss turns out to be. (Bokoblins are to Ganon as Metalheads are to Kor.)
That’s a lot of coincidences. Of course it’s easy for anyone to notice all these parallels between two games and jump to the conclusion that one ripped off the other, and seeing as in this case Link predates Jak, the accusation would fall to Naughtydog. Now I know I’ve gone on record saying Naughtydog is my all time favorite video game company ever, so you all might just have to take this with a grain of salt and trust that I’m being honest and not bias here, but I seriously do not believe that was Naughtydog’s intention. Jak creators Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin have always put gameplay first in all of their projects, and the first Jak and Daxter, more than anything, was trying to be like Super Mario 64, Banjo Kazooie, and other golden age platformers. The second and third Jak games played more like a sci fi/fantasy version of GTA. Those gameplay mechanics, mixed with the mythos and design parallels to Zelda, was what truly made the whole experience unique. That said, let’s look further in detail at how some of these parallels differ.
Another parallel I have yet to mention was that in the first Jak and Daxter game, Jak was a silent protagonist just like Link. He was a strong silent void who let his mentor, love interest, nemesis, neighbors, and support partner do all the talking, just like Link. Yet despite not having a single line of dialogue, the developers still went through the trouble of hiring him a voice actor to give him plenty of grunting and shouting to do throughout his battles, again, just like Link.
But here’s the big difference. In The Legend of Zelda series, they give the players the choice to exchange Link’s name with their own. The idea was that the player is inserting themselves and their own persona into the main protagonist. So how you react and what you say while playing the Zelda game is supposedly what Link is doing, but you have to use your imagination a bit. While Jak was a silent protagonist, he was already given enough of a name and persona that the game didn’t really adhere toward any player injection. Plus, when Jak and Daxter added the additional element of actual voices for every other member of the cast, the element of Jak remaining silent felt and sounded all the more distracting and out-of-place then when you’re just reading speech bubbles in a Zelda game.
Therefore, Naughtydog remedied that by giving Jak a voice in the sequels and had him regularly converse and interact with the rest of the cast. That was the point where Jak came around to be a fully realized character with his own motives, inner demons, and personality quirks. Jak is by no means a deep character. His personality is very rudimentary. That said, the amount of risk Naughtydog took with him in jumping from just the first to second game alone was more character development than Link has experienced in twenty years. Of course, we all know the real reason for this. At this point in Link’s career, any attempt by Nintendo to give him a voice or any further depth or personality would result in more pissed off fan boys than it’s worth. Especially considering not two years ago, another Nintendo franchise utterly failed in attempting to do just that, and don’t act like you don’t know who I’m talking about.
Now, we must discuss Link and Jak’s differences that are subjective to their native origins. Link was created in Nintendo of Japan, Jak in Sony Computer Entertainment America, so right away this is set to be another debate between eastern and western sensibilities in games. On one side you’ve got Link, whose traditional quest-based fantasy garb, armed with a legendary sword, is highly represented in many RPG’s, which are dominant eastern style games. On the other side you’ve got Jak, an underground rebel in a futuristic background, armed with a morph gun, which sounds all too much like the product of an FPS dominant western gaming culture. Neither of these games are an RPG or an FPS, but they carry with them elements that would go on to inspire many games of those genres in their respective countries.
To turn back to their appearance, while it is clear Link and Jak have very similar design choice, they are still extremely distinguishable from one another. This can also be tracked back to their eastern/western origins. Japanese games have a history of crafting their young male protagonist to be extremely refine and delicate. Their muscles are rarely exaggerated, and they are usually given the big anime eyes. Link is a perfect example of this. He is an extremely feminine looking man. Don’t believe me?
This isn’t bad by any means. Far from it. If Link’s design makes him versatile enough to inspire more attractive cosplayers, I’m not complaining. It’s just how Eastern game design likes to portray their teenage males. For other examples of feminine looking men from eastern games, there’s Leon Kennedy from RE4, and dare I say look no further than every male lead of every most recent Final Fantasy title.
Jak, on the other hand, could not be more opposite. Despite having the flowy blond hair and big blue anime eyes, he still comes off as unmistakably masculine thanks to his unrefined posture, tan complexion, defined muscle structure, and of course the goatee, which sells the whole package. Most western game developers love to have their men look… well, like men, and Jak was no exception.
So, while Jak and Link have some clear differences between the two, their differences are similar in that they both stem from the characters being a product of the cultures they were founded in.
And yet, neither of these characters or their games are strictly void of outside influence. Zelda’s medieval backdrop, and the whole sword-in-the-stone routine is very western, Anglo Saxon influenced. Jak’s talking animal sidekick, and alternate Super Saiyan-like forms are very eastern, Shonen elements of story telling.
Confused yet? How about how everything seems to be done in threes in both character’s adventures? Three sacred stones that reveal the secrets of the Temple of Time. Three precursor artifacts in the Forest Haven that together reveal the Tomb of Mar. Three dominant races living outside of Hyrule castles walls (Kokiri, Gorons, and Zoras). Three factions fighting for control of Haven city (KG, Metalheads, and Darkmakers). Three sides of the Triforce, all representing one of Hyrule’s three female deities. And of course, Jak’s three dominant female characters, each taking on the personality of one of the three Powerpuff Girls. (Kera, the nerd/Blossom. Tess, the ditz/Bubbles. Ashlen, the bad girl/Buttercup.)
Well, this was fun. Upon reflection, combining two of my favorite video game franchises in a single discussion topic may not have been the most intelligent move on my behalf, judging by how much I derailed back there. But as usual I have my reasons. For years now, Nintendo and Sony have constantly been at odds with one another, and for the longest time I felt it was a shame for them to indirectly spur so many wars among their followers. Sometimes, things we think are so different are really one in the same. Together Nintendo and Sony have created a slew of colorful licensed characters, and Link and Jak aren’t the only ones with obvious parallels. Fox McCloud and Ratchet may be even more so. Sackboy and Kirby (especially from Epic Yarn) are another example.
One of the reasons Naughtydog is my favorite game developer of all time is because they have such a strong established relationship with fellow developers Insomniac and Suckerpunch. While they do see each other as rivals, they are encouraging and willing to acknowledge one-another’s strengths so they can all bring out the best in each other. This is the kind of bond I wish Nintendo and Sony could learn to develop as well. If they did, Sony wouldn’t have to keep lying through their teeth that the PS Move was NOT directly inspired by the Wii, and Nintendo wouldn’t have to keep cutting corners in trying to explain their late arrival to HD and online services.
You guys are copying each other. It’s okay. We know it’s part of the business. Just be upfront about it, and you could prevent so many flame wars.