"Mission failed." The text pops up on the screen over and over. I had seen it so many times I was ready to pull my hair out. It was the fall of 2003, and I had found my white whale, my Everest. I had three minutes to make it to the garage in Jak II, and I kept failing.
Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was one of my favourite PlayStation 2 games in 2001 so I was ecstatic to play its sequel two years later. Jak II was bigger, badder, edgier. Jak could talk! Jak had guns! It was basically Grand Theft Auto, tuned down to T For Teen. ("I'm going to kill Baron Praxis!" were Edgy Jak's first words in the game.)
Young me could not have been more excited, but one mission stumped me.
For days I was stuck on the race to the garage. It was a simple time trial to get from Krew's bar to the race garage in under three minutes. I failed, repeatedly, to hit the mark.
I scoured the corners of the internet and pored over GameFAQs discussions. I pestered my friends for tips, but they couldn't beat it either. These were the days before Let's Plays or any sort of video guide, so the best I could do was attempt to translate written posts into motion. When I finally beat the race, it was a transformative moment.
Jak II may not be in my favourite games of all time anymore, but I will always cherish that accomplishment.
With the recent re-release of Jak II for PS2 on PS4, I thought it was time for another round with my fiercest rival. I've got 14 years of gaming experience on my side, but younger me had tenacity, determination, spirit. Also, limber wrists - current me has some wear-and-tear from spending too much time tapping on the keyboard.
A recent dive back into Lord of the Rings: Return of the King with some friends made us realise that game was a lot harder than we remembered. Would Jak II be the same?
Well, the short answer is no. I destroyed my childhood self in three tries.
I booted up Jak II on my PS4 and played my way up to the timed mission. As I played through the necessary introduction, a lot of nostalgia came flooding back to me, but not in a good way.
The game's hovercraft don't necessarily drift or hold traction like a car would. Turns have awkward arcs, and brakes work suddenly rather than gradually. It felt choppy, even on the PS4.
On my first run, I expected to simply get my bearings. I was in this for the long haul, like a speedrunner settling in for a marathon. Some guides noted that beating other missions first opens up a shorter path, but no, I said. I would not take the easy route this time. I was ready for the long haul.
Turns out, my actual skills on the controller were still fairly adequate. I expected my first try to be mostly just a warm-up, but I made pretty decent progress. The greatest obstacle in my path turned out to be the random spawning of civilian hovercraft, coming around blind corners for no reason. I got really good, in a short amount of time, at ditching one flaming, burning wreckage of a hovercraft and hopping into another.
It was incredibly frustrating, but Jak II is an incredibly frustrating game. Its checkpoints are not kind. It has numerous gate-keeping challenges, missions that impede progress and demand a skill check. Sometimes, it will pull some real bullshit.
At one point I was doing a platforming section, and Jak landed funny, unable to grab the ledge or interact with anything. He eventually fell to his death in a strange animation. Nevertheless, part of the fun in Jak II was overcoming these challenges, quirks and all. It was tough for young me, and several missions were still tough for old me. But learning is part of overcoming, and I enjoy the process of gradually training to beat a challenge.
While my first go at the race unsuccessfully involved driving in circles trying to find the path forward, my second run got me closer thanks to zipping up, over, and around obstacles. One of the more important mechanics to learn for this time trial was bobbing and weaving through different altitudes. Civilians naturally run out of your way, but Crimson Guards (the city police) will start hunting you if you accidentally give one even a friendly little tap. The city is littered with obstacles, from walls and bumps that send all your force in the wrong direction to Crimson Guards both on-foot and in hovercrafts, armed and itching to blow an aggressive driver out of the sky.
I was particularly proud of this moment, when I somehow managed to dodge a bevy of obstacles and not hit any walls in the process.
I felt confident on my third run. I had the hang of the game, I was finding a rhythm, and those years of experience had paid off. I wasn't over-correcting or getting lost. My mind was accustomed to locating and executing the critical path. And of course, that all went to shit at the worst possible time.
With just 25 seconds left, nearing the garage door and the shining beacon of victory, I slammed right into a vehicle. I bounced into another and blew up my beautiful bike. I panicked. I didn't know whether to run or try to steal another hovercraft. It was the perfect amount of distance: long enough to merit finding transportation, but short enough that I might just be able to run there.
I chose the latter, grabbing a thankfully nearby vehicle and zipping up the steps and into the beacon. This time, it had not taken me days of repeated tries after school — er, work. I surmounted the challenge on my own, thanks to my wit and guile. (And, probably, some lizard-brain internalization of Jak II mechanics that lay dormant until now.)
I triumphed over my demons as a child, and I could still beat them today. Father Time has not claimed my gaming ability yet. The joy of challenge, at least for me, is learning to love the process, the rote memorization and optimization that will leave a game's toughest moments forever lodged in your brain. Take that, Jak II.