The rise of developers Naughty Dog is one of the greatest success stories in video game history. From humble beginnings, the now Goliath company has shown how to make fantastic games, all while being commercially viable.
Starting life out as JAM Software in 1984, before coming out of its polygon shell as Naughty Dog in 1989, the game studio has a storied past, with rises and falls along the way. But, from the ‘90s to the present day in particular, Naughty Dog has hit the mark with uncanny accuracy.
Whether it’s the ridiculously fun gameplay of Crash Bandicoot, the nail-biting action of Uncharted or the ultra-serious tones of The Last of Us – Naughty Dog has captivated players through all kinds of different genres, themes and mediums in a way that very few other studios have managed to do.
And, with the Uncharted spin-off, The Lost Legacy, scheduled for later this year, as well as The Last of Us Part II in the pipeline, what better time to rank their releases from best to worst than now? Join us on a trip down memory lane with one of gaming’s most proficient developers of all-time, as we rank every Naughty Dog game from worst to best.
Umm, so yeah, kicking off our merry little list is Math Jam? Not one of Naughty Dog’s finest attempts, Math Jam was an educational game released in 1985.
It served as the studio’s debut title, self-published by Andy Garvin and Jason Rubin for the Apple II Computer. Distributed on floppy disks and coming with instructions in a plastic bag, Math Jam has self-made written all over it. The objective of the project was to teach kids simple mathematics, using a likable character to do so.
Math Jam is not the kind of game you’d associate with an upcoming gaming juggernaut, but Naughty Dog’s trajectory isn’t your standard studio development history. Probably best to avoid this, unless you want to give yourself a headache.
Naughty Dog found more success with their follow-up title, Ski Crazed. Released in 1986, the game would go on to sell 15,000 copies. However, the Apple II computer game certainly isn’t without its faults.
Originally titled Ski Stud, before its name change, Ski Crazed’s simple premise of traversing down a snowy mountain peak was probably quite decent for the time. However, time hasn’t looked too kindly upon it. The slow and laborious gameplay is more down to the fact that it was created using a minimal tool-set.
So, there you have it. A much more ambitious title from the studio, but not necessarily a show stopper either. However, it is an impressive achievement for just two people, especially since they were only 16 when they made it.
With their new publisher Electronic Arts, JAM Software were about to make its biggest transition to date. So what better time for a name change? Thus, Naughty Dog was born and their first release was Keef the Thief.
Dropping for the Apple IIGS in 1989, before being ported to the Amiga and the MS-DOS at later dates, the comedy RPG broke new ground in the video game sphere, but not necessarily appealing ground. Gavin and Rubin have since stated that they weren’t too happy with the finished product and they felt they lost creative control throughout the making of it.
It’s not actually that bad, but it’s certainly not the huge debut EA game for the studio that it should’ve been. However, it did give them some clout going into their next endeavor.
No, that’s not Mortal Kombat, it's Naughty Dog’s attempt at one though, entitled Way of the Warrior. However, while the former was an almost flawless (pardon the pun) fighting game, the latter is in no such luck.
It’s certainly a pretty game to look at – besides the blood and gore – but its controls could be much better. Released on the 3DO in 1994, Way of the Warrior knows what it wants to be, but can’t necessarily put those ideas into action. The finishing manoeuvres are pretty darn awesome and the slick graphical sprites are a joy to gaze at, but sadly, there’s not much else to praise.
This marked the last title Naughty Dog would make before the literally game-changing Crash Bandicoot. In all honesty, you wouldn’t think the two titles were released by the same company.
The iconic studio is known for thinking outside of the box and this was evident early on, particularly with their 1987 title Dream Zone.
The lofty premise revolves around the player being trapped in his own dreams and he must attempt to escape. Using a text-based format, Dream Zone was incredibly ambitious for head honchos Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin to even approach. Thanks to the game’s forward-thinking approach and clear technical prowess, the pair were offered a future development deal from EA off the back of it.
The game should be applauded for its ability to make players feel like they’re in a dream – which was the goal of the project after all. You’d have to question why you’d really want that from a game though.
Ah, what a let-down Jak X: Combat Racing turned out to be. From the same company that brought gamers the outrageously fun Crash Team Racing title, you’d think this one would follow along in the same vein.
Sadly, it doesn’t. Maybe the comparisons aren’t fair, as Jak X is actually a decent enough racer. It’s just a shame that this one couldn’t live up to its potential. The driving mechanics are dodgy at the best of times and some of the game modes are painstakingly difficult. However, it can be fun if you can see past its mistakes.
As previously stated, this is no match for the almost godlike Crash Team Racing, but if you’re just looking to blow off some steam with a competent enough racer, then by all means give this one a go. This marked the studio’s final release for the PS2 and its rushed development certainly comes across.
The studio’s most competent pre-Crash product has got to be the old-school RPG Rings of Power. Released for the Sega Genesis in 1991, the game is a lovable isometric RPG that has a plethora of problems, but transcends them thanks to its lovable charm.
Playing the role of a young sorcerer, your goal is to find 11 Rings of Power in order to take on the evil God, Void. So yeah, it’s certainly steeped in fantasy, but it plays up to this aspect pretty well. It’s definitely ambitious in scope, featuring an open-ended design that allows for hundreds of dialog options, as well as random events and scores of missions. Throw in a massive open world and you’ve got a game that was way ahead of its time. Keef the Thief even makes a cameo appearance!
Acting as the studio’s third release, Rings of Power marked the first time players got to see what Naughty Dog were truly capable of. It’s no surprise that this one is still a favourite among gaming aficionados.
Judging The Last of Us: Left Behind is a tricky one. In one respect, it can’t really compete with the fully fledged Naughty Dog titles, but in another, it’s absolutely breath-taking throughout its two-hour long journey.
It follows Ellie’s story right before the events of The Last of Us occur and provides rich and thorough details about the game’s most revelatory character. But it’s so well-rounded, that it transcends your average game expansion. The emotional connection of the original remains here and it's the perfect accompaniment to an already outstanding title.
Left Behind is how you properly do an expansion. Not skimping out on the content and not releasing a quick cash grab, something for which Naughty Dog should be especially proud of.
The swashbuckling antics of Nathan Drake weren’t quite on the money for Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. Yes, it’s brilliant in a lot of ways, but it’s also complacent in others.
Some small, some big, but there are problems nonetheless. The button input has a bizarre lag when attempting to aim, the linearity of the game is more noticeable than its predecessors, and the narrative isn’t quite as pronounced as Among Thieves. Okay, so I’m nit-picking, but Naughty Dog’s awesome backlog of games demands it of me!
Of course, a quick scan of the reviews would lead you to believe that it’s the best game ever, but time has a habit of encouraging revisionism. And, sadly, this reassessment shows that the other three in the series are better, albeit marginally.
The wackiness didn’t end with the original Crash Bandicoot game, as evidenced by the competent follow-up – Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back.
You may be wondering why this is ranked lower than the original and that’s for two reasons. 1. The first game in the series broke new ground, and 2. The sequel is seriously difficult. No, but really. It’s insanely hard. Trial-and-error is the name of the game here and it can be hair-pullingly frustrating. Not to mention the fact that level designs from the original have just been given a face-lift, which is a tad cheap in all honesty.
However, it also improved on the original in other ways, such as much improved graphics, the introduction of warp rooms, and phenomenal sound effects. It’s just a shame that the drawbacks bring the whole product down a notch.
After the stellar Jak II, the pressure was on Naughty Dog to improve on the great foundations laid. While it didn’t quite surpass that tour de force in gaming, Jak 3 is still a very worthy successor.
Of particular note are the jaw-dropping visuals, which were, up until that point in 2004, some of the best visuals around. It’s a much more refined and polished game, when compared to its predecessor. The inclusion of more weapon variety and much-appreciated extras only serve to add to the longevity of this great third title in the series.
However, it doesn’t reinvent the wheel in the same way that Jak II did, which is somewhat of a shame. Sure it’s bigger and more complete, but it doesn’t do enough to differentiate itself from its previous installments. Still, this is a great game from an even greater franchise.
Few games are as familiar and loved as Naughty Dog’s first Crash Bandicoot title. It marked the studio’s first real taste of success, featuring a unique style that has transcended its admittedly aged mechanics. The sound, visuals, gameplay and story captivated audiences when it dropped in 1996 and continues to do so to this very day.
Nit-pickers will point to the game’s somewhat stiff controls and awkward camera angles as genuine faults, but really, this one revitalized platform gaming in a big way and should be heralded more than it should be criticized.
There’s a charm here that overcomes any gameplay shortcomings, as well as a nostalgia trip that very few games can match. Naughty Dog would go onto create more polished titles, but not necessarily more iconic ones and that’s a testament to this colorful PS1 beacon.
Following the unveiling of the PlayStation 3, all eyes were on Naughty Dog to see what they had in store next. What they had in the pipeline was an action blockbuster to smash all other action blockbusters – Code-named Big, or as it’s better known today, Uncharted.
Using Tomb Raider as a reference point and movies like Indiana Jones as a blueprint, Uncharted released in 2007 to widespread critical and commercial success. Rightfully so too. Combing a healthy mix of action and adventure, the game was a stunning achievement in a number of respects. Visually, this one still dazzles with its lush greenery and detailed environments. Gameplay-wise, the exploration is top notch, especially when combined with some very proficient shooter mechanics.
We haven’t even touched on the engrossing story or the stellar script, but that’s exactly why this modern classic is so highly regarded – literally every element is given the kind of love and care that would put many movies to shame. From a production standpoint, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune raised the bar for movie-styled video gaming in the 21st century. However, even bigger things were yet to transpire for the series…
Following up on the Crash Bandicoot franchise was never going to be easy, but Naughty Dog made it look likes child’s play with their exclusive PlayStation platformer, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy.
The 2001 game takes what made their previous titles so appealing and ramps it up with an insane amount of variety. The more open-ended level design gives players a sense of freedom to go about missions however they see fit, with a bucket-load of enticing collectibles, side missions and mini-games to partake in along the way. And don’t forget how funny the script writing is here, as Daxter is utterly hilarious for the duration of this lovable roller-coaster ride.
Old-school platforming, enticing and vibrant scenery, humorous storytelling – Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy is the real deal in a number of ways, showing what the PS2 was truly capable of during its early stages.
Up until 1999, there was no real inkling that Naughty Dog could successfully transition from platforming titles into other genres. And then Crash Team Racing dropped and they proved everyone wrong.
Crash Team Racing is still, to this day, one of the most fun local-multiplayer games ever concocted. Taking its cues from Mario Kart, the game is a huge love letter to the furry little fellow, featuring a style and panache that perfectly captures the wackiness of the Crash characters. Oh, and it’s just downright fun.
The power-ups are awesome, the graphics are wonderfully colorful, and the nail-biting races are insanely intense, making Crash Team Racing a worthy title in the Crash series for Naughty Dog to bow out on. Fingers crossed for a sequel though!
Naughty Dog really didn’t rest on their laurels for the fourth installment in the Uncharted series – the next-gen delight A Thief’s End.
And it’s the power of the PS4 that really brings this one to fruition, featuring some ultra-realistic visuals to bring the franchise’s realistic depiction of action flicks to life. Aside from the technological advancements, this is the same game we all know and love. Nathan Drake is back and he’s funnier than ever, despite the game’s darker tone. With a much more open-ended approach to its design, one of, if not the best story in the series’ history, and some newly introduced mechanics to its third-person gameplay, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End mixes things up in a completely logical and satisfying fashion.
Oh, and that ending. What a fantastic piece of storytelling – something which is rapidly becoming one of Naughty Dog’s most renowned features.
Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was a masterclass in the art of platforming, but what happens when you take Naughty Dog out of their jump-heavy element? Well, they proved with the sequel Jak II that they are just as efficient when it comes to action-orientated gaming.
Because while the game stays faithful to its predecessor, it also mixes things up in a big way. Yes, on top of the precision perfect platforming is a gun toting backbone that takes the lovable protagonist in all sorts of new directions. Nods to other franchises, like Grand Theft Auto with its open-world design, only highlight this new found desire to stretch the franchise’s boundaries.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this foray into action-focused gaming, as well as its more mature storyline, set the stage for Naughty Dog to transition into the Uncharted franchise – all be it a more realistic depiction of it.
You’ve probably noticed by now that Naughty Dog have a real knack for bettering what came before and the same thing certainly applies to the third iteration of Crash Bandicoot – the revamped and revitalized Crash Bandicoot: Warped.
Rightfully considered to be the pinnacle of the series, Warped improves upon everything that came before it, utilizing a much wider stage variety, super-sharp graphics, more reliable platforming mechanics, and a collectibles list the length of your arm. Naughty Dog throw everything into a cauldron and boil it until its practically overflowing with creative juices. The results are this fiendishly brilliant platformer.
Warped is the sum of its bouncing parts, a product that effortlessly fuses different gaming elements together, only to come up trumps with every attempt. Collecting crystals and relics has never been this fun.
Boy, oh boy. Seriously, how good was Uncharted 2: Among Thieves? Probably one of the greatest action games ever made, this one took what made the previous installment so enjoyable and fired a rocket up its backside.
It has engrossing exploration, superb gunplay, fantastic visuals, hilarious writing, movie-like production, and really, I could go on. But perhaps its greatest achievement is in how well-paced it all is. Clocking in at double the length of its predecessor, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves allows its story, set-pieces and character developments to unfold at a much more engrossing speed.
This, along with its colossal moments of jaw-dropping explosiveness, makes Uncharted 2: Among Thieves one of the most stunning achievements put out under the Naughty Dog umbrella. But, it’s not our number one pick. That goes to…
You probably predicted this one, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Naughty Dog’s greatest ever game is The Last of Us.
In a stunning turn of events, Naughty Dog somehow (we still don’t know how) made a game that’s the equivalent to a Steven Spielberg movie production. Thought Uncharted was cinematic? The Last of Us makes it look like a Disney movie in comparison. The themes in this ground-breaking title cut to the bone with razor-sharp precision, featuring one of the most emotionally connective tales ever produced in a video game. And while its story is certainly the star of the show, the survivalist gameplay is far from being a slouch either.
If you haven’t played it yet, what are you waiting for? The Last of Us is Naughty Dog’s ultimate masterpiece – one that will be tough to replicate in any shape or form going forward in the future.