Retro Rated – Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back

Factfile
Developed by: Naughty Dog
Released: 1997
Format played: Playstation

Ruminations

After being foiled in his first nefarious scheme, Dr Neo Cortex is back (back, BACK!), this time having apparently turned over a new leaf and enlisting Crash’s help to save the Earth.

You see the Doc has discovered a rare solar event that…oh you know what, it doesn’t really matter. Bottom line is that Crash must once more embark on a mission to collect crystals to save the day which inevitably involve jumping, spinning and falling down gaping great chasms.

What’s Changed?

In some ways this is a very different animal but there remain numerous echoes from the first adventure.

Graphically things appear largely unchanged at first glance. Crash remains a well animated central protagonist and the environments carry a degree of similarity from the first game. Indeed the opening levels set in the jungle could be pulled directly from that title but the world soon opens out, quite literally in fact, the camera panning back at various points to show you the full level as Crash is manoeuvred into position for a bonus round.

Crash himself has undergone something of a transformation too. He retains his ability to run, jump and spin but in addition he has now added the ability to crawl, slide and perform a body slam. Each becomes important as the game unfolds if you want to solve the rudimentary platform-based puzzles and achieve 100% completion.

But the real change comes in the design of the game itself. The main criticism of the first Crash was the linear progression and brutal save mechanic that forced you to successfully complete a bonus round before being able to save your progress. That has all gone. Instead the game is split into five ‘warp rooms’ which each contain five levels that can be completed in any order. The only limitation on progression is that a new warp room can only be reached once all levels in the previous warp room are beaten and the crystal collected, as well as besting a mid-warp boss. But crucially in between time you can save your progress at any point, a literal life saver. And if you do manage to lose all of your lives mid-level (a far from unlikely event) then you can continue the adventure from the last warp room you entered, retaining all your collected crystals to date, losing only the progress you may have made in the level where you came a cropper.

In some ways I find it strange to focus so much attention on the save mechanic of a game, rather the game itself. But, much like the transition from Tomb Raider to Tomb Raider II, it has such a fundamental influence on your ability to complete and therefore enjoy the game that it deserves recognition.

But what of the game itself? Again, at a surface level not much appears to have changed, levels still comprising the same mix of into-the-screen platforming, 2.5D bonus levels and Indiana Jones-esque sprintathons. But the devil is very much in the detail. Crash 2 offers a greater level of variety than its predecessor. Smashing into boxes remains a central conceit but added to the standard brown and the red TNT boxes are green ones. Like the red boxes, these are also explosive but rather than a countdown they go up at the slightest contact, making them instant death machines and requiring a delicate step. Vehicles are introduced for the first time, Crash jumping into a jet ski and using a turbo boost to navigate jumps, explosive boxes and deadly whirlpools, then getting all CJ from GTA San Andreas as he straps on a jetpack in later levels.. Crash can also jump on living modes of transport, a couple of levels introducing bears that he can ride, self propelling you through as you duck this way and that, timing jumps and movements to smash boxes and avoid obstacles. Some old favourites return too, the snapping plants having upgraded themselves to throw bombs and hide under protective spikes. Meanwhile new enemies include deadly bees that swell Crash up to twice his size and which can be avoided by burrowing underground. And once you have bested each level and collected the pink crystal needed to progress, replayability exists in the chase for bonus crystals, awarded for replaying the level and achieving specific objectives, such as smashing all boxes or making it through without dying.

The introduction of the revised save mechanic makes the whole game easier and the boss battles have, on the whole, been significantly reduced in difficultly, but some of the levels themselves are absolute beasts. The 3D plane again makes judging jumps occasionally more tricky than you would like whilst the placement of red and green boxes, spin-resistant enemies, slippy-slidey ice sections (grr), flame shooting monoliths and wobbly, disappearing platforms all add up to make this a comprehensive challenge. And mostly this is a welcome one. On the whole, things arguably hangs together better as a game than the first however it is not without fault. There are too many times, especially on the ‘chase’ levels, where it is a case of trial and error as you learn the layout only through dying repeatedly. It reduces these levels down to that of a memory test, more akin to something like Rick Dangerous. Compared to the linear design of the original, the sequel seeks to expand the world and add more variety.

No bad thing but in some ways it leaves first Crash feeling like a purer platformer. The challenge first time round was arguably harder on a level-by-level basis,exacerbated by the save mechanic, but consistent in its difficulty. This time round the difficulty curve is generally lower but with sharper spikes. When it’s hard, it is often annoyingly hard, chucking in enemies one after the after that require different techniques to kill (spin attack, slide attack, spin attack for instance) interspersed with instant death pipes or great big squashing columns. Oh and insta-death green boxes hidden behind regular boxes that you quite reasonably spin attack only to find yourself blown up by the insta-death green box that was hidden behind those regular boxes? No thanks.

It’s also a shame that the warp rooms themselves don’t have a clear theme. There is definitely a weighting to them – ice world say, or Dr Cortex’s future themed levels – but it is not consistent, levels jumping from one scene to the next without a clear rhyme or reason and it costs some simple atmosphere points. Oh and points off as for the first time that I can remember in a Naughty Dog game I found myself stuck behind scenery having taken out an enemy, unable to jump or spin my way out leaving me with little choice but to exit the level and try again.

But a word again for the excellent sound, from the superb music to the well implemented voice cast. Crash himself remains largely mute but the cast around him is voiced well, including, as I only recently discovered, Clancy Brown (The Kurgan from Highlander, among numerous other high profile roles) as Dr Neo Cortex, who hams it up wonderfully.

Bottom Line

Overall an improvement on the original Crash. More variety, more freedom and that oh so important change to the save mechanic.

There is the cloying sense of familiarity and generic sequel-itis about the whole thing but this remains a quality follow up that addresses enough of the shortcomings of the original to make it worth the price of admission.

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