Retro Rated – Crash Bandicoot

Factfile
Developed by: Naughty Dog
Released: 1996
Format played: Playstation



With the recent release of the N.Sane trilogy (read Edd’s thoughts here), let’s take a trip back in time to see where it all started.

Kicking things off, it’s the debut of everyone’s favourite marsupial.

Ruminations

It is a feature that GamesTM explored in their most recent issue and it is a difficult question to answer; just what is the greatest year in gaming history? Some may hark back to the golden age of the arcades in the early 1980s. Some may point to the dawn of the open world era in the early 2000’s, led by the charge of GTA III. But in terms of the birthing of franchises, characters and worlds that would cement themselves in the gaming conscience, it is difficult to look past 1996. The year that brought us Resident Evil and Tomb Raider would also see the launch of one of gaming’s most enduring mascots.

The Playstation had been a huge success since its launch in 1995 but in this nascent period, it lacked a character to claim as its own. Ever since the 16-bit war, gamers could identify with Sega and Nintendo, declaring allegiance to Sonic or Mario respectively. It may seem quaint now but at the time, whilst Playstation could tout the graphical might of the likes of Ridge Racer or Wipeout, there seemed a need for a character that could be associated with the console, a mascot for fans to claim as their own. Step forward Naughty Dog.

More recently famed for the genre defining Uncharted series, Crash would be the developers first release on the Playstation, establishing a relationship that would ultimately see the team acquired by Sony in 2001. The result of a genetic engineering experiment, Crash escapes the clutches of the nefarious Dr Neo Cortex before setting off on a mission back to the lab to rescue his friend, Tawna.

Crash Bandicoot would be the first of three core titles developed by Naughty Dog. Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back would be released in 1997 with Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped following in 1998. Kart racing game Crash Team Racing, using the characters of the Crash series would also hit the Playstation in 1999, taking a number of cues from the phenomenally successful Mario Kart.

Gameplay

Crash is a 3D, into-the-screen platformer. Linear in design, Crash’s arsenal of moves include a jump and a spin attack. These are used to tackle most enemies as well as opening various boxes dotted around the levels, which offer apples (sorry, Wumpa fruit) to collect, additional lives and bonus tokens. The player has a limited number of lives, supplemented either by pick ups or by collecting 100 apples, which then rewards an extra 1up.

The opening levels drop you onto the beach as you head into lush jungle environments. Cracking open a few crates you soon come across your first obstacles, a simple barrier avoided with a deft leap whilst an incoming beast is dispatched with either a jump to the head or via your spin attack. A fairly gentle opening but things soon get more complicated. Chasms appear that must be traversed, rolling wheels block your path and threaten to squash you flat, enemies become more deadly and harder to avoid, including snappy plants, aggressive monkeys and nasty little spiked critters that prove invulnerable to your spin attack.

Indeed its not long before reality starts to set in that, despite the cute exterior, this is a hardcore gaming challenge. Chasms appear right behind walls that can be easily missed; spiked enemies operate in your natural jumping zone, forcing you to pick your way through carefully whilst also avoiding spiked pillars or in later levels deadly hot pipes; ledges that fall away shortly after you land on them; ledges that move and send the unaware straight into the aforementioned death pipes; crates that give a 3 second countdown to explosion when jumped on, or explode automatically when hit with the spin attack; being chased by a dirty great boulder, Crash running ‘out of the screen’ a la Riders of the Lost Ark; not to mention levels set in almost complete darkness, illuminated only by limited time pick ups.

The 32 levels offer a brutal challenge. A number of the jumps require pixel perfect precision and whilst Crash is fairly lithe, in the excitement of the action it is all to easy to send him jumping into the abyss. This is especially true when the game introduces 2.5D levels, taking on the feel of something more like Donkey Kong Country. Despite action now moving across the left / right axis, Crash can still be directed to the front or back of the screen, making it all too easy to push him off the edge of a ledge or completely mess up your jump.

The trick is to watch Crash’s shadow, adjusting his flight in midair and indeed once you get a grasp of the controls, even the wildest of levels can soon be tamed. Help is also on hand in the shape of the Aku Aku pick up, a mask that gives Crash extra protection (think Mario picking up a mushroom). If you collect 3, you gain a finite period of invincibility, protecting you from all bar instant kill attacks or drops down chasms.

And you will need this extra protection too. If the levels were not already hard enough, the mechanics of the game make it that much harder. The 3 islands of the game are punctuated by occasional boss battles, with those encountered later on in the game often being particularly difficult to take down until you figure out the required attack pattern, and even then the execution harder to implement than the theory. You might therefore expect that toppling one of these bosses would prompt you to save the game but here Naughty Dog pull a nasty surprise. For you see the game can only be saved by completing specific bonus rounds, which in turn can only be accessed by finding the relevant cards hidden in crates. Miss a ticket and you miss the bonus round and thus cannot save. But here’s the kicker; even if you do access the bonus round, you can still die in it. And if you do, you are unceremoniously dumped back into the level with no chance to try again, thus missing your chance to save. Given the aforementioned control challenges in the 2.5D stages, together with the difficulty of some of these stages themselves (exploding boxes instead of a platform that have to be individually bounced across, anybody?) the save mechanic adds a further artificial layer of difficulty to what is already a supremely challenging game.

This significant grumble aside (and one that would be corrected in the sequels), this remains a fun and challenging platformer. The 32 levels are varied and each of the boss fights memorable. Once you know your way through the whole thing can be beaten in a few hours, replay value coming in chasing 100% completion, possible only by smashing all boxes in each level and accessing tricky bonus sections.

Graphics & Sound

Early PS1 and 3D games have tended to age quite badly. What was once cutting edge soon becomes crude, as a look back to Resident Evil or Tomb Raider will attest. Crash falls into some of these same traps – polygons are sharp angles, facial animations are blurry, backgrounds are somewhat barren – but its cartoon visuals perhaps help to protect it from the worst effects of father time.

Putting aside these limitations, Crash himself remains a superbly realised mascot. Livelier than Mario and more relateable than the somewhat smug looking Sonic, Crash achieves that perfect blend of cool and charismatic. Around him is assembled a cast of misanthropes. Dr Cortex is a fairly by the numbers evil villain but his cast of henchmen are memorable and unique from the gun wielding Ripper Roo to the rock hurling Koala Kong and everyone in between.

Despite the technical limitations compared to modern games it is noticeble that there is no clipping of scenery or other obvious graphical glitches. As time has proven, Naughty Dog are clearly a developer with an eye for extracting the most of the technology available and it makes for a clean presentation.

It’s not an essential component by any means but a good platformer will usually be backed by a suitably catchy and memorable soundtrack and again this is an area in witch Naughty Dog continue to excel. Right from the off the soundtrack captures the playful vibe perfectly. Whilst Crash himself is thankfully not voiced, he does let out and scream of ‘Whoa!’ when hit, a Road Runner-esque ‘whee’ when falling down chasms and who can forget the sound of collecting an Aku Aku mask and whatever jibberish he spouts (I’ve always like to pretend he says ‘whathaveIgot’)?

Bottom Line

Tougher than you may remember but, save mechanic aside, never unfair. Visually this may be starting to show its age a little but the original Crash remains a superb platformer that more than stands the test of time.

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