GAMING RETROSPECTIVES: Crash Bandicoot Trilogy

In Gaming Retospectives we take a look back at some of the games of the past and see if they still hold up today.

Crash Bandicoot is one of PlayStation’s most iconic characters. First appearing in 1996, the original trilogy for the PlayStation was a standard bearer for how to make a beautiful and, most of all, fun 2.5D platformer for Sony’s console. The first Crash Bandicoot was also the first console game I ever owned. It’s a bit difficult to believe that Crash started life as Willy the Wombat (as well as Wez, Wuzzles and Wizzy) and that he was almost the butt of all jokes when the project was codenamed “Sonic’s Ass Game.” In recent years Crash hasn’t fared particularly well with the introduction of next-gen consoles and the rise of MMORPGs and first person shooters. Platformers on consoles nowadays are a rare sight but back in the 90s they were everywhere. Some were great, some were okay and some were really, truly terrible (I might get to those one day). I couldn’t think of a better way to kick off a series looking back on a lifetime of games than the series that kicked off my semi-obsession with console gaming.

It occurred to me, not so long ago while playing the first Crash Bandicoot game again, that the tale of our manic marsupial actually has many parallels to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Crash, after all, is a mutated being created by a scientist, Dr Neo Cortex, as an experiment that breaks free and wants to lead a quiet life. Cortex himself doesn’t actively set out to destroy Crash – at least not in the first and second games – but the bandicoot himself sets out to defeat his creator, just how Frankenstein’s Monster hunted down his master after his many hardships. Admittedly, Crash doesn’t have a hard life (he has a beautiful girlfriend in the shape of Tawna, a super-smart sister in Coco and a bunch of friends, as well as a luxury pad on the gorgeous Wumpa Islands) but some of the parallels are still there.

Ice physics!
Ice physics!

Really, though, there’s nothing particularly deep about the initial Crash trilogy and trying to read anything into the storylines is pretty pointless. At their most basic level, the games revolve around the idea that you’re putting an end to Neo’s evil plans. Crash 2: The Wrath of Cortex probably has the most “complex” storyline in that Cortex, Coco and scientist N. Brio all attempt to persuade Crash to do different things. I say “complex,” but what I really mean is that it highlights the sheer stupidity of Crash himself. Mr. Bandicoot doesn’t really possess a brain. Going from point A to point B in the first game was enough for his marsupial mind to handle, but having to try and decipher Coco’s messages and work out who to trust is just too much for him. He stands and scratches his head over and over as they talk over each other.

None of this really matters though. The idea that you can actually choose who to trust is simply a pipe dream. Crash 2 would have been a much deeper experience if you could choose what path you wanted to take. But, you don’t. Instead, all the games follow a very linear and simplistic path. In the first game you go from level to level in order until you eventually reach Cortex and beat the game. 2 and 3 give you a little more freedom in that you can choose what order to complete the levels in each hub room; this was great for the seven year old me who would constantly die on certain levels that shall go unnamed. Really, though, all of the Crash game follow the same basic structure.

There is the option to collect all the gems in the game by breaking all of the boxes in a level and sometimes by completing a pretty hardcore challenge within certain stages. This is where the series took its first giant misstep, though it probably wasn’t completely intentional on the part of Naughty Dog. In the first Crash game, it’s relatively easy to beat Cortex within a couple of hours if you’re a semi-competent platform game player.  If you want to get all the gems, though, well… that’s a different kettle of fish. It might seem easy to get all the boxes in a level; nearly all of them are in plain sight and there’s only a few puzzles here and there. You’d be wrong. If you die once, even once, during a stage, you’ll lose your chance at the gem for that level. Many people have said that this is a glitch that resets the box count when you die. For a long time I just thought it was a way of extending the play time and adding extra challenge for the player. Whatever the reason, it makes completing the first Crash game an almost mammoth task. So much so that I’ve only ever done it once, despite years of playing and knowing some of the level layouts better than the back of my hand. This was an element that was rectified in the later instalments of the trilogy. Some added challenge was added in other areas, though, such as not being able to die in order to reach the challenge platforms that unlocked secret areas, or the ability to do a time trial for relics in Crash 3.

Triceratops attack in the Prehistoric era!
Triceratops attack in the Prehistoric era!

But really, we’re asking the question of whether the Crash trilogy holds up today; to answer that we have to look at overall gameplay and the presentation. Starting with the gameplay, it’s really easy to compare all three games. Crash controls fluidly across the trio of titles and his movement feels natural. In the later games, ice physics and other features such as power ups and vehicles are implemented amazingly well. When Crash rides a motorcycle in the third game, it actually feels like you’re driving; when he slips around on ice, there’s an amazing feeling of resistance and speed depending on the direction you’re attempting to travel in. Crash also jumps with ease and reacts to the amount of pressure that you put on to the X button. The more you hold the jump button down, the higher Crash tries to jump and the longer he suspends in the air. It sounds obvious now but some of the other platformers I’ve played since Crash haven’t always implemented this jumping technique, which is extremely unnatural. If you’re wondering about attacks, Crash can either jump on the heads of enemies or spin into them like Taz. Both are often just as effective in the first game but in the later instalments some enemies can only be killed by one or the other. The implementation of the slide attack in Crash 2 and 3 also added a third attack option, one that could kill unique enemies and give Crash the ability to perform a super high jump if performed correctly. There’s nothing unnatural about Crash’s movements and controlling him is a joy; he may only be moving up and down or left and right but the amount of control offered to you as the player is undeniable.

To me, though, the most impressive aspect of Crash is its graphics. The first Crash Bandicoot game came out in 1996, a few months after Super Mario 64. I love Super Mario 64 but by today’s standards it is one ugly game (an issue I’ll no doubt cover and elaborate on in a later retrospective).  Crash Bandicoot, even in its most primitive gameplay form, is simply gorgeous. Yes, the character models might seem a little blocky but even in the first of the Crash games, his waist, legs and arms moved far less jerkily than comparable platform characters. The backgrounds, though, are the bee’s knees. From luscious, leafy jungles to industrial factories, futuristic cities and even underwater ravines, the Crash games are made just as much by their environments as they are by fluid and fun gameplay. Much of the atmosphere of each level is derived from your surroundings and the developers couldn’t have pitched this more perfectly. An overriding memory that I have is of playing the level Temple Ruins for the first time as a child and being overwhelmed by how crushingly dark it was. Everything from the flickering lights to the creaking pathways and the echoes of things in the distance – not to mention how pitch black it was – completely amazed me. Add in the minimalist and altogether terrifying music and you’ve got a recipe for a classic gaming experience.

Strangely enough though, I really hated the first Crash Bandicoot when I first played it. It wasn’t tedious and I enjoyed the environments and the music but the gameplay was simply too difficult for me. When it came to the second and third instalments the slightly more forgiving gameplay – particularly surrounding the optional collectibles – spoke to me more as a young gamer. As an adult though, I can appreciate all of the games in the original Crash trilogy for what they are, flaws and all. With the games now also being on the PSN, they’re completely portable too, meaning I can indulge my need to ride a warthog or laugh at Crash’s hilarious death animations as much as I want, wherever I want. These are games that will go down as legendary among platformers.

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