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Retrospective: 15 years of Crash Bandicoot

Crash Bandicoot is the quintessential ‘90s mascot. Naughty Dog’s much-celebrated marsupial came at a time when Sony was in desperate need of a poster-boy. They needed something to rival Nintendo and Sega’s deep stables of rich characters, and what they received became the emblematic character for its generation. A testament to the innovative and intelligent designs of its developers, the Crash Bandicoot series pushed the limitations of the PlayStation in exciting ways. It’s hard to believe it’s been fifteen years since the series’ humble beginnings. For many of us, these were the games that defined the PlayStation; every bit as ambitious and forward-thinking as Sony’s early approach to creating gaming hardware.

Crash Bandicoot – Sean Kelley, Associate Editor

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15 years ago, Universal Interactive Studios and Naughty Dog introduced the gaming world to Crash Bandicoot. Continuing the anthropomorphic mascot animal wars of the 16-bit generation, Crash was but one of the many biped critters hitting the scene. Unlike Crash’s 32-bit alumnus, including the memorable Bug, Gex and Croc, the manic marsupial stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, largely due to Naughty Dog’s classic work.

Seeing Sega’s early forays into 3D space in the arcades, Dog co-founders Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin were intent on bringing the platforming genre to the third dimension. Envisioning a game that followed the animal protagonist from behind, the pair began referring to their game concept as ‘Sonic’s Ass Game’.

Remembered more for its characters than its gameplay, Crash was the bizarre, zany alternative to Sonic’s attitude and Mario’s cheeriness. Dumping players onto a series of remote Australian islands, Naughty Dog created some of the most universally memorable gaming moments found during the PlayStation’s life cycle. After the initial thrills of simply running to and fro in front of the camera wore off, it wasn’t long until that first boulder chase. With the stage aptly named ‘Boulders’, a page has quite obviously been ripped from Indiana Jones, but that doesn’t make the thrill of fleeing the circular mash of polygons any less exhilarating.

Equally riotous and nearly ten times as frustrating, ‘Hog Wild’ is yet another astutely named mad dash through the Tazmanian jungles. Before saddling up a wild boar, Crash creepily wiggles his eyebrows before climbing his steed. Hurtling away from the screen at speeds reminiscent of a Sonic title, Crash is forced to wind his way around angry tribesmen, spiked pillars and below a series of rotating pigs on spits. The entire ordeal is weird, and occasionally hilarious, but it’s also punishing.

Less remembered than its plucky protagonist, Crash Bandicoot stands as a wholly unique, interesting look at the growing pains found at the early portion of 3D game design. Before the introduction of Sony’s long standard DualShock controller, Crash was left with digital controls in an analog world. Combined with the challenge inherent to a static camera following from behind, Crash was a precision based platformer released in an imprecise world.

Crash Bandicoot may not have been a resounding home run for Naughty Dog straight out of the gate, but it laid forth a promising blueprint for things to come. The studio’s penchant for humor was clear from their beginnings, despite the mute marsupial. If Naughty Dog has proved nothing else over the years, they are a team that has always prided themselves on iteration, never afraid to stick to their own guns and refine their unique visions, regardless of anyone else’s opinion. Crash Bandicoot was the beginning of something special, not only for Naughty Dog, but also for Sony and its PlayStation.

Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back – Calvin Kemph, Associate Editor

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Crash trudges through the snow the only way he knows how, spinning and sliding his way through all manner of environmental hazards and animal-like contraptions with ease, animated and full of pizazz. Then, something happens. The bandicoot comes across a stranded polar bear – named Polar – helpless and alone out here in the wilderness. It’s an adorable thing, and so Crash does what anyone would do.

He gives a dramatic look back into the camera, as if to ask approval, then tweaks his eyebrows and wrestles the polar bear. The scuffle quickly subsides with Crash taking the upper-hand and mounting his newfound friend.

The two speed down the endless chasms deep within the mountain. While Crash is pre-occupied with finding his treasure, Polar tries his best to impress upon the anthropomorphic character that he’s in-fact man’s best friend, taking to barking and chasing his tale while at rest. This friendship is too good to be true, presenting their unlikely kinship as something unique. Something had to give. So, their bond is tested when a gigantic polar bear gives chase. Eventually, they make a mistake and Crash is flung into the snow, his friend filled with a kind of profound sadness.

These are all the things that make Cortex Strikes Back excellent. These cuts from the bear levels would be the singles to a best of album’s b-sides, if we were to draw out a convoluted analogy to visual imagery and it’s musical connotations. They do all the things that make Crash such an iconic series and are all pure fun; familiar enough that they connect but unique enough to differentiate themselves.

Anything that’s added – or removed – is generally improved upon from the original. There are a lot of seemingly minor things that make all the difference, but everything’s been tightened. Levels have been cut to their most straightforward linear form, applied but not always followed strictly in its preddessor. Boss fights take up Nintendo’s “rule of three” – and are further polished for it. Perspective generally works in Crash’s favor now, although trying to space out jumps is inherently more difficult than in 2D.

At the time, Cortex Strikes Back was the most visually appealing character-driven platformer around. That Crash Bandicoot and it’s sequel are fairly derivative doesn’t matter as much as one might think – innovation’s never been weighed in sales – although it does temper some of the appeal in returning to either games.

For anyone with reservations, look no further than the trilogy’s end, where they expand upon the foundations of the first game, while bringing in a new sense of personality and a use of location that’s more experimental than it is by-the-books.

Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped – Oliver Banham, Senior Staff Writer

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It can’t be easy to round off a trilogy, especially with a series like Crash Bandicoot – a series adored by fans across the world from the moment we heard the words umbagah, or yeooow! Almost coming out of nowhere, this animal that no one had heard of suddenly became Sony’s answer to Mario. Undoubtedly one of the PlayStation’s ‘big hitters’, the furry marsupial shared the mascot duties with a certain Lara Croft, and as such his popularity depended entirely on the quality of his games. The third title in the series was much anticipated, and lofty expectations were abound. Developers Naughty Dog had to deliver something special – a worthy send-off for platforming maestro Crash. They answered the challenge with an explosive finale that was bigger, better and more accessible, with the ultimately familiar gameplay that made the original Crash Bandicoot such a whirlwind success.

Following largely (hell, the same) formula as previous title Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back, each world in Warped was split into five levels, all accessed from hub area the Time Twisting Machine. Finish each level to win a pink crystal, and a boss level will be unlocked. Defeat them, and you unlock the next world.

As the story incorporated time travel, this enabled Naughty Dog to go wild with their ideas. Crash is transported into the Middle Ages, where poxy knights struggle with their steel and wedge tents litter the paths, to the Arabian nights which feature scorpions and sabre wielding swordsmen. He’s taken into the future, with soaring skyscrapers, floating lasers to leap over and flying saucers to bounce off of. It’s not all jumping and running, either, with a whole host of the levels giving both Crash and his sister Coco access to vehicles such as motorbikes, jet skis and bomber planes. Even Coco’s cute tiger Pura makes an appearance, in the hilariously themed Great Wall of China levels (watch those Dragons!).

By introducing new locations and exciting enemies yet still retaining the classic Crash gameplay, Naughty Dog succeeded in pleasing old and new fans alike, winning over late adopters to the PlayStation cause, and keeping the faithful Crash-heads happy. Characters were filled with humor, like the memorable Dingodile, or the deliciously creepy and superbly voiced Doctor N.Gin, and the game never started to feel serious – it was old school fun all the way.

While you could argue Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped lost a bit of the hardcore platforming purity that the original game thrived on, with the introduction of all the new vehicles and scenarios, it only showed how Naughty Dog wanted the series to go out with a bang, not a whimper. And with its bite-sized levels of bonkers fun, platforming nirvana and fantastic character, they definitely achieved that.

CTR: Crash Team Racing – Calvin Kemph, Associate Editor

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Bringing closure to one of the PlayStation’s most enduring franchises, CTR: Crash Team Racing finds Naughty Dog to be an all-around competent and versatile developer. It’s not the game which defined them as a company, perhaps (if there even is a single game), but it elaborated on their penchant for smart design, giving Mario his first true competition at the tracks.

What’s always made kart racing such a popular stomping grounds for mascots from character action games is that it’s essentially one of those, and with Crash Team Racing, Naughty Dog came across as one of the first developers to really get that.
It works well for all the same reasons Crash Bandicoot games do. Because all of the fiction’s characters are expressive in a classical, dynamic kind of way, that design follows through to their karts. The motorized vehicles come across are conveyed with a kind of vitality, with the same fluid sweeps of movement as their drivers, if not more.

That’s the big draw about Crash Team Racing: the ability to turn and stop on a dime, the way the karts respond to input and feel substantial on the track. These improvements on the few areas Mario Kart left behind lead to the game attracting a kind of fervent, dedicated following. It effectively removed the stigma of being a kart racing game for those willing to let go of the old style.

It’s easy to discount Crash Team Racing as something separate from its platforming brethren. The main difference is the platforming itself, after-all. Yet, while it’s nearly impossible to beat Mario in the traditional character platforming sense, having a capable developer who’s threatening to overtake Mario in a subset of his genre is an exciting thing.

What are some of your best Crash memories? Feel free to share them in the comments section below.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @Calvin_Kemph.

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