How 'Crash Bandicoot' Became So Much More Than Sonic’s Arse
As the 3D platformer toasts its 20th anniversary, here's why Crash was better than his peers, but why we don't need a comeback proper.
If you think Crash Bandicoot sounds like a stupid name for a game, you should hear the working titles. Willie the Wombat, anyone? How about Ozzie the Otzel? Would this platformer still have revolutionised a genre and defined a console if it kept its first handle, The Sonic's Ass Game?
As unlikely as it sounds, that wasn't just a working title – it was the whole concept. Up until the mid-1990s, platform games followed took pretty much the same form: the player moved from left to right through a side-scrolling 2D environment, running, jumping, defeating enemies and collecting stuff.
But in 1994, Naughty Dog co-founders Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin began to wonder what a 3D platformer might look like. What if you could explore somewhere like the Green Hill Zone not from a sideways perspective, but behind the main character? Well, they realised, you'd spend a lot of time looking at Sonic's arse.
A longplay video of the original 'Crash Bandicoot'
Even Rubin and Gavin were dubious about whether this would make for fun times. But they decided to press on, and Crash Bandicoot was released for the PlayStation in September 1996. Two decades, 17 sequels and spin-offs and 50 million game sales later, it looks like this was probably the right choice.
At this year's E3, Sony announced impending HD remakes of the first three Crash games. At the same expo, Activision confirmed that Crash, the character, would be introduced into their Skylanders franchise. There's no release date as yet for the remasters, but Skylanders: Imaginators comes out in October. And if you're really desperate for a fix, right now, you could always dust off the PS3 and download the original games from the PlayStation Store for £3.99 a pop.
And, actually, they've aged rather well – especially when compared to other so-called classics from the same period, like Tomb Raider, with its rampant jaggedy edges, constant pop-up and hilariously pointy tits. Crash looks relatively polished and pretty, with solid environments painted with lush colours and a wide variety of textures. The level of detail is impressive, and special mention has to go to the soundtrack – it's as jaunty as ever, and there is no sound in the world as satisfying as a bandicoot munching a wumpa fruit.
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But if there's one clear reminder of just how old this game is, and how much things have moved on, it's the difficulty level. Crash Bandicoot is bloody hard. Hazards are everywhere, enemies are devious, and Continue crates are few and far between. The chase levels – where you're riding a wild warthog, or trying to outrun a rolling boulder – are thrilling and addictive. The game constantly challenges you to navigate impossibly tight corners, time jumps to the splittiest of seconds, and avoid enemies with pixel-perfect precision. What's more, you have to do all this without an analogue stick. For youngsters who don't remember the original PlayStation controller, imagine trying to perform open-heart surgery using a rusty spoon and a chopstick.
Or perhaps I'm just rubbish at it. This is perfectly possible, especially when you consider that Naughty Dog implemented something called Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment within Crash Bandicoot. If you die too many times, more tiki mask power-ups and Continue crates will suddenly appear; that boulder will even slow down if you repeatedly fail to outrun it.
"Good player, bad player, everyone loved Crash games. They never realised it's because they were all playing a slightly different game, balanced for their specific needs," explained Jason Rubin, in an article on Andy Gavin's blog. "It would lead later Crash games to be the inclusive, perfectly balanced games they became."
The "Snow Go" level from 'Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back'
Indeed, 1997's Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back has a more finely tuned difficulty curve, along with some of the most inventive and enjoyable levels from the whole series. The snow sections are the real highlight, from the mirror-like reflections on the ice Crash slides around on to the sheer joy of riding a runaway baby polar bear while being chased by his giant, angry dad.
It does feel like the ideas were starting to run out by the time 1998's Crash Bandicoot: Warped went into production. The game even seems to acknowledge this by referencing some other classic games – "Hang'em High" uses the same setting and colour palette as Virgin's Aladdin for the Mega Drive, while you can probably work out where they got the inspiration for "Tomb Wader". But these are amusing homages rather than blatant rip-offs, and Warped is still a great game.
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Naughty Dog's final instalment in the franchise, 1999's Crash Team Racing, was also, ahem, "inspired by" another old favourite. Let's be honest, it's Mario Kart with polar bears. The good news is that Naughty Dog did a great job of copying that game's best bits, and everything from the balancing to the track design is spot on. I'd go so far as to suggest it's better than some of the MK games. (Sorry, Double Dash!!, but no amount of extra punctuation will convince me you are not shit.)
And if you think that's controversial, how about this: I reckon Crash Bandicoot is far superior to the same year's Super Mario 64. Nintendo's effort may have offered a wider open world to explore, but it took up so much processing power that there wasn't much left for visuals. The environments feel sparse and basic, especially when compared to the abundant, action-packed levels that Crash gets to run around.
Ellie Gibson and Oli Welsh revisit 'Crash Team Racing' for Eurogamer
Crash had none of SM64's fiddly camera issues, while the controls are just as tight and fluid – for the time – as Mario's. Also, Crash is a bit less of a smug cock. (Neither of them are as bad as Sonic, mind you, always wagging his finger like a pompous geography teacher who's just found cigarettes in your P.E. bag.)
Post-Naughty Dog, Crash bounced between no less than ten publishers and developers, none of whom managed to make a game that was as good as the old ones. Having said that, I'd give a shout out to 2004's Crash Twinsanity, developed by Traveller's Tales for the PS2. It was made with clear care and attention, and proved to be not only enjoyable but genuinely funny. Plus it had amazing music by the a cappella band Spiralmouth – it's arguably one of the best video game soundtracks ever.
Finally, in 2016, Crash came home. The original game appeared as an Easter egg in Naughty Dog's Uncharted 4: A Thief's End. Which, naturally, got the internet talking: could this mean another instalment from the series' creators is on the way?
'Crash Bandicoot' in 'Uncharted 4: A Thief's End' (starts at 9.30)
Alas, no. For starters, Rubin and Gavin moved on from the company years ago. Naughty Dog now specialises in epic story-driven adventures offering complex analyses of the nature of familial relationships and the human condition. It seems unlikely they'd want to go from that to a game about a dog driving around a beach, eating apples.
And who cares, anyway? Why fix what isn't broken, when you could just smash the classics through a magic graphicsinator, allowing us all to enjoy that brilliant old gameplay alongside whizzy new visuals? I can't wait to explore the world of Crash once again in glorious high definition. My only hope is they call it Crash Bandicoot HD: The Sonic's Arse Remix.