Nostalgia is pixels.
I remember the first time I played Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back. It was on the infamous demo disc that I believe came packaged with my PlayStation. I was most likely ten years old, and my PlayStation was a pretty new toy. I had yet to experience the joys of Final Fantasy VII (though our separate Squaresoft demo disc provided me with a brief glimpse of my first Mako reactor run), stuck mostly within the boundaries of the disc. Crash Bandicoot 2, a proud achievement of Naughty Dog, was easily one of the best titles on the disc. Naturally, when my report card arrived with good grades, my brother and I chose to receive Crash Bandicoot 2 as our reward.
Crash Bandicoot 2 follows the story of our hero Crash, a bandicoot who is unable to talk, guided by his tiki friend, his sister, and the unlikely ally of Dr. Neo Cortex. You see, Crash’s first nemesis was Dr. Cortex, so when the doctor finds himself in need of pink crystals, he pleads for Crash’s assistance. Crash, the gullible hero, takes him up on the offer and is quickly sent to a warp room, where he can then choose to warp to various levels. Each warp room contains about five levels and a boss. When Crash collects 25 of the pink crystals for Cortex, he will face the final boss. The setup here is fairly simple and quite commonplace. The game wasn’t particularly breaking any new ground in this aspect.
What Crash Bandicoot 2, for me, particularly excelled at was the fantastic action platforming elements that set it above others in the genre. Sure, similar games like Sypro and Gex were wonderful in their own right – and successful – but Crash 2 was an incredible experience from top to bottom, filled with a fairly interesting plot and characters. There is a decent variation in level designs and settings, which keeps the game feeling fresh. Each warp room, too, has its own theme, and the levels are centered around the theme.
Gameplay shined in Crash 2. The controls for its time were crisp and not too choppy. The player controls Crash who, generally, runs north on a set destination, defeating enemies, avoiding traps and nitrogen, and collecting fruit and jewels on his way to the pink crystal waiting at the end. He can pick up tiki masks, which provide him with levels of protection against enemies (three tiki masks make Crash invincible from enemy attacks and allows him to one-shot regular enemies). Occasionally, level set ups would change, either involving Crash riding an animal through an obstacle course or fleeing from oncoming boulders or polar bears. Within levels, Crash can climb terrain, discover bonus ‘game’ areas, ride jet boards, and get into other activities along the way. In other words, while the setup of the game is fairly routine, the contents of each level can vary (sometimes drastically), keeping the experience interesting.
The problem with any platformer on the PlayStation was hardware constraints. We know Naughty Dog as the beautiful and talented developer behind Uncharted, The Last of Us, and Jak & Daxter, which feature some pretty immaculate gameplay in their own rights. Unfortunately, the PlayStation 1 era was not filled with perfection. Even a game as solid as Crash 2 suffered from its time period, leading to some miscalculations, occasional buggy controls, and misleading visuals that lead to death. And when you experience these things, it can result in extreme frustration, especially during boss fights (which were all definitely unique of each other). That said, the final product resulted in an overall enjoyable experience that I continued to play into college.
Lastly, Crash 2 does not end when you defeat the final boss. Sure, the main exposition involves Crash collecting the pink crystals for Dr. Cortex, which leads up to a climactic conclusion. But along the way, Crash meets Dr. N. Brio, a man attempting to convince Crash that Cortex is playing him something fierce. In order to stop him, Dr. Brio asks Crash to collect the difficult to find crystals (like diamonds). This adds replay value to the game and lets the player decide if he/she wants to continue the experience once the credits have rolled.
In conclusion, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back is an untraditionally traditional experience that improved upon the meager successes of its maiden title. Naughty Dog learned from its mistakes to create a memorable and sound experience (even including the few hardware related issues) that makes it one of my favorite PlayStation titles to date. If you have never experienced Crash 2 and own a PlayStation (1, 2, or 3), then see if you can track down a copy of Crash 2 to experience.