Long before Joel and Ellie made their apocalyptic odyssey, or Nathan Drake made his first snarky remark, the newly named Naughty Dog were busy adding their first great gaming mascot to the Sony Hall of Fame.
He wasn’t another workshy plumber, nor was he a hedgehog with a speed addiction. His name was Crash, and in 1996 he arrived to spin through gamer’s expectations of 3D gaming and snatch them up like a cluster of Wumpa fruit.
The original Crash Bandicoot has become an iconic game for the original PlayStation, not only proving the potential of the console with stunning visuals, but also revolutionising platformers by taking the leap from a 2D plane into a fully 3D environment, complete with tricky timing challenges, an array of colourful enemies and, of course, lots and lots of crates. Gamers were left in awe and wanting more, and Crash’s legacy only extended with a series of sequels that improved upon the original’s core gameplay, wowed fans and helped forge one of the PS1’s most memorable franchises. Not bad for a title originally codenamed “Sonic’s Ass game”(which, incidentally, is fairly reflective of the quality of Sonic games that come out nowadays).
With this kind of success, it’s kind of surprising the manic marsupial’s antics didn’t exactly gain tens across the board from critics on its release. Some reviewers felt that Crash Bandicoot’s strength as an actual game didn’t match up to its looks, claiming that the jumping gameplay lacked the innovation present in its detailed environments and characters. In a year in which Nintendo’s stellar Super Mario 64 introduced dynamic camera movement and intuitive levels, Crash’s adventure looked stale by comparison and, to many, wasn’t anywhere near as laudable as Nintendo’s mega-selling magnum opus.
As a child playing Crash I couldn’t care less, merrily scouring levels to destroy every box and falling through the final gap on “The High Road” for the umpteenth time that day. However, now that consoles have the power to show Lara Croft dashing herself violently on a rock after a fall in high definition, I thought I’d return to a more primitive (and far less harrowing) time by booting up Crash Bandicoot to see how well it’s aged. The answer? I’m not entirely sure.
There’s no denying that the original game still appeals immediately with its vibrant presentation, pulling you in from the instant the main menu pops up, the game’s upbeat theme begins to play and the series’ crazed protagonist ducks to avoid being crushed by his own name landing overhead. The game’s zany sense of humour still makes an impact, from Crash’s OTT death animations to the wacky collection of bosses you face in the quest to save his girlfriend from the evil Neo Cortex. In levels ranging from leafy rainforest to temple walls to the machine-filled strongholds, Crash jumps and spins his way through locales both perilous and pretty, and it’s a lovely excursion from the whitewashed gloomy atmospheres many mainstream games plump for nowadays.
But it’s the game’s environments that in many ways highlight its greatest limitations. Naughty Dog only had a certain number of polygons to work with and it shows, from cramped jaunts through death-pit filled forests with foliage and a fixed camera deliberately obscuring the next area, to the fact that many levels have Crash moving horizontally from one side of the screen to the other. So much for the so-called 3D revolution.
Crash’s rather small scale was built upon in later titles, but here it often gives jumping and spinning an unwelcome requirement for clairvoyance. Much of the game’s difficulty was actually due to the fact that you could only see upcoming threats at the last possible moment, making it hard to complete many levels on a first try. Crash walks the line between challenging and screamingly frustrating, and as someone who isn’t particularly good at games I know which side of the line I often fell into, as did my neighbours next door and most of my street by the end of my playthrough.
Thankfully, for the most part Crash’s D-pad controls are just precise enough to avoid too much scrutiny. With enough practice, you can get pretty good at knowing exactly where Crash is about to land after bounding from a moving platform, but whether the animal or robot he’s about to land on will kill him is another question often only a psychic could answer. Overall, Crash still bestows a real sense of danger on the player throughout. It won’t matter how many life saving witch doctor masks you acquire if a mistimed jump sends you sprawling down a pit with that familiar Roadrunner cartoon whistle blowing in your ears.
That said, if you know what you’re getting into and don’t mind a few ideas being
repeated across strictly linear levels, Crash will have you coming back when Game Over inevitably plonks back onto your screen. The game’s standout chase sequences, which have you riding a hog or running away from a boulder in a manner famously ripped from Indiana Jones, are still just as entertaining to play through. What’s more, even if the game’s scores of destructible crates and collectible trinkets are basically there to pad runtime, they’re one of the main reasons the game still appeals to completionists and speed-runners, adding an extra layer of challenge to a game that’s already tough as nails.
And yet, as I’ve already mentioned, I feel far more ambiguous about the game after replaying it than I thought I would. Maybe it’s the trouble I’m having removing the nostalgia goggles, but I wanted Crash Bandicoot to be more than what it is – a step into the world of 3D platforming that ultimately remains shackled by too many old ideas to truly be revolutionary, too rough around the edge to be truly timeless. There’s no doubt it was a defining game for Sony’s first flagship console, but the argument for it standing the test of several generations in the way Ocarina of Time has doesn’t seem nearly as convincing after almost twenty years.
Even if Crash Bandicoot’s first outing isn’t quite the transcendent experience I might remember it to be, as an historic mascot in gaming I salute him. After all, it’s not just any old bandicoot who could help influence a company’s meteoric rise in console popularity, or place a fledgling developer at the forefront of an industry’s consciousness. I salute him, as do other original PlayStation fans that to this day hold a special place for him in their hearts. The fungus monsters of The Last of Us might shriek, and Nathan Drake‘s train might be derailed with a mighty bang, but at the end of the day it all started with a Crash.