It’s easy to forget now but in the mid-1990’s, Sony’s PlayStation was very much an unknown quantity. The console had potential, but next to SEGA and Nintendo, gamers had to be convinced that Sony’s new grey box had the legs to last. This was achieved through several means, not least an aggressive advertising campaign that pitched the device as everything Nintendo wasn’t. Front and center in this assault was the rise of several characters that made their home on PlayStation. These characters came to define the consoles image, creating a new wave of excitement. Yet one managed to tower higher than most, his influence peaking in 1998 when many considered him the face of Sony’s console. I’m of course taking about Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot.
Crash is a game that lives and dies by its platforming chops and Naughty Dog went out of their way to make sure the game had its own unique flavor. In the shadow of Mario 64 release in mid-1996, 3D platformers were already wilting due to the high bar set. Many developers squeezed out some laughable attempts at mimicry on all platforms (Busby 3D being the one that comes immediately to mind) but none had managed to define themselves. To make things even harder, Crash Bandicoot was a completely new creation. Gamers had no nostalgia to draw from, so Naughty Dog had to get it right out the gate.
The central story is just enough to get things moving, but nowhere near as involved as its sequels. You play as Crash, an escaped bandicoot that’s looking to save his (alarmingly over) sexy girlfriend. Between this and the end-game, you have to clear various stages and take down Neo Cortex’s minions as you fight to claim back your lady. It’s simple for sure, but serves the plot well and gives the game enough license to play with the settings as it sees fit.
The good thing is that returning to play Crash Bandicoot isn’t as horrifying as with many of Crash’s competitors. Unfortunately a number of the early PlayStation One titles have aged like bread, hampered by poor graphics or controls that just don’t work as intended by modern standards. Crash Bandicoot still looks great and manages to retain most of the tight control needed to make the game enjoyable. It’s a testament to how strong the core game play is that Naughty Dog were able to build such a strong framework that holds up to the test of time.
This is because Crash Bandicoot focuses on the things that make the game work. It excels is in the sheer excitement of it all. Collecting Womba fruit, breaking boxes and jumping on over-sized crabs is all part of the games charm. The levels are more linear than Mario, yet feel just as expressive in their delivery. From the early jungle runs, to the bridges that hang high above the clouds, each stage has a certain grandness to its execution. Bosses feel interesting (for the most part) and require logical approach to overcome. Even the 2.5D sections, which the game indulges in from time to time, are well executed for the most part and point to developers that understood what made platformers work so well.
Adding to the spice of things is the lure of extras and goodies hidden away. Find special colored gems and you can take alternative paths through levels, or reach areas simply not possible. There are also numerous Bonus areas and hidden segments that require you to keep an eye out for them. If you want to 100% Crash Bandicoot, you need to be dedicated and willing to accept the frustration that this sometimes brings.
Praise also needs to be thrown onto the games sound design, which makes full use of the PlayStation’s CD capabilities. If nothing else, Crash sounds amazing and from every groan and shriek of horror – the title goes above and beyond in making the experience feel whole. Music in levels is catchy, zaney and just incredibly fun to hum along with. Even the more sinister levels have gloriously well-fitting music, with barely a dud among the pack.
This isn’t to say the game is without fault though. Some of the games more questionable design choices leave a lot to be desired, most of which were quietly dropped in the sequels. No where is this more prevalent than in the games difficulty curve, which has a nasty habit of spiking. Some of the levels are fairly generous in how you can approach puzzles, yet others require pin-point accuracy. I can’t stress just how frustrating it is to be kicked back to a checkpoint all because you didn’t line up jumps correctly, or because the game decided that your D-Pad press wasn’t quite good enough – leaving you scream in horror as Crash plummets to his demise.
This isn’t helped by the camera, which at times does its absolute best to mess you round. Unfortunately you’re not given control of this at all, which means if a box or enemy blocks your immediate view, you’re very much on your own. There’s also the fact that in the original game, much of the secret content isn’t well signposted. In later Crash games you’re told how many boxes you’ve broken, yet in the original it’s a sad case of trial and error as you hunt down every box and pray to God you didn’t miss anything.
But all of this is background noise to the fact that Crash Bandicoot is just fun to play. It holds up remarkably well, and manages to invoke a strong sense of enjoyment even today. With Activision remaking this title alongside the arguably more popular sequels, I’m hoping that the original can get the praise it finally deserves. I wouldn’t say the original is my favorite by any stretch, but the game it is remains hugely enjoyable to this day.
Did you enjoy the original Crash Bandicoot?