Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy Review

These days, first-person shooters and other, more “mature” genres are the most prominent games. But back in the 1990s, it was all about cartoony platformers. Mario was the long-standing gaming icon, and Sonic the Hedgehog had risen to prominence in the early years of the decade. Sonic’s popularity lead to countless imitators, with many an “animal with attitude” failing to replicate what made the hedgehog Mario’s one-time rival. There was, however, one such would-be mascot who actually succeeded in being the third-party in this platforming mascot equation: Crash Bandicoot.

Crash Bandicoot was created by Naughty Dog, the developer who is now most famous for creating the Uncharted series and The Last of Us. Crash’s first three outings on the Sony Playstation proved to be so popular, that the anthropomorphized marsupial became the face of Sony’s initial gaming platform.

Crash’s popularity can mostly be attributed to the quality of his games, though it probably helped things a bit that the orange bandicoot had a tone of his own. While Mario was whimsical and Sonic was “cool,” Crash Bandicoot was downright silly. Taking as much inspiration from Loony Tunes as from the likes of Sonic and Mario, Naughty Dog created a worthy addition to the platforming family with an identity of its own. But one who sadly fell out of prominence after Naughty Dog surrendered the character to other developers after the PSOne era. From the PS2 era (which saw Sony’s former mascot become a multi-platform franchise) and the subsequent console generation, the once-mighty Crash Bandicoot fell from grace, with developers never quite knowing how to recreate the series’ magic. After an off-putting quasi-reboot which saw a complete overhaul in art direction (something that never serves as a good sign for long-standing series), Crash laid dormant for nine years.

Thanks to developer Vicarious Visions, Crash Bandicoot is back with his first (and most famous) three adventures being rebuilt from the ground up for the Playstation 4. Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy faithfully re-creates the beloved original trilogy of platformers for a new generation. Though this faithfulness means there’s a little bit of a “warts and all” quality about the N. Sane Trilogy, it also proves to be something of a labor of love and a beautiful re-introduction to the series.

Though Crash Bandicoot was one of the early 3D platformers, it plays a lot more like a 2D one than something like Super Mario 64 (released in 1996, the same year as the first Crash Bandicoot title). The camera is usually fixed behind Crash, with the bandicoot traveling forward through stages that felt like those of a 2D platformer, but with a 3D perspective.

Crash Bandicoot can jump on enemies, but also comes with a spin attack. He collects Wumpa Fruits which, like Mario’s coins or Sonic’s rings, grant an extra life for every one-hundred gained. In the game’s own unique twist on the genre, the stages are also littered with boxes. Once every box in a level is destroyed, Crash is rewarded with a magical gem, which are needed if the player wishes to obtain one-hundred percent completion, with special colored gems found in certain stages which create new paths in certain levels.

Crash seemed to have learned a thing or two from Donkey Kong Country, as the boxes are reminiscent of DK’s barrels, and come in different varieties: Some contain a single fruit, others contain multiples, Crash can bounce on some, while others contain TNT, and will explode within a few seconds after jumped on (or instantly if Crash spins them). The sequels also added Nitro boxes, which will explode instantaneously upon contact, and can only properly be destroyed by hitting a switch at the level’s end. Finally, there are boxes adorned with a tiki mask named Aku Aku. Grabbing one and two masks will give Crash that many more hits, while obtaining a third mask will grant temporary invincibility.

The core gameplay of Crash Bandicoot is a lot of fun. Most of the levels are well designed, and trying to obtain every gem adds a level of complexity to the equation. On the downside of things, the perspective can often be misleading, with the fixed camera leading to some tricky platforming. This is especially true in the first game of the trilogy (simply titled Crash Bandicoot), which can, at times, feel a bit trollish with the tricks it plays with perspective. Still, the core mechanics are so fun that they mostly overshadow the sometimes cumbersome perspectives.

Though the second and third titles of the series, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back and Crash Bandicoot: Warped still suffer from some of these troublesome camera issues, they remain two of the few 3D titles on the original Playstation that hold up pretty well in terms of gameplay. The original Crash Bandicoot, however, wasn’t quite so lucky. Despite the fun mechanics, some of the later levels feel almost unfairly difficult, which were made all the worse by a convoluted saving system (in the PSOne version, you could only save after acquiring a gem or completing a bonus stage).

Thankfully, part of that problem has been rectified here, as the N. Sane Trilogy features a streamlined saving feature throughout all three games. For the first Crash Bandicoot, this is something of a godsend with how difficult it could get at times. Those difficult levels still remain – sometimes with unfair traps that require trial-and-error – but at least now you don’t have to worry about replaying them if you missed out on a chance to save before getting a game over.

Cortex Strikes Back and Warped remain two of the best of the early 3D platformers, however, with even the original PSOne versions being enjoyable today.  Crash 2 introduced a sliding move, a crouch that (like Mario) could result in a high jump, as well as overall better level design; and Warped added a wider variety of gameplay styles (jet ski levels, airplane levels, motorcycle levels, etc.) as well as Time Trials, which would award players with saphire, gold or platinum relics if you could finish a stage fast enough.

However, all three games are better than ever as part of the N. Sane Trilogy. The original Crash – though still flawed – is a much better game with the additional features (such as the aforementioned saving), while the sequels are a case of two great games being made all the better.

The obvious changes are the visuals and music. Though the level design is the same, everything has been rebuilt from the ground up. This isn’t simply the old Crash Bandicoot games in HD, but games that don’t look like remakes at all. If you didn’t have the knowledge of Crash’s past, you might be forgiven for thinking these are original PS4 games. And the cartoony aesthetics – whether it be the Australian inspired setting of the first game, the arctic or sewer-themed stages of the second, or the various time periods Crash visits in his time-traveling third outing – stand out all the more on current hardware. Video games look better than ever these days, yet most developers feel the need to make games look more “gritty” or “realistic” because of the technological power at play. But Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy serves as a good example of why such colorful and vibrant games should be explored more often on HD hardware.

Though Crash Bandicoot’s musical scores may not be among the most iconic in video game history, the tunes are infectiously catchy and – taking another cue from DK – can be incredibly atmospheric. Every track has been faithfully recreated, and these already great soundtracks sound better than ever.

Not every change in the N. Sane Trilogy is cosmetic, however, as there have been a few tweaks made to the games themselves. Most notably, Warped’s Time Trials have been inserted into the two earlier games, giving them even more challenge and replay value. Additionally, Crash’s sister Coco Bandicoot, who was originally only playable in select levels of Warped (and even then only in levels that saw her riding a vehicle or tiger) can be played in any platforming level of all three games. She plays identically to Crash, and playing as her is optional, so she doesn’t exactly change the game, but she keeps things faithful for purists while also making up for her somewhat disappointing playability in Warped’s original release.

Crash Bandicoot has had a long, shaky history, but I feel like the N. Sane Trilogy serves as something of a refreshing reboot for the series. The perspectives can still get tricky at times, and the first game can still feel cheap, but the N. Sane Trilogy resurrects the series in a gorgeous recreation of the beloved Naughty Dog games. Hopefully this leads to publisher Activision green-lighting a brand new Crash Bandicoot 4 (ignoring the post-Naughty Dog games and using these remakes as a blueprint would be the best course for the series’ future).

When most people think of Naughty Dog, they probably think of Uncharted, The Last of Us, or even Jak and Daxter. But for me, Crash Bandicoot has always been the synonymous name with the developer, and Vicarious Visions has done a wonderful job at turning these nostalgic favorites into worthwhile contemporary titles.

The bandicoot is back, and I hope he’s here to stay.

 

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Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back Review

Crash Bandicoot 2

What a difference one sequel can make. Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back was not only better than its predecessor back in its day, but the years have only magnified what an improvement it really was. The original Crash Bandicoot has its place in history, but many of its aspects now feel archaic. Crash Bandicoot 2 now feels closer to the proper realization of what Naughty Dog was trying to achieve when they created the Playstation’s original mascot.

Crash Bandicoot 2 takes the assets of the first game, and polishes them while also giving the formula more depth.

The core gameplay remains the same: Crash still jumps and spins his way through levels, which are presented in 2.5D. But Crash has some new moves this time around. He can now crouch, crawl, and slide. Jumping while crouching or sliding gives Crash a higher and longer jump, respectively. And Crash also gets his own equivalent of Mario’s stomp attack, but in keeping with the Bandicoot’s sense of humor, Crash falls flat on his face, in contrast to Mario’s fancier acrobatics.

Other then the new moves, a lot of the game is more of a refinement than a reinvention of the series. The graphics are more polished and colorful, the music is a lot more memorable and catchy, and the level design is more creative, with an added dose of story to compliment it.

Crash Bandicoot 2The plot is appropriately simple, but surprisingly thought out for a platformer that relishes in cartoonish silliness: After his defeat in the first game, the evil Dr. Neo Cortex stumbled across a magic crystal, and learned it held immense power. With his armies defeated and his former assistant Dr. N. Brio – tired of Cortex’s abuse – turning a new leaf, Cortex’s only ally is the cyborg-like Dr. N. Gin. Needing someone to help find the remaining crystals to complete a super weapon (mad scientists aren’t made for that kind of work), Cortex manipulates a gullible Crash Bandicoot into believing he’s seen the error of his ways, and convinces Crash to gather the crystals as a means to save the planet.

Meanwhile, Dr. N. Brio, trying to stop Cortex’s evil plot, also seeks Crash’s help in gathering magic gems which can help him defeat his former employer. But Cortex is a bit more convincing, so N. Brio sends his remaining forces to stop Crash, should he continue to aid Cortex (which explains the enemies and bosses standing in the player’s way).

The story continues throughout the game via holographic messages from the mad doctors (and Crash’s sister, Coco) in the game’s hub world. It’s a setup that really works in the game’s favor, and this is a good instance of the plot intertwining with gameplay, instead of being an excuse for it.

Crash Bandicoot 2’s levels all house one crystal – usually found towards the end of a stage and in the open – which are required to progress further in the game, and one or two gems, which are optional and sometimes well hidden.

Crash Bandicoot 2Every level has one gem that is acquired by breaking every crate found in the stage, similar to the first game. Mercifully, having to survive the entirety of a level is no longer an additional requirement. The other gems are found by other means (usually via bonus areas or performing special actions in particular levels), and sometimes involve backtracking and return visits.

The game’s later levels can get decently difficult, but you shouldn’t have too much trouble if you only wish to blast through the game and nab the crystals. But obtaining every gem is a task for those seeking a real challenge. There are a few gems where the tasks required to get them can feel convoluted or tedious, leading to some frustrating moments, but most are a fair challenge.

Another very important aspect that Crash 2 improves on its predecessor is saving. The original Crash Bandicoot’s save feature was more than a little bit of a mess, requiring players to collect tokens to play bonus stages to win the opportunity to save. Cortex Strikes Back instead includes a basic save feature in the game’s hub world, and all Crash has to do is walk up to a wall to save in between levels. Compared to its predecessor, it’s a godsend.

Crash Bandicoot 2Crash Bandicoot 2 also tweaks the level progression, with each stage accessed through the innovative “Warp Rooms.” Warp Rooms are condensed spaces that each grant Crash access to five levels apiece, which gives the game a more unique setup than the original’s more generic world map.

There are a few drawbacks to Crash’s otherwise stellar sequel, however. Along with some of the gems feeling like a chore to obtain, the game retains some of its predecessor’s tricky perspectives, with some areas becoming more difficult because you can’t make out the distance between objects. Boss fights are still nothing to boast about, with the final boss in particular being a big letdown.

All things considered, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back remains a textbook example of how to do a proper sequel. It learned from its predecessor’s mistakes and not only touched them up, but also created a heftier and more varied gaming experience of its own. Time may not have been kind to the original Crash Bandicoot, but Cortex Strikes Back remains one of the series’ finest moments. It’s still a whole lot of fun.

 

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