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: Warped Review

Crash Bandicoot: Warped

When it comes to discussing the best entry of any beloved video game series, you’ll usually find a range of answers. Very rarely does a series have an entry that’s almost unanimously hailed as the best. Crash Bandicoot: Warped is one of those few, as it is consistently cited as the best Crash Bandicoot game. It’s with good reason. Crash Bandicoot: Warped is the best Crash Bandicoot game.

Threequels can go either way in the video game world. They’re either the point in a series where the ideas have seemingly wrung dry, and the game just seems to go through the motions, or they’re the point where creators really prove their mettle by continuously improving their craft.

Crash Bandicoot: Warped falls under the latter category of course. Taking most of its immediate predecessor’s best assets, Warped added a number of fun ideas of its own into the mix, producing the culmination of Naughty Dog’s vision for the Crash Bandicoot series.

The game uses a similar setup to Cortex Strikes Back, with the “Warp Room” concept now being expanded to one larger room leading to five smaller chambers, with each housing five levels and a boss.

Crash Bandicoot: WarpedCrash retains all of his moves from Cortex Strikes Back, but this time around he also gains new abilities after defeating the game’s bosses. The new moves include a double jump, a super spin (which also allows Crash to glide), and even a bazooka!

Levels are still played in a 2.5D perspective, with the quality of level design equalling and surpassing that of Crash 2. But Warped doesn’t just settle for matching its predecessor, and new types of stages are also introduced in addition to the platforming stages. Crash Bandicoot, as well as his sister Coco, now partake in motorcycle races, jetski obstacles courses, and aerial dogfights, among other new concepts. Admittedly, the number of these vehicle stages comes at the price of less platforming stages than its predecessor, but Warped’s variety is consistently impressive.

As was the case with the second game, a crystal must be collected on every level to progress further, with each stage also housing one or two secret gems (one gem for breaking every crate in a level, with the potential second gem usually being tucked away in a secret area).

Warped ups the ante for completionists however. In addition to the returning crystals and gems, Crash and Coco now have the option to collect relics. Players can return to any completed stages to partake in that level’s time trial mode. Complete a level fast enough, and Crash is rewarded with a relic. Only the third-tier “sapphire” relics are needed to unlock secret stages, but for those seeking the game’s greatest challenge, you can always go for the gold and platinum relics.

Crash Bandicoot: Warped’s levels aren’t quite as difficult as those in Cortex Strikes Back on their own, but getting every gem is as challenging as anything in its predecessor, and completing the time trials is a whole other beast entirely. This makes Warped the most “all audiences” Crash title, as less experienced players will have a decent challenge just getting through the game, while diehards have a hefty task waiting for them with the gems and relics.

The story this time around is that, after his defeat in Crash Bandicoot 2, Dr. Cortex and his space station crash down to Earth, accidentally freeing an evil voodoo mask named Uka Uka in the process. Two notable retcons take place here: The first is that Uka Uka was apparently the mastermind behind Cortex’s previous evil schemes, and the second is that Uka Uka is the evil brother of Aku Aku, the voodoo mask who was previously just a power-up in the past games, but is now a full-fledged character.

Crash Bandicoot: WarpedUka Uka is angered with Cortex’s failings in the past, and once again seeks the power of the crystals and gems to take over the world. But after the events of Crash Bandicoot 2, the crystals and gems have lost their power. So Uka Uka recruits fellow villain Dr. N. Tropy – who dabbles in time travel – to aide them in claiming the crystals and gems in the distant past, where they still have full power. Aku Aku then sends Crash and Coco through time in order to stop his brother, Cortex and N. Tropy’s plot.

While the time travel setup may sound like a gimmick, it actually helps the game stand out from its predecessors all the more. While Crash 1 and 2’s levels stuck closely with themes of water, snow, and the like, Warped instead has stages based on ancient Egypt, medieval times, an under construction Great Wall of China and, of course, dinosaurs.

In an interesting twist, none of the game’s world’s adhere to a singular theme, and the gimmicks are instead thrown about almost randomly. You’ll go from one backdrop to another and back again. In lesser hands this may just seem inconsistent, but here it works in Naughty Dog’s favor, as the sporadic nature of the level’s themes seems to reflect the game’s energy and sense of humor.

The overall sense of control feels more finely-tuned than in the past games, with Crash’s movements feeling more fluid than before. The visuals, while admittedly aged, also look more polished, with the animations being more vibrant than ever. Similarly, the music has taken another leap forward, with Warped having the best soundtrack of Naughty Dog’s trilogy of platformers. Even loading screens are made fun by the presence of various characters speaking to the player as the levels load up, giving you brief glimpses into their entertaining personalities.

As entertaining as Crash Bandicoot: Warped still is, however, the tricky perspectives of its predecessors are still present, and they have only become more noticeable with age. The game’s fixed perspectives still lead to confusion as to the placement of some objects and enemies, leading to some accidental deaths. And while the game’s bosses are a step up from the past two games, the final boss is once again a bit of a letdown (Uka Uka’s presence in the final battle is little more than an obstacle that needs to be jumped over).

Admittedly, some of Warped’s new ideas also fall short of their potential: Coco Bandicoot is introduced as a playable character, but all of her stages involve either riding in vehicles or on the back of a tiger, so she ends up feeling like a missed opportunity at some variety in the platforming gameplay. The aforementioned motorcycle stages, while a nice change of pace, are a bit basic and lack much distinction between one another.

Crash Bandicoot: WarpedWhen all is said and done though, Crash Bandicoot: Warped remains one of the original Playstation’s highlights. Crash Bandicoot started his gaming career as a bit of a manufactured gaming mascot, but with Crash Bandicoot 2 and, ultimately, this title, Crash became a genuine video game star.

It is a little bit of a bittersweet affair. Crash Bandicoot: Warped marked the last time Naughty Dog made a platformer starring the titular character before he got passed around to various other developers like a hot potato, never again reaching the heights of Warped.

Naughty Dog has gone on to make Jak & Daxter, Uncharted, and The Last of Us to immense acclaim, but many still hope that somehow the developer finds their way back to Crash Bandicoot one day. Playing Crash Bandicoot: Warped is still a blast even today, but it’s also a bittersweet reminder of the fruitful future for Crash Bandicoot that could have been.

 

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