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Crash Bandicoot

Where is the PlayStation mascot?  It’s hard to believe but in the mid-90s there was still the prevailing myth that every console needed a wise ass animal to be the corporate shill of the company.  Nintendo had Mario, Sega had Sonic, 3DO had….Gex I guess, and Atari had… one gave a damn.  As the PlayStation library began to cover nearly every genre all that was left was a symbol, some character that would be the corporate face of the company.  And while Crash Bandicoot did fill that role for a while it came from an unlikely source, Naughty Dog.

Not to smear their good name but at the time Naughty Dog had not earned the sterling reputation they enjoy now.  Rings of Power was an interesting Genesis RPG that suffered from poor controls.  While you could respect Way of the Warrior due to the circumstances in which it was developed it was not a memorable fighting game.  So the fact that they created probably the most technically advanced PlayStation game at the time was a shock to many.  The insane graphics were also backed up with solid gameplay, creating one of the best pure platformers on the system.

The story is somewhat typical of the genre but it at least sets the tone.  Mad scientist Dr. Neo Cortex has been experimenting on animals to turn them into his minions but unfortunately most of them turn out insane instead.  His biggest failure is Crash Bandicoot, or so he thinks because Crash realizes the error of Cortex’s ways and sets out to stop him.  Not only is the rainforest in danger but his girlfriend Tawna as well.

Like the Mario series Crash’s arsenal of attacks is limited.  Aside from the tried and true butt bounce his only offensive maneuver is a spin attack.  Power-ups are few in number as well, with Wumpa fruit serving as a substitute for coins to gain extra lives.  Rather than a mushroom a Tiki mask will protect you from one hit.  The similarities are there for everyone to see but you can’t fault them from following the best.  Where Crash differs is in its level design which is the game’s main focus.

Rather than the free roaming 3d platformers that were becoming en vogue at the Crash Bandicoot was still strictly a 2d game with 3d graphics.  You have one set path but can move freely within it to find secrets or avoid enemies.   This works in the game’s favor as it allowed Naughty Dog to focus on tight level design.  The controls near pitch perfect, a fact that I can’t stress enough.  This was 1996 and there were legions of 3d games that could not manage this simple feat.  You could argue that the viewpoint helps in that regard but when you’re executing a series of jumps with a boulder on your ass you’ll thank the Naughty gods for their diligence in this regard.

The level design might seem simple at first but there is a lot of technique required to really complete each level at 100%.  There are numerous traps that dot the landscape, most frequently TNT boxes.  Enemies that are struck by the spin attack rebound off others and can destroy crates in the process and are the key to not destroying the prizes that lie within.

Naughty Dog have done a good job of varying the gameplay by switching the “theme” of each level.  Sometimes you’ll find yourself riding on the back of a warthog as you make a mad dash for the exit.  Other times you’ll be chased by boulders in forced scrolling segments that get the blood pumping.  The game isn’t played entirely from behind Crash; there is an equal number of true side scrolling levels as well, which can be a bit tricky due to still having full freedom of movement along your path.  The boss battles exhibit the same level of creativity, such as tricking Ripper Roo into jumping on exploding mines or figuring out the timing involved in defeating Pinstripe.

The game’s simple nature does come back to bite it in the ass in the long run however.  Not that every game needs to be revolutionary but at its heart Crash Bandicoot is simply a more polished version of the types of platformers gamer’s had grown tired of during the 16-bit era.   At 32 levels the game also begins to repeat itself, recycling the same level themes only with more obstacles to contend with.  While the game certainly isn’t easy overall it’s nothing that can’t be overcome with a little patience.

At its release few games could match the relative density of Crash Bandicoot’s textures.  The strict linear path allowed the developers to pack each level with an unheard level of detail for the time.  The game’s island setting lent itself to different variations of the jungle setting.  Since the game ran at a higher resolution than most Naughty Dog had to be creative in how it used the video memory left available and created stylistically simple character models that actually fit within the lush landscapes well.  This would be the first taste of Naughty Dog’s coding prowess and in the years that followed every single project upped the ante, a fact that still ring’s true to this day.

At best Crash Bandicoot is a solid platformer that gave Sony the mascot it supposedly needed.  While the game did not revolutionize the genre it was a solid foundation for the more ambitious sequels that would follow and is still enjoyable today.