Crash Bandicoot proves that some things are better left in the past.
There was a time when major video game companies paid way too much attention to console mascots. Back in 1996, Nintendo had Mario, Sega had Sonic the Hedgehog and Sony desperately wanted a mascot that represented its console. Enter Crash Bandicoot, the protagonist of a series of platformers created by Naughty Dog. Although Crash shares many similarities with Nintendo’s plumber and Sega’s hedgehog, there’s one particular aspect that differentiates Naughty Dog’s platformer from the aforementioned titles: unlike most Super Mario and Sonic titles, Crash Bandicoot has aged poorly.
As in most platformers, the story is simple enough. An evil scientist known as Neo Cortex has altered the genes of a bandicoot and the result of such experiment was Crash, a marsupial with special powers. Since the malevolent doctor kidnapped Crash’s girlfriend Tawna, the titular character will explore three Australian islands to rescue his lover and ruin Neo Cortex’s plans of world domination.
To explore the hostile environments, Crash can perform two types of attacks: jumping over enemies and spinning. But apart from foes, the levels are filled with boxes that have wumpa fruits (collecting 100 of them rewards you with a life) witch doctor masks (collecting one shields you from an attack and collecting three of them make you invincible for a limited time) 1UP items, checkpoints and so on. But not all boxes give you beneficial items, TNT crates, for instance, explode if you perform an attack near them. There are also gems and keys. Gems are awarded after clearing a stage and you can use gems to return to areas already visited. Keys, on the other hand, let Crash enter secret areas.
Apart from regular levels, Crash will enter bonus rounds which are one of the game’s most important stages. Some levels have bonus tokens hidden inside regular chests. Collecting three of these items immediately transports you to a bonus round where there are usually dozens of wumpa fruits, extra lives and so on. Nevertheless, the most important feature about these bonus rounds is that they let you save your valuable progress.
Interestingly, most of the levels take inspiration from classic games (such as Super Mario 64) and classic films (the India Jones boulder scene appears a couple of times.) But even though Crash Bandicoot’s levels are in 3D, they are quite restrictive and exploring them in an open-way is simply not possible. Nevertheless, there’s a variety of levels. Some of them encourage you to run towards the camera as a giant boulder approaches, but the main problem with these levels is that you can’t see what’s ahead of you before you jump, so every jump feels like a leap of faith. There are also levels where you mount a pig that never stops running, so the only thing you can do is jump or move from left to right to avoid obstacles.
At the end of each leg of your journey, you’ll face some anthropomorphic characters. Each of these encounters encourages you to find the most effective way to make damage to the boss. Sometimes you need to pick up items and throw them, wait for an opening to attack or activate TNT crates so that they explode near the boss. Sometimes you need to activate crates right before the boss jumps near them, throw lava rocks to damage the boss and so on.
Unfortunately, Crash Bandicoot is plagued with inconsistencies proper of platformers of the PlayStation era. Although Super Mario Bros. is an obvious inspiration, Crash lacks the finesse in the controls so characteristic of Nintendo’s flagship series. In Crash, controls are imprecise and jumping is a clumsy mess. This issue is aggravated due to the 3D environments. Identifying where you need to jump according to your position is always difficult. As a consequence, you’ll find yourself performing blind jumps over and over. Naturally, this translates into a process of trial-and-error, not to mention death after death. Not only is dying frustrating, but if you lose all your lives, you’re transported to the last save.
Which brings me to my next point: the antiquated save system. Basically, the only way you can save your progress is in bonus rounds. The problem is that the bonus rounds are traditional levels in the sense that you can die in them. If you die in a bonus round (by falling off a ledge, for instance,) the game will send you back to the level you were in and you lose the opportunity of saving your progress. So if you lose all your lives (and chances are you will,) you’ll be taken to your last save which probably took place a few levels back and you’ll have to replay a handful of levels all over again.
Since properly saving the game becomes pretty much impossible at one point, you’ll have to rely on passwords (remember those?) to continue playing. Needless to say, this isn’t the most convenient way of playing the game, but since looking up a combination of random numbers and letters is easier (and faster) than replaying the last few hours, this is probably the best solution if you want to make progress.
Sadly, the save system isn’t the only problem with Crash Bandicoot. Difficulty ranges from unfair to mean-spirited. Platforms that fall as soon as you step on them, blind jumps and slippery surfaces are simply a recipe for frustration. And when a given level features all the aforementioned, plus a few tricks of its own, you’ll start cursing at the developers for making you replay entire sections of the game over and over. Since making a single mistake means losing a life and restarting from the last checkpoint, you’ll be extra careful when it comes to exploring the levels. As a consequence, Crash Bandicoot lacks the ebb and flow so characteristic of Super Mario Bros.
As you make progress, the game doesn’t become more difficult, but more unfair instead. Blind jumps are suddenly more common, there are fewer checkpoints, enemies use cheap tricks and so on. If you want to see the game’s ending (which by the way is nothing special,) you’ll have to rely on hours of repetition, passwords and sometimes sheer luck, which is likely to run out sooner or later.
In the end, Crash Bandicoot is a mean-spirited platformer that doesn’t respect you or your time. The harsh difficulty, antiquated save-system and clumsy controls make the game feel not old-fashioned, but simply old. No matter how you look at it, Crash Bandicoot is a game that hasn’t aged gracefully. I guess some things are better left in the past after all.