In Retrospect: Crash Bandicoot
Eighteen years have passed since Naughty Dog released Crash Bandicoot, and in that time the studio has gone from strength to strength. In recent times they’ve made the blockbuster, cinematic Uncharted series and they’ve pushed the boundaries of video game story-telling in The Last of Us. There are plenty of people who haven’t forgotten their early marsupial triumph, though, and with good reason. Crash’s more recent outings might not have been so stellar – other studios having taken up the reins – but it doesn’t much matter when the originals are still available.
The first Crash Bandicoot has been available on the Playstation Store for a number of years now, and, for the price of only a few shiny pennies (well, a few hundred of them, to be precise), you can download it to your heart’s content. But eighteen years is a long time in the world of videogames, and the real question is: is it worth downloading? Is Crash Bandicoot still as good as it was when first released?
The first thing you notice, booting it up, is how scant it is on story. Plenty of modern platformers are similarly scant – the most recent Rayman games, Origins and Legends are notable examples – but if you’re used to anything narrative heavy, this will across as strange. In fact, even discovering the premise of the game – that of a genetically modified bandicoot on a journey to rescue his girlfriend from the mad scientist who experimented on them – cannot be done by selecting “Start”. Instead, you have to patiently press no buttons on the menu for a minute or so before a cutscene rolls. Nowadays, when we’re used to games telling epic, player-driven stories – such as in the Mass Effect series – this kind of threadbare narrative seems strange.
Nevertheless, Crash Bandicoot still has a fun, wacky feel which will please newcomers and old fans alike. This is largely thanks to the design; the mere fact of playing as a jeans and Converse-toting bandicoot is still an absolute joy. Add to that bosses like the insane Ripper Roo and the mighty Koala Kong, and Crash’s journey across the islands of Australia, devoid as it is of explanation, will be entertaining enough for anyone.
In fact, the presentation of Crash Bandicoot has held up surprisingly well. Although the graphics are jagged, especially on a large TV, they are still perfectly respectable if you’re willing to give them the leeway their age deserves. Helping them out is some superb level and environment design, which never leave you wanting more. Whether you’re battling your way through tribal villages or ancient temples, navigating collapsing rope bridges or infiltrating Dr Cortex’s secret labs, the visuals are always wonderful to look at. The colours are vivid and varied, and this means that you’ll never be bored. While the latest generation of consoles gives us graphics like we’ve never seen before, this is a game which proves they aren’t all-important.
The gameplay was largely considered average when Crash Bandicoot was first released, and nothing much has changed on that front. For the most part, you’ll do a lot of jumping, a little bit of spinning, and very occasionally you’ll ride a wild pig. It’s an engaging enough setup – traversing a variety of platforms, traps and enemies throughout a series of different levels – but it is a touch bland. Platformers have come a long way since Crash Bandicoot, and with games like Puppeteer, Rayman Legends, and Super Mario 3D World released last year, their old compatriot has never looked older.
Crash Bandicoot can also be peculiarly difficult towards the tail-end of the game, which stands at odds with its otherwise family-friendly nature. While the earlier levels are a breeze, some of the later ones will require you to have razor sharp reflexes and you’ll often struggle to complete them until you’ve tried, died, and memorised them a few times. Difficult platformers do still pop up, such as Super Mario Galaxy and Rayman Origins, but they are a rare breed in the modern day and some younger players may prefer the easier options on offer.
The gameplay is also made more strenuous by Crash Bandicoot’s biggest flaw: a save system so obtuse that one wonders how Naughty Dog even came up with it. If you’re coming to the game for the first time, or even if you just haven’t played it since its heyday, there’s a good chance you’ll be confused about how to save your progress. In an age where we’re used to games saving automatically and at regular intervals, Crash Bandicoot could not seem more behind the times.
In short, to save your game you need to access bonus levels, achieved by finding three special tokens in boxes throughout the regular levels. You then need to complete each bonus level without dying – a more difficult task than it sounds – before you’re given a chance to save. If you therefore fail to find all three tokens, or if you die without completing the bonus level, you’ll be forced to continue on in the knowledge that death will send you back quite a way.
This doesn’t just make things more difficult for the player; it is also hugely inconvenient. Consider Dark Souls, which is not merely renowned for its high difficulty but actually sells copies because of it. Part of what makes it so tough is that it saves all the time, so that every death and every failure is recorded, and it’s impossible to just load an old file and undo your mistakes. Yet it also means that if you need to go off and do something else, you have no qualms about stepping away from the console. Your progress has been safely recorded.
That’s not something Crash Bandicoot allows. Saving is not readily available, and there are times when you’ll want to come off the game and find yourself unable to do so. There is no way to slant this positively. Many RPGs will make you battle your way to designated save points, but you are at least certain that you won’t miss those save points. That is not the case in Crash Bandicoot. Fail to find the three tokens, or fail to complete a bonus level, and you can find yourself having progressed a long way without saving. Ultimately, it’s a system which ends up being both confusing and frustrating.
As a whole, Crash Bandicoot has survived surprisingly well. Its presentation is its biggest winner; even after eighteen years, the game still looks beautiful. This fact is an unexpected joy but one which keeps the experience from seeming outdated. The gameplay is competent enough to keep you entertained, and even newcomers to the series will be hard pushed not to enjoy themselves. That being said, the save system is ridiculous enough to drive anyone mad, and it’s the kind of frustration that modern video games tend to avoid. Still, whether you’re looking for a slice of nostalgia or you want to try it for the first time, it’s hard not to recommend Crash Bandicoot. It’s aged well and, for the meagre price it’s available for on the Playstation Store, the word “bargain” doesn’t really do it justice.