Reviewed by John Hussey
Due to the recent announcement that the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy (created and developed by Naughty Dog) would be getting a re-master in the form of collection Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, which is due out 30th June 2017, I thought it was the best time to go back and review this classic franchise. But unfortunately I dreaded this day for one simple reason. I don’t actually like the original game. Blasphemy, I know. I’m probably going to get a lot of hate for this review, so strap yourselves in as I’m about to take a massive shit on a PlayStation icon.
Crash Bandicoot is one of my favourite gaming franchises for its brilliant platforming, its neat challenges, and its iconic characters. Naughty Dog (as you may have guessed from my The Last of Us review) is my favourite developer, having created and developed four well-received franchises and are still growing strong today. But one of their biggest faults is their first games. They nearly always seem to be either unfinished, or not fully realised, as if Naughty Dog are using these games to experiment with in order to determine how the sequels will be flawless.
That’s fine and dandy but I’d much prefer it Naughty Dog if you just fixed the bugs and glitches during the development stages instead of giving me an unsatisfying first instalment. Both Crash Bandicoot and Uncharted suffer from having an unbalanced beginning, to which I can neither praise nor fully hate. Thank God they finally learnt their lesson when it came to The Last of Us because that game was absolutely brilliant and I’m sure its sequel will only be better.
When it came to Crash Bandicoot it was clear that Naughty Dog wanted to establish themselves and thus Crash was born, an extremely likable mascot for the PlayStation. But beyond that there really isn’t much else I can really praise. Sure Crash Bandicoot made a statement, showed off Naughty Dog’s abilities, exploded PlayStation’s popularity, as well as created a brand-new gaming character that would go on to challenge both Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, but much of this was established within the sequels, leaving this first outing (for me personally) in a sort of limbo, to which I don’t know what to do with.
First of all the narrative is rather vague. I actually discovered more about the story by reading up on it on the internet (which is kind of bad). But this was the structure of platforming games back then and at the very least Crash Bandicoot had a cut-scene indicating some of the narrative’s information. But you can only watch this cut-scene if you’re aware to hang around on the menu for it to eventually appear.
In this scene we are introduced to Dr. Neo Cortex, the main villain of the franchise, who is working with assistant Dr. Nitrus Brio to create an army of super soldiers via experimentation on the wildlife. Cortex attempts to create his new general in the form of Crash Bandicoot, but upon placing him into the Cortex Vortex to control his mind Crash is rejected. Infuriated Cortex attempts to capture him but Crash makes a run for it, eventually escaping out of a window and falling into the sea below.
Cortex then fixes his attentions on Tawna, Crash’s love interest, and prepares for the next set of experiments. And that’s it really. Crash washes up on N. Sanity Beach where his adventure begins. Without any given information, or dialogue, we are led to presume that Crash has suddenly made up his mind to travel across the three fictional islands of Wumpa in order to rescue Tawna and defeat Cortex.
I do like that you’re given a really neat hub-world in which you’re shown your journey across the three islands, with each level represented by a red circle connected by a continues trial to indicate your progression. What’s even neater is each level has the usual naming system to indicate the type of level you’ll be faced with, but also an image representing where you are on the map, whether it be a fortress, a temple, or a boss’s lair. It makes the journey seem more real and extensive. Unfortunately the journey itself is a massive pain in the arse.
Probably back in 1996 when Crash Bandicoot was originally released it would’ve been considered cutting edge with its design and gameplay, but playing it now in 2017 you can clearly see it hasn’t aged well and performs more like a chore rather than an entertaining experience. The first thing that is noticeable is the like of DualShock controls. Trying to manoeuvre Crash across his levels becomes mightily difficult, especially during the more challenging platforming sections. I can’t really say that Crash Bandicoot is like Rayman, in which the controls clearly don’t match-up to the requirements on screen, but there is certainly similar faults.
Crash can at times feel rather clunky, with his movements limited and sometimes unresponsive. There are even times where the platforming is just incredibly unfair, giving you barely any time to react to the situation and thus results in instant death. Some of the platforming is far too precise and tight, to the point where it makes the enjoyment of the game fly right out of the window, enduring a painful death as it embeds itself into the curb below. My patience quickly dies when playing this game. I literally begin to replay the same section over and over again in a desperate attempt to complete it, but the more you try the more the frustration rises and sooner or later you’re ready to grab the disc and snap it in fucking half.
It’s very hard sometimes to move Crash through the tightly, and sometimes awkwardly, constructed level designs with just the D-Pad. It’s one of those simple things where you think to yourself, “How would I, in this day-and-age, survive without a DualShock controller?” Answer: I’d probably whither away and die. This game screams out, “I need to operate with a DualShock because I’m clearly not built for a 3D environment using the D-Pad!” It’s painful trying to move Crash carefully around a 3D environment with 2D controls. Unless of cause you’re playing a 2D section, or level, in which case you’ll have no problems. But then you’ll quickly wish every level was 2D once you return to a 3D level and are instantly reminded why you hate the fucking horrendous controls so much.
The enemies of this game are another factor which constantly set you back and make playing this game near impossible. The response you need for some of these enemies is the same response the Flash needs to stop a bullet. So basically super-human speed. The amount of times I approached an enemy, and prepared to press square to spin-attack, the death screen appeared. It became unreal at how little time you had to fight back, making my gameplay even more painful. Some of the enemies have a nasty habit of rebounding you into either a hole, or another obstacle, causing your death count to rise further.
Luckily, despite the unfair one-hit death system, Crash does have a helpful device to even the odds and that’s the ancient witch doctor Aku Aku. Aku Aku can be found throughout the levels hidden within boxes and once freed he gives you a hit-point. If you collect two Aku Aku masks you gain two hit-points, and after collecting a third mask you gain limited invisibility. The downside to the Aku Aku masks is it has limits to what it can protect you from, so you’re not totally invincible but at least you feel a little safer against all the impending threats around you. But often than not Aku Aku will get you killed as after you’re hit by an enemy, or obstacle, Crash jolts which usually sent me falling down a nearby hole.
Now I would say that I’m being rather whiny over the gameplay if it wasn’t for the fucking save-system. I really don’t know who at Naughty Dog came up with this bizarre idea but they really need to look at themselves in the mirror and question their existence. You can’t manually save Crash Bandicoot but instead can only save the game during specific bonus-levels, which can only be entered by collecting the three Tawna icons hidden within boxes throughout the levels.
Upon entering these bonus-levels you have to get across a short 2D platforming segment in which you’re met by Tawna (how the fuck she manages to keep teleporting backwards and forwards from Cortex’s lair is beyond me. Heck why do I even need to save her if she has this fucking ability?) in which she gives you the opportunity to save your progress. Here’s where it gets really infuriating. You only have one chance to do the bonus-level otherwise you lose your chance to save the game. What fucking monster designed this game?! This pissed me off on countless occasions as desperation started to kick in.
If I wasn’t ready to punch Crash Bandicoot into a billion tiny pieces out of pure rage, I wanted to grab a rope and say, “Goodbye cruel world,” as my faith in humanity dwindled with pure depression. Okay, a little over-exaggerated but that still doesn’t alter the fact that Crash Bandicoot caused my mood to fluctuate uncontrollably. It made playing the game extremely difficult as I ran out of patience and just tried desperately to get through the level at hand, whilst being dealt its continuous bullshit and crappy controls.
It’s no fun playing a game that feels both unfair and broken in its design. The saving system is but one element that feels completely messed-up. I mean if Naughty Dog wanted to make a nice call-back to old school games that didn’t have a saying system, then fine, make the game a little challenging but not to the point where it’s near impossible to play through in one sitting. Literally the gameplay’s difficulty surge is unbelievable. Whilst travelling the first island you find yourself faced with a fair challenge, not too easy not too hard, but come the second island you begin to notice the difficulty drastically increasing to the point of absurdity.
When it comes to the third island all bets are off. It becomes stupidly difficult and the game stops being fun. It wouldn’t be so bad if you felt safe playing the game, but with the shockingly bad save system each level feels like you’re having an anxiety attack because you’re in constant fear of what will happen if you fail to succeed. If you haven’t managed to save the game because of the unfair difficulty-spike of the Tawna bonus-levels, or being unable to find all of the Tawna symbols to even attempt the fucking level, then you are sent miles back into the game.
And if you haven’t saved it since the first island, then tough luck because that’s where you’re replying from. Say bye-bye to all your hard work, and hours of torment, because they just vanished from the face of existence never to return. Also let’s talk about one of the key aspects of Crash Bandicoot‘s gameplay: the collecting. Like most platforming games there are things to collect to add a little bit more challenge. Here, Naughty Dog decided to create their own mark within the difficulty hierarchy, which I’d title, “Fuck you! You ain’t completing this game!”
Throughout the level there is Wumpa Fruit to collect, which acts as your means of gaining an extra life (nothing new there really). There’s also boxes in which contain Wumpa Fruit, with some needing to be bounced on several times, as well as boxes that act as check-points. Some boxes act as obstacles, such as the TNT boxes which will kill you if you attempt to spin-attack them. By jumping on them you’ll trigger a three second timer before exploding. Then there’s the ‘!’ boxes in which when spun will make invisible boxes visible, usually allowing a certain pathway to become accessible.
These elements all come together rather nicely accept when it comes to any completionists out there. The secondary objective is to collect all twenty-six gems (consisting of twenty clear gems and six coloured gems – green, orange, blue, red, purple, and yellow respectively). The only problem with this is the fact that you have one chance per level to achieve this goal. This means you’re forced to play through each and every level without dying once. If you die every single box you previously collected will reappear and you can’t simply go back and recollect them. Even if you did manage to achieve this difficult task it still wouldn’t count at the end of the level.
If the game didn’t take the piss before, it certainly does now. So for me each level is simply about reaching the end, and that’s it. In fact, I can’t actually physically clear Crash Bandicoot. I’ve tried countless times throughout my life and never have I been able to complete the third island, always getting stuck at “Toxic Waste” due to the shitty timing issues with the barrel throwing enemies. You might say that I’m incapable of fully reviewing this game due to my inability to complete it but I think I’ve played enough to acknowledge that this original outing is a broken, unenjoyable, and completely unfair experience from start to finish.
Honestly, it’s really difficult to think of things that I actually enjoy about this game. The graphics (for the time) are really impressive. Naughty Dog certainly showed off what they could do as a developer, and the levels (despite being bastard-hard) look pretty, although the colour scheme at times could make the game look a little gloomy, whilst lacking in excitement. The major positives come with the bosses. Although some of them are definitely uninspired and are piss-easy to defeat, they stand as the games’ best aspect.
Papu Papu is without a doubt a pathetic excuse for a boss as he merely swings his staff around in a circle before trying to hit you with it. Ripper Roo can be fun, and sometimes challenging, as you have to align the massive TNT crates to detonate as Roo is jumping past them. Koala Kong is also fun but lacks any real challenge other than the TNT crates that are dropped from the ceiling, but once you know the pattern it’s easy. Other than that you just have to make sure you destroy the boulders being thrown at you and then spin the relevant ones back when there’s a gap between the mine-carts.
Pinstripe Potoroo is just as pathetic as Papu Papu, only this time you have to hide behind cover as the deranged businessman shoots at you before spin-attacking him either when he’s moving position or when his gun locks up. Fairly straightforward and boring. The most interesting, and imaginative, boss comes with Brio as you confront the mad scientist in his laboratory. He first throws different types of chemical jars at you, some exploding whilst the others release a strange substance that chases you. For the final segment of Brio’s fight he transforms himself into a rampaging monster, which actually acts as a nice surprise to catch you off guard.
Crash Bandicoot ends with your confrontation with Cortex as you battle him on top of his airship, which hovers around his now burning fortress. This boss battle is satisfying, if slightly easy as a final boss. It’s a case of dodging the purple and blue lasers (the purple lasers fly towards you, whilst the blue lasers come from either side of the screen) before spinning back the green lasers until his rocket platform explodes and sends Cortex falling to his apparent death. The game then ends with Crash and Tawna being reunited and flying off into the sunset, which is an okay ending I suppose.
Alternatively, if you manage to collect the relevant items you can travel down an alternative path in “The Great Hall” and skip the battle with Cortex and fly off with Tawna prematurely. But honestly, this doesn’t really add anything and doesn’t seem worth the effort of suffering for long, extensive hours collecting all the gems and keys, especially considering this isn’t the canon ending as established by Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back.
Another thing that I can consider good, but not brilliant, is the music, which is composed by Josh Mancell. Some levels have better music than others but I never really felt like much of it stood out to me as iconic, or amazing. “Heavy Machinery” has a catchy theme, which sounds rather creative through its electronic sounds as it picks up. My favourite track from the first game is definitely Cortex’s theme. I love how it progressed in the sequels but here was where it was at its most sinister as it really went about making Cortex feel like a threat and the work of pure of evil.
Granted there is a nice selection of level types, with each of them adding a different element or type of platforming challenge. The “Hog” and “Boulder Chase” levels certainly stand out as non-stop platforming challenges as you either race through the stage on the back of a wild pig or get chased by numerous boulders whilst the camera’s flipped around so you can’t see what obstacles lay ahead. The environments also change, with some levels being set within the jungle, swamps, ancient ruins, temples, and factories, and the music always complements these changes.
It’s just a massive shame that the gameplay and difficulty completely ruins the hard work of the few positive points. For me personally Crash Bandicoot is just too hard to play and because of that my enjoyment is ruined. The game becomes far too demanding in what is required from you as a gamer, the platforming is far too tight and isn’t helped by the shitty controls, there isn’t any manual save points, and I noticed that certain levels had unfair check-point amounts, or they were simply too far apart. And let’s not forget about the fact that when you quit and load back up your save file your life counter is reverted back to five!
I generally feel like Naughty Dog didn’t quite know what they wanted to do with Crash and it really shows with his first outing being a massive testing ground for ideas and gameplay types. I feel really bad talking about Crash’s original outing because it makes me feel like I absolutely despise the game (which I guess I do) and don’t feel like a complete fan of the franchise. But I guess it isn’t helped that I played Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped first, meaning I’d already seen the franchise at its absolute best.
Going back to Crash Bandicoot after Warped was a bad move because it only showed me how outdated and unpolished Crash’s original outing was. I’m just really glad that Naughty Dog improved as developers, naturally progressing into the company I know and love today. I just really hope that Vicarious Visions reinterpretation of this game fixes all the problems the original had so that I can finally complete Crash’s first adventure.