Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back Review

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Reviewed by John Hussey

For those of you who have read my Crash Bandicoot Review will know that I near enough hate the game because of its many flaws. This may lead you to wonder why I would bother reviewing its sequel, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back? Answer: I actually like this game. I’m one of those people who won’t state that the original product is better just because it’s the original. The whole point of a sequel is it’s supposed to be superior, and Cortex Strikes Back nails that aspect.

Everything that I hated about the original Crash Bandicoot game is removed from this sequel. The bad controls, the unnecessary difficulty, the inability to save your progress at will, and the ridiculous demand in order to collect every single item. It’s almost as if Naughty Dog went out of their way to redefine Crash Bandicoot. Like I said in my previous review, I felt that Naughty Dog used Crash’s first outing as a testing ground in order to see what works and what doesn’t work, which ultimately caused the game to feel extremely messy, and in some cases (for me personally) unplayable.

It was also apparent with the first game that Naughty Dog were trying to find their footing. Because of this Crash Bandicoot felt all over the place, lacking any real identity beyond the obvious differences from previous platformers. I’m not saying the original game completely failed to make a name for itself but most of Crash’s legacy started with this sequel, where all the core gameplay aspects fans know and love derived from.

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Cortex Strikes Back added in so many interesting elements which set it apart from the original game, and instantly made it more pleasing, creative, and overall, a much better designed game. The first noticeable difference were the controls. Crash’s movements and abilities were very basic and limited within his first outing. Here, Naughty Dog made clear improvements which added many cool additions to the overall gameplay. Crash could now perform (his now infamous) belly-flop in order to tackle boxes, enemies, and obstacles with more freedom. Along with this is the ability to slide and crawl, which works hand-in-hand to aid in your gameplay around certain sections of the game.

Then there is the boxes, which is slightly tweaked. Now there is a more clear indication as to your progression of collecting them (though no indication as to how many you require until the end of the level, which is a little annoying). There’s also the addition of “Metal” boxes which can only be destroyed by belly-flopping them. Along with that is the “Nitrus” boxes which, unlike “TNT” boxes, explode upon touching them. This makes avoiding them you’re top priority. Also, like “TNT” boxes, they count towards your box count, meaning they can only be destroyed by finding the green ‘!’ box which will detonate them for you (but sometimes it’s hidden).

Another iconic addition was Crash’s quest to find power crystals. The secondary keys collection of the first game was completely discarded, replaced now by the primary twenty-five crystals, along with the return of the clear and coloured gems. The collection aspect of Cortex Strikes Back changed the gameplay in order to make it a part of the core narrative. Collecting crystals and gems is the essential purpose of travelling through the game, giving this sequel more depth and purpose compared to the original.

The first twenty-five levels has a power crystal placed within it (which you must collect along the way in order to progress further into the game). Every single level has a clear gem to collect (which is collected by collecting every single box like in the original). The massive difference between Crash Bandicoot and Cortex Strikes Back is the clear structural issues. No longer do you have to have an anxiety attack in order to collect every single box. Now you can freely approach this challenge with more ease as the boxes won’t vanish upon dying (making this sequel ultimately fairer).

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The next clear difference is the level set-up. Instead of travelling around a mini-map of the Wumpa Islands, you now reside within five Warp Rooms which allow you to enter the relevant portal to take you to the designated level. It’s a neat little addition to the franchise (and one that has stuck within consecutive sequels). Though you lose that feeling of going on a massive adventure by seeing your clear progression, it’s replaced with the feeling that your on a more expansive adventure because you’re travelling from place to place, and thereby travelling to wider areas.

On top of this it makes accessing each and every level a lot easier. It’s more concise and has a better structure, instead of the slow and tedious travelling of the first game. Here you have free movement around the Warp Room as you circle it to access levels, as well as being able to access the platform in the centre to quickly change Warp Room as you progress through the story.

And of course the biggest pay-off is the saving system. Each Warp Room has a screen you can walk up to in order to save your progress. This literally does the sequel wonders. There’s less pressure now as you know after you’ve performed a really hard task, or you want to take a break, you can without worry of losing your progress. It’s left up to you how regularly you want to save your progress, and that’s great. You shouldn’t have to be on edge throughout the entire experience, praying to God that you can collect all the relevant tokens in order to be taken to the bonus area, to then be able to complete the tricky bonus area without dying, just to save your progress.

So just from these points alone Cortex Strikes Back acts as a superior game, making Crash Bandicoot even more abominable because of its broken aspects and ridiculous creative decisions. As for the actual narrative, even that has a better structure. This time round the narrative is explained upon starting the game (rather than having to wait around on the menu for the needed story information to be randomly shown to you).

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Continuing on from the conclusion of Crash Bandicoot, Cortex falls from his rocket platform down to the island below. Upon crashing underground the mad scientist discovers a power crystal and laughs evilly at his find (before his match cuts out mid-laugher and leaves him in darkness, D’oh!) A year passes and Cortex, and his new assistant N. Gin, have rebuilt the Cortex Vortex in space (aboard a massive space station) but discover they only possess the “master” crystal and require another twenty-five to operate their mind-controlling device.

Without any minions left on Earth to help them out Cortex comes up with the ingenious idea of using Crash to help him. We’re then re-introduced to our favourite mutated Bandicoot where he lays fast asleep in the jungle with his sister Coco. After her laptop battery dies she sends her lazy brother to go fetch another one, where he is then abducted by Cortex. The mad scientist sends him to the Warp Room where he makes-up a story to convince Crash to collect the crystals for him.

This is all an interesting set-up which of course puts Crash in a vulnerable position. Cortex was his arch-enemy, the very man that experimented on him, tried to kill him, and possibly tortured his girlfriend Tawna, all for the sake of world domination. Upon thinking he was dead the mad scientist is now staring at him (via hologram) telling him he’s turned a new leaf and that he needs Crash’s help to save the Earth from a new powerful force. What does a Bandicoot do in that situation?

Sadly, this is all but ruined by the fact that we already know that Cortex is the bad guy and that he’s clearly lying to exploit Crash’s innocent nature. Heck, never mind about the introductory cut-scene, it’s in the freaking title, “Cortex Strikes Back”. Clearly a homage to The Empire Strikes Back, it’s a clear indication that Cortex is returning to gain his revenge after being thwarted by Crash in the first game. So whenever Coco tries reaching Crash to warn him about Cortex it just feels like useless information because there’s no doubt in the player’s mind that Cortex is the villain.

Even when Dr. Nitrus Brio explains that he now wants to stop Cortex, asking Crash to collect the gems instead of the crystals, feels unnecessary because we already know what’s going on. I think you could argue that at the end of the day Crash is unaware, so all the information given to him would naturally make him feel conflicted. But surely it’s supposed to be us (the player) that’s feeling conflicted and not the character. So I guess the game could’ve been designed so that we didn’t know what Cortex was planning, thus making the entire story a massive mystery until the end when it’s finally revealed by Coco that Cortex lied and was using you all along for his diabolical schemes.

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Either-way, Cortex Strikes Back adds so much to the franchise by incorporating the very elements I knew and loved from its sequel, Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped. This sequel acted as the bridging between the bad and the awesome, but sadly the game doesn’t fulfil its status of being a perfect game (which I will address later). One of the clear elements that made this sequel superior to the original was the levels.

There were a few level designs that returned to make players feel familiar, i.e. the “Jungle” levels, the “Swamp” levels and the “Boulder Chase” levels. But even these levels were drastically different in terms of design and structure, making them feel re-mastered (sort of), allowing them to feel much more memorable and enjoyable.

Added levels were the “Snow” levels, the “Polar Bear” levels, the “Sewer” levels, the “Ancient Ruins” levels, the “Bee” levels, the “Futuristic” levels, and the “Jet-pack” levels. All of these levels added so much to Cortex Strikes Back and made the sequel feel bolder and more interesting. Whether it be how detailed the levels looked, how well they played, or how striking the music was. It seemed like Naughty Dog gave it their all and delivered something more imposing, granting Crash a clear place within the history books.

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The “Snow” levels were a massive change to the set-up by giving Crash Bandicoot more colour. This was the first level that felt bright, pulling itself away from the dark, gritty jungle look. Also this level showcased the deeper depth Naughty Dog gave to the franchise by adding in simple details like Crash’s cold breath, and his reflection within the ice.

And who could forget about the “Polar Bear” levels? These levels are without a doubt the highlight of Cortex Strikes Back. Building on top of the somewhat dull “Hog” levels of the original, this time you ride a baby polar bear through the cold Antarctic, where you avoid some of the best placed obstacles (from explosive obstacles, to statues, to even freaking Killer Whales) which delivers a fun and challenging experience. Plus who can forget the devilish look Crash gives to the player before pouncing on the poor baby polar bear? From the music, to the thrill of racing through the level, these levels are just a massive blast and I can honestly play them over and over again just because there so much fun.

I used to hate the “Sewer” levels when I was a kid but they have certainly grown on me as I grew up. The metallic feel of the levels, and the griminess of travelling through the mucky sewers is truly realised, with dangers put in place such as rolling toxic waste barrels, electric eels, and robotic rats. The “Sewer” levels even added in the cool mechanic of Crash being able to dangle and climb across metal gratings (though sadly this new ability was only used for these levels).

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And finally you have the “Jet-pack” levels which introduces the aspect of Crash using vehicles to get through a level. Now most people would agree that these levels are quite tedious due to the inverted controls and the requirement of using the X-button to move forward, whilst using the O-button to move backwards. Honestly, in my opinion, it’s not too bad but I do believe the controls could do with a bit of polishing (something to consider Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy).

If you want to just get through the level, then I would happily say that these levels are a lot of fun, requiring some tight manoeuvring to avoid the many inventive obstacles within the anti-gravity space-station. But if you wanted to collect the boxes, then that becomes a massive pain in the arse. Not impossible, just slightly time consuming as you fiddle about moving Crash carefully into the right position every couple of minutes in order to reach the floating boxes, whilst avoiding nearby hazards.

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One of the elements that became problematic within Crash Bandicoot was the usage of “bonus stages”. Here, they are incorporated into the level as part of the challenge of collecting the gems. Unlike in the original, the boxes in the “bonus stage” now count towards your total but the brilliant aspect of the sequel is you have infinite chances of completing this area, with the added bonus that you never lose lives for failing. It’s also an easy way to gather up extra lives through the abundance of Wumpa Fruit and life boxes. Like with the original they do gradually get more challenging, testing your skills as a platform gamer in order to reach the end with all the boxes smashed.

Another element that I love about Cortex Strikes Back is the bosses. They are all memorable for one reason or another. Though the first two bosses, Ripper Roo and the Komodo Brothers, are quite pathetic and easy they are still entertaining. This time round they are carefully slotted into the game’s structure, acting as an obstacle as you travel between Warp Rooms. The interesting element comes with the fact that the first three bosses are sent to stop you by Brio, in an attempt to prevent Cortex getting his hands on the crystals.

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Ripper Roo returns as the first boss and this time dons a top hat and bounces around on a walking stick, before revealing he now has long yellow hair and a moustache. Like his first encounter the boss revolves around explosives, with the addition of the new “Nitrus” boxes. You must simply avoid him as he moves around planting explosives and spin him when he knocks himself out. And that’s about it.

The Komodo Brothers have the same insulting feeling as Papu Papu in which they are stupidly easy. But to give them credit they are a lot more interesting and aren’t simply a case of dodge the spin attack and then jump on their head. First you must avoid Komodo Moe’s spin-attack (which is the most challenging part) and then dodge Komodo Joe’s sword throwing (which is easily done). It’s incredibly easy, but can become a little tricky in the final segment when you have to dodge them both at the same time.

We’re then introduced to Tiny Tiger, a ferocious beast that attempts to squash you like a bug. This is probably the most trickiest boss in the entire game as it’s all down to luck. Your battle takes place in some sort of space-station (thing) where you hop from one floating platform to the other, whilst avoiding being stomped on by Tiny. Suddenly the platforms begin to drop after an alarm blares out, granting you a few vital seconds to move to another platform. So as you can imagine there isn’t strictly a pattern to defeating Tiny, it’s simply a game of staying on your toes and hoping the game is extra kind to you.

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N. Gin proves to be my favourite boss. The mad scientist is simply scary to look at. He’s a dumpy little fellow with a rocket sticking out of his (caused by a failed experiment which resulted in half his face being augmented). N. Gin is sent to retrieve the crystals for Cortex, but doesn’t really do a very good job as he fly’s into the space-ship you reside in inside a massive robot, accompanied with deadly weaponry. Naturally you fight back and throw Wumpa Fruit at him (which seems rather silly really). It’s a game of dodging his various attacks until each of his weapons are destroyed, resulting in the robot exploding.

Unfortunately the game itself ends on a rather low-point with your encounter with Cortex. Upon Coco revealing his lie Crash chases after him, and that’s literally what the boss battle entails. You have to chase him through a pre-constructed space-tunnel (thingy) whilst avoiding annoyingly placed space-debris until you manage to hit the bastard three times. But this comes with a slight disadvantage as you have to use the jet-pack, and be warned, because the annoying inverted controls mentioned earlier return with a vengeance just to make your endeavour that bit more infuriating, making an already tedious task into a horrendous chore.

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This encounter with Cortex leaves the game on a rather sore note, added greatly by the knowledge that if you want the actual conclusion you must endure the tedious task of collecting all of the gems. And this is where me and Cortex Strikes Back go our separate ways. I’ll admit that (like Crash Bandicoot) I’ve never actually completed this game 100% simply because Naughty Dog (once again) failed to make the game completely fair. I’ll admit I have got better over the years but I’m still nowhere near good enough to complete certain sections, which even my partner (who is really good at platformers) admitted they were near enough unplayable because of how unfair they are.

I point towards the fucking hidden sections including the gun-enemies. Fuck me are their shooting cycles too close together. They barely give you any time to dodge the attack, let alone considering you have to avoid their bullets and manoeuvre around other obstacles as well. I really can’t stand it when developers ask too much of you, and in this case I’m not willing to sacrifice my sanity in order to complete your game. And for what anyway? It’s not like I’m earning trophies to brag about my pointless achievements. So really there’s nothing in it for me other that satisfying my pride (which can essentially fuck off because I’m mental enough without the need of Cortex Strikes Back doing any further damage).

Then there’s the other annoying aspects, such as how slippery the controls become during the “Snow” levels when you walk along the ice. And don’t get me started on the fucking bees and the annoying fucking plants throughout! Also, what the fuck where Naughty Dog thinking when they incorporated 3D perspective into a 2D section? It made side-scrolling segments bastard hard because Crash could essentially fall to his death if he wasn’t aligned properly.

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This literally makes the game appear slightly broken, which is clearly apparent during the “Ancient Ruin” levels when jumping onto the rotating pillars, which are clearly rigged to piss me off as you miss them if you’re jump isn’t aligned properly, or you can fall off them if you don’t balance yourself properly. Then there’s the camera which is incredibly awkward at times and doesn’t give you the best perspective of your surroundings, particularly during segments in levels when you have to move towards the camera (which is a lot because a lot of the gems require you to backtrack to collect missed boxes). You have zero visibility, meaning you have to tread carefully in case you walk into a random obstacle or fall down a hole.

I do admire the fact that Naughty Dog put extra effort into making the hidden gems, and coloured gems, hard to find, which meant you had to think outside of the box. I’ll admit I’ve only managed to find some of these gems by the means of YouTube reviews, to which I looked back at the game and myself in shock as if to say, “Why wasn’t I fucking aware of these hidden secrets?” It’s not like I’m a Noob and have only recently stumbled upon this franchise, I’ve been playing it since my childhood! But I digress.

So naturally (once again) I’m halted in my enjoyment due to the bastard annoying lengths of tiresome gameplay in order to fully complete the game. Every time I return to this sequel I quickly remember why I don’t fully like it. It’s a fun experience if you just want to play it for fun, i.e. collect the crystals and defeat Cortex, but if you want to go all the way you better be prepared for a long, tedious to-do list because that’s what Cortex Strikes Back entails. Maybe I’m just a shit gamer, who knows, but the bottom-line is I’ve never been able to complete this game for one reason or another, and it’s usually down to the fact that the game simply won’t let me achieve my goal. So fuck you game!

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On a more positive note, at least the music is fantastic. Josh Mancell returns as composer, and despite his forgettable contribution to Crash Bandicoot, here he actually makes a massive impact and makes each level worth travelling to just to listen to the soundtrack. Heck, even the Warp Room is blessed with a colourful composing which you can just sit back and listen to for hours on a loop. In fact I do on occasion when going on long walks. That’s right I have the Crash Bandicoot soundtrack on my MP3 (don’t judge me!).

There’s such a wide range of musical scores, from the adventurous journey into the jungle, to the imposing doom of the boulders chasing after you, the excitement of racing through Antarctica on the back of a baby polar bear, the metallic nature of the sewers, and the thrills of travelling through space with a jet-pack. Mancell delivers it all and really helps to make this sequel a massive hit, and a complete improvement from the original. And I also really love his usage of the bass guitar. It adds so much depth and rhythm to every single track. Honestly, this music is probably the most memorable part of the game, along with the “Polar Bear” levels.

Sorry about the long ramble. You’re eyes are probably tired, so I’ll ease the pain by giving you a conclusion. Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back is a massive improvement to Crash Bandicoot because of all the additions I mentioned throughout the review. Crash really gained he’s footing and raised the bar for the platformer genre, and gave the PlayStation a massive edge against its opposition. But sadly it wasn’t perfect and those flaws ultimately ruin my experience, though not enough to make me hate it like the original. Instead I’m just massively disappointed that I can’t complete the game and have Crash finally defeat Cortex and stop his diabolical schemes.

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