Thursday, 24 October 2013

REVIEW SPECIAL - Crash Bandicoot 1, 2, and 3 (Playstation)

A new hero arrives

Long before Naughty Dog brought us the dark and emotive exploits of a man escorting a young girl across the zombie filled ruins of America, or the cinematic, over-the-top adventures of Nathan Drake in Uncharted - or even before Jak & Daxter finally bested Mario in the 3d platformer stakes - they gave us a certain crazed bandicoot named Crash. This wild eyed, slightly insane, furry critter would go on to star in a multitude of sequels and inevitable spin-off titles created by many different developers, but his debut, and its two sequels on the original Sony Playstation, heralding the start of a new style of platforming game, as well as finally giving Sony a mascot to stand proudly alongside Mario and Sonic. 

Crash Bandicoot (1996)

The first game was released in 1996 and was extremely well received, and deservedly so. Crash himself was a lovable rogue, far more charming and amusing than the plethora of bland and tedious anthropomorphic characters that had been appearing on the 16-bit systems (I'm talking about you, Bubsy, Aero, Zero etc). The botched result of an experiment to turn cutesy creatures into a horrifying mutant army by the evil (aren't they always?) doctors, Neo Cortex and N-Brio (gettit?), Crash is obviously pretty peeved, and doubly so once his obligatory female love interest, Tawna, is next in line for the mad doctor's evil plans.

One of the many classic into-the-camera chase scenes that would become a staple of the 
series, and influence other games in the genre from here on in.

I absolutely adored Crash Bandicoot when it was originally released, and it still holds up well today. The wonderful beach and jungle setting of the fictitious Wumpa Islands give the game great visual appeal, with the zany inhabitants adding to the charismatic presentation. This is mainly thanks to Crash himself, who's wonky eyes and lolling tongue show he has clearly not come out of Neo Cortex's experiment completely unaffected. You cannot fail to be amused by his gormless visage and exaggerated movements. The music is suitable bouncy and silly, as well as being extremely catchy - you won't be able to forget the title music and the initial stages music once you have heard it a few times.

The final island sees you traversing the evil doctor's castle fortress -
 with some excellent thunder storm effects to go with it.

The developers wanted the game to have an overgrown, organic feel - one featuring far less of the jagged lines that plagued the Playstation's titles - and they succeeded with flying colours, designing twisting and turning courses through dense forestry areas that really bring the island to life. While it initially appears to be a 3D platformer in much the same vein as Mario 64, it becomes immediately apparent that the gameplay leans far more towards the 2D platformers that were popular in the previous, 16-bit, generation, only this time you are running into the screen from a behind-the-protagonist view - indeed, the game's work-in-progress title was the amusing 'Sonic's Ass Game', due to the butt-focused camera angle. You have some leeway with regards to movement - with players being able to move around to the left and right, as well as back on yourself should you wish, but the game is designed to keep you on a linear path heading forwards. This simultaneously manages to keep the gameplay more simple and, in my opinion, fun, than the sprawling open world platformers that usually contain confusing routes, and battles with an unwieldy camera. Some levels switch to the classic 2D viewpoint, but with the added variety of routes that allow you to walk either towards, or away from the screen. Then, of course, you have the famous 'running towards the screen' levels that task you with escaping a rolling boulder - now a bonafide gaming staple that seems to be a mandatory addition to any new platform game. You also get to ride of the back of a rampaging wild boar as it careens through the jungle, in which you must smash into the boxes while jumping temple ruins and logs and avoiding angry natives and spiked traps.

Gorgeous to look at, with great atmospheric fog, but with some exceptionally tricky jumps, 
The Road To Nowhere is a real test of your platforming prowess.

The objective, as with most classic platformers, is simply to reach the level exit. Wooden crates are found throughout the levels, with Crash able to break them either by jumping on them, or by using his spin attack. These boxes contain apples - which are also dotted around each level in droves and award a 1up with every 100 swiped - extra lives, and colourful tribal 'Aku Aku' masks that grant an extra hit, leading up to temporary invincibility upon nabbing three. Also, hidden in these wooden destructibles are three Tawna icons that, if collected, take you to a short bonus level that played from a purely 2D perspective and completion of which would award you with a password or save. A little side note - It always seemed weird to me that, while Crash is a hunched over raggedly looking mammal, Tawna has the shape (and sultry hip swings) of a female human, but it turns out that Universal Studios weren't happy with her original appearance - based heavily on busty Baywatch babe Pamela Anderson - forcing Naughty Dog to tone down the overly sexualised character to what is seen in the game. Naughty Dog were so annoyed about this forced censorship that Tawna was dropped for the following games, only reappearing for minor cameos in later (non-Naughty Dog developed) games. Strange, erotic animal antics aside, there were also TNT crates that, once jumped on, would start a three second timer before exploding - best you get out of the way before that happens or Crash becomes toast.

Some of the scenery in the first game is absolutely lovely.

With tight controls and challenging stages to beat, Crash is an exceptionally fun game to play - right up there with your Sonics and Marios - but it does have some really irritating flaws that sully the experience somewhat. Firstly, there are some nasty difficulty spikes later on, with the game suddenly getting much harder on the third, and final, island, mostly due to the checkpoints being placed absolutely miles apart - leading to much frustration. The usual 3D platformer camera issues also arise, despite Crash mostly playing on a 2D plane, often making it difficult to judge your landings, resulting in many deaths from misjudging leaps or getting hit by an enemy you were sure you avoided. The next thing that hacks me off is the useless save system. Instead of giving you a password or save after each level, you have to locate the Tawna tokens, and complete the bonus level in the one chance given, otherwise there is no save for you! It doesn't even let you save after defeating the boss who guards each area, meaning death can result in having to redo large stretches of the game. 

I don't even want to know what is going through this crazy bastard's mind right now!

Nevertheless, Crash Bandicoot is still great game, providing hours of fun and bags of challenge, just be prepared to lose your temper now and then. It's a game that's well worth returning to today for some quirky platforming that sits comfortably between the old school 2D affairs and the later 3D games that would go on on to replace them as everyone embraced third dimension... at least until indie games would make 2D platformers popular all over again! A true retro classic.

Crash Bandicoot 2 : Cortex Strikes Back (1997)

Naughty Dog's first sequel was released in 1997 and came with a hugely improved graphics engine that was three times faster than its predecessor, with a much smoother frame rate, enhanced sprites with vastly improved animation - including loads of new death sequences for poor old Crash - and some lovely new lighting effects. It is instantly apparent how improved the engine is after playing the first game beforehand, and it equates to a far smoother and richer experience. While the core gameplay is pretty much business as usual, there are a fair few notable additions, Crash has been empowered with new moves - a dashing slide used to vanquish meanies and slip under narrow gaps, the ability to clamber along monkey bars, and a hilarious belly flop that sees the brainless bandicoot slam face down into the floor, great for smashing piles of boxes. Speaking of crates, there is a new type of crate, the Nitro box, which shudders due to the volatile chemicals within and will explode if you touch them. Thankfully there is a special green box with an exclamation mark on it located somewhere (usually at the end of the level) which will cause all of them to explode, giving you the necessary crate count.

From tropical beaches and jungles to icy mountains, the temperate takes 
a nosedive for many of the sequels levels.

Crash 2 does away with the world map and uses a hub system that uses a circular room containing portals to five stages. Once you have obtained the five crystals contained in these levels you can use an elevator to take you to a boss fight, and then onto another, similar room containing five new stages. While this feels slightly more interactive than before, I actually prefer the colourful world map of the original to these claustrophobic rooms, as the map reminded me of classic platformers such as Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country. The story is also bizarre, with you now assisting Neo Cortex in obtaining crystals in order to 'save the world from destruction'. This is clearly bullshit, of course, and I don't know why Crash doesn't simply tell him to fuck off. Regardless, this is your objective, which takes you to a variety of different levels, far more varied than those found in his first adventure. Unfortunately, there are far too many snow levels and, as everybody knows, snow and ice levels in platform games suck royal ass. As expected, you slip and slide around in the most frustrating manner possible, while wishing you were back in the tropical setting of the original. Far more interesting are the new vehicle stages in which Crash dons a jetpack to rocket his way around certain levels, or the jet-ski levels that see the soggy mammal being propelled forwards at a rate of knots, while trying to avoid the many sea based hazards. There are more animal-bothering race stages too, only this time the hog is replaced with an adorable seal pup, who seems surprisingly laid-back about being mounted by a deranged Bandicoot. 

Full steam ahead as Crash gets used to his new Jet-Pack in Crash 2.

Crash 2 is a great game that manages to improve on its predecessor in many ways, but for me, it holds the least appeal of the three due to the first game holding so much nostalgic appeal, and the third game being an even more improved game than this sequel. It's still an essential game for fans, however, and will give you hours of entertainment, and even more of a challenge than before. There are also additional types of special items to locate in the levels - the collection of which open new routes to secret stages, meaning there is far more replayability than before.

Crash Bandicoot 3 : Warped (1998)

Crash's third outing is regularly cited as the best in the entire series, and it is hard to argue as it is by far the most polished of the original Playstation trilogy, and every Crash game that came after these three games got progressively worse (due to the lack of Naughty Dog's involvement). This time around the game has a time travelling theme which, while nonsense as usual, gives the game the excuse to throw you in to completely unrelated worlds for each stage. So, we have levels set in medieval villages (complete with knights, wizards and, er.. goats), madcap dashes away from rampaging dinos in prehistoric times, and Aladdin style escapades in a Persian setting that would make a certain prince jealous. Each one of these worlds look great, thanks to the wonderful graphics that appear even more vibrant and detailed than the second game, and are fun to traverse. 

Everybody knows that goats featured heavily in Medieval times

As well as using the same engine as Crash 2, two further game engines were used for the vehicle based stages, making them feel like games in their own right, rather than just hastily included bonus stages. There are Wave Race exploits in the water based jet-ski stages, motorbike racing, and aerial combat as you take to the skies in an aeroplane. There are also immensely enjoyable underwater stages, in which a scuba gear wearing Crash explores the depths of the ocean, avoiding sharks and mines while navigating strange hazardous machinery. He can even nab a cool Bond-esque underwater jet-ski type thingy which can fire rockets, turning proceedings into borderline Shmup territory.

The underwater sections in Crash 3 are awesome, and remind me of similar sections
 in Donkey Kong Country and, to a lesser extent, Earthworm Jim.

Warped was also the first Crash game to allow you to play as his little sister Gash Bandicoot... sorry, Coco Bandicoot (can you imagine!). This cute, dungaree-clad mechanic gets to ride on the back of a tiger across the great wall of china, whizz past pirate ships in choppy waters, and generally enjoy multiple stages involving high speed dashes across a hazardous landscapes.

Now you can take to the skies as Coco, Crash's little sister

The final game in the trilogy is easily the best game overall, with a huge amount of variety, excellent driving sections, new playable characters, and imaginative and well designed worlds to explore. There is also far more replayability here than ever, with extra collectibles making return visits essential, rather than a tedious chore. 

My recommendation would be to play through all three games in order and experience the strengths of each title, while also experiencing the improvements made over time. The Crash Bandicoot series defined the Playstation and have stood the test of time extremely well, and thus come highly recommended to any gamers who enjoy platformers.

Crash's legacy 

Naughty Dog would produce one last Crash game for the aging Playstation console, this time a Mario Kart style kart racer. The character roster lends well to this type of game and Crash Team Racing is an absolute blast to play, especially in multiplayer. I actually included it in my 'Top 10 games to play with your girlfriend' feature, which you can read here.

Crash Team Racing is better than Mario Kart 64... there, I said it.

It's a shame that Naughty Dog handed the Crash IP over to other developers once they had finished with the Playstation originals, but it at least meant they were able to produce the excellent Jak & Daxter series for the PS3, games which feel very much like the spiritual sequels to these first Crash Bandicoot titles anyway. 

While Crash has had a rather blotchy past in the last few years (14 years to be precise), and he now looks like an asshole thanks to his revamped appearance, I am confident that he will make a return to form some day, either in a brand new sequel that goes back to his 1990's roots, or in an HD remake for modern consoles (how sweet would this be?!!). While we cross our fingers and wait for this to happen, we can go back and enjoy these first three Playstation outings and remember the good times.

All three games get a resounding:

Title : Crash Bandicoot 1, 2, 3

Developer : Naughty Dog

Year : 1996, 1997, 1998

System : Sony Playstation