Retro Gaming: Crash Bandicoot, a review before the retro remaster

In an age of remasters and remakes and re-releases, it seems gamers are divided between being fed up with this fad and cheering with joy when a personal favourite series is dredged up from the past and given a shiny new coat of paint for the modern audience.  At Sony’s 2016 E3 conference they proudly announced that the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy would be “remastered from the ground up” for Ps4.  In the mascot platformer dominated era of the late 90s, Crash was Playstation’s answer to Nintendo’s Mario and SEGA’s Sonic, but do these games have a place in the modern world?  Have they stood the test of time, or are the fond memories just childhood nostalgia?

crash-bandicoottn1The story of Crash Bandicoot is simple and cliché –some distance from the focus now on developing more sophisticated game narrative – but is serviceable enough to justify the game.  Hidden on the remote Wumpa Islands off the coast of Australia, the evil Dr Neo Cortex is attempting to take over the world with an army of mutant animals.  As a failed experiment who escaped Dr Neo’s clutches, Crash’s only goal is to return to Cortex’s laboratory to rescue his still captive girlfriend, Bandicoot.  The story in incredibly minimalist, being only told through an intro cut-scene that doesn’t play unless you idle on the start screen for 30 seconds (and briefly described in the instruction manual) but gives the game its tropical island setting, replete with mutated zoological enemies.

Crash Bandicoot is a linear 3D platformer from the dawn of three dimensional video games and looking at it 20 years later the simplicity is immediately apparent.  The sole objective in each level is to reach the finish line.  Your options of controls are very limited, you can move, jump and spin-attack like a Looney Tunes character.  There is no camera control of any kind, and the levels are corridor like gauntlets filled with pits, traps and enemies to test your platforming proficiency.  The standard levels are broken up by Indiana Jones style boulder chases, fast paced auto-scrolling hog rides and a selection of boss battles.

However, this simplicity works in the games favor.  Due to its fixed-camera perspective, it avoids the issues that plagued early 3D games, namely, unwieldy cameras.  Graphically the game has held up remarkably well for its age, and on release was unparalleled in graphical fidelity.  While it is definitely filled with the jaggy polygons and low resolution textures associated with the era, the forced perspective allowed the artists to consider the exact way in which players would see each scene and polish it to a sheen.  There is no ugly flat blocks of colour making up the geometry, everything you see is something, relevant to the area you are traversing and thematically appropriate.  In 2016 this may not seem like much, but 20 years ago it was an achievement.

Likewise the gameplay does not feel outdated, apart from the lack of analogue stick support Crash’s movement and controls would not feel out of place to a 2016 gamer. It is humorous to read the instruction booklet describing how to visualize moving a character in a 3D space where the directional controls are relative to the camera and not the character, something so natural today (in fact the alternative is derided as ‘tank controls’) but it was new and bizarre to audiences in 1996.

The gameplay in Crash Bandicoot is rather slow paced.  You approach a situation, sit back and analyse what is required of you in the immediate future and then execute a series of timed jumps and movements to reach the next safe zone.  Rushing in will likely cause a quick end to the Bandicoot’s brittle life (you can only take 1 hit) because often the levels are made up of moving platforms and enemies that require the player to memorise the patterns before proceeding, it is very hard to rush in and do by reaction only.

crashbandicoottn2This methodical gameplay ramps up in difficulty across the game’s 30ish levels spread across three islands, and the games themes match this progression. The first island is a tropical paradise, filled with animals and primitive native villages, the levels are easy and relaxing. These levels have relatively simple challenges and forgiving amounts of checkpoints. The second island is more sinister.  It’s darker and the levels consist of long abandoned temples and ruins and the difficulty starts to increase.  Here more complex challenges arise, such as extended sections of moving platforms with flames and evil lizards thrown into the mix.  The third and final island is completely industrialized, the levels have you traversing Cortex’s power plants, evil laboratory’s and finally his sinister castle.  Here the levels become mind-numbingly tough, requiring perfection from the player.  Mistakes result in a brutal punishment, reversion, with large amounts of conquered territory having to be traversed again.

The game’s six boss fights offer up some variety, but are ultimately far less exciting and challenging than the main levels.  The simplistic nature of the game mechanics means that the boss fights cannot be very complex and usually boil down to avoiding their attacks and hitting them in the obviously telegraphed opening.  They are serviceable and offer some much needed variety, but are ultimately forgettable.

The music too, is good, but not great. The main theme, Hog Riding music and boss fights are catchy and memorable, but all the other music tracks serve mostly as atmosphere. The jungle tracks sound appropriate for that terrain, the temple themes are suitably eerie and the castle soundtrack is flawlessly evil sounding. But two minutes later and I find it impossible to recall how they go.

Despite all this, Crash Bandicoot does have some issues that may hinder the experience of anyone used to modern gaming luxuries, most notably the save system.  Nowadays we are accustomed to being able to stop playing a game whenever we want, and pick it up later right where we left off, but the mid ‘90s were a different time.  You cannot save Crash Bandicoot whenever you want, you must reach a designated save point, and these are few and far between.  Save points are found at the end of bonus rounds – mini side areas in levels that are accessed by finding three hidden tokens.  If you successfully complete the bonus round you can save your progress to the memory card.  If this doesn’t sound bad enough: bonus rounds are not found in every level, and once you’ve saved your progress in a bonus round (or any bonus round found later in the game) it disappears forever.  By the third island, bonus rounds are only every three levels, which means in order to save your progress you must beat three of the most challenging levels in the game in a row without losing all your lives or turning off the console.  This is beyond archaic and can turn hours of attempts and success into meaningless non-progress.

With the exception of this glaring flaw, Crash Bandicoot does deserve its place as a classic, and is one of the Playstation 1’s defining games. Whether or not you agree a remastering is necessary, Crash Bandicoot should be remembered and cherished as a gaming icon.


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