I approached the compilation with trepidation, though, after playing other revivals during the past year. While these resonated historically, they did not hold up to today’s game standards. For instance, “Parappa The Rapper,” (1997) a decidedly quirky Japanese offering with characters seemingly cut from a child’s sketchbook, was actually the first rhythm-based music game, presaging “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band” by many years. But Parappa seemed dated, partially because it wasn’t changed from its tube TV-era aspect ratio. Mario and Zelda games are often repackaged for new generations, recently on Nintendo’s mini consoles, but however amazing their level design, I suspect fans are purchasing them to keep as mementos more than for deep, gameplay nirvana because the repackaged versions do not add much to the original experience.
Crash Bandicoot, released in 1996, was legendary studio Naughty Dog’s first game, marketed by Sony in the U.S. as competition to Nintendo’s world-renowned plumber hero, Mario. Its creators were young, aggressive and visionary. Jason Rubin is now an executive for Facebook Inc.’s Oculus. Mark Cerny is now the lead PlayStation architect and Andy Gavin is a novelist and entrepreneur. Interestingly, ardent, mercurial PlayStation inventor Ken Kutaragi hated the idea of Crash as an unofficial mascot, so much so that before release he railed loudly at Cerny at the E3 game convention, leaving the young executive in tears. But the wry-eyed, Looney Tunes-inspired bandicoot, clad in bouncy red sneakers and tight blue pants was key to selling millions of PlayStations.
Any reimagining of the first three games would have to be done with the same care the creators used to code the original.
While two Activision studios worked hard to make the graphics crisp and new, there’s some hubris here. Watch the credits for a long, Pixar-like eternity, and you don’t come across Gavin, Rubin or Cerny until the receptionists and babies made during the remastering are given shout-outs. That’s like saying the craftsman who completed restoration work on the Mona Lisa should be lauded before Leonardo da Vinci.
What’s fascinating here is how the gameplay becomes cunningly complex with each iteration from “Crash Bandicoot” to “Warped.” The first features a tropical island, armpit-scratching monkeys and a giant boulder rolling just behind Crash as he frantically runs toward the player in an obvious riff on Indiana Jones. If you’re not that nimble a gamer (like me), Crash will flatten as the rock’s weight rolls over him. You must witness the flatness repeatedly before the scene ends and you start the checkpoint anew. It’s as if the game makers are taunting you: “See, we won. You went splat. You can’t play.”
By the time you indulge in Warped, you can choose to play Crash or his pink-computer-toting nerd pal, Coco. (It’s a shame the game makers didn’t make Coco an equal, playable participant from installment one.) In one outstanding portion, Coco jumps on Puro, her meowing tiger pet, and runs across China’s Great Wall to avoid all manner of enemies, including beautiful but mischievous dragon kites.
Elsewhere, you can fly an airplane and drive Jet Skis or motorcycles through harrowing circumstances. Beyond the varied play and lush artwork, Crash also has a number of idle animations added for the remake. When you stop playing, he’ll breakdance or spin a Wumpa fruit on one finger, toss it in the air and wonder why it defies gravity — until it hits him in the head and sprays him with pink goo. I mention this only to note that the attention to detail is high, even though these moments might go unnoticed by players concerned primarily with plowing through to win.
The narrative isn’t moving here, but neither were Skylanders’ or Mario’s stories. Crash always needs to defeat the mad, chuckling Dr. Frankenstein clone, Dr. Neo Cortex. The goateed, goading Cortex sneers in self-congratulatory ecstasy, always with an “N” tattooed on his forehead. He’s a lap dog for a more awesome, hellish entity, Uka Uka, an anthropomorphic indigenous mask spewing ego and anger.
These power-hungry idiots ultimately fail in their attempts at world domination. Cortex’s failed attempt to turn the Bandicoot into a minion results in rebellion. His cross-eyes and panting-dog demeanor belie a natural genius, which is the player’s talent at jumping on enemies and spinning into them like a dervish to vanquish them. Yes, the story is cliche and right out of focus group testing 101 but the game play still shines 20 years later.
Still, the rejiggered games have one excruciating flaw on the Nintendo Switch. The Switch’s B button makes Crash jump in goofy elegance across steams and crevasses, but it’s also close to the R button. Pressing both the B and the R, very possible because the tiny buttons are close together, makes Crash faceplant and die. The R button should have been left with no gameplay assignment at all.
Yet the series, which has sold over 50 million copies over the years, makes you feel something more than a sense of wonder. There is the sense of elation that comes with the feeling of being so inside this world of adventure that you become a Bandicoot at heart. Much of that has to do with the lovingly reimagined artwork detail not present in other game compilations — features like Crash’s green eyes or a jungle with mysterious designs on temple walls. If a brand new Crash Bandicoot game isn’t released soon, it’ll be clear that there’s something very wrong in the video game universe.
Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair and elsewhere. His narrative history of games is “All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of video games Conquered Pop Culture)” Random House. He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle and New York Game Awards. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.
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