Dusty Discs: 'Crash Bandicoot' and the danger of remakes

Crash is back, baby! My favorite jeans-wearing, wumpa-collecting, pelvic-thrusting drop bear has returned in one of the most authentic game remakes I’ve seen. The Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, developed by Vicarious Visions for the PS4, takes us back to the original Crash trilogy - 1, 2, and Warped - with a bunch of extra polygons, pixels, and polyphonic shenanigans. The games look great, play great, and sound mother freaking great - while staying unusually true to the original. 

It’s not easy for developers to remake an original product as faithfully as Vicarious Visions have done here. Normally I’d advise against it, even when there are scores of old classics I'd love to see with overhauled graphics. There’s definitely a market for nostalgia, but that market varies from product to product. It’s almost always inevitable that the amount of income generated by appealing to this aging demographic won’t cover the very real (and very significant) development costs. The majority of older products have no real appeal to the contemporary marketplace in their original states, because the culture that the originals were designed for no longer exists. The standards by which we judge gameplay, pacing, and narrative can change drastically within as little as a decade.

But the N. Sane Trilogy works. The interest generated before release and the success in the days since have shown us that in this instance it was worth the time and money to bring a childhood favorite back from the dead. And it’s not wholly due to nostalgia or good marketing. It’s largely because even after all of the progress we’ve seen in game design over the past 21 years, as well as the cultural shifts in how we determine what is worth our time, Naughty Dog’s original three Crash games are still pure fun

Crash1.jpg

I’ll be taking Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped (1998) as the main example here. I’ve always seen it as the most polished of the three, having been built on lessons learned in the development of the earlier games. The floaty, somewhat janky controls of the first game are filed back and polished, the elaborate theming of the second game is retained, with just enough consistency to hold everything together as a unified whole. And the grim, gross warp room of the second game - an environment that I always felt cast an uncomfortable mood over the whole experience - is gone. Warped knows when to go dark and dirty, and when to let the sun shine so that players can enjoy something a little more lighthearted. 

And it’s this lightheartedness - throughout the series, but more prominent in the third game - that makes the original trilogy a success today. Naughty Dog didn’t (I hope) set out to give players a deep, emotionally engaging experience along the lines of Life is Strange or Rimworld. They instead played up the goofiness, letting the gameplay provide more serious and challenging engagement while the world and characters provided light but well-crafted comedic entertainment. The best of this comedy is in the details - in particular, the death animations. 

It’s here that Naughty Dog said ‘fuck it’ with regards to emotional engagement, and I’m so glad they did. Because such is the comedy in the death animations that as a child (and an adult) it’s easy to lose an afternoon running through the game intentionally dying in as many different ways as possible just to see how it happens. Crash can get cut up by a totally-not-stereotypical pan-Middle Eastern man, be eaten by a giant venus fly trap, get blown up big time, be smashed into the game’s camera by a double-headed medieval club-wielding ogre, be electrocuted in like 50 different ways, get popped like a balloon… just check out this video by GameOverContinue for more examples.

Enemy deaths aren’t spared this treatment. Taking a leaf from the book of Super Mario (and probably like 200 other games), Crash Bandicoot: Warped gives many enemies a function in death. Both Crash’s trademark spin attack and the slide attack that was retained from Crash Bandicoot 2 kill most enemies by flicking them away into the background of the level. It’s a little goofy, which is great, but also provides the player with a (sort of) effective ranged attack. Any boxes or enemies that are normally out of reach - or that are simply in dangerous-to-reach locations - can be dealt with by flicking another enemy into them. 

Some enemies' bodies hang around after death, and often this is a decision made to increase their gameplay function. Take the aforementioned two-headed medieval bastard. Once defeated, he falls down and players can jump on him like a trampoline. The man’s big belly gives players the extra jump height they may need break boxes that are otherwise out of reach. 

Beneath all the fun and games, the victory dances and ridiculous villains, we have three solid platformers. And while the gameplay of the original trilogy isn’t particularly groundbreaking, it’s robust and polished enough that those moments that do set it apart from the competition really shine. 

Movement is the key to the Crash Bandicoot: Warped gameplay experience. It’s tight, responsive, and very acrobatic. While playing in an acrobatic way isn’t necessary for success, it adds a level of satisfaction to the simple act of moving through the levels that many games miss out on. The character begins with the very basics - running and jumping. Players quickly find the ‘duck’ button, and through experimentation or sheer luck, they discover that by ducking while moving they can make Crash perform a fast slide attack. If players jump while sliding - very likely, given there will be times when a slide would otherwise carry them off a ledge - the character will leap into the air far higher than usual. By using this, players can become far more effective at dodging attacks and reaching distant platforms without sacrificing speed. They develop a style of playing that champions a smooth flow from one platform to the next, and as a gameplay experience it feels great. It also sets them up for the late-game Time Trial activity, which asks players to run through the levels as quickly as possible.

Eventually players are faced with areas designed to support this increasingly acrobatic movement, with deadly enemies or traps at head-height followed by bottomless pits or other floor hazards. While it’s rarely absolutely necessary to use the slide-jump combo, the use of it adds an extra level of satisfaction, as players are allowed to feel a level of deep mastery over the character’s movement. The well-designed animations for all of the character motion don't hurt, either.

Remakes are hard, and it’s not often that a game can be presented decades later with little more than a fresh coat of paint. Imagine if Black Mesa had simply been a stock Half-Life port with better graphics, rather than a game with rebalanced gameplay and better pacing. Or if a shot-for-shot remake of 2001: A Space Odyssey was pitched at the audiences of the present. Culture and media progresses, and the products of the time must be made to respond to the audiences of that time if they want to be valued. For a few select titles, however - Crash Bandicoot among them - there are still a few good years of fun to be had. Will future generations see the same value in these aging products as today’s audiences do? Time will tell. You can’t force posterity.