Yann Gilbert is a 22-year-old aspiring game developer who made headlines a few weeks back for publishing proof of something absurd: Crash Bandicoot running in the Crysis engine. Why anyone would attempt to recreate the platformer that placed Naughty Dog on the map back in the 1990s into an incredibly advanced slice of gaming wizardry is a really damn good question. I had to figure this out.
Going through the effort to modernize a video game that represented the bleeding edge of technology more than 15 years ago into, a creation built with disregard to development norms and even guidelines handed down from Sony, endlessly fascinated me. It struck my imagination enough to ask the original creators of Crash Bandicoot, Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin, to chime in on Gilbert's absurd creation.
But let's back up for a second. Gilbert doesn't even prefer to be called by his real name, he told me, vastly preferring his Internet handle, Lenox.
"It was easier to remember for people," explained Gilbert--er, Lenox.
(Excuse his slightly broken English, too--he's French and his English is shaky.)
Lenox debuted Crash Bandicoot Return via Mod DB to enthusiastic response, largely driven by the ridiculousness of seeing the cartoonish mascot tossed into a world where, aliens aside, realism is king. Multiple times, he described the allure of Naughty Dog's series as driven by their design philosophy.== TEASER ==
"The original series never rests on [its] achievements," he said. "There was always changing with each new episode and [there was a] design consistency in the level [design] that I never found elsewhere, aside from other games by Naughty Dog--Jak & Daxter. And as I was lulled into this atypical universe, I think it gave me an indelible mark on my way to create and imagine new universes, like my other projects."
The reason Lenox attempted a dedicated platformer like Crash Bandicoot in a first-person proven technology like Crysis had less to do with the humor of it all than a reflection of his experience. He's been working with the Crysis engine for three years now, so if he was gonna start somewhere...
"It is clear that the engine is not suitable for this type of game, but fortunately, the development is
going well despite the technical constraints," he said, admitting the obvious. "And I like technical challenges, so it's a real pleasure to develop with this engine, especially since it offers many possibilities."
Watching the video of Lenox's recreation of N. Sanity Beach, complete with the original music and sound effects, it's painfully hard to avoid laughing. And sure, while I've used the word already, it's still absolutely appropriate: this is ridiculous. The nonsense is especially poignant while watching someone trying--and failing--to pilot hyper-rendered Crash onto the iconic orange boxes over and over again.
Try. Fail. Try. Fail. Then, laugh. Because why not? It's Crash Bandicoot in the Crysis engine.
Current Crash Bandicoot rights holder Activision has not contacted Lenox about his project, probably because a) he's not attempting to make a profit off it and b) all the code is still on his own computer. These kinds of projects tend to be tolerated by publishers until one or the other begins to change. The franchise has lived on through mobile; the last major release, Crash: Mind Over Mutant, was released in 2008.
Crash Bandicoot co-creators Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin haven't been associated with the franchise in years, both having left Naughty Dog to pursue other interests. Both of them, thankfully, agreed to talk to me about Crash Bandicoot Return and seeing their baby rendered with modern tech. Rubin actually had a brief conversation with Lenox, not too long after Lenox debuted it.
"I think that [Lenox] may have a serious game career ahead of him," said Rubin over email. "Sure, I have read that some people didn't like the animation, and others may not have had high regards for the game mechanics. But we have to remember that this is one man's labor, and it is his first game. EVERYONE begins somewhere. Naughty Dog's first games weren't that polished either. What we had was the drive to succeed and pride to show the world what we had created regardless of the reception. This gentleman has it as well. I think what he has done is great, I applaud his efforts, and I wish him the best going forward."
Gavin and Rubin chronicled the stressful development (like their reaction to Super Mario 64) of Crash Bandicoot recently. You really should read it. Rubin told me Lenox's attempt to recreate Crash Bandicoot reminded him of his own journey to do the something similar. One of Rubin and Gavin's first collaborations was to create an Apple II version of Punch-Out!!, with Rubin on art and Gavin working the code. The two of them researched the pet project by heading to a local arcade, observing and snapping photos.
"It looked great," said Rubin. "But my father is an intellectual property attorney and the advice he gave me is ultimately the same advice that I gave to our friend recreating Crash: 'If you have the skill to make someone else's game then you should make your own. Because you can never be sure about obtaining the rights to the original.'"
To that end, Lenox says he's not much interested in obtaining the rights. He has no idea how much he'll end up recreating and the whole purpose of Crash Bandicoot Return is to pay tribute to the series.
When Rubin and Gavin were developing the Crash Bandicoot games, technology had its limits. These days, most of those limits have disappeared, with the lines in the sand coming from one's imagination.
"The realistic background [of Return] looked good," said Gavin, "but doesn't totally fit. If I were doing it again myself on a next gen console I'd probably try and come up with a sort of 'cartoony realistic' style that was closer to what we did originally. We always went for very photorealistic textures. But there are a lot of things that could be done to make the world look even more like a sort of marvelous cartoon realized. If you didn't the totally goofy character style would totally pop out oddly."
At just 22-years-old, Lenox is just getting started with his development career. He doesn't have an official job making games yet, but he's looking around. Crytek, Ubisoft and Rockstar are top of mind.
"Who knows, he may make the next Crash Bandicoot!" proposed Rubin.
Dream big or go home, right?
Follow the rest of Crash Bandicoot Return's progress at Mod DB.