Crash and Burn
Crash Bandicoot haunts me in my dreams. Seriously, I have nightmares so intense that I wake up in a cold sweat with the taunting gibberish of Aku Aku still ringing in my ears. As a child, my friends and I loved to play this game. I was wrong. We were so wrong.
The only story in Crash Bandicoot plays out during the opening cutscene. Dr. Neo Cortex runs a burgeoning research laboratory with his longtime friend and partner, Dr. Nitrus Brio, when an experiment of his goes horribly awry. He was observing the effects of combining the genes of the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes with the jeans of Sugar Ray. The result is a diagnosably psychopathic and horrifyingly violent bandicoot with a massive, shit-eating grin. This menace goes by the codename “Crash”, and he quickly escapes to terrorize the surrounding tropical island chain by murdering the local wildlife and indigenous tribesmen and plowing through every food source the area has. It's the kind of story where you know the world is headed towards an apocalypse and you spend the entire time dreading the inevitable tragic ending. Not since 1964's Fail Safe has a piece of narrative media been this effectively tense.
For real though, There isn't really much of a story here. There are crates to smash and peaches to eat. Go smash crates and eat peaches.
Crash is a pretty decent looking game for something that came out in the early PSOne days. Everything has the look of a mid-nineties, Saturday morning cartoon. Of course, every nineties platformer centered around and was named after it's own colorful, anthropomorphic animal character. It's nothing special, but it's consistent and it looks exactly like you would expect some of the more cartoonish SNES characters to look after receiving a 3D upscale. The natural world is tropical, Dr. Cortex's creations are mechanical, everything is vibrant, and realistic proportions are for suckers.
Speaking of proportion, Crash's girlfriend might as well be modeled after a playboy bunny. If you ever want to understand why video games were (and still are) a misogynistic boys club, just note that this kid's game literally offered up a buxom blonde as a trophy for completing a level.
If you want a good back to back gaming experience, go play Crash Bandicoot, and then Mario 64. Crash came out on September 9th, 1996. The revolution that was Mario 64 came a whole seventeen days later. What a difference a few of weeks make! Not only is it fascinating to play those games back to back to compare a game that hasn't aged well to one that has, it's fascinating to do so because thousands of gamers did exactly that in 1996.
So what makes Crash so unfavorable in comparison to Mario? Lets' take it point by point.
I wish I had a nuanced way to talk about this one, but put simply, a d-pad never measures up to analogue controls. Even the useless N64 stick is a godsend compared the playstation controller. You could prefer to play a 3D game with only four directions… if you hate yourself
I cannot tell you how many times I misjudged a platform and ended up falling to my death in this game. There are plenty of levels that take place from a sidescrolling perspective, but Crash can still move forward and back. That means that if you move ever so slightly into the foreground you could end up missing some of the game's smaller platforms. Because of the camera angle, you can almost never tell if you are on the center of the track. This doesn't only effect the sidescrolling. Throughout almost every part of this game, you'll find yourself missing a ledge that you swear you were on target to hit. None of this happens in Mario 64. That's not to say the Mario 64 is the high water mark in camera control, but the fact the camera moves at all is immensely helpful for perceiving depth.
Linearity vs. Open Level Design:
Where as Mario 64 will present new ways to look at levels for subsequent playthroughs, Crash Bandicoot offers no alternate paths and only bite-sized bonus levels that are about as interesting as a wooden crate. Additionally, those Mario levels don't take place in a straight line. Some require dexterity and some are an interesting puzzle to solve. Almost all take place in a wide open environment for you to explore. Crash provides only a series of increasingly frustrating patterns to memorize.
This is the most infuriating part of this game. It's such a brain-dead design decision that I ended up spending about 45 minutes searching on the internet in disbelief, telling myself that I must be missing a save menu somewhere. I wasn't. Every few levels, you have the opportunity to collect three pictures of Crash's girlfriend. This will teleport you to a bonus level that you will only have one chance to complete. Otherwise, you'll miss your chance to save your game and you'll have to start the level (not the bonus level, the one you teleported from), all over again. This time, however, you'll have fewer lives to work with. It's cool though. You can always go farm the boring first level ten times to get more lives. You like grinding in your platformers, right? Just don't turn off your game after you do, because the lives don't save. Mario on the other hand, does have just a tiny bit of life-grinding, but also autosaves after every level. AFTER EVERY LEVEL! AFTER EVERY FUCKING LEVEL!!! Shouldn't that be obvious? Please don't disagree with me. You're going to give me an aneurism.
Every new console has a collection of early games that apply old design concepts to a more powerful console. It's clear that Crash was designed with a SNES mindset. It had the bad luck of being released right before the game that truly ushered in a new era of not only platformers, but three dimensional games in their entirety. If you ever find yourself wanting to study the history of game design, there are few better comparisons between one game that was stuck in the past and another that was ahead of it's time. Playing Crash Bandicoot in 2016 will ruin a little bit of nostalgia if you are old enough, and make you appreciate the little things if you aren't. Either way, anyone who reaches the credits deserves a badge and a therapy puppy.