Sunday, 27 September 2015

Crash Bandicoot for the PlayStation

There was a time where new systems needed a whole stable of video game characters to give them that edge over the rivals. In the fourth generation (16-bit) era of games consoles, Nintendo and Sega came out on top partly because each had established a following for their big guns. Nintendo had Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and a range of more minor exclusives to hand. Sega retaliated with Sonic the Hedgehog and a pantheon of titles based around their arcade properties, or built from scratch as a me-tooism. Part of the reason why so many industry pundits bet against Sony to begin with was a) their forays into video game development up until that time, which included the release of some truly awful games on the SNES and MegaDrive, and b) their lack of what we now call unique intellectual properties, or IPs. Sure, they had Namco in their corner and could look forward to Ridge Racer and Tekken conversions, as well as ports of popular PC titles, but before Sony steam rollered their opposition it made a concerted effort to ensure the PlayStation was home to the best and most sought after exclusives.

This is where Crash comes in. Whereas Sega and Nintendo touched off the mascot arms race, virtually every software house tried getting in on the act. Between 1988 and 1995, practically every software house in the field had tried their hand at mascot video games. Ubisoft - Rayman. Accolade - Bubsy the Bobcat. Gremlin - Zool. Ocean - Mr Nutz. Core - Chuck Rock. Codemasters - Dizzy. Some did alright, but most fell by the wayside and are remembered without affection by gamers of a certain age who've since moved on to other things. Whether developers Naughty Dog (they of Uncharted and The Last of Us fame) thought they were creating Sony's answer to Mario and Sonic for them knew or not, they were nevertheless treading a well-worn path. And Crash was every inch a 90s bandicoot. His character style was zany, as opposed to Mario's stolid dependability and Sonic's ice cool. He cut a countenance that was slightly unhinged - there's a look of panic on Crash's face has he runs toward the screen as the game opens. But it comes with a knowing sensibility as well. Prior to leaping on the back of a boar in the two hog run levels, Crash looks over his shoulders and his eyebrows start twitching as if something improper is about to happen (NB this was a full 19 years before those David Cameron allegations surfaced). You'd also be hard pressed to classify Crash or any of his allies and adversaries as cute. Rather, despite his marsupial origins, Crash has something of a simian gait about his person. He wears nothing but blue shorts and trainers. In other words, our Crash was an anthropomorphic every man who didn't realise the body projections of the teenage boys likely to buy the game, but in some way embodied their ungainly awkwardness with a dash of 90's adolescent attitude.

Shadows cast by Crash's predecessors didn't end there. His spin attack was lifted directly from the Tasmanian Devil (who'd also had two outings on the MegaDrive prior to Crash). His collectible was wumpa fruit - as opposed to coins or rings - that yielded an extra life once a hundred of them were gathered up. Smashing open crates yields them and other goodies, like the masks of Aku Aku that protects Crash from the usual instant death one can expect when colliding with an enemy; or the tokens of his love interest, Tawna, that can transport him to increasingly challenging bonus rounds. And, of course, as the hegemonic game form during the 16-bit era was the platformer, so Naughty Dog's response had to be the same. However, the job of any mascot worth their salt is to showcase the capabilities of the machine it's running on, and Crash did that in spades. The first level has you taking a leisurely 3D stroll down a jungle path. Later levels involve tricky action from the same perspective. Not only was this novel as Crash would have been many gamers' first experience of 3D platforming, it was a completely new gameplaying experience. Naughty Dog, however, had the nous to ease their audience in. Visually arresting 3D levels were broken up with tradition two-dimensional stages. And sometimes they messed with the gamer by introducing 2.5D elements, and mixing 2D and 3D platforming. It demonstrated the PlayStation's raw power advantage over its clunk-looking predecessors, and pointed to the direction gaming was set to subsequently go.

Despite all that, Crash was something of a simple affair. It certainly didn't possess the depth of Super Mario 64, which hit the shelves a few months prior. In this sense, it was the heir to Sonic. While Mario had always prided itself on original game design, elaborate puzzles, and a huge number of secrets to uncover, Sonic was more an A-to-B (at speed) sort of game. Sega did hide a few secrets of their own, and had from the off experimented with multiple routes from start to exit. This is Crash's style, except more linear. There are a few hidden areas where goodies can be found. And bits of levels can be unlocked by collecting gems as you go (you're awarded one if you get through a level having smashed all the crates and without losing a life). If you want to get the "secret" ending, pursuing all the gems is exactly what you need to do. Sounds straight foward? It is, but it's also as tough as old boots. The 3D levels take some getting used to as judging distances with a fixed and not-always-entirely-helpful camera can lead to many needless deaths. There's something to be said for the control scheme as well. I don't know if it's me, but I had the same problems with the game as I did when I got my mitts on a copy 18 years back. Crash at times seems unwieldy and his control scheme over-sensitive. Contemporary gamers used to their thumb sticks would have a hard, frustrating time adapting. If that wasn't enough, some of the level designs are very challenging. Especially the 2D levels gamers of the mid-90s would have some familiarity with. The game isn't cheap, but if you don't take the time to observe the patterns, or learn how to control Crash properly the thing will eat you up. That probably explains why wumpa fruits and extra lives are so plentiful. Things don't seem quite frustrating when you still have 55 lives left in the bag.

There are a few other aspects about Crash that are of interest. The first is the game's naked orientalism. Set on three islands off Australia's coast, the first sees Crash doing battle against grass skirted natives. The first 2D level, Native Fortress, has you avoiding fire pits and spiky polls - as well as a few warriors - while you collect the fruit and make your way to the end. The first boss, Papu Papu, is a headdress-festooned big-bellied chief who fits no south sea islander stereotype at all. Using such locations might have seemed like a good idea at the time, especially as those levels bleed into subsequent tours of exotic-looking ruins (similar to a number of zones to have appeared in the Sonic games), but now one would hope it would be beyond the pail. Less controversial is a common trope in 90s video games: environmental despoliation and out-of-control science. Plenty of platform games mined this seam at the time, including Sonic, and it's something I'll be visiting in the future. Here, all of one's environmental fears find expression. The nemesis, Dr Neo Cortex (consciously modelled on Brain from Pinky and the Brain), is conducting genetic experiments to breed an army of animal soldiers - of which Crash is a result. As you move through the game, you come up against Cortex's other creations as end level bosses. Also, as the map makes pretty clear, your antagonist's mad sciencey efforts are pouring toxic waste into the sea and is threatening the beautiful environments of the levels you've just been through. It's not enough that Cortex is evil with the usual megalomaniacal schemes. He has to be a polluter, also. And a last word on the object of the game: this, like many other platformers, is yet another rescue-the-girl fetch quest. Except this time, Tawna is being kept by Cortex for unspecified observation and experimentation. Grim. However, it is worth noting that marketing objected to this premise and was dropped from future releases. If it was too tired for the mid-90s, why does it still occasionally rear its head now?

Unlike most PlayStation games (with the odd exception), and considering Crash Bandicoot is a relatively early PS1 title, it remains quite a good looking game by contemporary standards. Of course, graphically it doesn't hold a candle to your Super Mario 3D World and suchlike, but it has a certain vibrancy to it suggestive of craftmanship and care. It's a bold, brassy number just like the PlayStation itself. The luscious greens of the tropical levels, the flickering firelight of the caverns, the garish colour clashes of the industrial stages, they work together to crowd out the hard edged polygons characteristic of so many PlayStation games. There's little in the way of the characteristic PS1 flicker as well.

Crash was very well received and spawned sequels well into the succeeding generation of consoles, though now Naughty Dog have bigger fish to fry his IP has fallen into disuse. This is unsurprising because the games were very much of the interregnum between 2D and modern 3D gaming, and there is little more than the nostalgia some might feel that commends Crash's return to the gaming scene. Overall, an important game. A frustrating game. A rare looker of a game for the medium. But one that has more or less fallen into obscurity, and doesn't offer a great deal to warrant its rescuing.

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