Friday, March 28, 2014

Crash Bandicoot (PS1, PSN) Retro Review

This past Wednesday we took at look at Klonoa: Door to Phantomile, a charming PS1 era platformer. Now we take a look at what is the system's most well known platformer, Crash Bandicoot. Bean gives us his opinion on the game with this retro review.

Crash Course

Way back before Naughty Dog was making cinematic-oriented games, they were a company that was struggling to find a direction for themselves. Mark Cerny, who at the time worked at Universal Interactive Studios, liked the promise that the team had and asked the studio to try and put that ability into making a new platformer. Many had tried to compete with Nintendo's series in the past, but at the time, only Sonic the Hedgehog had seen any semblance of lasting success. It seemed an odd move, but there was one advantage the team had. The game would not be a simple side-scroller, but a 3D-based one instead. The game, of course, would be none other than Crash Bandicoot, and it would be one that Sony quickly signed on to their Playstation in order to compete with Nintendo. How was this first game that helped put Naughty Dog on the map? You don't have to answer that. I will.

Crash Bandicoot has the titular character mutated into his hero-to-be self by one Dr. Cortex and the sinister scientist's Evolvo-Ray. The animal is subjected to a mind-control experiment from another invention known as the Cortex Vortex, but this machine fails, and the marsupial is tossed out with the trash. During his time in captivity, the bandicoot found a love interest, so I guess we have our standard save the world and get the girl plot that this genre is famous for!

As stated earlier, Crash Bandicoot isn't a standard platformer. The game focuses on platforming in 3D, even in levels that look like they would be traditional, 2D side-scrolling stages. The object of the game is to not only reach the end of the level, but also break every box in your path along the way. This is actually easier said than done in a lot of cases as a good many levels offer a decent degree of challenge to them, whether it be with enemies placed in spots that will hinder your movement or stage hazards that will cause you to plummet to your doom in no time at all. It's certainly not an easy task considering the decent variety in levels and sometimes the not so decent flaws that come along with it.

There's plenty of level types to get going through. Standard stages see Crash running forward through a jungle environment and dealing with the local wildlife such as crabs or aggressive plants. To combat these annoyances, you have the old-school ability to hop right on their heads with the X button or go and use Crash's patented spin attack by pressing square instead. In some cases, you'll have to use both techniques in tandem to be able to take down an enemy. For instance, one level early on in the game sees Crash trying to scale a wooden fortress. Along the way, he'll run into tribesmen that are carrying shields. If you try to spin into them right off the bat, you'll be bounced back until you're most likely pushed right into a pit. That said, if you jump direct on top of a tribesman at first, he'll raise his shield to block you, giving players a chance to spin him out of the way. I do like how it's pretty easy to tell which enemies you'll need to do this on. It's something a lot of platformers, even today, can get wrong at times. Yeah, I'm looking right at you, Sonic: Lost World.

Again, the variety of levels you'll go through in this game's three islands is a nice thing. Even better, many of these types get more than a one-and-done treatment, and I think it's good to refine what you have instead of throwing in everything and the kitchen sink. Platforming on moving lilypads, climbing temple structures, running towards the screen to avoid getting squashed by a giant boulder, and hopping on a hog for a little animal buddy stage, these levels will are generally fun and manage to get the whole fun factor thing down right. There are two examples, though, where I found that not to be the case. These are the bridge and darkness levels.

The former will see you doing thin platform jumps, with some of those breaking almost instantly on you if you mistime your jumps in any fashion. To make matters worse, there are parts in both bridge stages where planks will be invisible until you walk right up to them. This happens at the start or end, depending on which bridge you're on. I absolutely loathed going through Road to Nowhere and falling to my doom after reaching a hidden path just beyond the goal as you have to make a few leaps of faith to cross planks. Miss one jump, and bye-bye boxes. Did I mention that checkpoints in this game don't save your boxes broken progress as they all respawn? Yeah, you have to clear these in one go, or you might as well just back out and start the stage over.

The issue with the darkness levels are that there is that the terrain itself will get in your way more often or not. Taking place in a castle, some parts to these stages have you jumping around doors that I had Crash get stuck on a few times. The worst level in the game, Fumbling in the Dark, is one where you have to jump around doors four times in succession and angle yourself to the sides of the room to both break the level's first few boxes and not fall into the giant pit in the middle of the area. The moment Crash gets caught on the wall, his momentum just halts, and you will fall into said pit more times than you'd care for. As a guy that already can't stand darkness gimmicks to begin with, mixing in more frustration due to a geometry glitch is something I could have done without. Luckily, Naughty Dog agreed as other entries in the series would not have you platforming against the game's physics engine. Good.

So you're going through and breaking boxes, but what's the point? Well, your reward for making it through a level with every busted box is a gem. Most of the time, these will be simple silver-colored ones that do nothing but increase your percentage progress, but there are a few stages that offer a better reward. By making it to the end of those, you'll receive a colored gem. You see, some levels have paths that would otherwise be inaccessible until you earn these crystals. This does make you have to do some forced backtracking to clear out the small number of boxes you were previously missing, but these paths are generally easy enough to get through. I can't get too annoyed with this, but I will say that I wish the gem paths would have occurred in levels beyond the point where I earned them instead of in previous ones.

Boxes themselves have plenty of goodies inside of them. Aside from the game's version of coins known as Wumpa Fruit and extra life ones, there's also a floating mask known as Aku Aku. This magical mask grants Crash the ability to take an extra hit or two depending on how many crates of Aku's you can find. If you get three without taking a hit, you'll turn invincible. Not only does this allow you to plow through enemies like there's no tomorrow, but you'll also tear through boxes and see an increase to your speed. It's only a temporary thing before it reverts back into its level two form, but it's nice when you can earn it. The last item that you can get from boxes are tokens of either Crash's girlfriend, Cortex, or his assistant. In levels where they appear, they always show up in threes. Collect all three, and you'll be able to enter into a bonus round. Depending on which three tokens were collected, you can either collect quite a few more lives and instantly make a superfluous save or get sent to a more challenging area. The two Cortex ones will unlock hidden levels if you can make it to the end of them.

The goal of all this is to get through all three of the game's islands and put a stop to Cortex and his army of both natives and mutants. That said, the bosses in this game are so basic that it's almost a wonder if they were just tacked on for the sake of having them. Most involve you just slowly dodging obstacles that will have no chance of hitting you even on an off day and only take a handful of hits before going down. Even Dr. Cortex himself is simply a matter of dodging his slow-moving chemical concoctions while spinning the correct one back into him. If there's one flaw that Naughty Dog has had over the years, it's that they're usually unable to design an engaging boss encounter.

In the end, I left feeling satisfied but also thought there were enough flaws to keep me from outright recommending it. It has some interesting design decisions at the very least, even if those decisions are a mixed bag. Thankfully, the foundation that was established with this game would be built upon in future installments. That said, Crash Bandicoot is a respectful first attempt at creating a game in a genre that was trying to take off in the mid-90s. As such, I do think it's worth your time, but I won't be surprised if you some of you Crash and burn after playing this game.

[SPC Says: 7.0/10]

- Bean

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