I’m torn on Crash Bandicoot. I loved Naughty Dog’s trilogy to pieces as a kid but never found that same joy coming back to them. Their rigid controls and focused levels have left them anchored squarely in the ’90s, while contemporaries the likes of Spyro, Banjo-Kazooie and Super Mario 64 offer evergreen qualities of adventure and exploration. Still, Crash’s fundamentals, though simple, are grounded in solid, precise platforming. With N. Sane Trilogy, Vicarious Visions has managed to elevate those fundamentals in a package that feels broad enough to justify their simplicity, while streamlining and modernising where they can.
The defining qualities of the Crash games as 3D platformers are the strict paths and direct perspectives they employ. Most levels are designed like traditional side-scrollers, only played from behind Crash rather than looking on from beside him. Heading from the foreground into the background makes up most of the trilogy’s design, but there are a couple of twists along the way. Classic left-to-right platforming makes up a pretty sizable chunk of the games, too.
Where each of these styles shines most, though, is where they meet. When levels turn a corner and realign the player perspective, it offers a sense of depth to the environment that’s very impressive in such a linear game. Better yet, is when these sections transition into Crash’s third common perspective – running from the background into the foreground. It isn’t until Warped, the final game in the trilogy, that these fluid transitions become commonplace, but seeing each game from these different angles greatly diversifies what, in reality, is rudimentary platforming. Riding a frisky animal or running from an encroaching threat add flavour to each perspective and create distinctive scenarios with such a limited number of variables, and things only get broader throughout the series, with the third game offering all sorts of wacky vehicle levels.
The confining corridors that make up Crash Bandicoot didn’t stand out so much back on the PS1. Nowadays, the bread and butter of 3D platforming was inherited from everything but Crash; running and jumping freely in 360 degrees. Needless to say, it feels totally distinct in 2017. The more successful 3D Sonic games are comparable, sure, but their focus on speed almost makes them more akin to car games than the bandicoot ones. You could certainly make a case for the Crash formula being an evolutionary dead-end for a genre that went on to greater things, but its unique spin feels valuable and interesting generations later.
The precision and deliberation that makes so many great 2D platformers so satisfying has the same effect in three dimensions here. The enclosed sections are restrictive and mechanical, offering obstacles with a single way through them. There’s no wandering elsewhere or coming at it from a different angle – you just do it well enough, or you don’t. Though the N. Sane Trilogy can be played entirely with the analogue stick, unlike the first game’s original release, it’s a bad idea to do so. Crash feels like he controls on a grid, only really moving in one of eight specific directions. It feels restrictive and antiquated at first, but this type of movement is what each level is built around. Moving deliberately is imperative to success when obstacles and enemies move as rigidly as Crash does. Everything feels in line because it is. As challenging as things sometimes get, you’re always just moving in a perfectly straight direction, whether it be vertical or horizontal. As a result, things come down to your mechanical mastery of movement, momentum and timing jumps. With restriction to such specific paths, every failure is easy to learn from and account for next time.
The distinct gameplay style of Crash doesn’t end there, though. There are Gems rewarded for breaking every box in a stage, and this becomes the true challenge of the trilogy. The treasure hunt for every last box adds an extra layer in itself, but the major impact is the way boxes influence the design of each level. Spinning into boxes to break them is perfectly fine, but bouncing off the top of one can help reach some otherwise impossible heights. Spacing out jumps perfectly to bounce from crate to crate is a deadly but satisfying one-way trip, while picking out the good crates from between the explosive TNT or Nitro boxes can be a risky test of precision.
On top of clearing the levels and earning the gems, every level has a time trial to run. Some crates can be broken to freeze the timer as you get through a level as quickly as possible to earn a relic. This was originally a feature of Warped that Vicarious Visions has popped into the first two games too. It can be great fun shaving seconds off a time in some of the quicker levels, but the first game, in particular, feels a little ill-suited to the mode at points. The swift moving levels of Warped make more sense to run through than some of the plotting arenas of Crash 1.
Vicarious Visions have made a lot of changes I’m so appreciative of here. An opening video overdubbed by Neo Cortex’s ceremonious introduction communicates the care that’s gone into capturing the essence of Crash here, and it carries throughout each game. The original game was about Crash freeing his captured girlfriend, Tawna, yet she stood freely at the end of each bonus stage. In N. Sane Trilogy, she stands as a reward for Crash to reach, only to be flown away by Cortex upon the challenge’s completion. Perhaps an unimportant inclusion, but one that illustrates the effort made not just to be as close to the original trilogy as possible, but to be as good as possible. On the down side, bland loading screens become irritatingly frequent very quickly.
The additional time trials, as well as the addition of Coco Bandicoot as a playable character, are welcome expansions, but the visual makeover is, of course, the most significant elevation over the PS1 releases. The Crash games were top-tier visually in their time, so it’s nice to see things looking so wonderful in 2017. Character models are true to their original, angular designs, but immaculately detailed to come off as textured and living. The beaches feel warm and the icecaps freezing through the vivid lighting and weather effects. There’s a sleepy tone to rainy levels and comfy vibe to sunny ones that’s communicated exceedingly well in some cases – something I didn’t at all expect from a remake of PS1 platformers.
Voice acting is merrily cartoony, with big personalities reading clearly despite their limited opportunities to speak. Cutscenes are animated wonderfully, with boisterous movements and exaggerated character expressions. The N. Sane Trilogy feels like the fully realised execution of the look and feel of Crash that Naughty Dog was striving for in the first place, and the games just feel more fun because of it.
Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy is a faithful rebuilding of the original three Crash games, yet it feels so much better than they do today. The positive vibes and joyous aesthetic cut through the sometimes-dubious gameplay, while simplifications and updates to the structure and systems of the trilogy make each game more accessible and less frustrating than ever before. Though the design of Crash could be looked at as outdated, it feels completely different to anything else in 2017, and that’s always nice.