It feels weird to play a brand-new mascot platformer in 2020. Mario’s enduring legacy aside, they’re such a relic of the 90s that playing Crash Bandicoot 4 makes me feel like I’ve tripped into some sort of interdimensional vortex. Of course, this generation’s Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy collection of remasters ably demonstrated that there was still a public appetite for the bounding bandicoot, who spent most of his life as Sony’s answer to the mustachioed face of Nintendo.
I wanted to hate it. In the 90s, I was firmly in the Mario camp. Having played through the genre-defining Mario 64, Crash Bandicoot turned me into Shania Twain; it didn’t impress me much. Playing Crash Bandicoot after the much more open Mario 64 felt like having to rigidly colour in between the lines when I’d rather just splash paint over everything.
Over time I’ve softened to the manic marsupial’s charms, but they are still elements at the very core of the Crash Bandicoot experience that I don’t like, such as breaking every single box to unlock gems and having to replay levels ad nauseum. Those are issues that stem from my own lack of patience, but I wanted Crash Bandicoot 4 to be bad so we could leave the critter in the past with the litany of other mascots and move on.
I can’t hate it, because it’s not bad. Skylanders studio Toys for Bob has delivered a game that’s a true sequel to Naughty Dog’s original trilogy, in form and spirit, while adding a multitude of tweaks, gameplay enhancements, and modernisations. It manages to feel like something from an era past – which it is, as a direct continuation and sequel to 1998’s Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped – while being fresh and inventive.
Picking up where Crash 3 left off, the new game has Dr Neo Cortex and Nefarious Tropy trying to escape from their prison in the past with the help of Uka Uka, the malevolent Mask. Their attempt to escape rips open a hole in the fabric of time and space, introducing a Crash Bandicoot multiverse. It also gives us the Quantum Masks, four ancient masks that have powers over space and time. It’s a ridiculous story, but really, par for the course.
While the game is filled with Crash Bandicoot staples – you’ll destroy crates and collect Wumpa fruit away from the screen, you’ll do the same in traditional side-scrolling perspective, you’ll run away from things as they hurtle towards the screen – it’s the masks that are the most additive. They’re not selectable; instead they’re given to at specific points in certain levels, which allows the level designers to be more focused on their maniacal creations.
One of them changes the game dynamic by phasing elements of the level in and out with a button press. You can imagine how that impacts a typical Crash Bandicoot level; jumping through ethereal barriers and bringing the platform into reality just moments before you need to land a jump with pixel-perfect precision. Another confers temporary control over time, slowing things down for a second or two – even letting you jump off of Nitro boxes before they explode. They take established Crash Bandicoot gameplay and give them a new edge. None of them is especially original, but they’re all used wonderfully.
The game is stuffed with things to do and stuff to collect. Thanks to the time and universe-traveling shenanigans, there are optional levels that allow you to play as a selection of friends and enemies – including an alternate universe version of crash’s erstwhile lady friend Tawna, Dingodile, and Dr. Neo Cortex. They all come with their own move sets and abilities that play differently to Crash and his sibling Coco. This version of Tawna’s traded her 90’s pin-up looks for a pirate’s life and a hook shot. Dingodile relies on his vacuum gun, while Cortex has a ray gun that turns enemies into platforms, which makes up for his inability to double jump. Their side stories intermingle with the main narrative, and it’s fun to see how and why some seemingly incongruous events happen.
Behind the game’s cartoon aesthetic lies a brutally challenging game. Crash Bandicoot has always been a game that relies on precision jumps, and that’s no different. I can’t tell you how many times I cursed the game’s level designers as my fingers twisted into pretzel shapes as I tried, failed and tried again – and again, and again. There are moments that genuinely feel cheap as the game gives almost no respite from a frantic platforming pace, but that frustration is fleeting; the next checkpoint is just around the corner and this time, this time I’m going to make it there.
Don’t even get me started on the game’s devious bonus levels or fiendish flashback stages that take Crash to an era before the first game as they’re positively, wilfully evil. With every death I found it hard not hard to imagine I was being watched by the game’s level designers gleefully twirling their waxed mustaches, cackling at my abject and repeated failure.
One of the options that I appreciated as I honed my muscle memory is the ability to choose a more modern mode that doesn’t dole out (and take away) traditional “lives”. Instead, there’s a death counter that ticks up each time you mistime a jump and end up as at the bottom of a cavern or as a bit of sulphur-coated fluff. It lets you just get on with things instead of having to restart levels from the beginning. It doesn’t change the game’s balance though; you’ll still need to finish level having died fewer than three times if you want to earn all the level’s gems.
It does alter the game’s inherent risk-reward systems a little. Another addition I liked – which harks back to days of yore – is the Pass N. Play mode. It lets you add up to three more players to pass the controller to when hitting a checkpoint, dying or both. I played through much of the game this way with my daughter, and we’d goad each other, laughing at untimely deaths and celebrating when either of us finally hit an elusive checkpoint. It’s a fun way to add a multiplayer twist to games that don’t otherwise have them, and something I’d like to see more of.
One thing I’ll definitely be seeing more of is Crash Bandicoot 4. I’ve finished the main story levels and played a few of the optional ones, It still feels that, a dozen hours later, there’s plenty more fun to be eked out of a game I planned on hating.
Last Updated: October 7, 2020