The Crash Comeback: Part 3
Over a year ago when I excitedly picked up the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, I had an immense amount of enthusiasm to replay these games. I’ve been a huge fan of Crash Bandicoot for a long time, and the reviews for the remake were absolutely glowing. With that in mind, I thought to myself, “How can I possibly end up disappointed?” Reality set in when I made it to The Road to Nowhere level in the first entry of the series. I found it to be insanely difficult and frustrating. I never remembered Crash 1 ever being so hard, and it took me almost 2 hours to beat this particular level. I don’t think any other stage in the remainder of the game was quite that challenging, but I felt the game as a whole awkwardly oscillated between deflatingly easy and acutely demanding. In the end, I’m still a fan of Crash 1, but my fondness has definitely been tempered quite a bit.
Regardless of my issues, I moved on to Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back with quite a bit of optimism. I’ve found that many hail this sequel as the high point of the original trilogy of Crash Bandicoot games, much like its cinematic namesake. For me, while I personally owned and played Crash 1 and 3 to death, Crash 2 was only an occasional rental. When I was younger, I tended to avoid buying (or requesting as gifts) games that were available at the local video store to rent, unless if it was just a game that was simply too big to not own. (Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, any Mario game are all good examples of what I mean by “too big to not own” games.) As a consequence, I’ve never had any strong feelings toward Crash 2, for better or for worse.
Turns out, after all these years, I hate this game.
I’ve had to ponder for a bit on why I find the game to be such an unpleasant chore, and I feel that my reasons are twofold. The main reason is that the game is often unnecessarily frustrating. I often enjoy difficult games, but there is a difference between a well-designed challenge and the tedium and nuisance of clumsy game design. Take Bloodborne, for instance. There are many times when the player encounters a new boss that initially seems utterly insurmountable. But with persistence and practice, the player’s skills and understanding eventually become honed to the point that enemies and areas that originally seemed impossible become quite easy. It’s an immensely satisfying feeling when I realize this happens. With games like Crash 2, on the other hand, the challenge doesn’t seem to arise from a deficit in skill or experience, rather it seems to come from the player bumping into aspects of the game that aren’t particularly well thought out or refined.
Take for instance the camera, over which the player has no control over in these original Crash Bandicoot games. I argued before when discussing Crash 1 that the inability to freely manipulate the camera often results in the player having difficulty understanding Crash’s position in three-dimensional space. The screenshot below is a good example of this issue. In this image, consider that Crash is moving into the screen while the enemies hover mid-air, traveling in square pathways. It was essentially a guessing game for me to understand how close they were to Crash along the axis that runs into the screen. This of course makes it quite difficult to avoid contact. This issue was bad in Crash 1, but is particularly a problem in Crash 2 where a lot of the later levels involve Crash flying through space with a rocket pack strapped to his back. With no ground beneath him for reference, it became really difficult for me to gauge how close Crash was to any of the enemies or hazards.
Another problem I had with the game that ties into this complaint is that sometimes very basic obstacles require an uncomfortable amount of precision to overcome. For instance, there are a fair few pits in the game that felt like I needed to wait for Crash to be upon the very edge before jumping across, or else he would fall just short of the landing on the opposite side. Often, the game reminds me of the slew of mediocre NES games that I rented as a kid which demanded the player make pixel precise movements and, as a result, felt sloppily designed when compared to something like Mario or…….well, Mario.
Before I go further, I want to make a point of not over-exaggerating the difficulty of Crash 2. While it was frequently frustrating, it was not nearly as hard as my recent playthrough of Crash 1, wherein there were a few levels in which I got bogged down in for hours. But beyond the clumsy difficulty curve, I find Crash 2 simply didn’t resonate with me as much as Crash 1. The immediately obvious culprit for these feelings is that I have a sentimental attachment to Crash 1, but not to Crash 2. While this may be the case, after a fair amount of reflection, I think there are a few truly rational justifications for why I was let down by this sequel, but still retain a modicum of fondness for its predecessor. The main issue I think is that this game tends to have a lot of levels built around tedious gimmicks. The aforementioned rocket pack levels are an offender. It’s also worth mentioning the dark levels that involve Crash having to speed his way through before the light provided by an accompanying firefly fades out. There’s also a certain level that involves soft dirt that Crash can burrow beneath. The burrowing is supposed to help him hide from swarms of bees that periodically give chase, but since these bees can be killed with the spin attack, I never really understood why I would intentionally want to burrow into the dirt.
Then there’s the ice levels. Oh the ice levels. I’m not sure I’ve ever really liked slippery ice levels in any game. At best, they are merely tolerable. Crash 2 has probably the most painfully laborious ice levels I’ve ever played. The issue here is that it takes forever for Crash to gain traction and pick up speed in any direction while on ice. Since the player needs to frequently stop to prevent Crash from sliding out of control in any direction, then has to wait for Crash to pick up even a modicum of momentum again, it’s a tiresome ordeal.
I recognize that complaining about gimmicks is an odd complaint to level against Crash 2, but not its predecessor, especially as some of the gimmickiest levels of Crash 1 have become its most iconic. Afterall, the hog riding and boulder escape levels are some of the original game’s most recognizable stages. But these stages provided a fun and exciting diversion from the standard way the game is played. The ideas they came up with for Crash 2 just felt like chores to me. They are challenge by constriction of the player (no light, no traction, etc.), and don’t really add an interesting new dimension of play.
Finally, there’s the ending, which I felt was utterly anti-climactic. It’s a quick fight with Neo Cortex, and then the game is just sort of over after a quick cutscene showing Crash and Coco are okay. It’s also a rocket pack stage, which I’ve mentioned I’m not fond toward. The reality is that there’s a secret ending, which I assume is significantly more elaborate. As I understand, access to this ending requires the player to break every wooden crate in each level. That is a high-level feat that requires a fair bit of mastery and practice to pull off, and I simply didn’t enjoy the game enough to even attempt it. I appreciate secret endings that encourage high-level play, but as I discussed in my Hollow Knight post, it’s far less than ideal if the normal ending that most players will see is neglected as a result.
I know that this post has really just been one big long rant. I rarely rant in blog form or write too negatively about games, simply because if I dislike a game, I generally don’t take the time to finish it, much less find the energy to devote to writing about it. But I committed myself to reexperiencing and writing about the Crash Bandicoot trilogy after the PS4 collection came out, and so here I am. Furthermore, I’ve come to the impression that Crash 2 is generally the most well-regarded of the original trilogy. So, I’m fully aware that many reading this may disagree with me. That’s fine. This post merely represents my personal feelings and thoughts, and I certainly don’t harbor the delusion that I’m any sort of definitive arbiter of gaming quality.
With all of this behind me, I’m now facing the final game in the trilogy, Crash Bandicoot: Warped. Of the three original entries in the series, this is the one I have the most sentimental attachment toward with probably the most hours of my youth sunk. In a strange way, I feel suspense building inside me. Crash 1 ended up being less amazing than I remember, and my experience with Crash 2 was mediocre. I feel a dark thought nagging at the edge of my consciousness: “Maybe the Crash Bandicoot series was never really all that great.” The moment of truth will soon be at hand, as it is now up to the Crash Bandicoot: Warped to dispel that notion.