The day Crash Bandicoot was released, way back in 1996, it felt like a statement of purpose, a promise of what the then-burgeoning PlayStation, with its newfangled 3D graphics, could do to the traditional left-to-right platformer. It was a revelation for three whole weeks, after which Nintendo dropped Super Mario 64, and fulfilled that promise in ways that many developers are still failing to grasp some 20 years later. Despite the brute-force attempt to become for Sony what Mario is for Nintendo, Sonic is for Sega, Mega Man is (or was) for Capcom, the Crash Bandicoot games have always been little more than rather rudimentary platformers eating the dust of more polished and imaginative properties over on other systems.
What, then, does Crash Bandicoot have to offer audiences in 2017, on a platform that currently plays host to no shortage of creative miracles as far as platformers go? Yes, the video-game compilation Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy does breathe new visual life into Crash Bandicoot, Cortex Strikes Back, and Warped. The slipshod, ancient polygons of these games have been given a top-to-bottom overhaul for the 21st century. Jungles are lush, vibrant places, and the textures and movements of every enemy live and breathe with realistic textures, while maintaining their trademark cartoonish animations. Water is crystal clear and inviting. But the gameplay throughout remains nothing short of bafflingly difficult.
That fact is in sharp contrast with the actual mechanics of these games. The playing field is a limited-view corridor, with no way to get lost, and the controls are one small step above those of Super Mario Bros.: one button to jump, another to do a spin attack against enemies, and, starting with the second game, a third that let’s you slide and crawl. A younger player wouldn’t be wrong comparing Crash Bandicoot to Temple Run.
Had the three games that comprise this compilation played like the simple, accessible platformers they seem to be from afar, we might be praising them as welcoming and warm entryways for a younger or casual player to get acquainted with the fundamentals of how a platform game should work, bolstered by a kid-friendly motley crew of bumbling bad guys cackling about stopping that crazy bandicoot once and for all. But Crash Bandicoot, Cortex Strikes Back, and Warped are rather stultifying in their need for absolute precision. Every jump, every challenge, every enemy in your way is a problem with a single viable solution, with no room for error or discovery. Every jump must be timed and placed on a razor’s edge, while simultaneously controlling a character that moves like a sentient bag of potatoes.
It could be argued that the series’s inflexibility is a feature and not a bug, that these games have more in common with their 2D 8- and 16-bit forebears than they do with anything that came after, but the counterargument is that the stringent need for accuracy throughout the games is a request that the best platfiormers would never ask of their players, utterly eliminating player ingenuity from the equation. There’s no “almost made that jump” or “find another way around this obstacle” here. There is simply the way forward, and the way that will get you killed—often and embarrassingly.
Going from the first to the second to the third game in this trilogy does show the small advancement of gameplay mechanics on occasion, as different vehicles are introduced at random and varied stages, and the third game in particular takes Crash outside of his tropical comfort zone for adventures through time and around the world, but even as the games require comparatively little time of the player to complete (a player who knows what they’re doing can probably barge through each of the titles in about four hours a pop), there’s very little reward in it. Much of what counts for achievement in these games comes down to collecting all the fruit or destroying all the crates in a stage—something the first game gets aggravatingly aggressive about chastising you for at the end of each level—and collecting hidden gems which open up new paths from time to time.
Like far too many games of the era, forged of the same 3D-or-bust ethos, the original Crash Bandicoot is better remembered for what it was and what it meant than what it is. For a generation of console-monogamous players, it was the only game in town for a 3D-platformer experience. This is the exact circumstance under which it’s still enjoyable to this day: operating under the impression that 21 years of advances in the genre never happened. That by itself might be the toughest leap of them all.