A Bandicoot and His Vehicles

The ability to use vehicles in Crash Bandicoot became a tradition when the games still featured the classic hallway level design. Some people like them because they offer a nice change of pace from the usual run-and-jump, but others don't enjoy them so much for a variety of reasons, from the controls being too different to the vehicles being too numerous. So what exactly can we take from this?

How It All Began

Crash speeds through the jungle while riding a wild warthog.

First let's take a look at how Crash's history with these toys came to be. The first time our bandicoot friend rode something to make his life easier was mostly just to speed things up, and it wasn't exactly a vehicle either — it was a warthog. The original Crash Bandicoot features two levels where you have to steer this running swine and dodge obstacles at high speed.

One of the reasons this works is because, when you think about it, riding the warthog isn't that different from controlling Crash. The only major differences are that you're always running forward and you have to dodge things instead of attacking them. The challenge comes from how quick your reflexes are, and since the controls are practically the same, it's immediately intuitive.

Crash approaches the baby polar bear.The warthog didn't make it to any other games (despite plans to bring him back in the cancelled Crash Landed), but the sequels did bring a couple of identical successors: Polar, the baby bear, and Pura, the tiger cub. Both feel lighter and smoother than the warthog (much like Crash himself compared to the first game), so there is a wider margin for error. Not only that, but you can also use Aku Aku masks in Pura levels for extra hit points, relieving potential frustration even further. This should have been done from the start, but hey, better late than never.

Changing the Controls

Crash floats in a space station with the jet-pack.

It was during the second game that vehicles were introduced properly. Crash can occasionally ride a jet-board across short segments in river levels, and a couple of later stages feature the jet-pack, which changes up the controls so drastically that it quickly becomes a love-or-hate kind of thing.

Being set in zero-gravity levels, the jet-pack allows free movement in literally every direction, so you now have to worry about going up and down as well as the directions you're used to. The problem with the jet-pack stems from how unintuitive the controls are: For starters, the vertical movement is inverted, and the game never tells you that you can change this in the options menu (not to mention this setting only appears if you pause during one of these levels).

The second issue lies on the button placement. While the up and down directions used to signify going away from and against the camera, respectively, they now take care of the vertical movement. So how do you move along the Z axis? By holding the jump button to move forward and the crouch button to head back. You couldn't come up with a more contradictory control scheme if you tried.

Hypothetical DualShock jet-pack control scheme. How the jet-pack control scheme should have been.

You can sort of understand why they did this. After all, the game uses the same buttons for every level, so they tried to keep things simple. The only problem is that by changing what each button does, as well as inverting the up and down movement, they inadvertently made it complicated for newcomers. Think back to when you first tried the jet-pack and how long it took you to get used to it. Now think about how long it took you to get used to the warthog or the jet-board. See the discrepancy? It's the sign of a bumpy and uncomfortable transition.

The odd thing is that this could have been prevented by simply keeping the D-pad and the analog stick the same, while relegating the up and down movement to the jump and crouch buttons. After all, isn't that what you've been doing the whole game?

Where the Sweet Spot Lies

Crash and Coco fly their planes, the Orange Baron and the Flying Queen, respectively.

When Crash Bandicoot 3 came out, it brought with it many more vehicles than ever before. Suddenly you had a motorcycle, a jet-ski, a plane, and more, taking up literally half of the game. This is where some people will argue that things started taking a turn for the worse.

Coco and Pura fly through space inside their hovercrafts.On one hand, having different vehicles boosts the variety in the game. On the other hand, even if you're like me and you don't mind the vehicles, there's no denying that the focus shifted to them more than it should have. You had a vehicle level for every classic Crash level, and this becomes immediately apparent when you're coming off the previous games. Perhaps the developers didn't want the game to be just like the previous one, and since the regular levels played fine, they created entirely new things as an aside, instead of changing what was already there.

The first problem in doing so is that if you're not that fond of vehicles in the first place, you're left with half a Crash game to enjoy. I don't think getting rid of the vehicles entirely would have been a perfect solution, but the game certainly should have had fewer levels dedicated to them. In a game with thirty levels, did we really need four of them dedicated to motorcycle racing? Or four jet-ski levels? And what about those really short dogfight segments that practically feel like mini-games? I would have happily replaced at least one of each of these levels with a platforming level, especially if that meant we'd get an entirely new theme out of it.

Coco rides her jetski in the ocean.

The most significant (and, to many people, fun) vehicle in Crash 3 is the jet-ski, as it introduced open areas to the franchise. So open, in fact, that the developers wisely decided to include a big, obvious arrow pointing where you need to go. And it works. Though the control scheme is completely different from on-foot levels, it also only uses one button, and it's justified because the gameplay is dissimilar enough to prevent muscle memory from kicking in and confusing you (unlike the jet-pack levels in the previous game). Other than that, these levels look great and it's fun to just let yourself loose and romp across the ocean, pulling off stunts and dodging hazards in the process. Here's what doesn't work: gems.

As you probably know, breaking all the crates in a level in one go gives you a gem needed to complete the game. Since the jet-ski levels are so big, doing this becomes a daunting task and a frustrating chore at worst. If you reach the end of the level and miss even one crate, you'll have to turn back and search for it high and low, and that isn't fun. This is even worse in motorcycle levels, because you're flat-out prohibited from moving backward (have fun going at a snail's pace when it's pitch dark to avoid missing anything). What makes this more frustrating than, say, the Polar or Pura stages, you might ask? Well, those at least had checkpoints, so you could simply lose a life if you missed any crates to avoid going back all the way to the beginning. The warthog technically suffers from the same problem as the motorcycle because of how the original Crash Bandicoot handles checkpoints, but there are only a couple of those levels, and neither of them is all that long.

Crash rides a baby T-Rex.

My personal favorite "vehicle" is also the one used the least: the T-Rex. Our little Baby-T is exactly what makes the Crash gameplay even more fun, because he controls just like Crash apart from not having the spin attack, which is compensated by him running faster, jumping higher, and smashing things by just running into them. Not only that, but he's entirely optional, and you can get on and off Baby-T at any time. The only problem? You use him for a minute and you never see him again, apart from that dull secret level. It ends up feeling disappointing more than anything, and I wish Baby-T appeared more often. Which reminds me, what ever happened to him anyway?

In the end, I think it's safe to say that Crash 3 should have featured some vehicles less prominently, and perhaps crates and gems shouldn't have been in the jet-ski and motorcycle levels. I also believe the T-Rex should have appeared more often (just think about how fun it would be to control him in a dedicated 3D level). But hey, at the very least you can say that what's there does its job, and that's probably what gave Naughty Dog the extra confidence needed to produce the amazing Crash Team Racing.

When Things Just Don't Work

Crash explores the underwater depths inside a yellow submarine.

Although the vehicles in Crash 3 might not be everyone's cup of tea, they at least work properly besides a couple of snags, and they're arguably pretty fun to use. This is certainly more than you can say about The Wrath of Cortex's poorly implemented additions.

The Wrath of Cortex takes Crash 3's vehicle abundance problem to a new level, as it often forces you to stop what you're doing and sticks you inside a vehicle you have no intention of using, right in the middle of a stage. To add insult to the injury, this often happens with vehicles that offer no practical advantages. In fact, some of these vehicles are literally worse than Crash in every way.

The yellow submarine, for example, might have been a memorable song by The Beatles, but as a Crash Bandicoot vehicle, it leaves a lot to be desired. Not only is it as vulnerable as Crash, but you also lose a life if it breaks. Worse yet, despite giving you the ability to shoot, it moves slowly and makes you a bigger target, which quickly becomes infuriating due to the underwater levels' unpredictable hazards. Perhaps the most absurd thing about the sub is that it gets very easily locked while facing the screen as you turn, preventing you from shooting entirely (to this day this still boggles my mind). In short, it does nothing right, and you would be much better off without it, if only the game let you ignore it. The mech is about as bad, except you're on dry land. What's the point?

Crash runs inside a big glass hamster ball.To the The Wrath of Cortex's credit, the vehicles that were recycled from previous adventures work about as well as before, and the hamster ball levels are pretty fun most of the time, making good use of momentum as an interesting gameplay mechanic (but again, I don't think we needed four of these). It's just a shame that the sub and the mech are so disgustingly awful that their omission would have actually made the game better.

So What Makes Vehicles Work?

Crash takes it to the skies with his jet-pack.There's been a hiatus when it comes to vehicles in Crash Bandicoot games (well... an even bigger hiatus than for Crash games period). Perhaps the developers came to the conclusion that they're more trouble than they're worth, but this isn't necessarily true.

I, for one, would like to see vehicles being used as completely optional things, like power-ups (think Baby-T, but with a more extended use). Maybe they could take you to alternate paths with hidden goodies, or even open up secret levels and such. Or maybe they could just make things easier and more enjoyable, while letting you ignore them if you want an extra layer of challenge.

What if you could take vehicles with you to other areas? This could open up many possibilities that yet to be explored in the series (some Titans in Mind Over Mutant provide something similar, but I think they only scratch the surface). Crash Landed was going for something similar, allowing you to use a jet-pack and other tools at will, but alas, the game was fated to never see the light of day. In any case, as long as the gameplay didn't get changed drastically and the controls weren't weird, I think a return of the vehicles and animal buddies would be welcomed.

From our analysis, we can conclude that there are several things vehicles need in order to be fun:

  • The controls should either be simple or identical to the rest of the game;
  • Vehicles should be more forgiving than regular gameplay;
  • They should be an occasional distraction, not a common occurrence;
  • They shouldn't be forced on players for extended periods of time;
  • If they bring no advantages, they shouldn't be featured at all.

When worse comes to worst, I can at least take comfort in knowing that all of these vehicles are better than my car.

Not the sub, though.

 

The sub sucks.



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