Choose Your Character

Ahh... There's just something so enjoyable about how Crash controls and feels. This agile marsupial has the skills and stunts needed to reach the unreachable, smash the unsmashable, and pummel the living snot out of mutants and scientists behind various bad life choices alike.

But what about the other playable characters in the series? Crash hasn't been known to share the spotlight too frequently, but we do get treated (or cursed) with someone different to play as on occasion, and it's worth talking about what makes these various characters distinct from our orange go-getter.

A Look at the Basis

We all know what Crash is like. He jumps high, he spins, and he can usually slide and slam things with a downward belly-flop, among a few secondary moves depending on the game. Sometimes he even has unlockable super powers. To understand what works for a different playable character in a Crash Bandicoot game, we need to take a look at the choices the series has provided us with so far.

If you've read my analysis on vehicles, you'll know that one of the most important things regarding gameplay deviations is how natural the jump feels from Crash to whatever he's being replaced with. This same principle works just as well for a secondary playable character, since the differences need to be logical and easy to follow. In other words, every character should feel different, but not too different.

Besides intuitiveness, there is another key aspect to consider when creating other characters to play as: keeping everyone relevant. When you're given a new character to control, you shouldn't feel like you've gotten someone better or worse, but rather, someone different. If your new character is more capable than Crash, then returning to the bandicoot will be disappointing, but if, on the other hand, you feel constrained by the new character, you'll dread every occasion you're forced to play as him or her. The key here is balance.

Balancing the Cast

What would Crash be like if he couldn't slide or use most of his unlockable super powers? If you answered "Coco in The Wrath of Cortex", give yourself a pat on the back. In this game, Coco needed something of her own to justify her limited moveset, but what we ended up with was a less capable Crash with a ponytail for no discernible rhyme or reason. Sure, her levels are designed around this hindrance, but without a tradeoff for the absent abilities, you're simply left yearning to go back to Crash, the most interesting and enjoyable character of the two. Coco's playable role in Mind Over Mutant was done considerably better because it was both optional and harmless, as she had access to all of Crash's moves and nothing but. However, this also meant there was little reason to play as her unless you just happened to really like the character. Indeed, Coco's had it kind of rough when it comes to playable appearances.

Luckily, Crash Twinsanity provided us with two new characters to draw comparisons from, and these definitely feel more distinct. Nina, for instance, has similar controls to Crash (right down to the spin attack), but unlike Coco, the abilities she lacks are replaced with new ones of her own. Nina can't jump very high, but she can swing from floating rings to clear large gaps and ascend vertically, which is something no other character can do. That alone makes her interesting enough, but she can also use her extendable arms to attack enemies and blow things up from a distance. These changes are small, but they make her a fun character to play as without turning Crash into last year's model (sure, the rings in the last boss are kind of wonky, but that's more of a design quirk than the character's fault).

On the other hand, Nina definitely feels more situational than either Crash or Coco, since her swinging and climbing abilities are largely dependent on the level design. Put her in a more classic level and she just won't be of much use thanks to her poor jumping capabilities, if you can even finish the level to begin with. Don't get me wrong, though. Nina may have only had one level dedicated to her, but I always enjoy it on replays. I just wish there was a bit more to her than Rooftop Rampage.

The same game also gave us a fully playable Cortex, and he's certainly the most different of the bunch. Cortex isn't as suited for platforming as the remaining characters, but his ray gun makes him more efficient when it comes to strategic maneuvers. As a shooting character, Cortex doesn't need to attack his enemies up close, and this mechanic separates him from the rest. Anyone expecting the more familiar Crash Bandicoot platforming may be disappointed with Cortex, but the simple controls certainly help with the transition (even if he came with a ton of stuff that was just never needed anywhere, such as strafing, but hey, at least you could ignore it). Like Nina, however, he was far more situational than Crash in Twinsanity thanks to the low jump, so you couldn't simply play as him everywhere.

It's worth noting that Twinsanity also lets you control Crash and Cortex simultaneously. This comes with both benefits and drawbacks that make the duo fun and unique without any real restrictions. For starters, you're still in full control of Crash while Cortex is simply dragged around, so the basic controls are unchanged. The differences lie in Crash's unique abilities, which are either tweaked or replaced with something else entirely (such as Crash's spin becoming stronger and having a wider range of effect, or being able to use Cortex as a mallet instead of belly-flopping). These new abilities are seamlessly integrated with the controls you're used to, and you can even switch back to a lonesome bandicoot at any time. You're essentially controlling Crash with a power-up that you can toggle at will, and it works thanks to the simplicity and balanced nature of its design.

Unless you count the jackable mutants from Radical's games (which were usually just combat-oriented), we haven't had the chance to control a heavy character in a platformer yet, but it's clear that's what Crunch would be should he ever get an interactive role. Not only is he three times as big as Crash, but he is also extremely strong thanks to his powerful physique and his robotic arm. This could easily come into play without changing the level design too much (though the camera would need to be pulled back a bit since he's extremely large and takes up more of the screen).

A heavy character like Crunch (or Tiny, if you prefer) seems like someone who'd plow through stacks of crates by just running into them, much like Baby-T. He could also lift up crates to throw them at enemies, not unlike Crash Bash. You get the impression he'd be less agile than Crash, but as we've seen before, it comes with the territory, as this is what makes Crash unique. When you think about it, it's not that we need a character of this kind, but the option is on the table, and it wouldn't hurt if it was done properly and used sparingly.

Switching to and Fro

There are several ways to handle character choices, though the series has only really experimented with one: restricting characters to specific levels. This means there's more freedom regarding different abilities, since the developers don't need to worry about every character being able to complete every level and can go a little more wild with what they can do. On the other hand, the ability to switch between characters would not be a bad thing, necessarily.

This too can be done in more than one way. You can either switch characters on a whim after stepping into a level, or you'll have to choose who you want before starting. The first option is kind of a trap, as it can very easily translate into levels that require all playable characters to play a role at one point. An example would be a level requiring Crash's agility, Cortex's ray gun, and Crunch's strength to tackle different obstacles. The reason I'm not too fond of this idea is because having to switch characters all the time can become clunky and break the flow very easily. What arguably worked for the Titans duology wouldn't fly for the more arcade-esque style and faster pace of the classic Crash games (and even then I didn't like having to switch mutants all the time either, but I suppose that comes down to personal preference).

On the other hand, having levels clearable by all characters means you don't need to worry about choosing who's best for each situation. You can just pick whoever you like the most and go nuts (and as we've seen with Crash and Coco in Mind Over Mutant, it makes multiplayer a possibility). This, of course, means character-exclusive obstacles and mechanics would have to be discarded, but if the core gameplay is fun, then it really shouldn't matter who you're playing as to begin with. Again, make them distinct, but not too distinct. Personally, if any future games need more playable characters, this is the choice I'm the most comfortable with. Failing that, I'd like to just stick with Crash for a similarly focused experience, but as I've said before, it's all a matter of opinion.

The Roster of Choice

So what can we take from our analysis? Having multiple characters to pick from is something very easy to mess up, but when done properly, it has the potential to make the games more appealing. Here are the most important lessons we've discussed:

  • Characters should feel intuitive, and thus, not too different from one another;
  • There needs to be a firm balance in a character's abilities. Having clear winners just makes the others disappointing;
  • The more unique a character is, the more likely they are to become situational;
  • There is some unexplored potential behind a hypothetical heavy character;
  • Switching characters on the fly would likely break the flow;
  • Having every level beatable by everyone makes up for a less complicated experience, and it makes multiplayer possible.

But hey, as long as I'm not forced to play a boar-eating mini-game with Papu Papu, I think it'll be fine.

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