Crash Bandicoot is a platformer starring a spinning, orange, crate-smashing marsupial. Innovative for its time, it was one of the first fully 3D platformers and featured unparalleled graphics, simple yet challenging gameplay, and a unique cast and setting. Is the bandicoot's first adventure a timeless classic or is it finally showing its age? Let's find out!
The game was created by Naughty Dog in cooperation with artists Joe Pearson and Charles Zembillas, as well as game developer Mark Cerny, and it started a long-running franchise still loved throughout the world to this day.
Assuming the role of Crash Bandicoot, you start out with 5 lives to traverse over 30 levels, defeat the evil Dr. Neo Cortex and save your love interest, Tawna. Levels are set in a trio of Australian islands, each with its own set of motifs, ranging from natural environments like jungles to trap-infested temples and industrial facilities, among many others. With an enormous attention to detail and graphics that were very much ahead of its time, it's a beautiful game to look at, and it's accompanied by fitting musical themes that are as varied as the levels themselves. Expect to hear lots of xylophones, didgeridoos and bongo drums all around, courtesy of Josh Mancell.
Levels are accessed through a map screen that sees Crash running around the islands. Though the game is a 3D platformer, levels are very straightforward and linear. Most of the time you'll be running away from the camera, but some levels are mostly side-scrolling, and on a few rare occasions, you'll be sprinting at high speed on a wild boar, or running towards the camera as you flee from giant, rolling boulders. This diversity keeps things fresh as you progress through the game.
Some of these levels are dedicated purely to boss fights. You'll often go marsupial-a-marsupial with some nasty critters that will try to smash, shoot, or blow up your orange butt. Watch their attack patterns and hit them while they're vulnerable. You'll knock them out after a few smacks, but each boss is meaner than the last, so stay on your toes.
Controlling Crash is easy and he only has two moves besides running: jumping and spinning. The game revolves around these two mechanics and both can be used to defeat enemies and break wooden crates, the latter of which you'll be doing frequently. Crash will bounce off of enemies and crates he jumps on, and by holding down the jump button, he'll bounce even higher, which can be used to get to tricky places.
Every level is littered with crates, which is one of the game's defining traits. Crates come in various types and most of them can be used as bouncy platforms, but you'll probably be more interested in the goodies they contain inside. Note that some crates are made of steel and can't be broken or bounced on at all.
There are many kinds of crates besides the plain, wooden ones, such as crates that contain 10 fruits which must be bounced on in quick succession to get everything inside, along with trampolines (marked with upward arrows) that send you way up high, mid-level checkpoints (marked with the letter "C") and switches (marked with an exclamation mark), which activate machinery or make other crates appear where outlined. Not all crates are there to help you, though - TNT crates explode if spun, and the only way to get safely rid of them is by jumping on them, which gives you just enough time to run to a safe distance before they blow up. Just make sure you don't get caught in a chain reaction from other TNTs placed next to them.
Having your various bandicoot parts scatter across inconvenient directions is just one of many ways to lose a life in the game. If you're not careful, you can fall down a pit or into water, get hurt by an enemy, roasted and more. Like everything else in the game, Crash's deaths are presented in humorous cartoony fashion.
You can avoid losing a life by collecting Aku Aku masks - when you have one of these following you around, you can get hit once without losing a life. Stack up two of them for another hit point, and pick up a third one for a short invincibility burst that smashes everything you touch.
Besides magical masks, there are loads of Wumpa fruits ripe for the picking. You get an extra life for every 100 fruits you pick up, and luckily, you can find them everywhere, from simply floating about on a path to being contained in bunches inside crates. A simpler way to get extra lives is by picking up icons with the form of Crash's goofy face, but these are much more rare than fruit. A lesser used technique is bouncing off of multiple enemies in succession or spinning them at the same time (or into each others), which grants more and more fruit depending on how many enemies you defeat with a single combo, or even lives with a big enough combo. Since the game gets quite tough sometimes, don't pass on the chance to stack up on lives - especially since they are, unfortunately, reset to 5 whenever you load your game.
Fear not, because you'll often visit bonus rounds that contain many lives and fruits. Getting to them is a matter of finding 3 character icons in the same level. Tawna icons send you to one of her bonus rounds, which are typically easy and offer you the chance to save your progress to your Memory Card (or get a password instead), but you can't replay them after beating them the first time. You won't lose a life if you die in a bonus round, but you also won't get the chance to save. Cortex's lackey, Nitrus Brio, also has icons of his own, but these are much rarer and more difficult to find. His bonus rounds are also tougher and can't be used to save your progress, but they offer bigger amounts of lives and can be replayed as many times as you like. A third set of bonus rounds are accessed via Cortex icons, but they're a bit different - not only is there only a couple of these rounds in the entire game, but they're also extremely difficult and devoid of goodies, rewarding you with keys upon completion. Each key opens up a secret level.
The last kinds of items you can collect are gems. If you manage to break every single crate in a level without losing a life (not an easy task), you'll be rewarded with a gem and a chance to save your game. Getting every level's gem is an optional task, but you'll need it for 100% completion and an alternate ending. Most gems are colorless, but the few colored ones open up secret paths in some levels, which are often necessary to find hidden crates. Get every gem (including those in the two secret levels) and you'll have mastered the game.
Even though there aren't many points of criticism towards Crash Bandicoot, it does have a few shortcomings worth mentioning. The first one is the save/password system, which only records your progress upon doing specific tasks (namely beating Tawna bonus rounds and getting gems). This can be frustrating to newcomers who are having trouble with some of the hardest levels, made even moreso by the lives going back to 5 upon loading a saved game.
The other noteworthy flaw is the game's frequent difficulty spikes. Things start out easy enough, but the difficulty rises quite quickly about halfway through, and some levels are notoriously hard compared to the rest of the game, leading to many bouts of frustration. This is worse for completionists, as the optional (but encouraged) task of breaking all the crates without dying can be enough to pull your hair out in some of the hardest levels.
Despite that, the good outweighs the bad by far, and Crash Bandicoot is still a great, fun and memorable classic that every platformer lover should try. The sequels eventually addressed this game's flaws and made all the good stuff even better, but it was this game that started it all, and you owe it to yourself to play it if you consider yourself a fan of the crazy, orange bandicoot.