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An Iconic Mug

Just like real people, characters in fiction are usually remembered for at least one of three things: their actions, their personality, and their appearance. While these are all prevalent aspects of Crash's characterization, today we're going to focus on his design, why it became so iconic, and the importance of knowing and playing to its strengths.

Before we get to the meat of things, I want to clarify that this isn't a "your opinion is wrong" kind of article. It may seem odd that I'm prefacing my thoughts with that observation today, but I figured I should do it because it's becoming an increasingly common expectation (unfortunately), and I don't want anyone to assume I'm treating my opinion as fact. It's just an opinion among many, and it's not meant to be taken at face value. Speaking of "face", let's talk about Crash's.

See, I thought that was a clever segue, because— wait, where are you going?

That Crazy Goofball

One of the first things that made Crash stand out in the over-saturated mascot crowd was his expressiveness. He wasn't just another dude with 'tude, nor was he simply a goofball. Crash was all that and more, which is something that comes all the way from his original designs as Willy the Wombat. This little guy had a huge face not just because it looked funny, but because the developers wanted to make sure all of his different facial expressions wouldn't get lost in the blurry, low-resolution output of the nineties' hardware. And really, how many 3D characters had this kind of thing going on at the time? It would have been easy for Naughty Dog to go with something simple, but Crash was the character that started the team's thorough attention to detail, which lives on to this day. From the second you pick up the PS1 trilogy, you can see how much Crash acts and moves like a cartoon. No two frames are the same, and Crash's animations still hold up incredibly well to this day.

This becomes more noticeable with each sequel, and in making Crash so expressive, Naughty Dog also made him more relatable. When he's standing in place, Crash isn't just smiling nonchalantly... and why would he? He's not a powerful super-hero, and he's always being surrounded by things that want to kill him. Thus, it's only natural for him to look as wary as any player trying to find their footing in a level they haven't played before. This sort of thing is consistently present no matter what Crash and the player are going through. Do you hate sliding out of control on icy surfaces? A quick look at Crash's frown will tell you he feels the same way. Does that giant bear look intimidating? I'd ask Crash, but he looks like he's in a bit of a panic at the moment! Many players don't realize this at first, but this is the sort of thing that makes them feel like they're sharing the character's experiences. So don't feel embarrassed to join Crash and boogie down when you finally overcome that arduous challenge.

Besides being a constant in Crash's visual identity, his many facial expressions were greatly exaggerated for impact, both comedic and otherwise. He even had a bit of an edge to him, though this was usually more noticeable when the character was trying to sell you his games (i.e. on promotional artwork and covers). So how exactly did he accentuate his expressions? Simply enough, it was usually through his eyes. Their large dome shape would squish or stretch, and his pupils would often shrink (sometimes independently from one another) to give him a more deranged look. This included his bushy eyebrows as well — you'll notice how one of them usually sat higher than the other, and they were almost always touching the top of his eyes, rather than leaving a space in-between. This drew attention to his face and gave him a very subtle attitude, which lied beneath all the confusion and zaniness so frequently associated with the character. And have you noticed how angular his face was in the original games? This, too, was done to make his expressions stand out more, so you'll notice that almost every element of his face was made up of one or more triangles, including his peculiar trapezoid-shaped grin.

Say Cheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee...

By now, you've probably noticed how I keep using the past tense for these descriptions, and that's because somewhere along the way, Crash's visual portrayal became a fraction of its former distinctiveness. He definitely still looks like Crash, but there's been much more of an emphasis on his positive side and little room for everything else. The first indicator of this was when he started smiling where it didn't make sense. When you think about it, Crash rarely smiled in the PS1 trilogy, and this was usually reserved for when he was about to do something silly (like when he belly-flopped), when he accomplished something (for example, after he defeated a boss), or when he actually felt empowered (such as when he used a vehicle or his fruit bazooka). He smiled when he had a reason for it, and that became less and less prevalent as the years rolled by. This transformation reached its logical extreme in games like Twinsanity and Mind Over Mutant, where Crash keeps a large grin during supposedly uncomfortable situations, like being stabbed with spears (I've been told by a credible source that it hurts). Not helping his derailment is the weird baby talk they insist on giving him nowadays, which really doesn't add anything to the character. Crash's nature may be a bit unpredictable, but you always knew how he felt by looking at him, and you didn't need to hear some distracting gibberish to get the idea. A little "whoa" here and some excited noises there were more than enough.

Things have been better since the N. Sane Trilogy, but only to a certain extent. Many of the subtle nuances that made Crash so entertaining to look at are still missing, with the character looking noticeably more restrained with his expressions. It's like when a replacement actor tries to mimic the old one but doesn't have the same range. Floaty eyebrows, more consistent pupils, a rounded jawline, and a baffling wince are some of the minor changes that make a very noticeable difference, and I honestly can't help but find it a bit disappointing that this has become Crash's official design since his revival. Fortunately, even though Crash uses this design in the N. Sane Trilogy and Nitro-Fueled, it does seem like the animators tried to do the best they could with it, so he's gained some of his expressiveness back, if nothing else. Heck, Crash actually struggles to keep that huge grin in Nitro-Fueled's title screen if you stay there for too long, and that almost feels like an appropriate jab of sorts.

Strangely, this kind of sterilization hasn't even been consistent over the years. I have a few issues with the character designs in Crash Nitro Kart, but for the most part, Crash's expressions in the cutscenes are spot on, and the animators weren't afraid of showing him upset or confused (even if he was still a bit more smiley than usual). Likewise, his portrayal in Skylanders Imaginators was a huge step in the right direction as far as deranged expressions go, and they even captured some of his old box art attitude for the promotional art and the toy itself. Broadly speaking, they just need to learn where each expression is going to be appropriate (i.e. don't make him grin all the time) and make his face a little crazier.

I should finalize my thoughts not with disappointment, but with some hope that they'll realize the importance of little things like this going forward. Crash is a very likable character for many reasons besides his facial and body expressions, but they are still an integral part of why so many of us grew up loving the guy. We've seen some steps in the right direction, but there's still room for improvement, so let's hope they keep up the pace.

Or they could always go the MOM DS route and make him stare into your soul.




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