When it comes to 3D platformers, I've always felt that the original Playstation isn't given enough credit. I mean, this little gray box was home to two groundbreaking trilogies in the genre over a span of five years: the precision-based Crash Bandicoot and the exploration-driven Spyro the Dragon (both of which are now owned by Activision). So when the former, originally developed by Naughty Dog, was announced for a PS4 remake by Vicarious Visions, I was excited to see how its obstacle course philosophy would be accepted by modern audiences.
If you're new to the series, rest assured that it doesn't take long to figure out what Crash is all about. A typical level puts our red marsupial in a corridor of pits to jump over, enemies to attack (or avoid), seamless transitions to 2D sections, and lots and lots of wooden crates. You'll also find that difficulty is heavily emphasized; thanks to an abundance of one-hit death hazards and your ability to accidentally destroy collectibles, Crash has a much higher skill floor than the likes of Mario 64. Stick around, though. The sheer challenge of this trilogy is undeniably satisfying to overcome, and when you factor in the atmosphere, the cartoon charm, and the sense of adventure, you're in for an experience you'll never forget... in spite of its problems.
Now, when I make that ominous little end statement, I'm referring mostly to the original game. Crash Bandicoot is decent, but with its many random difficulty spikes and around fifteen infuriatingly sadistic levels peppered over its latter half, it hasn't aged gracefully. It could've been worse, though. Checkpoints are plentiful, and Vicarious Visions made the right choice by allowing saves anywhere in the overworld and, most crucially, fixing the overly-stiff movement. The second game fares considerably better, but still has its hiccups. Here, the problems stem not from entire levels so much as moments therein, usually related to low camera angles that cause unfair deaths at the hands of depth deception.
Again, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back doesn't have these issues as consistently as its predecessor. Actually, with its new moves, expanded levels, varied locales, humorous villains, and broader progression options, I'd go so far as to call this one great. The third entry, Crash Bandicoot: Warped, is easily the best in the series, doubling down on these elements while incorporating the most balanced and reasonable difficulty curve. New moves allow double-jumping and hovering, opening up stage design to new possibilities and strongly encouraging revisits to earlier levels. Even today, it stands in the upper echelon of the genre. It was a good choice to leave its geometry untouched.
And now we've come to the central problem of this collection: Warped was left unchanged, but so were Crash 2 and the deeply-flawed Crash Bandicoot. I understand that there's an underlying desire to keep the original trilogy's identity intact, but the changes are already considerable. The widescreen perspective grants a more forgiving range of view. The redone textures are more solid and smooth to emphasize bottomless pits. Analog movement allows you to walk instead of running. So when the opportunity comes to fix that part where a death lizard jumps in out of nowhere, why not take it? Yes, it would have changed things even further, but this could have been reconciled by relegating these changes to an "easy" mode, or just including the actual original games on the side. Vicarious Visions' failure to take proper remedial action is both uninventive and overly conservative.
This mixture - of making solid improvements and leaving things to be desired - continues into the games' presentation. When I booted up the original, I was stunned by the leap in quality. The jungle feels simultaneously more cartoonish and yet somehow more real. Fat, shiny leaves protrude into the pathway. A thin mist of humidity hangs in the distance. Grotesque carnivorous plants wait for you to get too close. A perfect amount of motion blur accentuates every bouncy movement. The lighting, meanwhile, is just perfect for all of the amazingly varied scenarios. N. Sane looks fantastic, and at times, gorgeous. It comes at a cost, though. Even on PS4 Pro, loading screens are everywhere, the action is locked at 30 frames per second, and it runs at just 1440p. With much more open and complex games like Hitman achieving fewer loading screens and better framerates, it boggles the mind that this remake comes up so technically restricted.
I certainly took a liking to this Vicarious Visions' accentuation of the originals' cartoon stylings. The soundtrack here is so crisp and lively, really edging out the vanilla score with its bombastic flair and tastefully complex instrumentation. I would've appreciated an option to switch to the original soundtracks, as done in the Halo remasters, but I do prefer the modern renditions. The cutscenes represent the greatest leap in quality in the entire collection. Characters are now so attentively animated that you can garner thoughts and emotions that you never could have before. Dr. Cortex in particular allows this Disney-quality animation to shine: in half a minute, he'll go through bouts of self-righteousness, feigned admiration, and seething anger. This, combined with the colorful new voice acting, makes every character interlude a reward in itself. It's what truly convinces me that Vicarious Visions approached this remake with real love and devotion to the world of Crash.
Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy is a reverent and imperfect resurrection of an icon. This furry oddball creature could have been left in the past, but I'm pleased that he was revived for a new generation. I say this in full awareness of the fact that Vicarious Visions could have done more in the technical and gameplay departments. Here we have two great games, and one that could have been great if given the update it truly needed. They look stunning, too, but resolution, framerates, and load times are all at an average standard when at least one of the three should be better. And yet, whether you find yourself zooming down a desert highway, running from a gigantic bear, or just bouncing over a bridge of crates, you can't help but smile and know that, at the end of the day, Crash is still a whole lot of fun.