I have a lot of Crash Bandicoot-related memories, but one is particularly vivid.
As a birthday surprise for my sister and I, my parents announced we would be going to London to see The Lion King. The production had only just arrived in the West End from the US, so this was A Big Deal, made even more significant by the fact that we’d be defying the rules and missing a day of school.
Our reaction, however, wasn’t what my parents anticipated. My sister burst into tears at the realisation that she wouldn’t see her friends for an entire day. I was less dramatic, but as my mum walked into the living room to tell me the exciting news, I vividly recall being sat cross-legged on the carpet – awful spiky hair and buck teeth – playing Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back on my PlayStation. I even remember what level it was (‘Hang Eight’) and that my instinctive reaction to the best birthday treat ever was: “Wait, so does that mean I have to turn this off right now?” Ungrateful little dickhead.
Fast forward 17 years. I spent this weekend sprawled on my bed – now ever-so-slightly bearded with much longer and equally terrible hair – playing that very same level, hurling the very same anthropomorphic, smash-happy bandicoot across a jungle river on a motorised surfboard. Far more pedantic these days, I ask aloud, to no one in particular, how a four-legged animal can master walking like a human, and surfing, but apparently drowns on impact when he touches water. Even so, I hadn’t felt a joyous burst of nostalgia like that in some time. And as we all know, to millennials, nostalgia is like rocket fuel.
Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy is a generous and impressively thorough HD revamp of the first three Crash games. The good ones, basically. Everything is as you remember it: the title music, the not-quite-but-sort-of 3D corridor levels, the abundance of Wumpa fruit that our hero can seemingly munch his way through without a moment’s respite. But, man, does it look fantastic. Crash’s fur is, for lack of a better phrase, pleasingly fur-like and a vibrant shade of orange. Foliage is lusciously green and the water – something I spend a boring amount of time assessing in modern video games – is gorgeous. Everything just pops. Whether you’re guiding our marsupial hero through a wooden fortress, a perilously slippery ice cave, or a sewer overrun by deadly electric eels (I really do hate the little twats), the graphical overhaul makes it look like a brilliantly bonkers Saturday morning cartoon, while every last sound effect has been lovingly remastered.
N. Sane Trilogy has sold well. Really well. Not content with entering the UK charts at number one, it's officially the biggest single-platform launch of 2017 so far, leaving triple-A exclusives like Horizon Zero Dawn in the dust. Moreover, the game is the second-biggest overall launch of the year behind Ghost Recon: Wildlands. That’s some seriously impressive numbers for what is essentially a PS1 throwback with a high-def lick of paint, and it’s big news for Activision. You have to assume that a lot of the people picking up a copy are proper adults who grew up with the series; those who remember the after-school sessions and still know the location of every secret box. Back then, that was that was the most important thing their puny brains had to retain.
It’s no secret that marrying pop culture and nostalgia prints the big bucks. Almost exactly a year ago people of all ages across the country (and indeed the world) were loitering outside supermarkets, mobile phones permanently aloft, in the hope that a wild Jigglypuff might climb out of the bin. Pokemon Go wasn’t a phenomenon because kids were taking to it like the previous generation had with the card game. It was because the people who played the card game were right back in there again, now trying to catch them all on their lunch breaks before returning to the face-clawing tedium of never-ending email chains. It's not just gaming either. Tune into Channel 4 on a Friday night and you can catch an all new episode of The Crystal Maze. We’re living in the ‘90s again.
Leave him alone for a minute or so and Crash will start breakdancing, tangling himself up in a yoyo (a retro overload), or – if you let him get really bored – inexplicably start throwing fruit at his own head. Vicarious Visions could easily have carelessly thrashed this game out to retail, but the little details make you feel all warm inside.
There’s now an autosave system (remember when we had to sort that stuff out for ourselves?), better checkpointing, time trials, online leaderboards and the ability to play as Crash’s sister, Coco. But even if they look infinitely shinier than the blocky PlayStation classics of yesteryear, every game in this collection feels unmistakably like Crash. The linear into-the-screen platforming; the towards-the-screen boulder chase levels that make it almost impossible to spot the dark abyss you’re about to leap into until it’s a split second too late; the various animals you get to mount at breathtaking (and sometimes overwhelming) speed. It’s Crash Bandicoot alright - the same Crash Bandicoot that once upon time you’d only think about abandoning for another spoonful of Coco Pops. It’s video gaming fluff-free and at its one-more-go purest.
Before you embark on this gleaming 4K trip down memory lane – and anyone with those fond memories really should – I have to warn you: N Sane Trilogy will kick the living shit out of you. Playing the game a lot over the past week, I’ve found that it’s possible to get into a trance-like groove, where you almost become at one with Crash, timing every jump, spin and hilariously animated bodyslam to perfection. That can happen, but lose concentration for even a second and you’ll be seeing the game over screen a hell of a lot. It must be said that some of that just owes to outdated design.
In modern games – for example, Uncharted, the series Naughty Dog would go on to produce after Crash – it’s near-impossible to miss a ledge after a jump, however much the game tries to kid you into thinking you will. When you’re Crash Bandicoot, missing a ledge in pathetic fashion is a frequent occurrence. There’s no last-ditch grabbing animation. Just instant death. When you've just aced a difficult section and lose your final life because you went slightly too early on a jump, it can be maddening. Distance yourself from breakable objects when you're playing this game.
You'll remember the hard way, too, that in the platformers of old absolutely everything kills you. The most delicate brush of a cuddly-looking penguin is enough to send Crash floating towards the heavens. Even getting past the first island in the first game is a challenge. Every game in the collection is challenging, but the sense of sheer relief you get at finally seeing the end of a level is something that's missing from a lot of contemporary games, where knocking it down to easy is only ever a few button presses away. Your palms will sweat for this bandicoot, but he’ll keep pulling you back in.
Could the wildly enthusiastic reception to the return of PlayStation’s once unofficial mascot mean he gets an all-new game in the vein of the originals? It would be pretty stupid to rule it out. Personally, I’d like to the criminally underrated Crash Team Racing get the same loving remaster treatment as its platforming counterparts. The mighty Mario Kart has had it easy for too long.
There’s no denying that the games of the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy – particularly the first one – are more than a little dated. But embrace their simplicity, bathe in the glorious nostalgia, spin attack absolutely everything you see, and if you’re anything like me you’ll often find yourself smiling at this strange lil bandicoot that you used to spend countless hours with.
And then he’ll probably die. The stupid idiot.