Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy - Total N. Sanity

With some major hits including Uncharted, The Last of Us and Jak and Daxter, Naughty Dog has earned itself a reputation in the gaming community, especially among PlayStation enthusiasts. For many, however, the company is best known for their first major franchise, Crash Bandicoot. First released in 1996 for the original PlayStation, the game was one of many to help the system dominate the console war at the time, taking advantage of then-new CD-based gaming hardware to great effect. After leaving Naughty Dog’s hands, the franchise continued on later systems, with mixed results, until it faded into relative obscurity. However, in 2016, Crash Bandicoot unexpectedly returned in a major way, returning as a playable guest character alongside series villain Dr. Neo Cortex in Skylanders Imaginators (complete with his own stage) and appearing solo in the Netflix series Skylanders Academy. At the same time this happened, it was announced that Vicarious Visions, who also developed the Crash portions of Imaginators, was developing a remaster of the original trilogy from the ground up, later known as Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy.

I will admit that I have personally never played the Crash Bandicoot series prior to N. Sane Trilogy, however I was still aware of the franchise’s existence, seeing ads for games on TV and absorbing some aspects of characters and terminology through osmosis. I also found Crash Bandicoot and Dr. Neo Cortex to be my favorite characters to play as in Imaginators, including the fact that playing as Crash turns the experience into a Crash Bandicoot game and the Thumpin’ Wumpa Islands level (unlocked by placing either Crash character on the Portal of Power) gave me a general idea of what playing the games was like. This got me even more excited for N. Sane Trilogy before it came out, which proved to be such a hit that apparently stores had sold out on launch day within hours (thanks to the power of pre-ordering, I managed to secure a copy of my own). Though the games proved to be difficult to varying degrees, I found myself having a lot of fun with them regardless and gained a greater appreciation for the franchise.

The most notable thing about the games in the collection (Crash Bandicoot, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back, Crash Bandicoot: Warped), is that all three have a massive graphics overhaul, updating the visuals for PlayStation 4 while remaining faithful to the designs seen in the original releases. This differs a little from the approach taken in Skylanders: Imaginators, where characters and such were given faithful redesigns while tweaking them slightly to fit more in line with the Skylanders aesthetic. In any case, comparing the visuals in the original games between PlayStation 1 and 4 is like night and day, which in itself can be really fascinating to look at.

Crash Bandicoot on the original PlayStation.
(From Left: Dr. Nitrus Brio, Crash Bandicoot, Dr. Neo Cortex)
Crash Bandicoot on PlayStation 4.

Another aspect that got a good overhaul is the music. Like with Kingdom Hearts remasters, the music remains faithful to the originals while updating them to give them a fuller sound to take advantage of newer console technology. Having heard the game’s collective music for the first time in this collection, I found the music to be very enjoyable, with some songs sticking with me even after I stopped playing. The voice acting also deserves some credit, with the actors giving memorable performances as their respective characters. I should note that, while I haven’t played the originals, I am aware that there are some differences in voice actors between those and the remasters, a notable change being Lex Lang voicing Cortex, whereas Clancy Brown voiced him in Cortex Strikes Back and Warped (Brendan O’Brien also voiced him in the original game); having been imprinted with Lex Lang’s voice work for Cortex via Skylanders, I really enjoyed his performance in this collection, though I’m sure Clancy Brown did a good job on his own during his tenure voicing the character.

Now that I’ve covered what’s shared between games, let’s discuss what each game has to offer on their own:

In the original Crash Bandicoot, a scientist named Dr. Neo Cortex is experimenting on animals from the Australian Outback with his Cortex Vortex, with the intent of using mutant animals for his goal of world domination. While exposing Crash, a bandicoot, to the Cortex Vortex, Cortex’s assistant, Dr. Nitrus Brio, informs him that the machine didn’t work on Crash as intended, leading Cortex to declare the bandicoot a failed experiment and toss him out. Cortex then sets his sights on his next subject, a female bandicoot named Tawna. Crash lands on the shores of Insanity Beacha and makes his way through several trials to rescue Tawna.

The game mainly involves platforming, switching between running forward (in some cases towards the screen or riding a warthog) and running in a 2.5D space, all while breaking boxes to collect Wumpa Fruit (they resemble apples) and Aku Aku Masks. Collecting three Aku Aku Masks gives you temporary invincibility, while getting 100 Wumpa Fruit grants you an extra life. Some boxes have special properties, such as boxes that give you an extra boost during a jump, caged boxes containing extra Wumpa Fruit if you jump on them, and TNT boxes that will create a timed explosion after being jumped on (or explode instantly if spun into); some boxes even grant an extra life, though only the first time after your save is loaded. Crash himself has a very basic moveset, that being the ability to spin or jump, though you can hold the jump button for a higher jump. These moves can be used alternately on given enemies, though the best way to deal with them comes down to trial and error. Though the D-Pad controls have been retained, the remaster adds the option to use an analog stick for movement, making gameplay generally easier to handle (that said, 2.5D or grid-like sections are overall better played with the D-Pad).

That said, the game can be rather challenging at times, partly since you die in one hit unless you have 1-3 Aku Aku Masks on you (unless you fall through a gap or hole, resulting in a lost life). A lot of the platforming often requires precise jumps and subsequent deaths and game overs can lead you to memorizing the level enough to be able to pull through, often barely. Fortunately, some boxes carry in them a token depicting either Tawna, N. Cortex or N. Brio; collecting three of either and using them at a proper warp gate leads you to a Bonus Stage, where you can gather extra Wumpa Fruit and Lives. Failing a Bonus Stage does not cost lives, so one is encouraged to keep trying again until it is beaten. In spite of how difficult levels can get, beating each stage is very satisfying, however if you don’t get all the boxes, the game will remind you just how many you missed.

The boss fights themselves can be difficult, especially if you don’t know what to do, however they become easier once you get their patterns down to a rhythm. That said, it sometimes pays off to have an Aku Aku Mask on-hand. While some bugs were squashed in the process of the remaster, some rather useful ones were actually kept in by the developer, allowing ease of completion in some levels (Protip: Road to Nowhere and The High Road can alternatively be completed by walking on the ropes). Another alteration made to remasters that makes the game a little more forgiving is the implementation of dynamic difficulty: If you die enough times in a level, a Checkpoint Box will spawn in a closer position to where you are (in relation to where these boxes are normally located) and/or you will be granted one or two Aku Aku Masks (though this doesn’t help when you keep dying on a particular jump).

There’s also some collect-a-thon elements present in the form of Gems and Relics. Gems can be collected by destroying all boxes in a level, though special Color Gems can be earned by completing specific stages 100% without dying once, requiring mastery of the game’s mechanics to properly pull off. Relics are earned by completing time trials, available after beating a stage once and grabbing a floating clock at the start of a new run; the Relics are only granted to you once you beat the target time, which again requires some devotion on the part of the player given how difficult the game can get. Collecting all the Clear Gems also allows access to the True Ending, which explains what happens to each character following the events of the game.

Directly following his defeat in the original game, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back sees Dr. Neo Cortex falling from his blimp onto one of the islands below, hatching a plan upon coming across special crystals. Later, aboard a space station, Cortex is informed by his new assistant, Dr. N. Gin, that he’ll need the 25 “slave” crystals in addition to the “master” crystal they already have if they want to accomplish their goal, giving Cortex an idea on how to get them. Meanwhile, Crash is resting until his sister Coco (who replaces Tawna in the series with no explanation) wakes him up and tells him to get a new battery for her laptop. Before Crash can do much of anything on that front, he is teleported to a special warp room by Cortex, who tells him to obtain the crystals so he can save the world.

The gameplay of Crash 2 is largely similar to the original, although Crash’s moveset is expanded, as he now has the ability to crawl, slide and bellyflop, and sometimes he can dig into the ground. The game also introduces some vehicle segments in the form of riding a jetski in water levels, plus a few levels towards the end are based around a new jetpack mechanic. The jetpack, however, is very awkward to use, though the ability to use the D-Pad or stick mitigates this somewhat. Bonus Stages are also easier to access, in that they are areas marked by a “?”, which instantly transport you to the Bonus area. There’s also the addition of Death Routes, platforms marked by a skull that appear when you get to a certain point in the level without dying; should you die during an attempt, the platform will remain accessible (which is apparently unlike the original release), however unlike Bonus Stages, Death Routes cost lives. The game also introduces Nitro Crates which, unlike TNT Crates, explode on contact; they can also jump, which can make getting past them extremely difficult at times.

In this game, levels are presented in the form of Warp Rooms, rooms containing levels in sets of five that can be played in any order you choose. Once those five are completed and you gathered all five Crystals in that set, a boss room will open up, allowing you to access the next Warp Room upon defeating the boss. Warp Rooms can be revisited at any time by taking an elevator platform in the center of the room, though the process is a little time-consuming depending on how far down (or up) you are trying to go. Some levels also now have Secret Routes that provide an alternate path to complete the stage, if you can find them.

By comparison to the original game, while the difficulty is still present, it seems a little toned down. Making up for this is the presence of backtracking in order to 100% some levels, although I didn’t bother to partake in that as I tried to get through the game. That said, the Death Routes provide an extra challenge of their own, as well as the Nitro Crates. Even with a seemingly-lowered difficulty, getting to the end of a stage still felt satisfying.

Once again directly following Cortex’s defeat, Crash Bandicoot: Warped starts off with his space station crashing onto one of the islands, awakening an evil being known as Uka Uka. Uka Uka’s twin brother and Crash’s helper, Aku Aku, senses this and tells Crash and Coco about how dangerous a foe he is. Meanwhile, Uka Uka, who turns out to have been influencing Cortex the entire time, gets angry at him for his failures, the two of them deciding to use a device (created by Doctor Nefarious Tropy) known as the Time Twister to travel back through time and recover the crystals. In order to stop them, Aku Aku brings Crash and Coco to the Time Twister so they can put a stop to this.

Gameplay is generally similar to Crash Bandicoot 2, though there are some key differences. New abilities are introduced for Crash (obtainable after defeating bosses), which include double jump, a longer spin and a Fruit Bazooka among others. Warp Rooms are also laid out differently, with each Warp Room being connected to a central room within the Time Twister, allowing for easier access to levels. The rules for the Warp Room from Crash 2 are the same however, in that you must get the Crystals from each set of five levels and defeat a boss before continuing. Levels akin to the Boulder stages from Crash 1, while expanded upon in Crash 2, return here as being more of hybrid between a regular platforming level and a Boulder level, allowing some additional breathing room when trying to complete them.

There’s also an increase in vehicle-based levels, the hardest of which are easily the ones where you have to win 1st in a race while riding a motorcycle (for these, I asked for assistance, since I’m not the best at racing games); these levels are likely the basis for Naughty Dog’s last Crash Bandicoot game, Crash Team Racing, which is not included in this collection. In terms of overall difficulty, this game was generally the easiest for me to get through, though the motorcycle and Tiger (Pura) stages (similar to the Warthog levels in Crash 1) did throw me for a loop.

In its original release, Warped also allows Coco Bandicoot to be playable, however her role is rather limited to specific levels. This is rectified in N. Sane Trilogy however, in that she is made playable across all three games in the collection, the option for which becomes available after a certain point early on (in Warped, this option is made immediately available, though you still have to allow her to join your adventure first). She is still unplayable in specific levels between the three games, including most boss fights and the Warthog-like stages in the first two games, however this still provides an extra bonus for fans since Coco shares Crash’s moveset and most of his death animations.

Coco Bandicoot in N. Sane Trilogy.

As I was playing the collection, some content that was originally cut from the games has started making a return via free DLC, in all their remastered glory. What is presumably the first of these, Lost Levels, includes Stormy Ascent, which was initially meant to be the penultimate level of the original Crash Bandicoot game, however it was cut due to being too difficult even by its own standards. As this content is now officially playable, it provides some extra replayability for those looking for a challenge.

As a whole, Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy is a perfect starting point for people new to Crash Bandicoot, including those whose first introduction was Skylanders: Imaginators. Each game has its own flaws and level of difficulty, however I am glad to have persevered to end of each one, as I gained a better appreciation for the games and a better understanding of the story. The plot across the three games is rather simple and easy to follow, which isn’t really a bad thing especially in an era where game plots can get more complex as they go on (ex. Kingdom Hearts, Metal Gear). Even for those who have already played these games when they first came out, this package will definitely give you your money’s worth, mostly thanks to its updated visuals and soundtrack. Now I can’t wait to see what direction the franchise takes next.

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