A lot of gamers look at Nintendo’s legendary mascot Super Mario and think: how is it that nobody else tried to build something this big throughout the years? Thing is, they did. Sonic the Hedgehog was at one point head-to-head with Mario, but then a decade or so of disappointing games made the franchise become a bit of a joke in the community. Banjo-Kazooie became practically irrelevant after 3 games. Similarly, Crash Bandicoot was Sony’s successful attempt at a major mascot, only for the quality of the games drastically decreasing after the PlayStation 1 era determining its fate of underdog. Videogames’ most famous bandicoot is back though, with a new chapter promising to go back to the roots that made this franchise so beloved, throwing out all that didn’t work out since. It’s about time.
And to think that Crash Bandicoot really tried it all. Full-on 3D installments that got rid of the “on-rails” approach of the first games. New spin-offs. A cameo in toys-to-life game Skylanders. Mobile games. Yet, fans only found excitement again when Activision (who’s owned the game pretty much ever since it stopped being a Sony exclusive) went back to the basics: in a quick succession in fact, they first released Crash Bandicoot N.Sane Trilogy, a brilliant recreation from the ground up with a new engine of the original trilogy of PS1 games, and then Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled, an expanded remake of the iconic and beloved kart racer that was Crash’s first foray into a new genre. Sales, reception and hype through the roof again, so it was time to make something new – a direct follow-up to the original trilogy, that players recently played through again in a high quality remake.
Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time will immediately feel familiar to those who played the classic games back in the day, and likewise to those who recently played the N.Sane Trilogy. Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped’s villains Dr. Neo Cortex, N-Tropy and Uka Uka are still trapped inside their time prison, but through continued efforts by the mystical powers of the latter, they manage to escape. To do so, they somehow managed to break through space and time, allowing them to freely travel between parallel universes and timelines. And so, their desire to conquer the world expands to multiple universes, and their wish to get payback on the bandicoots now has bigger stakes than ever.
Nostalgia hits hard as the actual gameplay starts too, as the first seconds where I got to move Crash I was already sent back to the late 90’s, an era when people thought Dawson’s Creek was great and techno would somehow dominate music charts. But most importantly, this game immediately felt like the classics, from the fixed camera behind the player (that originally had the developers codename the Crash Bandicoot project as “Sonic’s ass game”), to the level design with the player moving in a fairly tight yet 3D corridor in a colourful jungle, trying to collect boxes and get out alive between roaming animals and deadly traps, while also making sure to collect as many apples as possible from crates. There’s even the sidescroller parts and Bonus areas! This is undoubtedly Crash Bandicoot in its purest form, with the gameplay that is virtually identical to that of the N.Sane Trilogy, but it does not take long to find out that the formula has a couple cards left up its sleeve.
With the villains conveniently jumping through space and time, our heroes (both Crash and his sister Coco can be used in any stage) encounter various masks like their buddy Aku Aku. These aren’t regular masks however, but Quantum Masks allowing them to bend the rules of space and time themselves to follow the path of destruction and conquest left by the enemies. The stages allow the players to use said Quantum Masks in various specific areas, and they come with all kinds of fun powers: slowing down time, reversing gravity upside down, accessing a version of the level in a parallel universe with different item placements, and so on. While the protagonists’ moveset is largely the same as we’re used to, sans the infamous apple bazooka from Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, these new quantic abilities turn the platform segments more varied and deep than before. Stages are definitely longer and in larger quantity than before, and the difficulty the developers went for pretty much implies the players have a lot of experience with the franchise, as it doesn’t take long to start finding some incredibly complex routes.
Yet, despite going for a rather hardcore difficulty, one-upped from the N.Sane Trilogy which was already jokingly dubbed “the Dark Souls of 3D platformers”, accessibility also takes major role in the game’s design. While the classic system of lives returns, there’s also a modern alternative with unlimited restarts and checkpoints to restart from, with no strings attached or progression gated behind either variant. Extra checkpoints are generated if you fail to clear a segment too many times. There’s even a pass the controller couch co-op mode to effectivelly progress together with someone, sharing skillsets and ideas with someone else in what has always been a popular method of playing games but that few games made official with actual rulesets, like allowing if the switch happens at the next death or checkpoint. Speaking of couch co-op experience, the game even proposes two competitive modes, where players go one checkpoint after another in the game’s levels to either try and score the highest possible crate collection combo or to get the lowest possible time in a run. Online is sadly not present at this point, but these two little extra modes give more variety and help with memorizing the sequences. In line with this push for accessibility, the difficulty does take a meaningful spike towards the second half, but the most extreme levels are all entirely optional. It has to be said though that there’s a lot of frustrating segments even in the last dozen or so levels of the campaign, so some level of skill and persistence is absolutely required.
This is where the actual endgame of a Crash Bandicoot game kicks in. As long-time fans of the franchise know, the excitement and real challenge only arrives after seeing the endscreen for a stage, and the real kickers aren’t all unveiled until the final credits roll. Completing levels is in fact just the start. Each level has 6 extra gems to collect, in the form of apple-collection rates, the destruction of all crates (including the iconic TNTs and Nitros), a hidden gem somewhere in an obscure location throughout the level, not to mention finishing the level with a maximum of 3 lives. There’s even a further medal for ending the stage without deaths. Getting all crates is difficult, especially thanks to various hidden locations boosting their number and the Bonus areas. The latter is a segment present in nearly every level, and it puts Crash or Coco in a series of side-scroller puzzles of sorts where even finding the solution to reach the end through piles of crates and high precision jumps is hard enough, but finding a way to destroy all crates takes even more wit. Then the final and hardest challenges are the time trials, with each level having various medals to unlock by beating certain times, ending on a final insanely tough one set by developers themselves. And even that isn’t the actual end, because every level also has an inverted (stylized as N-verted) variant where the colours of the stage change, and the entire sequence is mirrored, on top of often having other slight gameplay changes like increased gameplay speed – and these variants also have the same set of challenges, offering therefore a crazy amount of optional things to do for each stage. And many of them unlock gnarly skins for Crash and Coco, giving a more substantial reward to players who put in the effort. There’s even the classic low-poly versions of both characters!
Even that isn’t the actual end of it all. Levels have secret tapes hidden inside, which allow players to unlock astonishingly difficult Test stage levels, where players have to keep bouncing back and forth between dozens of crates in sidescroller mode with near pixel perfect precision and in a rather specific order to somehow make it alive to the next checkpoint. These stages mimic the infamous 1996 tech demo for the first game, where all the platforming happened on these difficult crate sequences rather than on land. Still not… content with all that content? There’s even more optional levels where players get to explore hidden parts of existing stages in a parallel universe, using a different character facing adversities in another reality. There’s already many levels in itself, ranging from all kinds of locales and eras: snowy mountains, pirate era, the age of dinosaurs, futuristic cities, secret labs in caves, anything goes. And the sheer amount of optional content to go on its side is simply astonishing, trying to at least partially justify the full price launch which is certainly not the norm for non-Nintendo platformers nowadays.
Gameplay is certainly a call back to the good old days of Crash Bandicoot, and in fact, several scenarios like the chase sequences or the jetski parts make a comeback. Activision’s desire to emulate the classics in just about everything does have its downsides, however. First of all, the Quantum Masks aside, there’s virtually no improvements or changes to how the game is played. Enemies act more or less like the ones in the old games, the crate puzzles function exactly the same, the gameplay loop has not changed a little bit. Even the woes with the fixed camera that makes precision landing a hassle remain, though at least a handy yellow circle does show exactly where the character is on the horizontal axis even they’re in the air. The questionable geometry of characters is back too, making for a lot of situations where the player simply slides down a platform despite hitting the corner just right. Crash Bandicoot remains extremely fun, but its age is certainly showing here and there.
Graphics aren’t really the issue. While the game runs at 1080p even on Xbox One X for some reason, the worlds are colourful, bright and full of lovely details, though it’s certainly hard to compare its technical provess to other games on the market due to its cartoony style. Performance seems solid all around, with locked 30 frames per second on Xbox One and pretty much rock solid 60FPS on Xbox One X. There’s also a Series X version coming up, though at this point we know nothing of whether it’ll use Smart Delivery or not, or what’s even getting boosted. Hopefully we get to see 4K resolution across the board, maybe even some ray-tracing and 120hz support. But this is a discussion for another date; Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, like virtually all Xbox One games, will run natively day 1 on Xbox Series X, but for the actual next-gen upgrades we yet have to wait for a currently unspecified date.
But enough babbling about the future, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is about bringing a proven gameplay formula from the past, bringing it with some eye candy and improvements to the present, in a campaign that has the player travel in time between said past, present and future. Confused yet? You shouldn’t be. This new numbered Crash Bandicoot is, for better or worse, what a hypothetical Crash Bandicoot 4 would have looked like from Naughty Dog around 1999-2000, just with more content, more visual polish and more adjustments to fit in a modern gaming landscape. The accessibility options allow newcomers to have a great time, and the almost devilish difficulty of some parts make it a frustrating yet rewarding experience even for hardcore fans of old. More courage wouldn’t have hurt the project, but to be fair this franchise has never really worked when it tried lateral thinking, so going back to the roots was the way to go. Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is what it needs to be, a Crash Bandicoot game for our time.