An Ode to the Sony PlayStation and Crash Bandicoot 2

Christmas, 1998: my brother and I unwrapped a Sony PlayStation, and it became one of the best gifts of my childhood. My brother and I had spent months deliberating over what should become our first video game console: the Nintendo 64, or the Sony PlayStation. At the time, both consoles seemed equally matched. The Nintendo 64 had amazing games like Star Fox 64 and Super Mario 64. The Sony PlayStation, on the other hand, had just as impressive games like Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon. We had friends with both consoles, and we had been wanting both for years.

In the end, we could only pick one for that Christmas, and the PlayStation won.

We spent this Christmas at my grandparent’s house in Utah. In my last post, I described visiting my mother’s family in rural Ohio. My father’s family, though, lived in a sleepy valley south of Salt Lake City, next to the prominent Brigham Young University. We spent two weeks at my grandparents’ house, sleeping in one of the many bedrooms in their basement. To pass the time anticipating Christmas Day, we watched old VHS tapes of Loony Tunes and classic Disney movies. I can’t recall Crash Bandicoot 2 without thinking of those imposing Utah mountains, that old TV, and the many cartoons we watched. Once Christmas morning was over, we carried that coveted gray console down to the basement and plugged it into the TV. My brother looked like a genius engineer as he managed all the cables and plugged them into the right spots. We opened Crash Bandicoot 2′s delicate CD case. We put the disc inside the console, and we pressed the power button.

Who can forget the PlayStation’s wave of synthesizers coming to greet you from the 22nd Century?

I’ll never forget the original PlayStation’s startup sequence. The room seemed to hum with the deep synthesizer opening. Then the PlayStation logo appeared — I heard a string of wistful chimes and a metallic riff floating off into space. It sounded like the Sony PlayStation had opened a portal to the future inside of this ancient TV, offering us the unreal technological entertainment of a new video game generation. We were now joining the polygonal world.

Just like Super Mario World had encapsulated the innocence of my early childhood, Crash Bandicoot 2 perfectly describes the years I spent as an older kid, a budding person who was becoming more complex (and to be honest, a bit more irreverent). Super Mario World may have been my glorious introduction to video games, but it’s thanks to Crash Bandicoot 2 that I started to develop the skills to understand and analyze games the way I do now.

Crash owes a lot of its appeal to its astounding character design.

Crash: The Sony Mascot

Crash Bandicoot is one of the many mascot platformers of the 1990s. Mario established the genre and carried the flag, but behind him was an army of characters whose games made their own creative contributions to simulating physics and movement. On just the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo, you had Sonic the Hedgehog, Donkey Kong Country, Yoshi’s Island, Ristar, Rocket Knight Adventures, and even quality movie-licensed games like The Lion King and Aladdin. The Sony PlayStation obviously needed a mascot platformer in order to stake its claim on the market, and the developers at Naughty Dog stepped in to provide exactly that. To say the market was saturated by the time Naughty Dog rolled up their sleeves is an understatement. In today’s terms, it would be like Samsung entering the console market and their flagship game is another Open World Action RPG with Crafting Mechanics.

I love Crash’s little victory dance whenever he acquires a gem.

And yet, despite the dozens of applicants, Crash managed to stand out and win the hearts of many new PlayStation owners. Crash eschews the typical ’90s devil-may-care attitude in favor of a more evergreen cartoony appeal: utter cluelessness. Let’s just say… the game’s hazards, like falling off a cliff or getting shocked by a loose wire, seem like fitting outcomes for someone of Crash’s intelligence. I remember making plenty of jabs at how silly he looked (Crash is basically a Dorito chip with jeans), and yet it just works. His stupid grin and his stupid walk and his stupid dance win you over. Real bandicoots are mice with long noses. I don’t know how Naughty Dog converted such a creature into Crash, but they did it, and they created a perfect set of supporting characters to complement him. The main villain is an especially good foil. The neck of Dr. Neo Cortex must be made out of tungsten in order to support his planet-sized head with a receding hairline reminiscent of Saturn’s rings. The rest of the cast is no less weird. Ripper Roo wears a straightjacket; Dr. N. Gin has an actual missile stuck in his head. The only normal-looking one of the bunch is Crash’s sister, Coco. Her one-strap overall was an actual fashion choice back in the ’90s, by the way. It’s quite nostalgic.

The death animations made me bust my gut hundreds of times back in 1998.

With these designs and animations, Naughty Dog taps into all of the anvil-falling, roadrunner-chasing humor of classic cartoons. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Crash’s numerous death animations. Should you fall into a pool of arctic-cold water, Crash will bob back up in a block of ice. Should you get smashed by a stone pillar, Crash will waddle back and forth as a pancake with feet. Even the plot evokes the hijinks of a Saturday morning cartoon. Dr. Cortex, your former enemy, recruits you to help him gather power crystals in order to save the world. He attempts to keep up the front for at least a little while, before he reveals his true nefarious purposes. While the “team up with your rival” is a common trope in cartoons, it at least creates interesting interactions, and it highlights the characters’ differences.

The original Crash Bandicoot games are basically playable cartoons, and it was the perfect premise for a young ’90s gamer like myself.

I was in Second Grade when we got Crash Bandicoot 2. I had recently discovered “Weird Al” Yankovic thanks to friends and classmates, and soon I turned every song I knew into a joke, including… church hymns. I loved being on the move with my new skateboard and my accidents led to quality physical humor. My brother and I watched the Disney channel’s after-school programs like it was a ritual. We began quoting funny lines to each other back and forth, even at inopportune times like the dinner table or the grocery store. It became a kind of secret language between us. One of us could just mimic a movie or show and the other one would get it. It was like using memes before memes were a thing on the internet. My life had perfect conditions for Crash’s dumb antics to create its maximum possible effect. It’s been decades, yet I can still see those death animations in my head and hear the zany “ka-ching!” sound when you get a new life. At the time, it was the best playable cartoon.

Practice Makes Perf… Nope, I Died Again

Speaking of death animations, part of the reason why I memorized them was because… I saw them a lot. Crash Bandicoot 2 is a difficult game, especially if you are going to 100% complete it. Naughty Dog made grueling gauntlets of timing, precision, and endurance. We didn’t own a memory card when we got the PlayStation, so we naturally spent our time trying to beat the game from start to finish over and over again. Those early months with Crash Bandicoot 2 were, in a way, my first Roguelike experience.

Thankfully, Naughty Dog created levels with significant depth, and every new playthrough taught me something new. From the very beginning, the game tries to entice you with cleverly-placed boxes, hidden doors, and floating gems that persuade you to try the level again and get everything. For a kid who only had this one game to play, Crash Bandicoot 2 was a highly rewarding game to memorize and master. Crash’s jump arc is seared into my brain like a physics textbook. Level layouts are mentally mapped like a tattoo on my forehead. I’ve memorized those first five levels and I’ve learned all the tricks and secrets to getting through them with ease. In fact, Crash Bandicoot 2‘s first five levels may be a near-perfect showcase of teaching players the ropes of a 3D Platformer. Let’s dive further:

Level 1: Turtle Woods. The first level is a decent beginner’s level. You learn the basics of moving, jumping, and attacking. At first enemies can be destroyed easily, but soon the game teaches you to either attack with a jump (vertically) or spin (horizontally), depending on where the enemy has protective spikes. Turtle Woods introduces the player to the default camera setup: behind the player. This level also has a special blue gem hidden inside. There’s an indicator for it on the level’s entrance, quickly teaching the player to look for secret collectibles. Seeing as the player might also return to this level often to get some easy extra lives, the player might finally stumble across said secret. I certainly didn’t figure out how to get the blue gem until I’d played through that beginning level at least 50 times.

Level 2: Snow Go. The second level introduces ice as well as swapping camera angles. At first you are moving away from the camera like in the first level, but then the perspective will switch halfway through to a traditional 2D sidescroller. Then, near the end, the camera will return to following Crash. To acquire some of the boxes, you’ll need to use more advanced jumps like the crouch jump. You also see TNT and Nitro boxes for the first time, as well the colored gem platforms that you’ll need in order to 100% complete the game.

Level 3: Hang Eight. The third level tests your ability to control Crash, gauge distances, and jump at just the right spots. Your walking spaces are much narrower, and some platforms will sink into the water if you aren’t quick enough. You’ll need to time your spins and jumps more carefully. You also get a cool motor-powered surfboard section that I’ve always struggled to control. If you replay the level as much as I did, you’ll eventually reach the end within the hidden time limit and realize that there’s more than one way to earn gems besides just breaking all of the boxes.

Level 4: The Pits. The fourth level brings you back to the jungle setting of the first level, but with a twist. New enemy types are introduced. At first they are placed in relatively open spaces where you can avoid them and learn their behavior. Then you’ll encounter narrow paths where the game forces you to deal with these new enemies head-on. This level also introduces branching paths, and if you want to get the gem of this level, you’ll have to backtrack up the path that you didn’t go down. It gets the player to dip their toes into moving towards the camera instead of away from it.

Level 5: Crash Dash. The fifth level officially forces the player into moving towards the camera. But this time they don’t have the luxury of easily taking their time like in Level 4. There is a massive snowball hurtling towards them, Indiana Jones-style. This level tests not only your ability to move Crash around and time your jumps right, but to also do it quickly. The practice you got by completing the time trial challenge of Level 3 comes in handy here. It’s one of my favorite levels just because of how tense it is and how it combines everything you’ve learned up to that point. It’s a climactic ending to the first floor before taking on the first boss.

The first five levels should teach the player all they need to know to find most secrets in the game. When I say teach, though, I don’t mean teach in a traditional sense — no character tells Crash how to get the gems. Instead, you’ll find out how to do it yourself. Death isn’t just a silly gag — it’s your main method for learning the game’s mechanics. Crash Bandicoot 2 is deeply-rooted in the old-school design philosophy of teaching through level design. The placement of obstacles creates a language unique to video games, where you learn what doesn’t work first through repeated trial and error. When you combine your current knowledge with the level’s clues, it allows the player to discover the solution on their own. I admit, sometimes this can be frustrating… but this also creates a different kind fun than what you see in most modern AAA games — it’s the joy of overcoming failure and mastering a video game inside and out.

I honestly think I would’ve had a harder time enjoying Crash Bandicoot 2, and video games in general, if it weren’t for the surprisingly intuitive PlayStation controller. Not only was it comfortable with responsive buttons, but the face buttons of Triangle, Square, Circle, and X made it much easier to remember than just letters of the alphabet. The challenge of Crash 2 could’ve been worse if inputs were harder to remember. Even today the PS1 is arguably the best machine for someone new to video games, though the Nintendo Switch and the PC might be close contenders.

Of course, I didn’t consciously pay attention to level design and controls as a kid. It all got absorbed subconsciously, an invisible rhythm and flow, as I progressed from pit to pit and level to level. It’s only now when I return to the game as an adult do I see why I enjoyed the gameplay so much and how it prepared me for the games that I’d play in the future.

In Conclusion

Ironically, what once looked like the vision of the future soon became a dusty relic of the past. The video game industry experienced a massive growth spurt in technological advancements throughout the ’90s and 2000s. Games only a year or two apart could look dramatically different from each other. Now, people tend to mock the PS1 and its chunky polygons. This opinion would’ve shocked childhood me, but I understand why they do so. Modern games look a million times more detailed. However, there’s something about those sharp polygonal edges that give the original PlayStation a distinct identity. You know when you’re looking at a PS1 game. To me, comparing old to new consoles is like comparing old cartoons to modern ones. As long as the art direction is strong, then it all just boils down to style differences. Is Steamboat Willie worse than Gravity Falls just because the latter’s animation is newer and has more detail? They’re different, but I can’t say if one is necessarily “better.”

The N. Sane Trilogy is an excellent remake, but there’s something special about the PlayStation’s blocky graphics that just can’t be recreated.

Last year I played through the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, and it was a delightful nostalgia trip, but it highlights this difference between modern and retro games even more. The video game industry has changed a lot over the years. I’ve changed a lot over the years, too. I don’t necessarily think that change is always bad, but it does feel jarring when a modern-looking game doesn’t abide by modern game design. Vicarious Visions managed to recreate 90% of Crash’s original the look and feel. The graphical detail is certainly impressive, and the cartoony style remains, thankfully, intact. However, Crash’s jump arc isn’t quite the same, and the movements aren’t quite as snappy. The more advanced level geometry made gauging gaps a bit more difficult as well. I understand why many modern players will only play the remake, but I still find something special about the original. It at least doesn’t give me whiplash between its visuals and its design. I actually thought Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time was a much more coherent modern take on the classic Crash Bandicoot formula.

A few months after the Christmas of 1998, we got a memory card. I finally beat Crash Bandicoot 2 to 100% completion, and I earned the secret ending. In the years that followed, my siblings and I would play many more games on our Sony PlayStation, including the rest of the Crash Trilogy, the Spyro Trilogy, the charming Croc: Legend of the Gobbos, and the quirky Ape Escape. And then I started to grow up. Nowadays, I don’t have the exact same immature sense of humor anymore. And I’ve played at least a hundred more video games, many of which are arguably better than Crash Bandicoot 2. However… I can never forget my roots. This is where my love of 3D Platformers, my love of comedy, and my love of video games, truly began. Crash Bandicoot 2, and the Sony PlayStation, will forever remain priceless treasures that I received one fateful Christmas morning.

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