The Playstation was fighting a war against giants back in the 90s. Nintendo had it's flagship mascots (Mario, Donkey Kong) and SEGA had theirs (Sonic) and yet Sony were without a fitting rival. That all changed in 1996 when their now iconic, crazed and carefree Bandicoot landed on the system with the titular game, Crash Bandicoot in 1996. A landmark moment for the gaming industry as a whole, the traditional 2D platforming had now entered the realm of 3D (Mario 3D on the Nintendo 64 just beat Crash to the punch) and it was an instant sensation, moving an eventual 6 million units and receiving widespread praise.
Crash was a hit for a few reasons. Firstly his unique look (check the image above, a creature wearing sneakers and pants, I mean, come on) and the visuals on every level really helped the game to “pop” and stand out among its contemporaries. Level design was also crucial in driving the success of the game, as each environment felt unique and fresh, yet never forced. In essence, it's a very simple game. You run, spin, jump and progress. That's all there is to it on the surface, but the challenge immersed in the overarching theme of the game is where it's power lies; collection. Be it collecting gems, bonus tokens or lives, everything has a purpose and as the game moves forward, it becomes a serious task and the learning curve is drastic.
Developers Naughty Dog (now famed for their Uncharted series) had a bold vision in mind; release a sequel within the next calendar year. By 1997, their goal was complete, which when you think about how long games take to develop now, is nothing short of a miracle. The idea for any sequel is to build upon the success its predecessor had and expand it to new horizons, otherwise, it's a waste of time in my opinion. Crash had two sequels, Crash Bandicoot 2: The Wrath of Cortex and Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped. The focus will be on the second installment, as this is where the biggest changes occurred.
So where would the developers take Crash? Well, the second game picks up mere seconds after the first game ends, with Cortex (the villain) plummeting down to Earth after you've successfully defeated him. He lands hard in a cave which is illuminated by a purple crystal and an evil grin cracks his face wide and menacingly.
The visual of Cortex is one of the first changes the team made for the sequel. Comparatively, Cortex looks more polished (for the time) and somehow seems more human like, which feeds into the story (more on that later). We're soon introduced into Crash once again and we see his model has been updated as well. His arms, which hung lankly at his side are now more bent and seem more “ready”, Crash appears more hunched over in general and looking like he's about to enter a brawl or adventure; it seems like he's developed from an unsure figure into a more confident creature, sure of his abilities. This acts as a metaphor for the company, as they too were now flexing more creative muscles and letting their wings spread, as the changes did not end there.
The way Crash is controlled was tweaked somewhat. It's hard to pinpoint exactly, but jumping felt different from the first game, a bit more “floaty” and forgiving. Crash was also armed with two brand new skills; slide and belly flop. Both of which are imperative for completing the game and dispatching enemies, and even gaining entry into secret levels and areas. Circling back to the aforementioned jumping, combing a slide and a jump allowed Crash to get more distance and height with a jump and there's a technique that combines this with a spin at the top of the leap to provide even more height. What does this mean? It means that more of the level can be explored, unreachable boxes broken and a more fully rounded experience gained.
As you would expect, the variation of levels was again increased and diversified from the original. Similar themes were kept, for example the opening level “Turtle Woods” shares similar themes to “N.Sanity Beach” from the first game. Other variations, such as the escape from a boulder are kept and updated slightly, as well as the infamous riding of a poor, unsuspecting animal through a level. In the first game we got a hog, this time around it was a cute little polar bear, who would go on to become a character in his own right. Access to levels was another change, in the first game you got a wide angle view of The Wumpa Islands (sometimes referred to as Tasmanian Islands) and Crash would physically move along each of the three islands, point by point. The second game changed this, by introducing “warp rooms” that held five levels in each room. I personally preferred how the first game maneuvered through the story line, as you felt like you were really progressing in a meaningful way and edging closer to your nemesis; Cortex.
Following on, let's get back to Cortex. The sequel absolutely nailed it here. Cortex was given so much more depth and character, first appearing to you as a friend via hologram and manipulating you into working for him. Your sister, Coco (a new character), attempts to warn you throughout, but the messages are always garbled and unclear. As a child playing this, I was confused and intrigued at the same time. Then when you get your first gem (either a special colored gem, usually through a unique challenge, or clear gem for breaking all boxes in a level) another nemesis appears, Dr. N. Brio. Cortex's previous right-hand man from the first game is now a disgruntled former employee and wants revenge, and you can help by gathering all the gems. Again, this throws up an air of uncertainty into proceedings; who do you trust? This is a fine example of what a great sequel does; it took the original characters, expanded their involvement and development and supplemented them with new and exciting cast members. This is also evidenced with the boss battles. Returning villains such as Ripper Roo make for a nice air of familiarity, whilst new foes such as Tiny and Dr. N Gin bring another sense of new and exiting danger to challenge you as you progress.
To recap, the modus operandi for a sequel is to improve on successful aspects of the first game and make things bigger and better, whilst not feeling bloated and unnecessary. Did Crash Bandicoot 2 achieve this? It went above and beyond my expectations. To this day, it remains one of my treasured and favorite games, completing it 100% is certainly easier than the first game, but that doesn't mean the challenge is drastically reduced. Instead, the game encourages exploration and “out of the box” thinking, that is necessary for total completion and will punish you for being timid. Levels are more daring and brighter, Crash doesn't feel as isolated (figures popping up to offer dialogue far more frequently than the first game) and the game moves at a breakneck speed that keeps you enraptured right up until the last moments. A special, pure, fun game that took things to the next level and beyond. Here's to you, Mr. Bandicoot.