Crash Bandicoot 4 feels like it’s from the ’90s, but not in a good way

Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time is a brand-new game that’s already hopelessly out of date.

Despite the 18 spinoffs and reboots that have come out since the original trilogy of Crash Bandicoot games, Crash 4 is the first true sequel to 1998’s Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped. In terms of advancing the story, it’s the first official entry in the franchise in 22 years. Unfortunately, instead of updating the series and bringing the iconic orange bandicoot into the future, developer Toys for Bob made a sequel that should have been left in the past.

This time around, Crash and his sister Coco (you can switch between the two at any time, and they play exactly alike) are tasked with finding four ultra-powerful Quantum Masks that control the universe in order to save it from the machinations of their regular cast of villains, like Neo Cortex and Doctor Nefarious Tropy. (N. Tropy is the joke here, just so we’re clear.) Beyond that initial premise, the story doesn’t factor into the game much, other than as a way to get Crash and his friends — including some visitors from other dimensions — from one setting to the next in search of the Quantum Masks.

Image: Toys for Bob/Activision

Crash 4 controls and plays exactly like its predecessors, in that it’s a linear 3D platformer where players guide Crash through levels full of deadly obstacles and enemies. Crash has a double jump, a spin move, and a body slam, and that’s about the extent of his abilities. In the fashion of classic platformers, if Crash gets hit by the game’s enemies even once, he’ll die instantly — unless he has a magic Aku Aku power-up that will absorb the hit for him. Of course, if you fall into one of the game’s thousands of pits, you’ll die no matter which power-ups you have.

Besides Crash’s signature abilities, It’s About Time also introduces new powers courtesy of the masks that Crash has to rescue. Once he’s found them, they’ll periodically show up in levels and provide the character with a new reality-bending power, like flipping gravity upside down, slowing down time, traveling to an alternate dimension, or unleashing a wild new spin that practically lets the bandicoot fly. These powers are some of the few truly new things about Crash 4, and they’re also the best part of the game.

Levels of interest

Just like some of the previous games in the series, Crash 4 is separated into levels that players will select on a world map. These levels take players to various settings, from a bright space future to the days of dinosaurs to ancient civilizations.

All these levels and settings look gorgeous, using the same bright, vibrant colors the series has always had, except transported 20 years forward in time and brought all the way into high definition. Unfortunately, no matter how good they look, each of the game’s dozens of levels feels more or less the same to play, just with different combinations of floating platforms, enemies, and endless pits for Crash to jump over. The few exceptions to this come in a few surprise levels that let you take control of characters other than the main two bandicoots, but these levels are too few and far between to make for more than a nice change of pace.

Image: Toys for Bob/Activision

While some levels are built on their own ideas, like a certain type of platform or their own unique enemies, these differences are rarely memorable. Most of the levels have one or two fun platforming sections, but these moments are generally connected by uninteresting hallways filled with the same obstacles and enemies you’ve cleared a hundred times already.

What makes the bland level design worse is the gameplay itself. The controls for maneuvering Crash around a level are loose and imprecise, which is a problem, since the game is so relentlessly unforgiving. If you miss a jump by a few pixels, or you happen to get just one of Crash’s feet on a platform instead of both, you’re going to die.

New game, same old problems

The Crash Bandicoot series has always had a reputation for being difficult, and Toys for Bob co-studio head Paul Yan told Polygon that the team wanted to live up to that in Crash 4. But the studio seems to have mistaken difficulty for frustration. While the idea of creating a true sequel to Crash 3 is perfectly appealing on paper, Crash Bandicoot is a series that needed to be brought out of the ’90s, not one that needed to try to re-create the games of that era.

In the years since Crash’s last numbered sequel, dozens of demanding titles, from Super Meat Boy to Dark Souls, have shown the ways in which difficult games can be rewarding. Almost all difficult modern games have incredibly tight controls to ensure that when you die, it feels like you had the power to prevent it. Another modern addition is letting players try to quickly correct their mistakes. But Crash 4 doesn’t have strong enough mechanics to ever feel fair.

Crash 4 requires perfect jumps. I wish the game had tighter, more precise controls that would make me feel like I was always in control of the exact spot that Crash would land. Instead, I constantly felt lucky when Crash landed where I wanted, or I’d feel cheated when he missed a platform by mere inches and I got sent back to the last checkpoint. Speaking of checkpoints, they’re almost always placed a very long way from the game’s most difficult obstacles, forcing me to jump through plenty of monotonous and easy areas just to get another shot at the challenge that killed me. If you struggle on certain sections for too long, the game occasionally creates new checkpoints for you that are further along, but making them the default would help alleviate a bit of the tediousness of replaying sections.

Image: Toys for Bob/Activision

Getting through Crash 4’s most “difficult” segments always felt more like a relief than an accomplishment. Rather than leaving a section thinking back on how fun or rewarding it was, or how much I liked the design, most areas just left me thankful that I’d never have to return.

Compounding all of this is the fact that for most of the game, the biggest threat to my survival and success was the game’s fixed third-person camera, rather than any of the actual obstacles in a level. I’d often jump toward a platform, only to discover that it was larger or smaller than I had thought, simply because of the camera’s strange perspective and the warped depth perception that resulted from it. Other times I would die because an enemy’s attack range wasn’t quite clear, thanks to the camera being situated at an odd angle.

Perspective shifting and a fixed third-person camera have always been hallmarks of the Crash Bandicoot series, and in the past, there were issues with that. The camera in old Crash games often felt like it was playing tricks on you, but that never felt like a feature — just a problem that dozens of PlayStation 1 games dealt with, thanks to the lack of a right analog stick to control your view. Even with a fixed camera, there’s no reason in 2020 for Crash 4’s obstacles and enemies to be purposely obscured. But this is all part of the apparent larger decision to make Crash 4 feel like an original PlayStation game.

I’m not here to disparage the old Crash games, either. Crash 3: Warped was one of my favorite games as a kid, and it’s one I’ve revisited multiple times since. But there’s a difference between playing a game that was actually made in 1998 and playing a game from 2020 that’s simply aiming for PlayStation 1 cosplay. In a sense, Crash 4 is a fascinating experiment in game design, and phenomenal proof of how much developers have learned in the last two decades. Crash 3, for all its fun moments and great design, is a fundamentally unfriendly game. It is still good, in part because it was working within the limited powers of the PlayStation 1. Where Crash 4 goes wrong is in mistaking that old-game unfriendliness for an important feature.

Image: Toys for Bob/Activision

When you’re playing a game from 1998, the rough edges are part of the charm. I still feel nostalgia for those rough edges when I play a game from that time period. But when those same edges crop up in a game designed in 2020, they start to feel actively hostile. A lot has happened in 20 years, and a lot of game development lessons have been learned about how to make games more enjoyable for players.

However, it is worth noting that Crash 4 does add one big update from previous games in the series in the form of a difficulty selector. The game lets players choose “Modern,” which lets you respawn at checkpoints every time you die, with no concern for lives, and “Retro,” which gives Crash a limited number of lives, and when you run out you have to start the whole level over again. The game itself recommends the Modern option, and I definitely agree. Finishing it on Retro would have made the whole experience even more frustrating than it already was. But even with the Modern mode, the checkpoints still involve a frustrating amount of backtracking through obstacles you’ve already cleared.

The power of masks

Despite all this frustration, there’s still fun to be had with Crash 4, particularly if you have a nostalgic soft spot for the previous games. When the game’s level design and camera aren’t actively sabotaging you, it can be a fun experience that offers a type of quasi-3D platforming that you really can’t find anywhere else.

Most of the moments when Crash 4 really starts to hum are a direct result of the game’s new Quantum Masks. The mask’s unique powers let the game introduce new mechanics to the series, and allow Toys for Bob to experiment a little more with the tricks and challenges of level design.

Unfortunately, these masks and their powers show up far too sparingly in the main game to alleviate the frequent monotony of its regular level design. However, they do all get used in an outstanding final level that feels like a brief glimpse at a much better game. In the final level (spoilers?) you have to guide Crash through challenges that force you to make perfect use of each mask’s powers, then combine them, using one right after another without missing a beat. It’s precise, it features a camera angle that makes all the facts and nuances of each area visible at once, and it feels like it’s challenging you to play the game to the best of your ability. It’s easily the most fun I had in the entire game. It’s just a shame that more of the experience couldn’t live up to this level’s standards.

The masks, alongside Crash’s mask companion from the other games, Aku Aku, provide Crash 4’s best moments in cutscenes, thanks in large part to the talent Toys for Bob has brought in to voice them. The cast includes animated TV show veterans like Richard Steven Horvitz (Invader Zim) and Greg Eagles (The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy), who are always fun to listen to. They both do an admirable job of selling jokes that aren’t quite funny.

Image: Toys for Bob/Activision

Another place where Crash 4 shines is during its few boss fights. These were always highlights of the Crash series, and It’s About Time is no exception. The battles make interesting use of the game’s mask powers, and feature unique and challenging designs that never last long enough to wear out their welcome. One feels like a cross between a platformer and a rhythm game — an interesting update for a series whose previous entries essentially predate the entire rhythm game genre — and all of them have more creativity than the levels that precede them.

It’s impossible not to at least respect the experiment of Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time. It’s a sequel that’s 20 years late, and to honor that idea, Toys for Bob seems to have made the best-looking HD PlayStation 1 platformer of all time, complete with all the frustrations that gaming has outgrown in the last two decades. Who knows — perhaps in one of the other dimensions that Crash travels to in the game, there’s a world where Crash Bandicoot gets a modernized update that brings the series into the present. But in our world, Crash 4 is stubbornly stuck in the past.

Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time will be released Oct. 2 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on PS4 using a download code provided by Activision. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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