We rightfully think of Crash Bandicoot as a PlayStation icon. The manic mascot became the face of the brand in the ‘90s, even famously taunting other platform holders from their parking lots in TV ads. The character’s popularity waned as the 2000s progressed though, so you’d be forgiven if you thought Activision’s recent remakes of the original three Crash games plus Crash Team Racing are all there is to the series. Fortunately, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time from developer Toys for Bob seems poised to become the first high-quality new game in the platformer franchise since that original trilogy.
The Crash Bandicoot 4 demo consists of three levels, and two of them completely capture the magic of the originals by setting smart limitations and playing to the series’s strengths. A good Crash platformer will feel like a tight, exhilarating speedrun when played well, and this is a facet later sequels lost sight of. In games like Mind Over Mutant, levels were much too wide and progression came with an almost RPG-like element where players would build new skills on top of foundational skills.
This is doing too much, and it’s something the original games never suffered from. The original Crash Bandicoot had some depth perception issues, but this seems more like a flaw of the tech at the time, not poor design. It’s a game that always knew its limits, and those limits became strengths in the next two sequels that followed. Narrow levels carried players down the right path at all times, and every enemy encounter or platforming challenge felt instantly intuitive to resolve, save for the occasional surprise death trap.
In all its best outings, Crash is about execution, not discovery or empowerment or any other more modern design ideals that drive other games. Crash just doesn’t need those. That’s what Toys for Bob understands so well with Crash Bandicoot 4. Like before, it’s a game about seeing a level in front of you, knowing what you need to do immediately, then laughing through the failures of trying to do it.
It’s About Time appears to be the first Crash platformer since Warped to feel comfortable in its own orange fur. To take nothing away from Vicarious Visions’ work with Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, Crash Bandicoot 4‘s goals are simply more daunting, and Toys for Bob seems to be up for the challenge.
The love for the series is blatant in a level like Dino Dash, which has players running toward the screen, away from an ever-chomping dinosaur. It’s familiar, but not rehashed. Nostalgic, but not cheap. Toys for Bob adds its own mechanics to this level type, like poison flowers and smashable bone fences that, unlike the mutant-steering of yesteryear, feel at home in the series. A bevy of new masks Crash can wear gives him different abilities, but they’re short-lived, level-specific items, like one that lets you briefly slow time or another that turns some objects into passable holograms.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d think the series’s original creators had made these levels and these mechanics. They still demand well-timed maneuvers, and they still don’t take more than a second to figure out. This cadence is important, and even in something weirder like Crash Bandicoot: Warped, where tiger-riding and underwater levels sprinkled in some wacky new mechanics regularly, a level never outlived its welcome. Crash Bandicoot 4 epitomizes that almost perfectly thus far.
I say almost because the last level in my play of the demo, starring a playable Neo Cortex, alters some mechanics for the worse. Without a double jump and with several abilities altered and remapped, it feels like the hidden levels seen in platformers of old that didn’t quite fit in with the main game. The problem, it seems, is these would-be sideshows will remain front and center. It’s just one example, but I worry these non-Crash missions may take away from the game’s wonderful pacing.
Maybe I shouldn’t worry though, as Coco’s missions have historically been great. However, with several playable characters in Crash Bandicoot 4, it may be that only the levels starring the titular hero truly recapture the magic. But for now, I’m holding out hope that this one example is simply that, because the rest of what I’ve seen is worth all the wumpa fruit in the world for Crash fans.