November 21, 2011
I Should Have Finished... Crash Bandicoot
Welcome to the first installment of “I should’ve finished...”, an occasional series of posts about games from my back catalog I bought but never got around to finishing (or, in some cases, even starting). I’ll play these titles and take notes as I go about my mental state, about design decisions I think worthwhile, or other things that strike my fancy. Generally speaking, I’m not interested in tearing games apart, so these will tend to be positive (or at most, gently critical). Look elsewhere for snark.
The first title in the series is 1996’s Crash Bandicoot, developed by Naughty Dog for the PlayStation, and published by Sony. Before I sat down to play, I thought a little bit about what I remembered about the series -- vague memories of an orange-suited mascot with a megaphone yelling at the Nintendo building in commercials, its run-into-screen platforming (which seems fresh even now), its crazily difficult bridge levels¹, and crates... lots and lots of crates. And now to the game itself, taken from notes as I played.
Depth and into-the-screen platforming are still fun, and the remarkable thing about this 15-year-old game is that the graphics are just fine for me. Granted, we’re looking at 200 poly meshes at best with flat textures and no hardware-supported perspective correction, if I recall correctly, but they really made the most of what they had, even with this early title. It took me a bit of time to figure out the timing on these early shield-bearer enemies, but I got them.
Here are a few things that have mostly faded from triple-A games, though there are of course exceptions to all of these:
- Limited saves (moderated saves)
- Passwords as a means to allow players to continue from a certain point (owing to add-on nature of memory cards at the time) - and quitting the game after play to get that new password
- Lives (and ways to get more lives)
- Today, the market has less room for skills-based game play than it had at that time
- Lack of analog sticks -- purely the dpad and face buttons on this game, which briefly confounds me every time I start it and try to change my menu selection to "Password" or "Load Game"
Some of these are reminders of a time when arcades were still a recent memory, or perhaps even still financially viable; I can recall a small arcade in one of the Penn buildings when I was an undergrad perhaps five years before this title came out.
But even saving came with difficulty -- to save, you had to successfully make it to the end of a bonus level. To get to the bonus level, you had to find the three crates containing pictures of Crash’s girlfriend.
I died many, many times on the first boulder level until I realized that a spinning Crash ran a bit faster than a simply running Crash. The game requires this sort of discovery and experimentation to beat its challenges.
Resource usage in these early games was quite efficient - the shield bearers the more traditional scrolling platform levels appear later in the “Hog Wild” segment, but only able to move left and right. There’s this clear maintenance to the player of what their abilities should be - they are allowed to move left and right relative to the camera, even if that means side-to-side or forward-and-back relative to their own orientation. This lets them serve a different function as an obstacle, while keeping constant player expectation as to their movement.
In the Lost City, the pieces all start to come together -- the recognition of pieces that will behave differently, provide rewards not available to the less aware. Positive reinforcement here -- a virtuous cycle for the attentive player; pushing yourself to better play and taking risks rewards you with goodies that better your odds, such as extra Crash lives.
Crash Bandicoot values patience and timing over speed -- in those cases where I hurry, frustrated, to replay some short section I’ve already played, inevitably that’s when I make silly errors -- running into bats that appear just when I know they will, messing up the timing of a jump. You can’t hurry Crash, you have to find its rhythm.
It takes focus and anticipation to get past these “boulder chasing you” levels, an early precursor of several challenges in the Uncharted series. While you run relentlessly on, you need to feel ahead, to anticipate the next drift from right to left. The same rhythmic approach, patience first and then speed.
As I reach the third boss, Koala Kong, the locale turns definitely more mechanical. Good storytelling simply through the themes in level art. There’s a clear sense of progress through the differentiation of level assets.
The next level after “Heavy Machinery” is tough indeed, “Cortex Power,” though this is often because I start here with few Crashes avaliable to me. But there are several of the masks here which allow you to make one mistake, and gathering three of them makes you invincible for a short time as with Mario’s star. You feel invincible, too, and so you are far less tentative, and therefore... more likely to succeed. In Cortex Power, the real failure is being tentative, and in these levels Crash Bandicoot is telling us to GO FOR IT, even without the masks that give us confidence.
You can spend days trying to get through some level and then one morning just breeze through it on your first try. Cortex Power is just such a level for me, involving one or two attempts daily for around a week. Crash Bandicoot is a process of mastery -- of dealing with the plateau long enough to be able to accomplish your goals. I thought I learned that reading George Leonard’s “Mastery”, but here it’s taught to me in a visceral way. These breakthrough moments are so terrific because they leave you stocked with extra Crashes -- chances to make an even bigger dent, to ride that crest of surmounting that plateau. I pass through the Generator Room on my first try.
This pleasure was much of the appeal of these difficulty-based games. Surmounting something difficult. Pushing yourself. Sure, the successes are ephemeral, but the satisfactions are real. It was hard, but I didn’t give up, and in the end after dozens of attempts, I did that thing. Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls players have been describing this feeling with triumphant tweets over the past months. We’ve grown bigger -- found a much bigger audience -- but in doing so it often seems we’ve lost much of this. It’s there if you look hard enough, but you have to look hard indeed.
Once you take the time to get good at the game, taking a week off is no big deal -- you have enough skill that you won’t fall off your plateau quickly. You may make stupid mistakes your first time back, but you’ll quickly get back where you were. Which is good, because my longest, most arduous section of the game comes next.
The Generator Room and its subsequent challenges are the hardest I’ve faced in the game so far, making me feel trepidation for what more fiendish battles will follow. First is the Generator Room itself, a traditional platform area with only camera bots for enemies. Then a challenging, into-the-screen section... this contains a “bonus round,” so in theory I can save, but the one time I manage to get to the bonus round it kills me with TNT blocks. Soon after I’m on a boss, Pinstripe, who takes some figuring out, then a challenging bridge section. Zowie. Even with my tons of extra Crashes, my last three or four are drained away so fast my head spins like a bandicoot.
The grinning weasels of “Toxic Waste” fairly haunt me -- especially their rigor mortis when my spin attack bangs them off to oblivion, frozen at whatever animation frame they last held, surprised with odd grins on their faces.
Pinstripe’s pattern becomes simplicity itself, even after beating him only once, and I thank whatever designer made this boss fight relatively simple after the beatings I took getting here. Indeed, most of the bosses are fairly straightforward and reveal their unchanging patterns quickly; they serve as mere story-based punctuations to the player’s progression in skill, not genuinely difficult challenges. On subsequent mornings, I might need to learn his patterns again -- but I don’t think so. He’s the easiest boss so far... which is good, because I’ve failed the bonus round yet again.
Four quick deaths in rapid-fire succession on “The High Road” -- all stupid stuff that gets my blood up. But you have to be calm, playing Bandicoot, you have to be Eastwood at the end of Unforgiven. But then I get to a section where I’ve got to hit turtles at just the right moment and I’m sunk -- another six Crashes and it’s over.
Third attempt this morning and I’ve finished “Generator Room” with eleven Crashes to spare -- my best thus far. How will I do with “Toxic Waste”? Must. Stay. Calm.
By the time I’m at the second checkpoint, I have 16 Crashes and still bear a mask, allowing me one mistake for free. This has never gone this well... stay frosty.
And I complete the bonus round! 19 Crashes in my quiver. And still going, though without the mask this time. Back through Pinstripe without further incident, and I’ll start “High Road” with 21 men -- hopefully, enough to either get me through or enough to teach me all I need to know about it.
By the time I get to the first checkpoint, I’m at 20 Crashes -- I’ve gained two, but died three times -- and the big challenges are still ahead of me. But it’s long before I’m down to zero before I know I’ll go no further today. Happily I can start from Pinstripe now.
Starting from “The High Road” with only 5 or 6 Crashes seems like an impossibility. Will this be the truest test of devotion in the game thus far? Having played three times this morning, I’ve only succeeded in reaching the first checkpoint on my last two Crashes of the morning. Sadly, work beckons.
Aha! A discovery! The turtles must first be turned over -- their soft underbellies are huge trampolines. What looked like a timing puzzle isn’t... Crash Bandicoot is teaching me to continue exploring, even on your ninth or tenth playthrough. This discovery propels me very nearly to the end of the level - in my excitement I nearly lose to Pinstripe on my next play... and that excitement carries through to the High Road, where I burn through all my Crashes before even reaching the first checkpoint once.
The game reveals more secrets to me -- the High Road is an onion of game design, layer upon layer. Running towards the camera at the start of the level nets you more lives -- the boards appear beneath your very feet. And at last, I make the bonus round on the High Road, my reward.
Doing well at Slippery Climb takes a fierce concentration -- there are so very many ways to go wrong that after a while you begin to think a trap-by-trap, jump-by-jump outline might be helpful. I often feel my ability to focus getting exhausted, which leaves me falling off a cliff, mistiming a jump. Impatience is an enemy here more than the new, dynamite throwing minion of Dr. Neo Cortex is. The level is punishing -- after many attempts, only once have I made it to the first checkpoint.
For whatever reason, every stupid mistake one can make in Crash Bandicoot, I will make on the Slippery Climb. For whatever reason, it demands things that I feel unable to provide. I feel like the percentage complete should jump to 75% after this level, based solely on the time I’ve spent on it.
My mistakes, though, at least have the virtue of being further and further into the level, though this necessarily means that my play sessions get longer and longer.
After ten days off, I’m worried... but for no reason. I make it to the first checkpoint without a single death, even picking up two other lives and 60 peaches in the meantime. And even though I miss the bonus round’s save -- I’m through, with 8 lives to spare... only to discover that the next level, “Lights Out” is too much for me.
I have to hand it to them. This game, in seeking new platformer experiences, finds new affordances for me. I hadn’t thought of being able to see the level as something I needed to earn, but the masks I put on now both protect me and light my way, for a time. If I move too slowly, or make the mistake, I won’t die... but death will be highly likely, given that I’ll be unable to see the obstacles in my path.
It feels odd to try to get so good at something... only to never see it again.
Lights Out falls to my persistence, taking me on to Jaws of Darkness.
Two days pass -- I try a few times, but it’s only on the third day that I get to the Bonus Round on Jaws of Darkness, with no Crashes left. It’s only the second time I’ve been on the level, but I get to save.
“Castle Machinery” starts with a bit of design witticism -- just out of jumping distance sits the exit level, and trying for it sends you down floor after floor, falling until you start to wonder if you’ll ever land, and then suddenly you do.
Castle Machinery is relatively easy after the others -- really it and the Nitrus Bio boss battle are palate cleansers, giving me that breather which makes me renew my faith that I will eventually beat this game. I make it to “The Lab” soon after -- and get my next save point.
One positive about The Lab is that although I’m failing, I’m failing fast. Despite recent levels taking up to 20-25 minutes to lose (due, usually, to extra Crashes), here I’m in and out in only a few minutes -- enough time to iterate my skills but short enough that I can make multiple attempts in my limited time with the game. It’s wonderful at this stage of the game.
The final series of jumps, across boxes filled with TNT, are diabolical, and they require that I trust my skills there rather than letting them faze me. They are tricky, but ultimately very beatable.
The game takes a strange turn at this point, and I can’t work it out until afterwards. Having beaten The Lab, the next level is “The Great Hall”, which is basically an empty level, just jumping twice to the exit. (I’ll reconstruct afterwards that having beaten levels perfectly at various points of the game would open up others, or branching points in other levels. Instead, I find myself at 63% basically finished with the game. The manual gives hints at this, but lessons learned in early console generations: no one reads the manual.)
The next level is a fight with Neo Cortex himself. He is like the other bosses, in that his patterns are easily discernible, and he’s pretty easily beaten. I enter here at one point with seven or eight Crashes, and Neo Cortex goes down. Crash is reunited with his girlfriend.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Crash Bandicoot, and look forward to more games in my “I Should’ve Finished...” series. I’ve got seven unfinished or unstarted games from the PS1 era, and 58 games from the PS2 era (31/12/15 PS2/GCN/Xbox). Should give me plenty of old playthrough material for a long time!
¹These now seem like a hallmark of Naughty Dog, if Uncharted 2 is any indication.
²It’s at Ripper Roo, the second boss, where I start keeping track of the percentage through the game the save screen reports to me. It’ll turn out to be a distraction, ultimately, since what the game is reporting to me and what I read it to be reporting to me are different.