This one comes at you in waves. On first loading the Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy, my initial thought was: Oh, this is definitely how they should reissue old games. N Sane Trilogy, which bundles the first three Crash Bandicoot games into one package, adding quality of life stuff like a decent save and checkpoint system alongside time trials, online leaderboards and the chance to play most levels as Coco, has had a lot of work put into it. The soundtrack's been remastered, the cinematics have been entirely redone, the whole thing cruises by at 30fps. The elbowy channels of this trench platformer are still rather poky, but they're fringed with glorious wildlife and delightful texturing as a complete art overhaul has taken place. Ice is gemlike and wonderfully glossy, tar pits are filled with thick black goop, and the jungles! You never saw such jungles! Big fat rubbery leaves, the fraying trunks of palms, the ruffle of a breeze as you race past, smashing crates and collecting fruit.
That's the first wave. The second is quite different. After initially firing the collection up, I poked around in the original game for an hour or so. It's cludgy and fiddly and rather unforgiving. Years after making this, Naughty Dog would perfect the unmissable ledge: the ledge that you leap towards and absolutely cannot avoid connecting with, as Nathan Drake is drawn towards cinematic just-made-it safety as irresistibly as dust bunnies disappearing down the spout of a Dyson DC32 (The Animal - never bettered IMHO). Here, though, if you misjudge a jump by a millimeter, Crash falls into the abyss. No mantling. No hedging. It's actually kind of reassuring: games used to demand this kind of perfection. Through its overuse, the unmissable ledge is one of the more annoying artefacts of modern gaming, but away from the odd pitfall the supremely missable platform of the first Crash game is also kind of annoying. N Sane Trilogy swaps out the graphics but seems to retain the original geometry and the original character of the controls - even though it now supports analogue sticks. This means you get a lavish looking game that often plays in a very rickety manner. Race a tiger over the Great Wall in Warped, for example, and the whole scene is so bright and crisp and lively-looking that it's just weird the way the camera bucks and stumbles behind you, the way you move in humpty, weighty lurches, the way that dragons, who will swoop across the map as you pass, are visibly waiting in the wings as you approach, like soap actors having one last cigarette before nailing their walk-on. Reworking the surface of these games so laboriously but leaving the sometimes-jumbled guts intact feels a little like cruelty on occasion.
But there is a third wave, thankfully, and the third wave crested slowly as something kind of amazing happened to me. As I played through the Crash games on the big 4K telly in the office, the PS4 Pro whirring nobly underneath, people started to gather behind me. This almost never happens. "Oh man, I love Crash," said someone who shall remain nameless. And then another person said: "Go back a few steps, there's a secret crate you missed." This is the kind of game where people remember where the secret crates are kept.
Pretty soon I was getting a granular level of advice that was, to tell the truth, not always that useful. Did I know that if I wanted to take both branching paths one after the other at this particular intersection I would be allowed to double back after the first one and collect all the crates on offer? Did I know that if I bounced on a multi-fruit crate rather than just spin-smashing it, it would magically contain even more juicy bounty for me to collect? Did I know how to visually identify the spars of stone that would support me and the spars of stone that would sink into the ground after a few seconds? Did I know that Crash Racing, or whatever it's called, is secretly the best game ever and its omission from the N Sane Trilogy is tantamount to a minor felony?Stormlands and the million-man raid Obsidian's cancelled Xbox One exclusive
Did I know, more importantly, that Crash inspired this kind of devotion in players of a certain age? And to this audience - the players who grew up with Crash, who saw him being chased by that boulder and didn't think, hey, twitch sequences in which you run into the screen are actually kind of bullshit, but instead just gave into the delirious cinematic pleasure of it - N Sane's approach is oddly perfect. It's the games as you remembered them in the pad and in the hands, and magically, they now look the way you remember them on the screen. The jungles are still astonishingly detailed - it's just now they're astonishingly detailed to a 2017 audience, which recaptures a little of the thrill that a mid-nineties audience would have felt. That ice is so vibrantly slippy. Those animal cameos are so characterful, so filled with slobbering, betusked life. And that slight orneriness, that sense that Crash is bravely stumbling and struggling with the addition of an extra dimension that platformers had never had to deal with before, is still gloriously present. More than anything, Crash is a game from a transition era - and he still feels like that.
N Sane Trilogy preserves all of this. These games are still graphical showcases. They are still challenging, for some of the right reasons and some of the wrong reasons. There's still a sense of progression present as you move between games and the trenches open up a little, the reliance on 2D thinking diminishes, and the freedom with which the level structure allows you to move between different ideas expands. The first Crash Bandicoot is clearly a proof of concept: nice graphics there, mate, but the levels feel like they've been put together by accident. Crash 2 is probably the best of the bunch: the environments are a little more open, and a new level select system gives you a bit more choice, a bit more variety. Crash 3 has perhaps gone a little too far on the variety: lots and lots of gimmicks and vehicles and pets, along with new special moves that you collect as you go. It's fine, but Crash 2 feels like the sweet spot: the team had learned how to make its game, but had yet to get a little bored by it.
I don't think these will ever be first-tier platformers - compared to what other developers were doing back at the same time, even the best Crash level feels a little shapeless and lacking in imagination - but they're clearly great memories. And the N Sane Trilogy delivers the memories intact.