To sell games on the GBA you've either got to be a) Nintendo or b) have a huge licensed/character franchise property to draw upon. Needless to say, last year's Crash Bandicoot XS has been one of the elite few commercially successful titles on the handheld platform - shifting around 100,000 copies in the UK to date. It's a rarity for us to be in possession of a GBA review cart, so it's safe to assume that Vivendi has high hopes for this 'keenly-awaited' sequel, but will fans of the grinning, apple-gobbling Marsupial want to splash out another thirty odd quid?
With 26 million sales worldwide of the various Crash Bandicoot games, the chances are you'll know the drill by now. Yep, it's another colourful platform romp about smashing crates, chomping apples, and defeating a succession of evil henchmen. Except this time the bad guys are your chums, who have been brainwashed by the "hypnotically evil" N. Trance, who has teamed up with the nefarious N. Tropy, the mastermind of evil from Crash's last pocket outing. Suffice to say it's up to you to face off against them and wrench them back from the dark side.
Crash, bash, smash, flash
As with the previous adventure, the action takes place in left to right side-scrolling 2D. The game could hardly be less complicated to explain: guide Crash to the portal (exit) at the far right of each level, smashing crates, collecting apples, negotiating traps and enemies, before eventually finding your way to the level's exit. The game is set across 40 levels, encompassing eight distinct environments, and each houses a wakeboarding sub-level, a Marble Madness-style sub-level, as well as the obligatory end of world boss encounter. Mercifully, for this platform-overdosed reviewer (14 in three months and counting) it's not just a marathon of jumping, spinning, collectathon antics.
Given that platforming is officially the most oversubscribed genre in gaming, let's concentrate on what's new, rather than what's been done before. This time around, Crash gets to play with new crates and new moves, which adds a vital element of variety to the proceeding. To start with Crash is merely capable of jumping (A), spinning (B) with a floor slide manoeuvre possible by running and tapping R - a belly-flop move can also be pulled off by jumping and tapping R. But as a reward for completing a world and thus converting one of your buddies back, you get a new move added to your roster; the Rocket Jump (press L and A together) allows for super high leaps, the Tornado Spin (push B repeatedly) gives Crash a longer spin and a temporary float ability, while the Super Slide (Hold down L and R while running) lets our hero smash into a succession of crates or just slide further, with more added as you plough through the marathon 40 levels.
To add to the new moves is a selection of new crates, each of which gives Crash temporary abilities. Copter, as the name implies, gives Mr Bandicoot the brief chance to hover around levels, while Flying Carpet allows him to float around and, curiously, shoot baddies while he's at it.
Super Monkey Crash
Interspersed with the platforming comes the welcome interruption of the Atlasphere levels, along with the enjoyable Wakeboarding levels. The former tasks you with guiding the 'monkeyballed' Crash around trap-laden isometric environments in the manner of mid-80s Atari arcade classic Marble Madness. The principle is the same as the platform levels, with Crash breaking open as many crates as possible, avoiding obstacles and fatal Nitro crates, with the aim of reaching the exit, all the while using just A to brake, and B to speed up. Unexpectedly, these levels prove to be the highlight of Crash's latest adventure, requiring a level of concentration and skill, and providing a satisfying interlude to relentless platforming.
The Wakeboarding levels also provide a decent sub-quest, with Crash being dragged into the screen at high speed, on the run from a hungry shark. Naturally, plenty of apples and crates are there for the taking, while ramps allow Crash to reach the higher goodies as well as avoiding Jaws. Graphically, it's a treat for a GBA title, and certainly an unusual perspective.
The regular boss encounters, meanwhile, are seemingly simple on the surface, but nearly always require multiple lives and continues to beat, as well as the patience of a saint. If you can stop yourself swearing and/or beating up your GBA, then the chances are you're doing very well indeed. One boss in particular stands out as a very neat piece of gaming design, and that's the fake Crash, which mirrors your movements. Bumping into him kills you, so you're forced to guide him over a series of spikes, with the aim of forcing your doppelganger into them instead. Simple, cunning and fiendishly difficult all at the same time, and undoubtedly one of the highlights of a game otherwise not brimming with invention.
Another hit on the cards
Visually it's crisp, colourful, well animated fare, perfectly suited to a diminutive platformer, without ever really stretching the machine's capabilities. Developer Vicarious Visions has a proud record of hits on the platform now, and clearly knows what its doing, but given the game's fan base, its hardly surprising Crash's latest outing doesn't differ wildly from what's gone before.
All told, it's an evolutionary affair, with just about enough variation to hold your interest for a good ten hours or so if you can stick with it. Once you're 20 odd levels in (which is unlikely to take you more than three hours), things do start to get seriously tricky, so don't be put off by the ridiculous ease with which you can breeze through the early stages. If ever there was a game tailored for kids, this is it.
Owners of the first GBA adventure have an extra incentive to purchase the sequel, with an unspecified number of "secret levels, characters and more" to unlock. The game is also playable as Crash's buddies Coco and Crunch, but to get that far, you're going to be investing a lot of hours. Multi-player frolics are also in store; the Atlasphere mode, and Link Race, but sadly thanks to the necessity to have multiple carts to play, we were unable to indulge in this area.
Crash, Bang, Wallop
If you're a die-hard Crash fan, there's no doubt plenty on offer here to quench your thirst for platforming thrills, and it won't disappoint. The game succeeds in delivering another typically tailored and cheery Crash adventure to satisfy its massive audience, but given its high price tag and scant innovation Crash Bandicoot 2: N-Tranced is unlikely to win over any new converts by playing it so safe and so young. But you knew all that anyway, yeah?