Like many, I'd heard about the Crash Bandicoot's cameo in Uncharted 4: A Thief's End before I witnessed it myself. I knew the basic premise: Nathan Drake plays the PS1 classic. And I'll be honest: I thought this seemed like a terrible idea.
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.
The original Crash Bandicoot started development in 1994, and in the eyes of its original developers - Naughty Dog's Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin - it would be the very first 3D platform game. The concept was simple - summed up its creators as 'Sonic's Ass' - a 90 degree rotation of a 2D playfield into a rolling 3D platforming world. Gavin and Rubin would team up with others, including a certain Mark Cerny, and the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy on PS1 went on to break technical boundaries and sell millions. Still revered by many, today we can replay those games on PlayStation 4, with completely rebuilt, yet still authentic, remakes of those original games.
Developer Vicarious Visions has bet the house on the original Crash formula holding up: there are some changes to the way the third-person camera behaves, but otherwise the gameplay is completely identical to the PlayStation releases. Fire up the PS1 code, and aside from a 'smoother' feel to the controls owing to the more modern animation, and that's pretty much exactly the experience you'll get today from the remake. And yes, that does mean that the original Crash Bandicoot remains unforgivingly difficult in a way that simply isn't much fun, while both sequels offer up radical improvements to the gameplay experience.
First up, let's get the rendering basics out of the way. The N.Sane Trilogy renders at 1080p on base PlayStation 4, while PS4 Pro owners see the same presentation running at a higher 1440p output, bolstered by very minor visual improvements including enhanced shadow map resolution and improved ambient occlusion [UPDATE: Yes, 1080p users do get downsampling support here]. But the real story isn't in the pixel-count, it's in the approach that Vicarious is taking with the core aesthetic of the game - specifically, an ambitious attempt to remake the originals almost like interactive CG movies, with a Pixar-like visual language.
Uplifting as it is to lose yourself within them, video game worlds are often most enthralling when you're aware of the tricks and contrivances that knit them together. Wolfenstein 3D's labyrinth is all the eerier when you know that it's a Pac-Man level masquerading as "true" polygonal 3D, its walls and columns projecting upward from sets of horizontal coordinates, like volcanic gas from a vent. And how about the Mode 7 landscapes of SNES role-playing games, glowing carpets spun and panned across to convey the impression of distant 3D geometry, or the bejewelled pop-up backdrops of the Sonic games? These realms would be nothing without their obvious, delightful artificiality - to wander through them is to revel both in the illusion itself and how it has been crafted.