Our review of Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, developed by Toys For Bob. Released on October 2, 2020 for PS4 (reviewed) and Xbox One.
WHAT IS IT?
Like Streets of Rage 4 before it, Crash Bandicoot 4 is a “retro sequel” – a game that picks up exactly where a beloved trilogy left off, and pretends like the past twenty years or so of gaming never happened.
IS IT GOOD?
U R Not E for how good it is.
WHO SHOULD PLAY IT?
Everyone. Lisa Simpson.
KEPT YOU WAITING, HUH
I remember the provocative Crash Bandicoot ads that accompanied the game’s release in late 1996. Like Sega before it, Sony gambled on a direct potshot at its main competitor, with a commercial featuring a dude in a Crash Bandicoot costume standing outside Nintendo headquarters, shouting insults through a megaphone. Amusingly and self-deprecatingly, the TV spot ended with mascot-Crash being shepherded out of the Nintendo parking lot by a very patient security guard.
I remember the ads, and I remember my vague awareness of what it meant to be going toe-to-toe with the “Big N”. Super Mario 64, my all-time favourite platformer, had released on the N64 only three months earlier. It was a big deal that upstart Sony thought it could take him on. It couldn’t, of course – people don’t speak of Crash in the same awed tone as they do Miyamoto’s iconic creation – but the Crash games were certainly among the best platformers of the era.
I also remember the first time I actually played Crash Bandicoot. It could not have been long after I got my PS1 (hello birthday 1997!), for I did not yet know about Memory Cards. I remember this because I remember how my sister and I were forced to leave the PlayStation running for 36 hours straight, having learned the hard way that if you turn off the system, your progress resets.
Mercifully, video games – and Crash Bandicoot – have evolved somewhat since then.
The delightfully named Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time – the subtitle refers both to the in-game narrative, and the sentiment this belated sequel is meant to engender – is a superb game, and really does feel like the natural next step after Crash Bandicoot: Warped (1998). Perhaps too much so, as it really does feel like a step, as opposed to the leaps and bounds seen in post-N64 Mario games like Galaxy or Odyssey. A lot has changed in platformers in the past 22(!) years; CB4 does not even pretend like it wants to play catch-up.
CB4 sees players controlling Crash, his sister Coco, and a handful of semi-forgotten side characters – including, yes, a dingo – in a 2.5D platformer that looks and feels just like Crash games past. From the very first second you take control, Crash does exactly what you want him to do, with exactly the same controls you remember. The camerawork is the same, the level design is familiar, the enemies all archetypes you’ll remember from the originals.
CB4 reminds me a lot of the recent entries in the Donkey Kong Country series. There, as here, a new team of developers has taken the template of a classic trilogy and delivered an updated sequel with fancy graphics, new bells and whistles, and increased difficulty. There, as here, that difficulty can sometimes be overwhelming, more so than I remember the originals being. Then again, I was a lot younger and a heck of a lot more patient back then. These days, a Game Over is liable to give me a heart attack.
That said, CB4 really doesn’t experiment in the way the Donkey Kong sequels do. With the exception of one brilliantly imagined Mardi Gras-themed level, the stages could easily be re-renders of classic PS1 levels. In comparison, DKC Returns and Tropical Freeze had some nifty level variety, novel gameplay tweaks, and new vehicles. Here, you’re back to riding the same baby polar bear down the same slopes you rode in 1996.
I love that polar bear, but you’d think that in 22 years it might have grown up a bit.
Where CB4 does offer something new, it’s largely in the form of gameplay mechanics borrowed from other games. One of the new Aku Aku-type masks lets you “phase” platforms in and out of existence for some tricky platforming . Another mask lets Crash hover over longer distances while spinning. There are rail-grind sections straight out of Ratchet and Clank. You get the picture.
None of this is bad, although some of the more finicky sections – I’m looking at you, rail grinds – demand such lightning reflexes that it’s almost impossible to collect all crates in a level. Which, if you remember your Crash games, is an essential aspect of scoring 100%. You don’t have to, of course, but the closer you get to 100%, the more alternate costumes you unlock.
Speaking of which, there are a lot of costume variants in this game, with unlock conditions that, at first glance, appear to be overwhelming. However, there’s a point in the game where getting those costumes becomes a lot easier. Without spoiling too much, that new dynamic ties directly into my favourite aspect of CB4 – something I can only call Psychedelic Mode.
Players, UR Not red-E for Psychedelic Mode. It is insane. It comes completely out of nowhere, and is way, way weirder than I would have expected within this otherwise conservative sequel.
I love Psychedelic Mode, I think every game should have Psychedelic Mode, and if the next Crash game was exclusively set in this mode, I would not complain.
NUNCHUCKS? THOSE AREN’T EVEN AUSTRALIAN
Early on in CB4, there’s a meta-joke about the number of times Crash and Coco have defeated the nefarious Neo Cortex. Coco claims it’s only been “three times” (corresponding to the original trilogy), but new mask sidekick Lani-loli insists that it was more. He’s right, of course: there have been four post-PS1 Crash games, but Coco has deliberately chosen to ignore them – just as this game has asked players to do by throwing that “4” in the title.
It’s a good joke, and similar to the way the recent Terminator: Dark Fate ignores the existence of all series entries after T2. Of course, the new Terminator sucked. CB4, mercifully, does not.
Instead, it’s a brand new – or rather, old – entry in a classic platformer series, one that defined the childhoods of PlayStation owners everywhere. It also helped define the PlayStation itself: without the runaway success of the original trilogy, it’s hard to imagine series creator Naughty Dog would have gone on to develop legendary games like Jak & Daxter, Uncharted, and The Last of Us.
Naughty Dog’s pedigree is missing from CB4, and it does show in certain respects. Some of the camerawork is shoddy, and the imprecise depth-of-field can cause havoc for something as simple as grabbing a rope swing (a mechanic that Donkey Kong perfected ages ago). CB4 also feels mildly unfinished: in my time with it, I’ve had the level architecture vanish out from under me, spotted two Neo Cortex character models standing side-by-side in the same level, and, perhaps most amusingly, watched an entire Tyrannosaurs Rex dissolve before my eyes. And no, he had not fallen into lava: the devs apparently just forgot to get dino off-camera before culling his model from the level.
To be fair, these are minor annoyances, and don’t really detract from the experience. Once you get over them – or laugh at them, as in the case of the Jurassic Park outtake – you’ll have a blast with everything else this game has to offer.
Especially Psychedelic Mode.
It’s N. Sane.
Final score: 9/10 wumpa fruit.
Visit the official page for Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time here.