As we're approaching the first anniversary of the PlayStation 5, let's travel back to 25 years ago. The original PlayStation was just getting off the ground, signifying Sony's first foray into console gaming. The company had a lot going for it, showing off the effectiveness of disc-based media while Nintendo continued to move forward with game cartridges. Still, PlayStation was facing an uphill battle against Nintendo's tried-and-true franchises and Sega's own disc-based Saturn console. The PlayStation had the technology to make a lot of noise in the gaming world, but it needed something big to compete with the Nintendos and Segas of the world. Sony needed a mascot.
Today, PlayStation has a parade of recognizable first-party characters, enough to fill a first-party fighting game. However, some might be surprised to find out that the original PlayStation pitchman wasn't anyone on the current first-party roster. It was, in fact, Crash Bandicoot.
"Plumber boy, your worst nightmare has arrived!"
Earlier this year, we talked about the best video game commercials and TV ad campaigns of all-time. And, yes, we discussed Crash Bandicoot, who originally pushed his self-titled debut and the power of the first PlayStation.
For the unfamiliar, the commercials centered around a person dressed in a giant Crash Bandicoot suit. He would take part in various exploits, like hollering at random people outside of their windows at unholy hours of the night, invading local Pizza Huts, and driving up to Nintendo headquarters to call out Mario himself.
Crash was positioned as the face of PlayStation. After months of hype, his game was set to launch on the one-year anniversary of Sony's console. And, indeed, it proved to be one of the new PlayStation's biggest hits.
A new dimension
Before The Last of Us, before Uncharted, and even before Jak & Daxter, Naughty Dog gave birth to Crash Bandicoot. The studio's founders, Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin, had taken notice of gaming's shift into 3D environments. While racing games, brawlers, and shooters had shifted into 3D, Gavin and Rubin wanted to take on a new challenge and do the same for platformers.
While Mario and Sonic had made a career of going horizontally, Crash Bandicoot would go in a completely different direction... literally. He would go straight ahead with players looking primarily at his back. It's what the creators jokingly coined "Sonic's Ass Game." Here's the story from Gavin himself:
Sensing opportunity, we turned to our own favorite genre, the character platform action game (CAG for short). In the 80s and early 90s the best sellers on home systems were dominated by CAGs and their cousins (like “walk to the right and punch” or “walk to the right and shoot”). Top examples were Mario, Sonic, and our personal recent favorite, Donkey Kong Country.
So on the second day of the drive, passing Chicago and traveling through America’s long flat heartland, fed on McDonalds, and accompanied by a gassy Labrador/Ridgeback mix (also fed on McDonalds), the idea came to us.
We called it the "Sonic's Ass" game. And it was born from the question: what would a 3D CAG be like? Well, we thought, you'd spend a lot of time looking at "Sonic's Ass." Aside from the difficulties of identifying with a character only viewed in posterior, it seemed cool. But we worried about the camera, dizziness, and the player’s ability to judge depth – more on that later.
Crash would basically move in a straight line throughout his first game, but his direction would vary. He could go straight ahead, he could go the traditional left-to-right, or he could even come from the background and come straight at the player, which Gavin notes is reminiscent of the boulder scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Rubin heralded these three stage types as the ideal solution to presenting Crash in a unique way never before seen in games.
The "Sonic's ass" nomenclature was more than a casual reference to the blue mascot turned 90 degrees into the screen. It defined the key problem in moving a 2D game into the third dimension: You would always be looking at the characters ass. This might play well (it had never been tried) but it certainly would not be the best way to present a character.
Our solution, which evolved over the next 2 years, was multi-fold. First, the character would start the game facing the screen (more on this later). Second there would be 2D levels that guaranteed quality of gameplay and a chance to see the character in a familiar pose allowing comparison against old 2D games. And third, we would attempt the reverse of a Sonic ass level – the run INTO the screen – which became the legendary boulder levels.
Outside of the boulder levels, Naughty Dog wanted to inject something new into the typical platformer formula. As great as Mario and Sonic were, those games had a fair amount of downtime in-between baddie bashing. That's when the Crash creators had an idea.
Playing with the boxes
On the surface, Crash was a standard platformer. But what to do in-between taking down enemies? Naughty Dog struggled with this idea, but eventually came up with an elegant solution. We turn to Gavin to explain:
One Saturday, January 1996, while Jason and I were driving to work (we worked 7 days a week, from approximately 10am to 4am – no one said video game making was easy). We knew we needed something else, and we knew it had to be low polygon, and ideally, multiple types of them could be combined to interesting effect. We’d been thinking about the objects in various puzzle games.
So crates. How much lower poly could you get? Crates could hold stuff. They could explode, they could bounce or drop, they could stack, they could be used as switches to trigger other things. Perfect.
So that Saturday we scrapped whatever else we had planned to do and I coded the crates while Jason modeled a few, an explosion, and drew some quick textures.
About six hours later we had the basic palate of Crash 1 crates going. Normal, life crate, random crate, continue crate, bouncy crate, TNT crate, invisible crate, switch crate. The stacking logic that let them fall down on each other, or even bounce on each other. They were awesome. And smashing them was so much fun.
While Mario had coins, Sonic had rings, Crash now had crates. Crates went on to become one of the defining characteristics of the Crash Bandicoot series. The idea of breaking boxes was simple enough for casual players, engaging enough for children (especially with their wacky sound effects), and enough of a challenge for hardcore players.
Crash Bandicoot's crates also opened up game design in some big ways. Crates could contain health, extra lives, and even open the door to bonus levels. They also ensured that there was never really a dull moment in the first Crash game, because any lack of enemy encounters would be balanced by the need to search for more crates.
With the Crash gameplay formula figured out, the next step was to create an adversary. Because a hero is only as good as his nemesis, Naughty Dog needed a villain.
Into the Cortex
To get into the creation of Doctor Neo Cortex, one first needs to examine the origins of Crash. Gavin explained that the goal was to tap into an animal that few people knew about, similar to what Warner Bros. had done with the Tasmanian Devil. With that in mind, he and Rubin took a page out of the same book... almost literally. After browsing through a copy of Tasmanian Mammals, the two originally opted for a wombat. Crash Bandicoot originally started life as Willie the Wombat. Before eventually changing Willie to Crash and the wombat to a bandicoot, Gavin and Rubin started thinking about a nemesis, at which point the ideas flowed much quicker. Here's how Gavin recounts the story:
I remember it clearly. The four of us were eating at this mediocre Italian near Universal and I had this idea of an evil genius villain with a big head. Obviously brainy cartoon villains have big heads. He was all about his attitude and his minions. Video games need lots of minions. Jason had become very fond of Pinky and the Brain and we imagined a more malevolent Brain with minions like the weasels in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. A villain, all full of himself, unable to conceive of ever doing anything the simple way, but constantly (in his eyes) betrayed by the incompetence of his henchmen.
I put on my silly villain voice and intoned, "If you had three neurons between you, you couldn't make a triangle!" With this attitude, his name, Doctor Neo Cortex, popped instantly into our heads.
After conceiving Cortex, the Crash creators were able to flesh out the bandicoot's world further from there. They were able to come up with an evil genius island stronghold, create evil minions, and construct unique environments with their own themes and landmarks.
The final result was one of the first platformers of its kind and a big hit for PlayStation. Crash would keep the hits coming for two more games, at which point Naughty Dog was ready to move on to new adventures.
The influence of the first Crash Bandicoot game was undeniable, but the lovable mascot didn't have the staying power that one would have expected based on his original ad campaign. While Mario and Sonic endured, Crash was lost for many years and fell off of Sony's radar to the point that the character was ultimately sold to Activision.
At first, it appeared that Activision wasn't sure what to do with Crash either. However, in 2017, the publisher got to work on bringing back the character's classic games, including the 1996 original. Activision announced the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy remastered collection and developer Vicarious Visions recognized the vintage gems they had been handed.
"Crash Bandicoot has remained so popular because he's fun to play as," Game Director Dan Tanguay said in 2017. "There's always a surprise around the corner as you're playing with Crash. And, for me, it's as if he's kind of a living cartoon character."
Activision leaned into the latter part of that idea for Crash, using modern technology to emphasize Crash's wacky mannerisms and cartoonish behaviors. The N. Sane Trilogy drew in old and new Crash Bandicoot fans in such numbers that Activision got to work on the first all-new Crash Bandicoot game in two decades.
Crash Bandicoot has grown in a lot of ways since his debut 25 years ago today. And, while he was inactive for a long stretch, he now appears to be back and better than ever thanks to developers like Vicarious Visions and Toys For Bob who grew up on Naughty Dog's manic marsupial.
On this day 25 years ago, Crash Bandicoot declared that he was coming for Nintendo's plumber boy. However, Nintendo was prepared for this new challenger. But, that's a story for another day.